As an aspiring researcher in a School of Education, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that I should be voting for Barack Obama. The Academy is famously lefty in rhetoric, but center-lefty in its actual electoral practice, which pretty much sums up the President. As a student who is actively being socialized to the academy, I have certainly felt significant pressure (not direct pressure, which is ineffective anyway, but the indirect pressure of assumed common perspective) to support President Obama in this election.
It's not just a matter of social, economic, or foreign policy, you see. It's a matter of our very livelihood in the Academy: research tends to do better under Democrats than Republicans, and especially President Obama, who is bullish on educational technology and the transformative potential of innovations like Learning Analytics (my emerging research area).
So it seems like I should vote for the President. But I'm not going to. I'm voting for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
The following are a set of perspectives and arguments for why I would do such a crazy thing. You'll note that "I live in California, which is 'safe' for Obama" is not one of my reasons. I might think longer about my vote if I still lived in my native Colorado. But in the end I would still vote for Dr. Stein.
1) I reject the idea that politics can easily be placed on a linear spectrum.
The left-right dichotomy in political discourse serves to marginalize minority perspectives, and to ossify the debate. Because we apply broad categories called "left" and "right" to the Democrats and Republicans respectively, we ignore the complexity of actual policy-based problem solving. The Green Party, if it can be characterized as a fringe left-wing party, is a satellite of the Democrats. In reality, there is no line that can be drawn which contains all three points: Republican, Democrat, and Green. The Green Party does not offer policies "left" of the Democrats. They offer policies fundamentally and categorically different from the Democratic Party in complex ways.
2) Jill Stein is a Doctor, and she would make decisions as scientifically as possible.
Lawyers and businessmen often make good public speakers, and sometimes make good leaders. Barack Obama is both a good speaker and, I think, a good leader. But Dr. Stein is a scientist, who believes in making policy decisions based upon scientific knowledge, and not political expediency. That may be 'impractical,' but even getting the idea of data-driven policy on the table seems worthwhile to me. Too often our political discourse is dictated by sophistical pandering, so much so that we now inhabit a culture in which "you have your facts, I have mine," has become an acceptable rebuttal. It may be a futile fight, but it is worth fighting for a political discourse based on data and scientific reasoning. I don't believe either major party wants to fight that battle.
3) The Green Party has been right about climate change for decades.
Whereas the Democratic Party has certainly used rhetoric about climate change to energize its base, it has shown little to no leadership in actually passing legislation that would curb the potentially catastrophic impact of global warming. The Green Party was formed by and large because of the recognition that combating climate change and other environmental issues caused by overpopulation and international industrialization would require a paradigmatic shift in the way we organize our governments and societies. Though this has been an unpopular insight, it is increasingly proving to be true. Eventually America - and the rest of the planet - will need leaders with the foresight of people like Dr. Stein.
4) The Green Party is international.
Unlike other major political parties, the Green Party is an international organization with local branches. Their international focus is unique in global politics, and is entirely necessary at a time when the world is increasingly interconnected, and what happens in Europe or Asia has as much or more impact on what happens in the United States as what happens in Ohio. Parties that are merely national, who see "foreign policy" as a separate category of political discourse from "domestic policy," are woefully obsolete.
5) The Green Party and Dr. Stein have not been bought and sold.
I believe that Barack Obama is more idealistic than a President can afford to be. And afford is exactly the right word. In order to be elected President in the United States, you need to raise lots and lots of money. In order to raise money, you have to raise money from major corporations, who then have expectations around what kind of policies you will or will not enact. That's vastly oversimplified, of course - it's more about shaping the conversation and determining who gets to come to the table than dictating policy decisions. For example, there were no significant advocates for single payer health care allowed at the table in the Affordable Care Act conversations. That put boundaries on the debate.
Electoral necessity means Democrats and Republicans have to constrain the debate. But innovation does not come from putting narrow boundaries on conversations and limiting acceptable solutions before the conversation even begins. The biggest benefit to politicians who are not awash in corporate money is that they are free to engage in real dialogue and real problem solving.
6) We must change our democratic processes.
Related to the above point, the way we elect Presidents (and other officials) simply does not make sense, and simply is not democratic. There are several problems:
- Wealth has a disproportionate impact on an individual's political clout.
- Corporations count as "individuals," and are wealthier than any real person, and therefore more powerful.
- Politicians are by-and-large more focused on reelection than governance.
- Plurality is a poor way of choosing a winner in an election, and run-off is too expensive. We need Instant Run-off Voting.
- Along with plurality, federal representation by geography alone is outdated, as it ensures that only a limited set of ideologies get represented in the government. Most other first world countries apportion seats by party (also flawed, but better).
- Our current system creates far too much incentive to cynically manipulate voter turnout.
Raising these issues is important, because neither major party stands to gain by doing so. Supporting third parties is - in a wonderful catch-22 - the only way to raise these problems to prominence so they become a part of the discourse.
7) This is not the most important election of my lifetime.
Every single election of my lifetime has been described as the most important election of my lifetime. The truth is, none of them are (I suppose one will be, but it's hard to know now which). While the Democratic and Republican parties do offer stark differences on many issues, it's worth noting that on many fundamental issues of process (see point 6, above) there is no difference between the major parties. Because there is no difference, there is no discourse. Because there is no discourse, there is no opportunity for change. As long as we buy the hype around how important the differences between Democrats and Republicans are (and how vitally close the election is), we continue to push aside the opportunity to raise more fundamental issues. Indeed, it is particularly in states where elections are close where third parties - Green, Libertarian, Constitution, whatever - stand to have the greatest impact on the debate. That is, as long as we don't silence them.
8) Revolutionaries spoil corrupt systems.
I was going to call this point two different things. First, I was going to say: "third parties are often responsible for positive change." Then I was going to say: "third parties are not actually spoilers" (except inasmuch as they open up uncomfortable, but important conversations). I combined them into one.
To the first sub-point: it took a sustained and politically meaningful push by the Socialist Party to get FDR to actually adopt his New Deal reforms. Recall that he was President for a significant amount of time before he even began to implement reforms. Consider, more recently, how President Clinton's economic policies were at least in part shaped by the rise of Ross Perot. It is saddening that the Democratic Party, instead of adopting the pieces of the Green Party platform that made Ralph Nader so (relatively) successful in the late 90s and early 2000s, they actively worked to shut him out of the debates. Again, the lesson from history is: significant third party support demonstrates an avenue for opening up a new conversation. The Democrats of 1996-2012 have chosen instead to work to actively suppress 'marginal left-wing' Greens (see point 1).
To the second sub-point: Nader did not, in fact, cost Gore the election in 2000. For one thing, the logic of apportioning Nader votes to Gore and saying, "see the difference between Bush and Gore was smaller than the number of Nader votes" is deeply flawed. By that very logic, Pat Buchanan cost Bush more electoral votes than Nader cost Gore. But more importantly, exit polls suggest that Nader voters, if they had not voted for Nader, by and large would not have voted, period. It is naive to think that Nader was just a "more left-wing" version of Gore (again, see point 1).
In short, Nader was a "spoiler" because we re-wrote the narrative to describe it that way. In reality, though, what Nader spoiled was an already corrupt system. It was laid bare by virtue of his presence in the race.
9) The Presidency isn't as important as you think.
I am continually amazed at how important Americans think the Presidency is. Simply because the President is the most visible elected office in the country does not mean it is an all-powerful office. In reality, while President Obama may be the most powerful man in America, it would be quite easy to find two people combined (or 538 people...) who wield far more power than the President. Which is to say: even if the President gets to set an agenda in a broad sense, whether that agenda gets enacted or not has a lot to do with the congress, with the weather, with whether or not Greece stays in the Eurozone, with Chinese environmental regulations, with Mexican immigration patterns, with Iranian protesters, and so on. The President has direct control over precious little, so let's not over-emphasize his importance. Our nation was designed to ensure that no one man or woman was so important that his or her decisions would make or break our society.
10) The student debt bubble is as risky as the sub-prime mortgage bubble was.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Barack Obama, to me, is his forward-thinking approach to education. He has instituted an office of educational technology, and the common core movement has blossomed under his administration. That said, there are still huge swaths of the educational conversation that I feel as though Jill Stein and the Green Party are willing to have that the Democrats and Republicans are not. Chief among these is the student debt bubble, and who ought to pay for education. I am perhaps naive in believing that education is one of those services for which the costs ought to be socialized, simply because an educated populace is a necessity for democracy. While the Democratic Party still uses that rhetoric, it is worth noting that modern public universities are as expensive now as private universities once were. The cost of higher education is unsustainable, as is the issuing of massive (and undischargeable in bankruptcy) student debt.