Why I Voted for Barack Obama and Will Again

A lot of folks I think of as leftists have told me they are considering not giving their vote to Barack Obama in November. They say they feel cheated that the actions of his administration didn’t live up to the soaring rhetoric of his campaign, and are opting out in protest.

I’m no Democratic Party loyalist, nor am I uncritical of the President. But their disappointment to the point of opting out frustrates me nonetheless. My frustration can be summed up by the question, “what in the world did you expect?”

It speaks to an uncritical liberalism not worthy of the left to assume that by electing a Black liberal to the presidency we would experience a revolution of values and priorities in governance. As leftists we know, or should know, that the institutions of government in the U.S. only allow change to occur in increments, and always within the parameters of the interests of those who control those institutions.

This is what I believe Derrick Bell meant when he wrote,

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an ultimate act of defiance.

I’ve used that quote often because I believe in it. It is, to me, a statement relevant to the condition of all oppressed people in America. The system of governance under which we live, and the elites who control our institutions of power, both public and private, will never voluntarily concede to the demands of justice. In order to win justice, we need a complete reorganization of power.

To expect a reorganization of power via the election of a president is simply unrealistic. It is a notion based in the magical thinking that if  enough of “us” are elected to government, we can overcome the limits of our institutions and create “change we can believe in.

Obama is just a man, barely a liberal much less a progressive, and the party he represents, the office he holds, and the institutions to which he is accountable will never allow any such magic to be conjured.

But I did vote for Obama-Biden in ’08, and I will do so again this year. Why? For a couple of reasons.

First, I believe the Republican Party has become the instrument by which a growing right wing movement hopes to exercise unjust power of a sort far worse than the horrors we are witnessing at this moment. If voting for a Democratic ticket slows them down, even slightly, and preserves the political space within which we can use the time we steal to do something, to organize ourselves, to seek an alternative or at least duck and cover, I’m there. I don’t care how many IDs I have to produce or how long the line.

Secondly, while Obama-Biden may only represent a difference in degree and not in kind from Bush-Cheney, McCain-Palin, or Romney-Ryan, I’ll take those degrees of difference. I’ll take them because, even from my perch in my very comfortable and well-stocked home, I know those degrees are measured in terms of human suffering.

It may not be the revolution of values and action that I am working for, but that work requires opportunity, certain freedoms of expression and of movement, and I may sound paranoid by saying this, but I feel those freedoms threatened, and more and more each day. Voting for Obama is just a tactical maneuver to be sure, but politics is made up, not just of vision, but of tactics.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

11 replies on “Why I Voted for Barack Obama and Will Again”

I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed. You’re acknowledging all the right things here, but your conclusion doesn’t sit well with me. That we have to compromise under the pretext that nothing will ever really change, so we might as well keep it (or slow it down as you say) from getting worse.

I do agree that thinking that voting for a different President will change anything is a delusion. The system itself is morally bankrupt. Which is why I don’t think that a non-vote is necessarily a protest, but an acceptance of that fact. Voting is far too often a distraction, a placebo, for people to feel that they’ve “done their civic duty”, only to become inert for the next 2 to 4 years. Worse still, most people who will vote for Obama will not have your insights. They vote for him out of some fanatic hero worship, or buying the DNC’s propaganda wholesale, or “FOTA” (fear of the alternative). It’s nonsense.

It’s not just about Romney or the right NOT winning. It’s about taking a moral stand against the things that Obama has done wrong. This isn’t just about him not living up to his campaign promises – those were BS, anyway – but what he has done below and beyond those promises. Extrajudicial assassination sets a nasty precedent, passing indefinite detention during New Years (strategically so most of the sheep didn’t notice), the ongoing drone wars against Pakistan, Yemen, Libya. Taking credit for “ending the Iraq War”, when our imperialist corporate PMCs are still there, and the only reason the main body of our troops isn’t is because Iraq’s government took a stand. That wasn’t his victory to claim. And Afghanistan, just like it was for the soviets, and pretty much everyone who ever tried to colonize it – is a disaster. Why are we there again? The Taliban? But wasn’t that just because they were hiding bin Laden? He’s dead now, so…

And speaking of him. This whole disgusting thing of creating and supporting a narrative of murder celebration. Bin Laden is – was – horrible, granted, but it made me sick to see a bunch of people chanting “USA USA!” and cheering about a man being murdered. And not once since 9/11 was the national dialogue about “WHY were we attacked?” No introspection, no reflection, about maybe – MAYBE – it being US imperialism. And Obama supports that hideous non-reasoning. But hey, at least he didn’t say “Freedom fries”, right? Please.

Bowing down to the Israeli government and the Zionist lobby, maintaining the bloated, inefficient, horrendous public school “race to the top” standardized testing for money nonsense, passing a right-wing written, corporate sponsored health care plan that mostly benefits the health insurance companies.

Kowtowing to corporate interests, renewing the Bush tax cuts, having the “audacity” to browbeat and condescend to black folks at churches and the CBC meeting with the “bootstraps” mantra, while at the same time having depthless pockets for the corporate elites. Raking in all the benefits of support from white liberals assuaging their guilt or proving something to themselves that their voting for a black president means something – while at the same time avoiding or downplaying critical discussions of race. And this coming from a guy who studied UNDER Derrick Bell of all people!

And he’s such a Manchurian candidate. He’s effectively disabled the majority of critical discussion amongst black voters, who at the height of their disillusionment would rather believe in some false icon, than mobilize. Malcolm X would be disgusted, watching all these folks cry and cheer and delude themselves. I’ll accept the significance of a symbolic victory for those older folks who lived through Jim Crow, but a symbolic victory is only a blip in time, and has no bearing on reality for the long term.

I mean, really, this guy is WRONG on just about everything, and the left just lets him get away with it because “Well, at least he’s not Bush/McCain/Romney!” WTF is up with our standards in this country? Is the bar really that damn low?

If I were going to vote, and I might, then it’d be for Jill Stein. If we don’t seriously start considering options outside of the Corporate False Dichotomy, then we might as well not bother to vote at all.

As a counterpoint, too, maybe a Romney victory – maybe if things get so unbearably bad – people will finally do something about it. Occupy happened under Obama, so maybe it needs to be worse than him for a movement like that to reach critical mass.

I voted for Obama in 2008. I will NEVER make that mistake again. Would sooner light the ballot on fire and then stomp it to ash.

Here’s my reasoning. I’m a social movement analyst, forced into that position by the rise of the right in the 80s. What I’ve found is that social movements on our side don’t necessarily form when things get worse or when things get better. Sometimes, a growing economy with more opportunity will ignite a social movement. Sometimes horrible circumstances do. History tells us that it’s unpredictable. So, I’m not saying we should vote for Obama and that’s it. I’m saying we should choose the lesser of two evils because 1) it buys us time, 2) it preserves political space, because as much as Obama has been a problem, he’s still, generally speaking a liberal, which means again that he’s a problem, but that an Obama administration is less likely to more aggressively, though just as certainly, constrain political space for organizing, 3) in that space and in that time we need to try to figure out what to do.

I’m a person who grew up poor. I benefited from certain social programs. I don’t have a college degree. But, the opportunities I have had as a result of things like CETA (a Carter administration program) allowed me to create a platform to speak from. Having that platform, I’m going to choose on the side of people like me for whom a $369 food stamp allotment is better than a $99 one, and vote for the candidate that’s likely to choose the former. But is that the solution? No, it’s a tactic. One that’s meant to provide some space for us to look at alternatives and formulate a strategy. My sense is that we have a certain amount of vision, though a relatively unspecific one, and some tactics, but no strategic in between.

As a result, I see a lot of brilliant critiques but, for very good historical reasons, the rise and dominance of neo-liberalism in the midst of the cold war among them, we don’t have solutions. I’m trying to ask that we do what we can to create enough political space for us to start to discuss real strategies and solutions. I see brilliant critique, but the follow-up to those critiques, while gratifying to me intellectually, don’t feel like they are grounded in a strategy that can support actions that will actually reposition us politically and create the political space necessary for us to guerilla ourselves (if you’ll forgive the phrase) us into a more powerful position.

I spent part of the 80s and a good part of the 90s fighting the right. Those guys are the same folks who have taken over the Republican Party and aspire to use it to move their agenda. During those years, I saw up close what they are about. They followed me around the mid-west with gerbil cages shouting “free the gerbils” because i was speaking against anti-lgbt ballot measures. They harassed me, broke into my home, vandalized my home, threatened me, and attempted to assault me. I studied their ideology in order to determine whether they were marginal or potentially more dangerous. I concluded that they were more dangerous than most imagine them to be. Whatever we think of what’s going on now, and yes, it is evil, fascism is a distinct and different kind of force and movement. Believe it or not, it can get much, much worse, and in ways that level all resistance.

But I get your critique and I’m sorry if you’re disappointed. I also really appreciate your comments and hope people will read them. Yes, the guy is wrong on almost anything. But, he’s just a guy. The problem is the structures the produce guys like him and constrain what they can do. So, I’m not endorsing him. I’m trying to figure out how to get us to where we need to go.

So, if you’re not voting for Obama is 2012, that’s a choice you should make. But, I’m sincerely interested in knowing, what will you do instead? If you’ve got a good plan, I’m all for it! I would also love to hear what you have in mind in all respect and sincerity. Thanks again.

I’ve had a number of discussions with like-minded folks on this, and one of the conclusions we came to was that change cannot come from even participating in this farce of a democracy. It has to all be done on a “local” level, so to speak – changing the small things that are within our own power to change, rather than relying upon these huge and unwieldy systems.

As an example, rather than trying to change the school system, create or work for a non-profit that’s operating within that system or outside of it, and counter the toxicity that exists in those spaces. You’ll never change the minds of self-interested would-be-politician school administrators, so just work directly with the kids, help them realize their situation, and how to adapt.

Another strategy is to “vote” with your dollar. Withdraw any support from businesses or organizations that do not bolster, or worse, undermine a social justice agenda. In other words, stop shopping at Walmart, or at McDonalds, or having a bank account with BoA or Wachovia. Build more community gardens, open the lines of communication between local farms and urban populations, promote CSAs – which could feed several families for really cheap.

Rather than petitioning Walmart or Target or whoever to stop supporting the campaign of Politician X, who has proven to be a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist jerk – just STOP SHOPPING at those places and support businesses who don’t put their money into gross institutions like that. Those businesses don’t care about petitions, and neither do politicians.

In general, what I’m saying is that we have to create small, local, safe spaces for ourselves and our ideas and just wait out the inevitable – INEVITABLE! – collapse of the Empire around us.

I sure hope you’re right. I know a lot of people who have opted for this strategy in what we used to call the Third World, especially Central America. A very good friend of mine has a project in El Salvador based exactly on this principle and that she came around to after having been a revolutionary and then an exile after the assassination of Romero. She used to tell me that I had to “be the revolution.” That strategy of prefigurative socialization and horizontalism is, I think, a very good idea. I just wonder if we can’t do both things at once to try to preserve the political space for those opportunities to build alternatives.

Thanks for writing this. Terrific food for thought and really good thinking that I hope a lot of folks will read!

If the POTUS was not trying to change things they would not be fighting so hard against him. Voting a straight Democratic ticket would allow for more leverage. I believe that the greater good wins out in the end. They have to be allowed to TRY. We realize that if the Repblican agenda that was hidden were allowed to come, would be desaster for 95% of us; why not give the left an oppertunity. If we think about it what have we got to lose? Like you I will take my chances with Obama and the rest of the Dems. Vote straight Democrat.

I find myself agreeing both with Scot and Kermit here. But I also wanted to acknowledge one factor here: emotion. Many of us progressives are downright furious with the Obama administration for all of the reasons articulated by Kermit. I was NOT one of those who expected much from the Obama presidency, but I expected more. Full disclosure: I understand the delicate tension in this election especially in my role as an immigration rights activist. I am well aware that having an undocumented student speak during the Democratic National Convention was seen as a “bold, risky” move by the Democrats and know well that the Republicans have allied themselves with the reactionary and racist Kris Kobach, the architect of some of the worst anti-immigrant policies of the past few years. But I am also deeply resentful of the administration deporting so many of my friends and allies and separating a record number of families.

In my heart, I feel like Jill Stein is the best candidate and some of that has to do with my disgust at so many of Obama’s policies. However, I am well aware that I have a certain privilege and that I know that Republican policies will hurt poor people in a much more significant way than Obama’s so I want to try and keep my emotions out of it and indeed endorse “the lesser of two evils” because of this.

I think this election will cause much needed soul searching in progressive circles. Nice posts, the both of you. Peace.

It bothers me that people would rather wait for the “Empire to crumble.” Alot of people subscribe to the belief that with the downfall of capitalism, “real” change will occur. I’m sorry, but the Empire ain’t going nowhere. This administration has done some wack stuff, and I know that it is particularly hard for Black leftists / liberals to critique him and his administration without being publicly eviscerated (look at what happened to Tavis Smiley & Cornel West when they critiqued Obama’s lack of interest in addressing policy directly affecting Black Americans). I also agree that the notion of getting “us” in to affect change is flawed. I’m pretty sure I’ve had multiple versions of this conversation before, and it always culminates at an impasse. The problem with not voting and working on local levels, in my view, is that most people aren’t going to do that, so while that may prove effective on a personal level, on a wider scale it won’t do too much. So many people benefit from social services and if the right wins this election, that shit is gonna be GONE. That is scary. And it’s great to talk about non-profits and grassroots and choosing to spend your money elsewhere, and maybe we should, but there’s also an amount of privilege, I think, inherent in some of these suggestions. Everybody can’t afford to do that. And people aren’t going to. And the reason I keep mentioning “other people” is because I am concerned about our collective future. And like it was said, if voting for Obama opens a little teeny space, I think it’s worth going to the polls in November. I don’t know, I’m probably a masochist or something, but change, for me, isn’t defined by a huge explosion of reform. The most revolutionary and enduring alterations in history have been characterized by bursts and bumps of transformation. I think the work that needs to be done will always be characterized by the rise and fall of morale and bursts of ardent clarity. I don’t know. It kind of pisses me off that people can sit around and not vote. I guess its none of my business, and of course your choice is your choice, but it makes me want to scream. By the way, I’m not knocking a sustained investment in non-profits or grassroots organizations or anything. I think that’s important and for most of my working life, I’ve been in a non-profit of some sort. I just think if I’m gonna be here, if I’m gonna stay here, I have to involve myself in the political process–in all the ways I possibly can. By the way, a very similar conversation about Obama occurred on Democracy Now! between Michael Eric Dyson and Glen Ford, a member of a Black leftist organization (I forget the name) who will not be voting this year. It was a great conversation. If you YouTube it it will come up, if anyone’s interested in checking it out.

I think we should form a club for masochists. I, too, am a glutton for punishment when it comes to this stuff. Thanks for the great comments and for keeping the discussion lively. I’ll definitely go find that Democracy Now! convo.

I’m a government employee who came out of addiction, sex trafficking and dv. It took me over 20 years to get where I am today but it looks like electing Romney is electing suffering for anyone who is already struggling.
If at the end of the day we are all- as Richard Twiss puts it” Ethnocentric, narrow minded with limited vision” then I would rather have a person in office who will listen and move like Obama- than someone who has lived a very priviledged life and shows no interest in understanding how much the rest of us are struggling.
As a Native American woman who has a fully established political analysis on race and the lies on which this country was founded it is easy to see that electing someone other than Obama because he didn’t clean up the massa’s plantation fast enough is latte liberalism at it’s finest- in other words a manifestation of racist micro aggression and at the same time cutting off one’s nose to spite their face- only people with the privilege to reach in their wallet and be able to afford a new one would think that way.

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