I voted for Barack Obama in 2008. I didn't do so because I believed the hope and change hype. Since Obama changed two key positions almost immediately after winning the nomination (telecom immunity and caving to AIPAC on Iran) I had long abandoned such naivete. Instead, I voted for Obama because I thought at least he would be restrained and judicious in charge of the imperial war machine. The attitudes of the Bush years seemed more important to repudiate than the actual policies, and everything seemed to indicate that, while he wouldn't depart too much from Bush's war policy and domestic police state, he would at least go about it in a more measured, less bellicose manner.
I think after three years of Obama at the helm, we can safely put to rest any notion that he's any substantively different. Need I list the reasons? Composing "kill lists" for drone strikes that target any "military-age males" and kill scores of innocents. Duplicity on withdrawing from Iraq. Doubling down on Afghanistan. Waging a war on whistleblowers while indeminfying torturers and other criminals. Corporatized health care for all. Continuing and extending bailouts for corporate America. Crackdowns on medical marijuana despite his campaign rhetoric. The NDAA and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists.
Just as it is unwise to be reflexively partisan when voting, it's unwise to be a reflexive voter at all. I am not the kind of anarchist who believes voting is inherently evil or violent. You have to weigh each opportunity on its own, unique merits, surveying where you can make the most difference. Even when you choose to participate, most of the time the real opportunity has nothing to do with the office being contested or the people contesting it. Because the state is tied up so intricately in the civil society we want to liberate, and engaging those people is the real task anyway, we have to meet them where they're at.
However, there comes a time when the kind of engagement best fitting the situation involves telling those very people why you're not meeting them at the polls this year. In 2008 the left had high hopes for an administration that would change our course at home and abroad. Not only hasn't this happened, we've seen a Democratic machine that has become the mirror image of the neoconservatives in terms of imperial hubris. By all accounts this campaign will not be about hope and change so much as fearmongering against a Romney presidency's social agenda. What a disappointing difference four years make.
Many earnest liberals, progressives and lefties worry about the recent assaults on reproductive freedom and marriage equality. They feel that, since Romney will be no better on foreign policy, they might as well make this about the issues where there is a difference. I don't think that's bad reasoning at all. I cannot ask marginalized groups to adopt my priorities and jettison those unique to their situation (I would suggest a lot of this battle is happening at the state level, though).
I can, however, appeal to their long term, positive interests over their short term, defensive instincts. If you look for the difference between any two politicians, you'll always be able to find something. It might even be on an issue you care about. But you're not just electing a president on one issue; that man or woman will be empowered to act all issues, disagree or agree. Maybe you're protecting yourself on one issue, but just because you're in a group that has a special vulnerability on that issue doesn't mean you don't share other, more common vulnerabilities that are just as threatening.
I will stand in solidarity with oppressed groups. But solidarity doesn't just mean elevating the interests of marginalized groups over your own legitimate interests, let alone over the legitimate interests of other marginalized groups (such as innocent drone victims). Ultimately, an oppressed group that believes it can gain some advantage by selling out the interests of others is not suited to solidarity at all. There are issues that threaten all of us, and issues that threaten some of us. If solidarity means anything, it is uniting the struggles on those two fronts -- not selling one or the other out for a politician's convenience.
Over the long run, it doesn't do any good for us to simply look harder and harder for the ever-shrinking differences between candidates. All that encourages is the continued convergence of the parties on an increasing amount of issues. The longer that convergence goes on, the more normalized the consensus becomes, so that these stances become the accepted default rather than matters to contest. At some point that has to be understood as simply unacceptable -- regardless of what small gain might be possible through backing a candidate.
The trick here is that candidates want you to identify political victory with their short term electoral triumph, because they know they can't deliver much of what you actually want. Winning the election is what's important to them, and they want you to think of your interests in terms that reinforce the urgency of that victory. But we should be focused on the people winning, as we construct that through our chosen political perspective, because that should be what's important to us. Sometimes moving in the right direction long term means folding in the short term. Especially when you're holding a shitty hand, because it accomplishes nothing but exposing desperation to insist on playing it.
If partisan electoral politics is even worth engaging, it must effect accountability for politicians. There's only one way you accomplish that: by kicking them out of office. It can't just be about the other side losing; it has to be about your side being on your side. Voting is a means to an end, and campaigns spend millions to convince you to adopt their ends. Whether or not you vote, it's vital you remember what your ends are.