By Bob Cesca: Over the weekend, actor and activist John Cusack posted an interview he conducted with George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. You might recall seeing Turley on Countdown with Keith Olbermann over the years, and you probably know who John Cusack is. They’re both extraordinarily bright guys and they have some very strong arguments in support of their positions against the Obama administration, mostly from a far-left point of view.
That said, Turley and Cusack, like Glenn Greenwald and others, are known for what I would consider to be an absolutist posture regarding the president. Specifically, their “Rubicon line” as Cusack calls it (a reference to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River, an unprecedented act of insurrection) is the president’s record on civil liberties and foreign policy — his signing of the NDAA, his inability to close Guantanamo, his use of drones and, primarily, the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda terrorist who was born in the United States. Cusack also cites the continuance of the war in Afghanistan as a deal breaker, erroneously noting that candidate Obama opposed that war. Obama, like all of the Democratic frontrunners in the previous two elections supported “finishing the job” in Afghanistan. Consequently, neither Turley nor Cusack will support the president for re-election, and they consider him to be “worse than George W. Bush” in several of these areas.
Okay, okay. I know. Admittedly, this topic of progressive factional debate is one I’ve covered quite a bit over the last four years. But the angle I intend to cover today is one that’s considerably important for the future of the progressive movement and, subsequently, for a long-sought shift towards more progressive legislation at the state and federal level. Near the end of the interview, Turley and Cusack discussed the conundrum that many similarly-minded liberals face. If they agree with the anti-Obama left on these foreign policy and civil liberties issues — that the president’s trespasses are unforgivable — should they vote for his re-election?
Unsurprised by the usual Greenwaldian points throughout most of the interview in which the president’s foreign policy is described as being the continuance of the George W. Bush presidency, I wasn’t especially alarmed until Turley’s view on the election suddenly jumped off the screen. He said, “I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes.”
Walking away from the election and not voting, Turley and Cusack asserted, would fire an opening shot in an effort to scramble the red/blue paradigm in American politics. In other words, if enough people abandon the electoral system, the system will have no choice but to shift and change in the direction of the non-participants. Interesting.
Turley’s statement cut to a central flaw in liberal thought that tends to resurface every time liberalism (or progressivism) enjoys a toe-hold in politics. As soon as Democrats become the slightest bit successful at the presidential level, the far-left decides to stay home.
The arguments are familiar. Democrats and Republicans are the same on matters that constitute that uncrossable Rubicon line. The two party system is a disaster. And if we either vote our conscience for a third party candidate or stay home entirely, the system will collapse on its fainting couch, crying for us to come back. Come to think of it, you’ve probably seen this attitude on various internet discussion forums I’m sure. I call these people “Goodbye Cruel World” attention whores: disgruntled or humiliated commenters who write an extended missive — a virtual suicide manifesto — about how they’re leaving and never coming back. They storm off the boards in a big dramatic snit, expecting everyone else to beg them to return. But it never works that way. Things proceed without them.
I’m not begrudging anyone their right to vote for whomever they choose. But as a strategy for a broader movement, this is an extremely troubling concept with well-known repercussions. Bluntly, it’s both stupid and dangerous. I’ve told this story a million times, but it bears repeating. During the late 1990s and the 2000 presidential election, Michael Moore and other pre-blogosphere liberal activists pitched the line that the Democrats and Republicans were basically the same, so we shouldn’t vote for either. Likewise, Al Gore and George W. Bush were exactly the same, so why bother voting for either one? Ralph Nader was running and he seemed like a true progressive so hundreds of thousands of voters cast their ballots for Nader, seriously cutting into the Gore vote. We all know what happened next.
Just as soon as it appeared that left-leaning politics was on the verge of prospering into the 21st Century, liberals decided to end that process out of a movement-driven decision to vote against Al Gore who, by the way, went on to become a liberal lion, especially and famously on the climate crisis. If Al Gore had been elected, it’s likely that he would’ve reinforced a gradual move to the left. Instead, the dark ride of the 2000s began in earnest. Partly because the left walked away from the process.
Walking away is not an option, at least for anyone who’s interested in achieving positive change. The practical goal should be to carefully and tenaciously persuade more voters and politicians about the progressive agenda. This is especially true when it comes to President Obama who’s displayed both a willingness to evolve on various issues, as well as an openness to hearing opposing views when they’re presented thoughtfully and fairly. There’s no evidence whatsoever of the president or the Democratic Party chasing the far-left when they’re in the process of storming off like a petulant reality show diva. Usually when the Cusack, Greenwald and Hamsher types start screeching “worse than Bush” and the like, the Democrats engage in the well-worn practice of “hippie punching,” and then either ignore the far-left or run to the center where there are considerably more votes.
When liberal policies and liberal politicians fail, they’re invariably replaced with moderate or conservative policies/politicians. That’s a sad fact of life in American politics. For instance, every time healthcare reform has failed, the next iteration has been more conservative — not less. When the Carter administration failed to be re-elected, the next Democratic president was more conservative. If Barack Obama fails to win re-election, the next Democratic president will absolutely be more conservative, especially if pollsters determine that liberals by-in-large stayed home. In the interim, a Romney administration would roll back everything the Obama administration has achieved, painfully rewinding the legislative clock back to 2008. Do the list. DADT would return. Conservatives would gain a stranglehold on the Supreme Court. Marriage equality would be held back by another decade. Women’s reproductive organs would become the total purview of the government. Obamacare and all of its benefits would be repealed. New emissions standards would be repealed. We’d return to war in the Middle East — with either Syria or Iran or both, and maybe even Russia. The climate crisis would escalate unchecked. And the Bush tax cuts would become permanent. To name a few. Pretty much the worst possible outcome you can imagine. You might disagree with President Obama, say, 20% of the time with 10% being “Rubicon line” worthy. But I guarantee that you’ll disagree with 100% of the Romney agenda and all of the horrendous policies within.
Let’s take this one step further according to Turley’s plan. Imagine if the bulk of the progressive movement attempted Turley’s strategy of staying home until the day when sometime ambiguously in the future the red/blue paradigm vanishes… maybe? Is there really a long term plan for this destruction of the red/blue paradigm? You know, other than: 1. Stay Home, 2. ?????, 3. Progressivism! And how does Turley’s support for the Citizens United decision and corporate “speech” in elections help this plan? I can only imagine the cavalcade of Republican presidents or centrist Democrats who would fill the void. Two decades worth? More? Who knows. One thing is for sure, the progressive movement would have to possess considerably more electoral heft than it does today in order to yank with it the weight of the entire American political system. It’s shockingly delusional and naive. It’s a “Goodbye Cruel World” move — with severe blowback against the very ideas that these activists hold sacred.
The alternative is to simply make a strong, persuasive case on the ground. Convince voters and politicians alike that progressive ideas work. Make the case in a reasonable, strategic, smart way. Start at the school board level and work up the ladder if need be. But walking away from the process should never be an option beyond the shadow realms of cynical quitters.