The Fringe for Obama

by Ran Prieur

October 21, 2008

Creative Commons License
We've seen conservatives for Obama: last week Chris Buckley's endorsement got him fired from the National Review. We've seen Republicans for Obama: the Chicago Tribune has just endorsed a Democratic nominee for the first time in its 161 year history (going back to when the parties were almost the mirror image of today). We're even seeing racists for Obama: a canvasser in Pennsylvania had someone say "We're voting for the n***er!" If all those people can put aside their ideologies for a greater good, so can anarchists, greens, and far lefties.

In 2000 I strongly supported Ralph Nader, and I don't regret it. There were three very good reasons. First, I believed then and still believe that a Gore victory would have been worse, in the long term, than a Bush victory. Bill Clinton had just spent eight years behaving like a Republican on economic and business issues, and thereby moving the whole political frame of reference to the right, while behaving like a sixties liberal on cultural issues and thereby firing up the Republican base. He built up massive potential energy for a right wing surge, and a budget surplus for them to spend. Gore seemed likely to pile up even more kindling, while Bush seemed like the perfect leader to waste it with his incompetence. And that's exactly what happened. Bush has done plenty of damage, but imagine the damage a highly skilled ruler could have done with the same tools. And now, only seven years after its peak, the Republican party is falling apart.

Second, fringe parties have succeeded many times in American history, not by winning elections, but by winning enough votes that one of the dominant parties adopts their positions. I was hoping that Nader would get 10% or more and cost Gore the election, and the Democrats would be forced to get back to their roots of economic populism. Of course, it didn't work out that way. But the window was wide open and we had to take our best shot.

Third, the reason that window was open was that Nader was channeling the power of the Democratic base. With Al Gore now reborn as a environmental rock star, we forget that in 2000 his campaign was aggressively bland, that his running mate was Joe Lieberman, and that his rallies were dull gatherings of tired partisans, while Ralph Nader was filling arenas with crowds that stood on their feet for fiery two hour speeches. I still think it's tragic that all that energy came to nothing.

This year, all those reasons are gone. You could argue that a McCain/Palin presidency would move public sentiment even farther to the left, but if it goes too far, left wing leaders will be corrupted by power. This is a good time to stop investing and take the payoff, and we're not going to see a better candidate to spend it than Barack Obama. Here's a good article from March about the kind of person he is, An hour and a half with Barack Obama, and a summary of his work in the Senate, 37 bills written or co-sponsored by Barack Obama. And he has proven his executive skills by running the most effective and airtight campaign in the age of television.

This year no third parties are in a position to sway the Democrats, because the energy that was channeled by Nader in 2000 is being channeled by Obama -- and not just into speeches and yard signs, but into an extremely impressive political machine. Obama has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors, and has built the largest and best organized network of local volunteers in history. Here's an inspiring article about Obama's ground game in Ohio. This alone should earn our support (assuming the popular energy is emotionally healthy), because if you want to be tactically effective, you have to go where the action is. Any change we imagine cannot even begin until we first establish a precedent that ordinary people can engage the system and make a difference.

Now, the fringe voters and non-voters are saying, "But but but -- don't you know that Obama is tight with Zbigniew Brzezinski, and that his foreign policy is indistinguishable from Bush Sr, and that he has done nothing to oppose corporate rule or the war on drugs or..."

Of course I know all that. I can't even watch the debates because of all the bullshit they take for granted: that it's good for America to be much stronger than other nations, that there is a moral difference between our military bombing other countries and their militaries bombing us, that the real job of our troops is to spread democracy and not to enforce a global domination system, that swarthy foreigners are determined to strike us for vague hateful reasons, that we must sacrifice autonomy and privacy for security, that we even need this much security, that surveillance technologies should be used from the top down before they're used from the bottom up, that private sector fees are good and normal but public sector fees are a terrible burden, that medical care should be paid for through insurance, that the real job of the schooling system is to make kids smart and not to make them submissive, that the economy should grow, that it's normal and good to have an economy based on lending, that material wealth is a good measure of success, that every technology we have ever adopted is now a "need".

We are in a deep hole. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Of course we can plant fruit trees and ride bicycles and reduce our expenses and generally cut our connections to hierarchical disempowering systems and replace them with cooperative roles in our local communities. But at the same time we can still engage the big systems, and the more powerful the big systems are, the more important it is to engage them. And we have to engage them where they are, not where we want them to be. If you're trying to green a desert, you start with cacti and sagebrush, not with redwood seeds.

Suppose you could pick anyone in the world to run for president, but you couldn't change the context your candidate had to run in: not the biases and assumptions of the big media, not the power of the elite, not the ignorance and political shallowness of the American people. Who would you pick? Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich did run, and they lost. Anyone with their positions who came close to winning would be neutralized, if not by violence then by humiliation in the media, which they did to Howard Dean even though he was pretty conservative on the issues.

Obama is doing what anyone would have to do to be president, and he's doing it with impressive skill to be able to overcome his race and his name. All our complaints about Obama are really complaints about the system he has to run in. So the key question is, if we elect him, how will he change that system? Will he end subsidies to factory farms? Free all the drug war prisoners? Restore the Constitution and add a Privacy Amendment? Close all the foreign military bases and spend the money on naturopathic hospitals? Transform America into a nice European-style socialist country, or into a rhizomatic network of permaculture communities linked by bike trails and solar steampunk trains?

No. But he has already changed the election system by shifting the Democratic party's funding from big donors to small donors, and that investment will eventually pay off in policy changes. And where radical policy changes are needed, Obama will tend to move toward them, as far as it's politically realistic. If subsidies to factory farms are doing more harm than good, Obama is a smart observer who will notice it, a good thinker who will look for a different path, and a skilled leader who will persuade others to work with him. Here's an article, Judge Him by His Laws, describing how Obama singlehandedly turned around the Illinois state legislature and police establishment to pass a difficult law requiring interrogations to be videotaped. The patience of Obama's vision is less important than his skill in moving others in the right direction without provoking a backlash.

Right now, Obama's most valuable asset is his adaptability. It makes him seem weak to us because he has adapted to the requirements of running for president. But if he becomes president, adaptability means that as America's military dominance weakens, he will pull back where McCain would push harder. It means that if your group occupies an abandoned suburb and turns the lawns into gardens and goat pastures, and the owning banks complain, Obama will negotiate a compromise where McCain would send in the Blackhawks. We are entering difficult, dangerous, and rapidly changing times, and it's better to have a skilled observer and navigator in charge than a hard-driving ideologue, even an ideologue who you agree with.

We all want to see Utopia in our lifetimes, but the painful truth is that your grandchildren's grandchildren will not see it. Good big changes take a long time, and big changes that take a short time are not good.

This year it's actually the Republicans who represent radical change. If you want to see angry mobs burning houses, possibly your own house, elect Sarah Palin, who has shown enthusiasm for stirring up the worst emotions in the worst Americans. If you want to see the end of history, elect John McCain, who is impulsive, emotionally unstable, and allegedly said in 2000, "If I was in charge, I would nuke Iraq to teach them a lesson." That McCain vacation story remains unverified, but here's a well-researched article about McCain's character. Compare it with this story, translated from a Norwegian newpaper, about how in 1988 Obama gave $100 to help a stranger in an airport.

There's a common argument on the fringe that Obama and McCain are the same. This is like seeing Jesus on a tortilla: a compelling vision driven by belief and constructed by focusing on a few data points and ignoring everything else. Obama and McCain are nearly opposite on character, competence, curiosity, flexibility, thoughtfulness, and many issues that directly affect the lives of people around you. Here's a summary of Obama vs. McCain on interest group scorecards. If you know anyone who needs access to birth control, or you would like to see a peaceful reduction in human population, it will matter to you that Obama has a rating of 100 by Planned Parenthood and McCain has a rating of zero. If you fear a police state, you might care that the ACLU rated Obama 89 and McCain 17 for the latest congressional term. Maybe they should have rated them both zero to not complicate the issue for people who only knew about FISA.

Here's an article by an economic specialist smart enough to see the financial collapse coming years ago, raving about Obama's economic rescue plan: "For the first time in years, the American people are not having their hands tied behind their back while the government spits directly in their face." And here's an article about Seymour Hersh, America's most prominent investigative journalist, who says if Obama wins, "You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on 20 January. 'You wanna know about abuses and violations? Call me then.'"

This is real shit. Do these differences trump, or are they trumped by, the fact that Obama and McCain are the same on the core assumptions that hold up industrial civilization and the American Empire? It depends on how much you're going to have to deal with reality.

I think the problem with American fringe voters is not that they don't identify enough with the system, but that they identify too much with it. Think of it this way: Your city has seceded from America. It's a tense situation, with federal militarized police surrounding you on all sides. And somehow, maybe through a friend in the next state, you get a vote. Now does it bother you less to vote for someone you have deep disagreements with? American greens, ask German greens who you should vote for. American anarchists, ask Spanish anarchists. If foreign policy is important to you, ask people in Baghdad or Caracas or Tehran. I think they'll say, "Are you daft? Do you want us all to burn? Vote for Obama!" Why does a vote for the American president have to be deep statement of your personal values? It's not a fucking tattoo.

There is one argument that I can't refute: from your perspective, your one vote is not going to decide the election. But from my perspective, "your" vote means the votes of the thousands of people who are reading this, and each of you has the power to influence more voters, or help them get to the polls, and that influence might be necessary if Republican voter caging and machine hacking nullify Obama's margin.

And even if your actions don't change the national result, your choices, and how you make them, can influence your own values, your thinking habits, your path in this world. Every presidential election is like a long national therapy session. In 2000, switching to Nader meant breaking out of the frame of major party politics by following your heart. This year, switching to Obama -- from any direction -- means breaking out of the frame of voting-as-purity by following your intelligence.