Some people I respect are agonizing over their presidential vote. Others are voting third-party, or not at all. Speaking only for myself, my choice wasn't made lightly: I'll be voting to re-elect a president whose administration I've often criticized over the last four years. And yet, despite my concerns, I'll be casting that vote without despair.
Why not? Most Americans agree on a broad range of issues, according to polls. Across party lines and "left/right" boundaries, clear majorities oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare to balance the budget. They want to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires. They want government to invest in restoring our economy. And they want Wall Street held accountable.
Neither candidate is fighting unequivocally for these majority positions. But like the old cliché says: Despair is not an option.
Which isn't to say it's not tempting. What creates despair? According to the informative (if sadistic) dog experiments of Martin Seligman, the culprit is "learned helplessness." Some of us entered this election season with the same emotions Seligman's dogs must have felt as they were led to their electrified cubicles, and with a similar analysis of our situation: Nothing I do matters.
But that's wrong. It does matter. Remember, a relative handful of Americans "occupied" some public spaces and all of a sudden, the political dialogue shifted. (And that movement isn't dead; it may yet regain its strength.)
Then there's this: As was later confirmed, the president intended to propose Social Security cuts in a State of the Union address. But then, as the Wall Street Journal reported, "The decision to hold off was made as the White House came under pressure from Democrats and liberal interest groups who oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits."
That may not sound like much of a victory. But try telling that to the millions of women who are getting by on $850 or so in Social Security checks every month.
Barack Obama and the Democrats will sometimes do the right thing. At other times they can be persuaded or pressured. Mitt Romney and the Republicans are beyond the reach of anything except corporate money.
If any single argument swayed my vote it was Norman Lear's spin on that Golden Oldie of presidential politics, the Supreme Court. Lear says that Obama's appointees will someday vote to overturn Citizens United. Could he be wrong? Sure. But we know what Mitt Romney's appointees will do.
I live in California, which Obama will win. But if he prevails in the Electoral College without winning the popular vote, the right will tie up government and he may never get his nominees confirmed. That's a scenario from hell. So is the election of Mitt Romney, a man who lacks a moral core and whose "closing argument" was a fusillade of cynicism, puffery, and thinly-veiled threats against our system of checks and balances.
And if that's not scary enough, remember: His election would leave Paul Ryan a heartbeat away from the presidency.
I know, I know. I'm sick of the "lesser of two evils" argument, too. It's time we confronted the Evil of Two Lessers, by confronting the systemic corruption in our political system. I can't keep supporting a party run by corporatist centrists in the Clinton mold.
But my first obligation today is to protect my communities -- this country and this world are my communities -- from catastrophe. Then comes the next obligation: either changing that party or finding another outlet for political action. Electoral politics is only one front in the nonviolent war for real change. And national elections are only one facet of electoral politics.
That's not to say that Thomas Franks doesn't have a point when he says that Obama's made the left "futile and irrelevant." Progressives like Matt Stoller and Chris Hedges have argued against voting for Obama, a position that some have greeted with disdain, contempt, and hostility. The disrespect and sarcasm is a mistake, and it's a poor excuse for an argument. Movements are built on respect, not personal attacks.
Here's an observation that could be used to support Stoller and Hedges: Progressives always vote Democratic, and the party always dismisses them. Tea Party members threatened to bolt, and the GOP's at their beck and call.
That's a reality the progressive movement needs to recognize -- and soon -- without looking for excuses in the Tea Party's funding or powerful backers. Sure, they've got the money, but we've got the numbers. Some of the blame for our "futility and irrelevance" lies not in our stars -- or our candidates -- but in ourselves.
If we passively turn our fate over to the people we vote into office, the critics may be proven right. But if we vote and then act -- clearly, forcefully, and decisively -- we'll have the chance to achieve some genuine victories.
Some have suggested that we refrain from criticizing the president until the election's over, but I respect people's intelligence and judgement too much for that. Others have tried to paint Barack Obama as a progressive superhero. But I respect my principles -- and, more importantly, yours -- too much for that. And hagiography is as disempowering as despair.
Besides, reality is reality: Not one Wall Street indictment in four years. A president who says he suspects he and Romney have a "somewhat similar position" on Social Security. A stimulus plan that was a good first step, but that hasn't been followed by unequivocal and persuasive proposals for more much-needed investment.
And yet behind Obama's studied ambiguity lies an inconvenient truth: An Obama victory would be a mandate, not for deficit deals, but for the stemwinding populist rhetoric of his speeches. It would be a victory for the economic plan his campaign promoted with keywords like "jobs," "manufacturing," "energy," "health care," and "retirement."
That's what most people will be voting for when they vote for Barack Obama. He must be held to those words.
We can't outsource our morals or duties to any elected official. Voting is where our obligations begin, not end. If the president who won my vote acts against my principles, I am morally complicit -- in cuts to Social Security and Medicare, in drone attacks, in lost civil liberties, and in a free ride for Wall Street. The only antidote for complicity is political action -- which also happens to be an antidote for cynicism and hopelessness. And you know what? It just might make a difference.
You can vote with despair. But if your vote comes with a pledge to act, you can vote against despair.
Steve Earle put a slogan on one of his records: "If you don't vote, don't bitch." He's right. And here's a new slogan: "If you do vote, do bitch" -- although "bitch," in this case, means "make your voice heard." Vote, of course. And after that, the hell with learned helplessness. We can't let this country go to the dogs.