Next week, the people of the United States, who I have lived among for some of my life and love as dearly as my own fellow citizens, will make a decision that will profoundly affect the future of our planet. We cannot see the future, but politics asks us to at least try to do so.
I feel it would be monstrously impolite of me, as The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland inadvertently gave the impression of doing the other week, to suggest that I should decide how you vote – your vote is yours to execute according to your conscience – but it is fair and equitable participation in the democratic process for me to talk about how I think and feel about this election, and in the process invite you to discuss it further with me.
For the record, if I had a vote I would be voting for Obama, for reasons that will come clear, but unlike many other people who live in Europe this is not because I haven’t weighed the merits of John McCain, since I consider him to be the best Republican candidate to run in my lifetime and I’m not one of these liberally-minded people who doesn’t understand how anyone could possibly vote for a Republican. (Although I do sometimes wonder how anyone can take either of these parties too seriously).
The Democrats have liberal values that arguably overvalue personal freedoms, as do about half of their compatriots, and believe in investing vast sums of money in institutions intended to help social welfare and health care, but which (as Ivan Illich savagely critiqued) end up making these problems worse. The Republicans have a more traditional view of society which they also share with about half their compatriots and quite justifiably don’t believe that money should be taken from the people for these purposes, but then become equally absurd when they instead decide to invest the same large sums of money in military and police institutions intended to help national security and domestic safety, but which (once again) end up making these problems worse.
Most voters in the coming election will cast their vote along partisan lines, largely because our brains are wired to cleave to this kind of divisive thinking. These votes (in a sense) “don’t count” because no voting decision has actually been made, but in another (perhaps more relevant) sense they count with great significance since they show that people have a commitment to certain values and are willing to vote to protect these values. Both parties are absurd if you try to examine them on the merits, which makes voting for either of them legitimate on any number of grounds too diverse to discuss here.
This means to a great extent the outcome of this election depends upon independently-minded people who haven’t made a voting decision in advance. For them, some of which visit this site as players of this peculiar game of mine, weighing the merits of this decision will help them make the decision that is right for them, and I hope in this piece to offer some assistance (albeit not without my own already declared bias).
It is important not to get held up in the issue of whether Obama or McCain (or their vice presidential sidekicks) are weasels, or which is the bigger weasel. They will both be weasels, because all politicians must learn to be weasels in order to function in politics, an idea neatly satirised by Matt Stone and Trey Parker in their South Park episode which observed “nearly every election since the beginning of time has been between some douche and some turd. They're the only people who suck up enough to make it that far in politics.”
So what are the major issues to be considered?
The principle issues around which a decision is likely to be formed are the following, although which issues matter to you will of course vary from individual to individual: the economy, energy independence, the environment, health care, the war in Iraq (and “against Terror”), human rights, the role of the US in the international community, and abortion. Yes, sorry liberal-minded people, abortion is a major issue in this election and in every US election until we learn to get beyond the partisanship and enter into the open and honest debate on this subject that is badly needed.
Let us look at abortion first since this is irresolvable at this time. There is a temptation, perhaps, for individuals who support a “pro-life” (more fairly, pro-fetus) position to vote for a Republican candidate because all Republican candidates reflect more traditional worldviews which oppose abortion because they are (justifiably) horrified by the specifics of this action when viewed in isolation from the other related ethical issues. However, one does not stop or reduce the incidence of abortions by making them illegal – which is essentially the only move currently being offered – and this issue will ultimately need to be resolved by intelligent communication between people, not from within the wider political system. Both sides of this debate have voices that need to be heard, because the conflict between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn is irreducible and far more complex than most people seem to acknowledge.
On the subject of the economy, both the Democrats and the Republicans bear a share of culpability for the current debacle. The Democrats encouraged banks to lend to the poor without checking that this was done in a responsible manner, the Republicans continued to let it happen even when it was clear this was a growing crisis. It’s far from clear either candidate is better positioned to resolve an issue which rests upon the greed of bankers, although I’m sure many people feel differently.
On the subject of energy independence, really, this one can't be left to the politicians. The citizens of the United States have inadvertently allowed the free market to train them into a nation of energy gluttons, and serious public debate is needed to fix this cultural addiction. McCain's plans to drill for more oil at best defers this problem to the near future. Is it really worth gambling Alaska's natural beauty, given that oil will continue to rise in value over time, this reserve isn't going anywhere, and future extraction technologies will certainly have less environmental impact than modern technologies?
Speaking of the environment, I would assess the biggest problem in this regard as unfettered freedom for corporations to value profit over environmental or human impact. No Republican candidate wants to restrict business, so if the environment is an issue for you voting Democrat becomes almost inevitable. Of course, this doesn’t mean Obama has a sensible plan to rescue the environment, just that McCain will never be in a position to offer one.
On the subject of the health care, Obama wants to fund a fairly poor attempt at universal health care that might not be worth its cost (although it is still, in my opinion, better than Hillary Clinton’s proposal which seemed to favour the medical sector over the people). McCain doesn’t want to get involved. If universal health care is important to you – and as anyone who has lived any part of their life in a country which has substantially addressed this issue (such as France) knows, there are excellent reasons to do so – you have to prefer Obama on this issue, even if his proposal is very weak indeed.
On the subject of the war in Iraq, McCain – as a lifelong soldier – has seen what is being fought for in Iraq, and believes it is worth fighting for. Truly, I understand this – like McCain (and, for that matter , Obama) I want what’s best for the Iraqi people. But what is being fought for right now is a US-conceived notion of a “free country”, and since the US itself is far from a model nation right now it has no business trying to infect this grossly faulty model of democracy elsewhere. (None of this reflects poorly on the incredible service the men and women of the US armed forces have selflessly given to their country, although some considerable shame does accrue to the Pentagon for failing in its duty to protect both US national security and its brave troops by the most appropriate means).
Resolving Iraq peacefully means entering into partnership with its neighbour, Iran, which is happening naturally at the moment because the men and women of Iraq and Iran still know on some deep level that they are brothers and sisters. Obama has proposed diplomatic discourse with Iran, and this is absolutely required right now, so for this reason I contend that on the subject of Iraq it is Obama whose position is more viable.
A few feminists will object – the situation of women in Iran is very poor. Very true. But we will not improve it by deploying military forces to “spread feminist values”. This, in fact, would be a total betrayal of the ideals of the original Feminist movement. One of the charities I support is Amnesty International, and I thus fully support the women of Iraq in their battle to claim what is due to them, and what Islam promises to them: fair and equitable partnership with their different-yet-equal menfolk. The way to help the women of Iran is not to increase tensions between it and the West by occupying its neighbouring country.
While we're considering human rights, it must be said that Guantanamo Bay is an insult to the integrity and high moral values of the American people, and a gross betrayal of the Universal Human Rights envisaged and enacted under President Roosevelt. Both candidates know this. McCain’s position attempts to preserve some advantage for US intelligence services, while Obama’s position is more absolute in its rejection of the horror that has been allowed to be conducted there. Both positions are reasonable, but McCain seems to leave the door open for it to happen again by voting against preservation of habeus corpus for detainees, effectively saying that human rights do not extend to people about whom the people of the US are suspicious. In this regard, McCain has rather disappointed me.
Finally, on the role of the US in the international community, well, it’s easy for those of us outside of the US to want a president who reflects our values, but we do not live in the United States and we have no business enforcing our values upon it. Yes, as Jonathan Freedland observed, we Europeans would on the whole prefer Obama, but it’s not up to us to decide how this election will resolve. It is up to the American voters. I hope they will look deep into their conscience and vote for the weasel they believe will have the greatest chance of moving towards their idea of a better world.
Discussion in the comments is welcome, but please be respectful of the diversity of political beliefs. Bloggers are also invited to trackback or otherwise extend this discussion to their own blogs. Remember that disrespectful partisans dishonour the parties and candidates they support, so please play friendly.