I have maintained and will continue to maintain that electoral politics are not where true change happens. If there are going to be large-scale systemic changes to the way American (and global) political society works, it isn't going to come by electing a savior to make it happen through divine will alone. But that doesn't mean that who is president is therefore irrelevant. On the contrary, a world with President McCain and a world with President Obama are markedly different in actual, meaningful ways to a whole lot of people.
Barack Obama is part of, as Dale Carrico recently put it, "the left wing of the actually possible." I'd rephrase this as "the left wing of the currently possible." It is sad but true that a centrist Democrat like Obama is about as far to the left as America will tolerate today. While I would clearly prefer the policies of, for example, Green candidate Cynthia McKinney were she to be elected, she won't be, and whether or not I vote for her won't change that. My instinct is to say, "Yeah, but if everybody stopped thinking that way and voted for her, maybe she could win." But this simply isn't true at this point in time. Democracy requires compromise, and we do not live in a country where a substantial number of people agree with policies to the left of the Democratic Party. The country leans liberal, but it is still primarily centrist or even undecided. Until we have some true election reform allowing for third (and fourth, and fifth) party candidates to compete for legislative offices and build momentum, it is impossible to elect one as president -- and clinging to impossibility is foolish, no matter how badly we wish things could be different.
A more ideal and representative election system would be instant-runoff voting. People could vote for the candidate who represents them, but if that candidate fails to be elected, have their vote transferred to their second choice, or even third choice if it comes to that. Since we do not have that system, however, I think the strategic and logical thing for anyone concerned about the next four years to do is simple: do the transfer in your head first. We have an (over)abundance of polls. We can see who will and won't reach the hypothetical threshold. If you prefer McKinney, fine. In your head, vote for her first, then transfer your vote to the next candidate. In other words, think of the actual election as the runoff stage of the instant runoff voting. The outcome is exactly the same. And when we do get that election reform and have the choice, the other parties will still be there waiting. Nearly a century of irrelevancy hasn't killed the Socialists yet.
The persuasive rebuttal is that voting for what is, in many ways, the lesser of two evils is not voting one's conscience. I myself have held this view, which holds that the only intellectually honest thing to do is to vote (or not vote) for the candidate you actually agree with. This is confusing moralism for politics. Nobody gets exactly what they want. The fact, unavoidable, is that either John McCain or Barack Obama will be president in January. No amount of moralist handwringing about how much we'd rather someone else is going to change that. Abstaining from voting isn't going to change that. Voting for a candidate who we know is going to lose isn't going to change that. That's life. That's politics. You play the hand you're dealt. Your feelings of personal moral integrity will not matter much to those around the world whose lives are being destroyed by the tyranny of Republican policies.
Even if we had a fair and representative election system that admitted other choices, Obama or McCain would still win in the real live world we live in today. But as I said, the means of true change will never be elections. Aside from those few areas where the president really does make a difference, there is another reason to vote for Obama: as a symbol. We have had eight years of the worst possible government, and frankly, we could do with a little hope. Even if Obama himself doesn't bring about the changes that are needed -- and there is no indication that he will -- the aforementioned vaguely liberal centrist majority needs to see that we won't always be mired in right-wing reactionary bullshit. Obama has been successful at inspiring a great number of people who haven't been inspired by politics before. These are people who, if given options for true change in the future, might take them. These are people who think Obama is better than he is, and when given choices that actually are better, they may well be the new base. But if Obama loses, they lose their personal political momentum, and they cynically resign themselves to the inefficacy of political action altogether. Obama symbolizes change even if he never himself brings it, and right now a symbol might be more important than the reality.
I would not (and did not) vote for John Kerry in 2004, because I did not see any particular advantage in doing so over voting for someone like Nader or Cobb. But Kerry did not come bundled with a movement bent on changing things for the better, and Obama does. The country rather desperately needs to believe that progress is possible, and if the cost of instilling that belief is voting for Obama, well, that's a price I'm willing to pay. But after he and other Democrats are elected, those who truly care about progress must absolutely crank up the pressure to levels unseen. We shouldn't campaign and protest less under a "friendly" Democratic regime, we should campaign and protest more, because unlike the Republicans, some of the Democrats just might actually listen. I'm not thinking of Obama as the pendelum swung to the left, I'm thinking of him as the pendelum finally stopped, and it's up to us to set it in motion again across a new centerline. By the end of his term, I want Obama to mark the right wing of the actually possible.
There are a great many things I want to happen in this country and around the world. No matter how much I try, I can't have them today. What I can have is a flawed and wounded country with a growing number of people who are realizing things can be different and beginning to demand progress, under the solidifying leadership of people who are not entirely batshit insane. And for right now, after the last eight horrific years, that's good enough to get my vote.