CommunityThe Dissenter

The Confines of US Elections & the Scorn a Person Can Face for Challenging Them

Ron Paul in Des Moines, Iowa, in March 2011 (photo by Gage Skidmore)

(update below)

Various “progressive voices” that agree or sympathize with GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul’s positions on wars, foreign policy and civil liberties have spoken in favor of the possible impact Paul could have on debate in this country during the 2012 Election. Those individuals have been quickly met with fervent disapproval from liberals who have reflexively suggested that any comments that could be considered supportive of Paul essentially mean one is “endorsing” Paul, urging people to support someone who opposes reproductive rights for women, arguing there are only marginal differences between Paul and President Barack Obama and that Paul just might be their secret political hero.

As Greenwald notes, this is what his attempt to honestly discuss Paul’s possible value and role in the election has garnered. It is likely the kind of response Matthew Stoller of the Naked Capitalism blog and Robert Scheer of Truthdig have had to confront.

I have mostly watched from the sidelines up to this point, but I have paid attention to what has been written. I intend to raise some more questions, expand the discussion and further interrogate the appalling state of electoral politics in America the way that these “progressive voices” have done.

First, let’s establish the following: (1) I am not a supporter of Ron Paul’s campaign and I have no intention of donating money to the campaign (2) I sympathize with many of the positions that have compelled “progressive voices” to value his presence in the 2012 Election (3) I respect Paul’s right to run in the election and do consider him to be a serious candidate and (4) I fully expect liberals to reflexively point to Paul’s ultra-conservative positions, which lead him to support policies that particularly hurt women, minorities and even gays and doing so will only reinforce the points that I am making here.

Reason magazine frames the dilemma progressives are confronted with best: “What to say about a presidential candidate who wants to end foreign and domestic wars and protect civil liberties against the imperial presidency?”

For many progressives, this was what they were dedicated to as activists when George W. Bush was president. They engaged in activism against the Iraq and Afghanistan War. They were opposed to more wars in countries like Pakistan or Iran and fought hard especially in 2006 to show that the Bush Administration might be going to war with Iran. They protested Bush’s use of torture and called for Guantanamo Bay to be shut down. They opposed Bush’s use of warrantless wiretapping and the expansion of surveillance state in America. They were opposed to the imperial presidency of Bush and were even moved to call for the impeachment of Cheney and Bush for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I am certain many progressives hoped Obama would clearly be on the other side of many of these issues. But, as his campaign for re-election kicks into high gear, this is the reality, a part of the “new normal” as ACLU referred to it.

President Barack Obama has shielded officials who committed crimes during the Bush administration from accountability for engaging in warrantless wiretapping, torture, or rendition; invoked state secrets to prevent transparency; denied detainees habeas corpus and signed a National Defense Authorization Act that grants the military extraordinary powers to detain US citizens indefinitely without trial; continued to hold detainees at prisons like Guantanamo and Bagram in Afghanistan (in addition to black prison sites that likely still exist); employed navy ships to hold prisoners that can no longer be sent to Guantanamo because there will be public outrage; asserted an authority to target and kill US civilians and bypass due process; and forced detainees into military commissions or “kangaroo courts” that are essentially Kafkaesque proceedings where it is nearly impossible to not be found guilty.

Obama has gone after whistleblowers and stalled efforts to make government more transparent. He has expanded the use of drone warfare and used it in a way that has had a destabilizing impact in Pakistan. He has gone along with President George W. Bush’s plans for the Iraq War and had there not been a cable released by WikiLeaks that upset the Iraqi government because it detailed a massacre of Iraqi civilians carried out by US soldiers, which the US government had refused to investigate, the US might not have said it would withdraw all its soldiers by the end of 2011.

One could go into far more detail, but what I am demonstrating is that people who value peace and civil liberties understand what Greenwald posits in his recent post:

For those who are extremely dissatisfied with the status quo in American political life and are seeking ways to change it, supporting one of the two major-party candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign as the principal form of activism offers no solution. That’s not an endorsement for resignation, apathy, non-voting, voting for a third party, or anything else. It’s just a simple statement of fact: on many issues that progressives themselves have long claimed are of critical, overarching importance (not all, but many), there will be virtually no debate in the election because there are virtually no differences between the two candidates and the two parties on those questions. In the face of that fact, there are two choices: (1) simply accept it (and thus bolster it) on the basis that the only political priority that matters is keeping the Democratic Party and Barack Obama empowered; or (2) searching for ways to change the terms of the debate so that critical views that are now excluded by bipartisan consensus instead end up being heard.

I happen to support efforts to “change the terms of debate.” I think that is what citizens must do if they wish to have any hope for changing the status quo in America. But, unfortunately, far too many progressives are willing to try and work within the confines of an electoral system that is set up to pump out candidates who work for, as the Occupy movement would say, the 1%. Far too many are willing to lower expectations and settle for less when they can have more. Like the Socialist Candidate, who ran for president five times, Eugene Debs, said at the end of his last presidential campaign in 1920, “The people can have anything they want. The trouble is they do not want anything. At least they vote that way on Election Day.”

“2012 Feels So Empty”

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone has candidly declared, “2012 feels so empty now” because “voters on both sides of the aisle are not just tired of this state of affairs, they are disgusted by it.” If Taibbi is correct, what is one to do to address this “emptiness”? If he is right that there are “few challenges to the state of affairs within the electoral process” and Paul is a “real outlet for these complaints,” what do progressives opposed to those who find him to be a “real outlet” suggest as an alternative so one might not have to use Paul to gain critical issues the attention they deserve?

If progressives agree that we will be left with “one 1%-approved stooge taking on another” (and let’s be honest they might argue Obama is a president of the 99% so this is far from a settled debate among progressives), what can be done so conversation on these issues is not muted throughout 2012?

I happen to favor the possibility of Paul being the GOP nominee. As much as President Obama has engaged in war and continued the assault on civil liberties that accelerated under the Bush Administration, I think if President Obama had to beat Paul to earn re-election the United States would be much better off in the aftermath.

Imagine having to debate Paul on wars, on possible war with Iran, on drone warfare, on the expansion of the surveillance state and the PATRIOT Act, on the war on drugs, on transparency, whistleblowing and WikiLeaks, etc. Then, imagine President Obama having to find a way to neutralize and marginalize Paul’s positions. In the general election, there would inevitably be a wide space opened up for debate on foreign policy and civil liberties that would not be unlike the space for debate that Occupy Wall Street has opened up on economic inequality and injustice in America.

Additionally, Paul’s progressive critics, who are righteous in their opposition to him, would be able to watch President Obama challenge Paul on the very issues that lead them to chastise progressives who say anything that could be construed as supportive of Paul. President Obama could challenge him on reproductive rights, government regulation, marriage equality, health care, taxes and the role of the federal government in providing welfare to citizens.

This may all sound like a fairy tale that will never happen, but the point is not whether it is realistic or not. The point is that if Obama had to run against Paul he would have to answer questions on some very important issues, which he has had a dismal record on in his first term as president.

Paul as a GOP “Spoiler” Candidate

The criticism of “progressive voices” that appear to “support” Paul to various progressives does not just stem from their disgust toward his domestic policies. It actually stems from something even greater: the belief which the media has helped propagate that he is not a “serious,” electable or viable candidate.

Greenwald highlighted this in his post. I want to address another aspect of this belief, one that has less to do with the policies that people allege to be “crazy” or “controversial.” I am interested in the progressives who think he has no intention to try and win and therefore it is foolish for anyone to support him.

Liberal radio host Bob Cesca writes:

For the next several months, Ron Paul will continue to be a spoiler in the Republican primary campaign, lobbing crazy bombs from the fringes of the far right wing of the party without any chance whatsoever of actually winning the nomination, and even less of a shot at winning the White House in November.

But it doesn’t matter because winning isn’t his goal, regardless of the idealistic daydreaming of his most vocal supporters. He has no intention of becoming president, and he never has. His mission, beyond political masturbation, is to continue his sermon about the viability of a completely non-functioning ideology, libertarianism, while paying homage to the L. Ron Hubbard of politics, Ayn Rand.

This view espoused by Cesca carries a scorn for democracy that may be very familiar to those who follow what I will call “fringe politics.” It implies that Paul never had a right to run for president because he could never win and for someone to run in a presidential election they must be “electable” or able to win. Otherwise, they are a “spoiler.”

I don’t know why Cesca is concerned about Paul “spoiling” the election for other GOP candidates or why he feels the need to point this out. If he is worried that progressives voting for Paul at this stage will “spoil” the election, it really should not matter unless he thinks Paul could pose a threat to Obama’s re-election. In any case, the “spoiler” term used by Cesca and anyone else that agrees with his view is also used to malign third party candidates that run for president in the general election. And those who are incensed by the presence of third party candidates on the ballot usually react to supporters of these candidates in the way that progressives have responded to people like Greenwald.

If Greenwald wants to understand why progressives seem to be conjuring fact-free illogical condemnations of his work, he could look at how progressives went after those sympathetic toward Ralph Nader in 2008 (and in previous elections).

When Nader announced he would be running, they said a vote for him was a vote for John McCain. They suggested he would have a “battleground” strategy to help Republicans win. They told those interested in his candidacy that he was responsible for the strengthening of the “Republican war machine” or helped elect Bush in 2000 and he had been proud. And they tried to convince those sympathetic to his campaign that he was an egotist and a spoiler.

In the same way that critics of Greenwald have been ready to attack anything he says on Ron Paul, they were ready for anyone who showed sympathy toward Nader’s presence in the general election.

The long-time consumer advocate said of his campaign that he was putting issues “on the table” that were “off the table” to McCain and Obama: single-payer health care, cutting a bloated military budget, supporting solar energy first, cracking down on corporate crime/welfare, opening the presidential debates, reversing U.S. policy in the Middle East, impeaching Bush-Cheney, putting an end to ballot access obstructionism, repealing the Taft-Hartley anti-union law, and working to end “corporate personhood.” But, this mattered little to progressives.

Most progressives instead fixated on the belief that he cost former Vice President Al Gore the 2000 Election. Bush only beat Gore by 543 votes in Florida. This is what infuriates progressives about Nader to this day. But, they fail to factor in disenfranchised voters, voting systems and procedures that failed (i.e. the butterfly ballot), the US Supreme Court declaring Bush the winner or the Democrats who voted for Bush or did not vote in the election at all. And so the idea that Nader cost Gore the election is dubious and misleading because it was Gore’s election to lose (if you recall he didn’t even win his home state of Tennessee).

Paul’s 2008 Press Conference for Third Party Candidates

Elections could be more open, fair and free and less “empty” of conversation on issues. Candidates like Nader, the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney, the Libertarian Party’s candidate Bob Barr, and the Constitution Party’s candidate Chuck Baldwin in 2008 tried to reset the debate. In fact, in 2008, Ron Paul held a press conference where he showcased each of these third-party options at the National Press Club. He said, “At a time when 60 percent of the American people are dissatisfied with their presidential choices…this could be the year that a third-party option brings in a big chunk of the vote.”

The four candidates that appeared with Paul at the Press Club signed on to four-point plan: balance the federal budget, bring American troops home, protect civil liberties and investigate the Federal Reserve. When Paul did this, he had held a “Rally for Liberty” in Minneapolis, an alternative Republican convention that drew thousands of people. So for the political establishment, Paul’s endorsement of a third party option confounded them because they saw this as another effort to plant an obstacle in the way of McCain’s campaign.

The effort was designed to widen the debate in much the same way that any sympathetic blog posts from progressives for Ron Paul have been about widening the debate. But, most progressives viewed the press conference as a sideshow and progressive interest puerile because the third-party options could only “spoil” the election for McCain or Obama.

The reaction progressives have toward anti-establishment candidates like Paul or third party politicians like Nader is the result of political bigotry. It stems from unsubstantiated fear that challenging a “major party” candidate like Obama could affect that candidate’s success. Of course, that is the point. In this winner-take-all political system, third party politicians run to inject issues into the debate and force “major party” candidates to adopt them to win.

In the GOP primary, this is the role Paul serves. His most ardent supporters likely hope that in some small way he will remain competitive so that people like Romney or Santorum will have to continue to confront his views and perhaps adopt some of his stances. Will they? That’s not the point. If the GOP candidates are intent on winning, his supporters hope they have to talk about the issues Paul is cares most about.

The Tired Debate About Spoilers and Electable Candidates

In conclusion, here Americans are in the third election cycle since Ralph Nader allegedly “stole” the election. Third parties like the Green Party, candidates like Nader and hundreds of volunteers have worked tirelessly to fight ballot access obstructionism and open the debates so that there could be more voices and more choices in elections. And, despite that some progressives have suggested that there needed to be more infrastructure and reform in this country before they could ever vote for someone other than the lesser of two evils, the harsh truth is that in between elections very little has been done to lay the groundwork so politically engaged Americans would not have the same tired old debates they have had during the past few elections.

They are the same people who in the first year of Obama’s presidency insisted critics give Obama a chance. To do what? I asked. Then, various progressive commentators began to show outrage and display a sense of betrayal in May 2009 (finally). But, as I said then, Obama didn’t betray them. They betrayed themselves.

They became livid and upset when the antiwar movement and those voting third party challenged him during his campaign. They made excuses like: he’s just saying it to get elected, if he said what he really should say he would be assassinated, he’s not saying it but he’s thinking it and he will do it when he wins, and (the best one of them all) we can’t let another Republican win so let’s get him elected and we’ll pressure him come January.

Into January, the “make Obama do it” wing of the Democratic Party base was missing in action (or, rather, they were in a veal pen doing what Rahm Emanuel wanted them to do on health reform).

They opposed and marginalized an effort to run a primary challenger against Obama to ensure there would be debate on key issues.

Which is Why the Occupy Movement is So Critical to This Country

Is it any wonder why the Occupy movement is so refreshing? It has forced progressives to confront their role in a liberal class that has betrayed Americans in the past decades.

This is what journalist and ardent supporter of Occupy Wall Street, Chris Hedges, wrote in April 2008:

The failure of the left is the failure of well-meaning people who kept compromising and compromising in the name of effectiveness and a few scraps of influence until they had neither. The condemnations progressives utter — about the abuse of working men and women, the rapacious cannibalization of the country by an unchecked arms industry, our disastrous foreign wars, and the collapse of basic services from education to welfare — are not backed by action. The left has been transformed into anguished apologists for corporate greed. They have become hypocrites…

…Hope, St. Augustine wrote, has two beautiful daughters. They are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and the courage to see they do not remain the way they are. We stand at the verge of a massive economic dislocation, one forcing millions of families from their homes and into severe financial distress, one that threatens to rend the fabric of our society. If we do not become angry, if we do not muster within us the courage to challenge the corporate state that is destroying our nation, we will have squandered our credibility and integrity at the moment we need it most.

That force that can challenge the corporate state has been waking up a sleeping giant for months now. The Occupy movement has been inspiring Americans to show courage and really work toward a more equitable society that will be much better than the one that exists today. But, progressives are struggling with a voice inside them that keeps say they must caution the Occupy movement for its urge to not commit to being a counterweight to the Tea Party in the 2012 Election and simply show up wherever there is political action to try and insert their message of the 99%.

The Occupy movement has expanded the possibilities for change. They have not played by the rules. They are not afraid to make political enemies in Congress or the Obama Administration because they know those in the halls of power already want to keep a measured distance from the movement. They understand the country does not just need to focus on addressing economic agenda items but also on democratizing the system of government rigged to favor corporations and the 1%. They have not been NGO-ized (as journalist Naomi Klein might say).

A call for the Occupy movement to become part of the 2012 Election, like volunteer for Democrats and the Obama 2012 re-election campaign, undermines the true potential of Occupy. It ensures that come the 2016 Election the cycle repeats: anti-establishment candidates run in the two “major parties.” They are labeled “unelectable” or “controversial.” Those who consider voting for him or her are chastised for being purists. A “1% Stooge” wins the nomination in the two “major parties.” An attempt to run a third party option happens. Those who insist on supporting a third party candidate to ensure debate on vital and important issues are treated like sanctimonious people who support a pariah.

There might be a future where sharp commentators like Greenwald can attempt to have an intellectual debate about an exceedingly complex presidential candidate like Ron Paul and not have to anticipate being hit with a volley of contempt and scorn from progressives for truly addressing Paul’s meaningful contribution to what would otherwise be a far more vacuous presidential election. But that future will only come when progressives stop letting the narrow confines of US electoral politics control their attitudes and thoughts on candidates and social movements.


FDL’s Jon Walker has a concise post on the Ron Paul dilemma for liberals. It includes diagrams comparing Obama and Romney and Obama and Paul. Walker’s point:

To decide if Obama is better than Paul you must first face the reality that Obama is terrible on some issues and then weigh that against the issues he is good on, or at least better than, Paul. It forces liberals to do the hard work, prioritize what they claim to believe in. In this situation, to defend Obama, you most defend many of his horrific positions as an acceptable sacrifice for a better all-around package.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."