against the lesser evil

Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent piece up at the Atlantic today making the left-libertarian* case against voting for Barack Obama. There is frankly not a great deal with which I can argue, there, but especially not this:

How can you vilify Romney as a heartless plutocrat unfit for the presidency, and then enthusiastically recommend a guy who held Bradley Manning in solitary and killed a 16-year-old American kid? If you're a utilitarian who plans to vote for Obama, better to mournfully acknowledge that you regard him as the lesser of two evils, with all that phrase denotes.

But I don't see many Obama supporters feeling as reluctant as the circumstances warrant.

The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans -- along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers -- just aren't valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama's tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man's transgressions, have done over and over again.  
Cue the quadrennial bemoaning of the inadequacies of the two-party system, and why if we will just get behind the most viable third-party candidate, it really will be the start of something different, this time.

To be sure, the game is rigged. It's rather hard to fault Gary Johnson for failing to break through into the public consciousness, when the Big Two so effectively control the structure and form of presidential politics, from the free media coverage of the "conventions" (read: three-day infomercials) to extremely restrictive debate access to ballot access itself.

I won't fault Gary Johnson, but I will lay some blame on the Libertarian Party.

The LP has been around for four decades. Local and state parties have had some success (according to the LP site, there were 154 Libertarians in elected office at the end of 2010), but in most of that time, they have expended an awful lot of time and money (for an organization its size) in running presidential candidates every four years. Candidates who, by and large, lacked credible experience in government. In the last two cycles, this has changed, in that they have nominated former Republicans.

Successful presidential candidates don't just materialize out of the ether. If the LP (or any third party) really wants to be a player in national politics, they have to take a longer view. No one is going to sue their way into presidential viability. They're going to have to work their way in from the ground up. To my mind, that means stop wasting time on symbolic presidential runs. For that matter, stop wasting time on symbolic governor and senate runs, too. What needs to happen is a focused, coordinated, and well-researched identification of cities, counties, and (maybe) congressional districts where the LP could become the second party. And with that, a focused and coordinated recruitment of good candidates to run in those races. Candidates that, if they actually won, might do a good job in the office to which they are elected. Candidates with an interest in actually governing, rather than just "getting the message out".

Cities like (say) Seattle, where the Republican turnout for caucuses was literally zero in some precincts, should be fertile ground for a well managed LP campaign. And I've no doubt that there are provinces in Red America where the Democrats are just as inconsequential. Get a Libertarian on the city council, the county commission, and maybe in a few years they make a run for mayor or congress. If they do a good job, maybe they find their way into the Senate, or a governor's mansion. And, then, the presidency looks a lot less like a long shot.

In a lot of ways, the LP could arguably be the greatest impediment to getting libertarian ideas infused into the political debate, because the small group of people actually inclined to put their time, energy, and lives into this stuff are all working on a model that doesn't work, hasn't worked, and is never going to work. And whinging about how the Dems and Reps have made it unfairly difficult--however correct that assessment may be--is pointless.

Which brings me back to Conor's point, that one who cares about civil liberties and peace should vote for the candidate that actually reflects those values, rather than the viable one who is only a hair better by comparison than the other guy. Fine and good. Like I said, I really cannot argue against that point. But I have to point out that by voting for Johnson, you are also giving tacit approval to the LP and its woefully inadequate approach to politics. Certainly, that is a lesser moral compromise than giving tacit approval to murdering children with flying killer robots.

But what good is the moral high ground, if you cannot reach the levers of power from it**? Sure, we get to feel better about ourselves, I guess, but that feeling isn't going to take any drones out of the sky.


*My description, not his. 
**Apologies for the tortured metaphor. 


Mr. D said...

Good post -- I was in the LP briefly but it was clear that they weren't willing to do the hard, practical work of politics. And that means getting more people elected at the lower levels of government and then demonstrating the efficacy of libertarian ideas in the practical, day-to-day activities of government.

The LP could have done this work back in 1980 or so, but it chose not to. And if anything, it's lost ground since then.

And of course your "tortured metaphor" is correct.

Brian said...

I was a "media coordinator" (which generally consisted of calling radio stations and buying ad time, and every once in a while managing to get an interview scheduled) for an LP senate candidate back in '98. Considering there were basically three of us working on the campaign (including the candidate), I think we did well to get the 3% that we did.

The first time I went to a big party event (election night) was the last time I went to a big party event. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.