Picking a president is, to me, one of the most important things we do as citizens. Though technically we don’t make the final selection–that’s up to the Electoral College–and though there are some states that have been deemed more important while other states don’t even seem to matter, the popular vote can give us the best idea of what the majority wants. It’s a good measure of the mood of the country. It’s a poll with a huge sample size.
And so I take my decision very seriously. Armed with as many facts as I can find, I try to make a choice that I believe would be best for everyone.
This election has been extremely difficult.
I was first eligible to vote for president in the 1996 election between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, but I had been passionate about presidential politics at least since the 1992 election. Ronald Reagan had been president for almost as long as I’d been alive (I was born in 1978), and I supported his successor, George H.W. Bush. We had a black-and-white faxed Bush poster hanging in our basement (faxing was big back then) that showed a picture of Bush pointing his finger and a purported threat to “kick [Saddam Hussein's] ass” wherein certain words were replaced by oil company logos. I thought this was hilarious and didn’t quite get the double meaning. At this time I figured we were all on the same side and that America would simply keep being awesome.
I can’t honestly remember if Bush’s loss to Clinton took me by surprise, but I know I irrationally hated Clinton afterward. I was convinced that everything he said was a lie; I believed that I could tell just by looking at him that he was smarmy. I thought of him as a self-serving used car dealer type, eager to sell the country a lemon. This was slightly before Fox News Channel, but I did listen to Rush Limbaugh, and my dad watched a lot of other news programs on TV. And boy did my dad hate Clinton.
As the 1996 election approached, I happily spent my senior year vetting the candidates in the Republican primary. I wanted someone who could get Clinton out. I wanted someone who I felt shared my values, which, at the time, were evangelical Christian. And I wanted someone charismatic who could rally people, because an argument could be made that Ross Perot lost Bush the 1992 election, and I didn’t want to see a third-party candidate “stealing” votes like that again. I ended up choosing Alan Keyes, and talking him up to all my friends. But Keyes was not selected and we were, in my mind, “stuck with” Bob Dole.
I’d loved Reagan and Bush I. They’d seemed presidential to me. Bob Dole just…didn’t. He seemed like he was trying too hard. I entered college in the fall of 1996 shortly before the election. Around that point I discovered and started looking into the libertarian candidate, Harry Browne. After years and years of war, isolationist policies were sounding more and more appealing to me. But ultimately, I was afraid that votes would split between the Republican candidate and a third-party candidate and that Clinton would win. So in 1996, I voted for not-Clinton. I voted for Dole. My very first presidential election, and I was already faced with the “lesser of two evils” choice that has hounded me ever since.
Obviously, Clinton won again. Lots of things happened in my life around that point–I dropped out of school and got a job working retail, I was diagnosed with cancer, I underwent treatment and recovery, and I re-enrolled in school, this time at the University of Kentucky. I’d lived two states away my first year of college, but now I was back living with my parents. Fox News was always on (except when Rush was on) and every day Clinton did something to infuriate my dad. I was convinced that Clinton was unfaithful and his infidelity meant he couldn’t be trusted, so I fully supported his impeachment. I was also convinced that he launched strategic drone strikes against supposed terrorists whenever he wanted to get the heat off his personal life.
Still, this was a wonderful time for me intellectually. I hadn’t picked a major, so I was taking courses that sounded interesting, including several about gender and women’s studies. I became a feminist (though at the time I described myself as “a classical feminist, not a femi-Nazi”). Thankfully, I never got to the point where I believed institutions of higher learning were a waste of time and money, though I did have some ideas about making universities better. One belief that has stuck with me from that time in my life is that the university community, with access to so many people, so many different ideas, so many resources, is one of the greatest environments for learning we can have. You don’t just learn facts there; anyone can learn facts on their own. You learn about people, about life.
The 2000 election was kind of a no-brainer for me, unfortunately; I associated Gore with Clinton and didn’t do any further research into his side. The most I can remember is that I thought he was boring. I did pay a lot of attention to the Republican primary. Alan Keyes was back, but by then I considered him incapable of actually winning. I recall liking Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes and being interested in Elizabeth Dole, but ultimately I had no complaints with Bush II’s selection. At the time he was a pretty eloquent speaker, and I thought the family name gave him gravitas.
After 9/11 I was terrified that the terrorists were going to strike smaller cities like Lexington, to try and make the point that our government couldn’t protect us. (I didn’t really understand the “point” they were trying to make; the World Trade Center literally meant nothing to me before 9/11.) I remember being very thankful that we had a strong Republican in office to deal with the threat. I also remember wishing it had happened under Clinton, because it would have served as an indictment of his presidency(!).
By 2004 I had married and moved to Augusta. I was somewhat divorced from politics, not having cable at home, so when I happened to be in a hotel in Boston that summer, I watched John Kerry speak for the first time on TV. He was a good speaker, and I really, really liked what he was saying, on an emotional level. But then I stopped, pulled back, and said, “That sounds great, but how would he actually do it?” (Ultimately, I voted for Bush again; I didn’t trust a non-Republican to “stay the course” properly in Iraq.)
Note how many of my political opinions starting out were based on feelings and impressions. I had access to information, but I focused more on how it made me feel personally than on what it meant empirically. This was not fact-based decision-making. That critical thinking moment with John Kerry’s speech was probably the first time I started using my brain properly, which is kind of sad. I was still coming at everything from a Republican viewpoint, but I was no longer willing to simply ignore what the other side said or to accept things at face value.
I had a job in news during the 2008 election, and information was everywhere. I watched and read and absorbed everything I could. As you probably know, I voted Obama, going with “the other party” for the first time. I’d like to say I made this decision completely logically, learning from my history of emotional decision-making, but that would be untrue. Still, I paid a lot more attention to the facts during that election than I ever had before. I was growing more and more aware of the situations of people in this country who are not me, and I wanted a president who was also aware of those situations and who would work to improve everyone’s lot. I remembered John McCain from previous elections, and I’d liked him previously, but his rhetoric this time around didn’t mesh with my vision of a progressive country. I was also rather flummoxed by Sarah Palin, who seemed like a nice enough person but clearly wasn’t qualified for her role. When a woman becomes president or vice president, I want it to be because she deserves it, not out of tokenism. While I did generally want to finally have a non-white president, I would never have voted for Obama based on the color of his skin. He earned the presidency through the power of his conviction and insight. A weaker candidate never could have done it. Obama’s race wasn’t a leg up; it was a hurdle.
Well, now it’s time for another presidential election. (As you know, since it’s been going on for two years.) I would say that this is the election for which I have the most information. I also have a clear vision of the priorities I want for our government.
And for the past several months, I have been in turmoil over who to vote for.
Economically, I’m happy with Obama. I’d like to see the tax cuts implemented by Bush and renewed by him expire–hell, I’d really like to see broad tax reform–but in terms of doing what he can to guide the country out of the financial crisis, I agree with the economists I’ve read that Obama has done a pretty decent job. A different president might undo all the good that has already been done, which is a scary thought. Or they might continue it and add something better. Ultimately, we don’t know what will happen, and the only person’s past performance we can even remotely rely on as a gauge is Obama’s.
On social issues, I’m okay with Obama. He says all the right things. He seems to get it. Based on his performance so far, I think we can trust him at least not to upset the status quo. And his Affordable Healthcare Act certainly helped a lot of people, especially women. Romney, on the other hand, has indicated that his public policy will reflect the values of a certain segment of the population and not the needs of the population as a whole. How much of that should we take seriously? How much of it is just rhetoric to get himself elected, to please his donors and voting base? Social issues are how candidates get people “riled up”; it’s considered a “safe” way to campaign. A Facebook commenter asked recently: how many Republican candidates have campaigned on ending abortion, only to do absolutely nothing about it once elected?
I would have found this “rhetoric has no teeth” argument more compelling before the Tea Party took control of much of the country and started passing anti-abortion legislation on the state level. I would say that at this point, social issues are back in play, and we need to be careful what we do about them. We can’t just trust candidates to be all talk.
So far, Obama seems to be a natural choice for me. The economy and social issues are huge, and he seems to be getting those things right. But other things are important too–things like due process and privacy. Our governmental post-9/11 paranoia has not abated under Obama; if anything, it’s flourished. Here’s a post I wrote back in April detailing all the rights we’ve lost or are in danger of losing if we don’t start paying attention.
This is enormous, people. It changes how our country fundamentally works. It codifies things we always worried or joked that the government was doing secretly and illegally. Maybe they were, but now there’s no recourse for citizens if we find out about it…because now it’s legal.
We are essentially no longer innocent until proven guilty. We can be held “on suspicion” for as long as the government wants. Obama has also used drone strikes to execute terror suspects without trial, including a US citizen.
I would hope that Obama isn’t making some sort of power grab here, and that he’s just naively acting in ways he thinks will improve national security at minimum cost. But there’s no way to know. All I do know is that a country that treats all of its citizens like criminals, spying on them and holding them without trial and killing them with drone strikes abroad, is not a “free country”.
Journalists have heard of these things, and some have spoken out against it, but others are either afraid of not getting invited to the fancy parties anymore or afraid of being spirited away in the night by the military. Whatever the reason, we’re not hearing about this anywhere. It’s bad enough that people who point it out sound like conspiracy theorist kooks, even though the legislation is readily available for anyone to read. The democratic process can’t work if people aren’t in possession of the facts…and people aren’t in possession of the facts. (A lot of people barely have time to put food on the table, let alone research all this stuff.)
Would Romney fix these problems? I don’t know enough about him to say for sure, but if he’s following a Republican hard line, I imagine he’ll just keep walking this same path. He certainly hasn’t called for anything like a repeal of the PATRIOT Act.
There are third-party candidates who have, though. The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, is one of them. Some of my friends who supported Ron Paul in the primaries have switched their allegiance to this guy. I was hoping Ron Paul would win the Republican nomination, because even though I didn’t agree with a lot of what he said, I liked where he stood on personal freedom and privacy, and I figured a choice between him and Obama would be more of a toss-up than between Obama and any of the other candidates, who were all far too evangelical for my taste. As I liked some of what Paul said, I like some of what Johnson says, but I don’t really consider myself a libertarian anymore. I think the world is too interconnected for us to just stay out of things. (I do, however, think war should be dead last on our list of options.) I’m also concerned that Johnson would go the austerity route too soon, while the economy is still trying to recover.
Another third-party candidate calling for the repeal of PATRIOT is Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I started looking into her after an online questionnaire told me my opinions matched best with hers. The Green New Deal is extremely interesting and I am in favor of a lot of it, including election reform, overturning Citizens United, making voting easier and more secure, making Election Day a national holiday, breaking up big banks, taxing the bonuses of bailed-out bankers at 90% (love that!), restoring Glass-Steagall, ending financial bailouts, investing in transportation, power/water, local food, and education infrastructures, and investing in green industries. I’m interested in the other ideas as well, but this is a far-left party and as such the entire platform (except, I suppose, the 50% military cut) depends on big government, which would be funded via tax reform. I’d like to see if this would work, but I’m not convinced enough of the country would get behind such a plan for Stein to have a chance of winning. Even if she did get elected, she certainly wouldn’t have much in the way of Congressional support, so it’s unclear how many of her goals she would actually be able to achieve.
Still, at this point, I like her the best. So now my problem is, do I vote for the candidate I actually want, or do I vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate I absolutely don’t want? Where is my vote most effective? Is my vote effective at all? Should I try to be strategic, or should I be straightforward?
Going back to my “presidential election as a poll” idea, I should be straightforward. I shouldn’t worry about my vote protecting us from a Romney presidency; I should simply vote for the candidate I actually support. I shouldn’t worry that my candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning; instead, I should worry about making sure the “poll” provides an accurate picture. If I voted for Obama, it wouldn’t be because I wholeheartedly support him, after all.
What would it mean, though, if Dr. Stein got a lot of votes, but didn’t win? Would we simply call it the Perot Effect? Would it renew our fear of voting for third-party candidates?
Are we ever going to have a system that lets us vote for the candidates we like without having to worry about this?