The Picking-a-President Dilemma

Many Americans struggle with the moral and practical issue of whether to vote for someone who may be the better choice to be President but who is still far from perfect. With another upcoming election, Lawrence Davidson suggests some guidelines to follow in deciding what to do.

By Lawrence Davidson

Soon it will be presidential voting time again in the United States. That four-year cycle comes to us with the regularity of a returning comet, accompanied by a shroud of campaign fog that makes a guessing game of discerning fact from fiction when it comes to political promises.

A hefty minority have opted out of this process. Thus, if history runs consistent, when the designated day in November arrives, between 38 and 40 percent of America’s eligible voters will automatically (without even thinking about it) stay away from the polls. Voting appears not to be part of their local culture. They obviously do not think the results touch them in a personal way, or they feel their vote is meaningless, or they see the candidates as irredeemable liars not to be taken seriously.

Gilbert Stuart's portrait of President George Washington

The behavior of this sizable minority is not in doubt. But there is yet another group of eligible voters whose actions in November are in doubt. These are people who are regular voters, but are now so put off by their usual party candidate that they refuse to support him. They will either not vote at all or cast a vote for a minor third party.

Back in 2000 and again in 2004, when George W. Bush stood for election, a good number of moderate Republicans suffered a voting dilemma of this sort. Seeing the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller (whatever those on the Left might think of these folks) taken over by a proven neo-con screwball like Bush Jr. must have made many of them hesitate to vote in their usual fashion. Maybe that’s why the elections were so close that only a series of fraudulent maneuvers got W. elected.

This year an unknown number of progressive Democrats might feel they are facing a similar dilemma. The level of disappointment with Barack Obama among progressives is palpable. He has carried on his predecessor’s attack on civil liberties, bailed out the banks instead of jailing the bankers, failed to fight for a public option to healthcare, kowtowed to the Zionists, and used drones to kill (mostly) civilians. That is just a partial list of complaints.

One can counterbalance this with a list of good things that Obama has done (withdrew from Iraq, endorsed gay marriage, restored stem cell research, etc.), or argue that at least some of the bad things were a consequence of Republican roadblocks. Still, for those on the progressive end of the Democratic spectrum, Obama is a profound disappointment.

So what do you do? Seek out the Green Party and vote for its candidate, Jill Stein, or boycott the polls altogether? Are such responses to the voting dilemma good ideas?

Well, let’s take a look at recent history. Robert Parry of explored this question by looking at the presidential election of 1968. In that year, amidst a worsening war in Vietnam, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection. There was strong progressive support for the party’s anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, but his candidacy failed on the Democratic convention floor and the party nominated Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a man who was closely identified with the war effort.

His Republican rival would be Richard Nixon, a duplicitous and dishonest fellow who was also paranoid and egocentric to a fault. Prior to the election Nixon had secretly encouraged the South Vietnamese not to join in Johnson’s efforts to open peace negotiations with North Vietnam. After the election he would expand the war into Laos and Cambodia. Ultimately, Nixon self-destructed with the Watergate scandal.

Parry interviewed Sam Brown, a prominent progressive of that time who served as Eugene McCarthy’s Youth Coordinator. When Humphrey became the Democratic candidate and refused to disown an increasingly disastrous war, Brown and those like him faced their voting dilemma.

Humphrey’s supporters sought to bring these progressives back into the fold by arguing, “Humphrey is a good guy, trust us.” That went over like a lead balloon and the Democrats lost an unknown number of antiwar voters. Perhaps Nixon would have won anyway, but the situation certainly hurt Humphrey’s chances for election.

Today, Sam Brown “is not proud” of the fact that in 1968 he “cast his ballot for a minor third-party candidate as a throwaway vote.” He sees his action as a de facto assist to Nixon’s campaign

Brown has his own personal history to look back at and that helps shape his present perspective. Not everyone has this experiential background, nor do many bother to research the past for guidance in a moment of present and personal political crisis. Given this situation it may be a better approach to consider a few questions that might help resolve the voting dilemma.

1. Is our choice between a candidate motivated by ideology and one motivated by political pragmatism?

A. For instance, when George W. Bush was elected, the nation got a president motivated by a mixture of aggressive ideologies. He was/is a Christian fundamentalist, a “free market” deregulator, a neo-con warmonger, and a government minimalist. These orientations often superseded pragmatic politics and led Bush to resist compromise.

You could put a million people on the mall in Washington, D.C. to shout their disagreement with his policies and he would just dismiss them as a “focus group.” Were his Democratic political opponents similar? Or were they more pragmatic politicians open to influence and pressure from various constituencies, including progressives? How do Romney and Obama compare in this regard?

2. What is the probability of a candidate taking the country into another war?

A. For instance, presidents such as Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were quite willing to lie through their teeth in order to involve the country in foreign wars of dubious legitimacy. Lyndon Johnson made his misleading Tonkin Gulf speech to Congress which led to the Resolution that expanded the U.S. presence in South Vietnam.

Reagan was constantly at war, directly or indirectly, in Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East and most Americans did not even know it until 241 U.S. marines died in Beirut and the Iran-Contra Affair broke in the press. Bush and his advisers, of course, manufactured the “intelligence” which “justified” the invasion of Iraq.

B. Barack Obama ended American occupation of Iraq only to shift resources to Afghanistan. He has set a deadline for withdrawal from the Afghan morass even as he escalates the use of drone warfare. While pushing damaging sanctions against Iran, he has so far resisted pressure to attack that country or openly support Israeli ambitions to do so.

C. Romney has pledged to follow the lead of Israel when it comes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and there is no doubt that Israeli leaders dream of fighting Iran with American support. Also, there is the fact that Romney’s foreign policy advisers are some of the same neo-cons who served W.

So, given a choice between Romney and Obama, which one is more likely to attack Iran? Remember, the question addresses probabilities. Either candidate, if elected, may or may not do so, but which one appears more likely to go to war?

3. What is the probability of either candidate taking seriously issues of social justice?

A. Again, there is no guarantee either way, but is one of the candidates apparently more inclined to support such issues? Here, statements on record favor Obama when it comes to women’s concerns, to the poor, to the healthcare crisis, to gay rights, and the like.

B. Which one will protect civil liberties? Probably neither will.

The list of questions given above is far from complete. For instance, an important consideration is whether such a list should include the perceived personal consequences of giving or withholding support? Do I commit some sort of moral breach if I vote for someone I have come to disrespect? Well, it depends on how you see the very act of casting a vote. Is it an act that refers to you as an individual, or to you as a member of a community?

If it is the former, it is your self-image that is at stake. You have to take a stand and live with yourself thereafter. If it is the latter, it is your concern for the fate of the community that is primary. That orientation may lead you away from thinking in terms of moral positions. Instead, it may lead you to accept the need for compromise.

Either way you act, you run the real risk of dissatisfaction. Like Sam Brown, you might live to regret a decision that felt right at the time. Or, you might vote for the candidate you believe will do the least harm to your community, and have to live with a nagging sense of cognitive dissonance.

This analysis has not been written to tell anyone what to do. Instead, it is an effort to clarify a real-life issue that simply does not have an easy answer. As of yet, I am not sure what I will do. However, it has crossed my mind that, if I do decide to vote for President Obama, I will enter the polling station with a clothespin on my nose.

Post Script: Richard John Stapleton — in a short piece entitled “Voting: Duty, Privilege or Right?” — discusses growing support for a “Voters’ Rights Amendment (USVRA) to the Constitution that [among other things] deprives corporations of constitutional rights and denies the equation of campaign donations and free speech.” More details are available at

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.


19 comments for “The Picking-a-President Dilemma

  1. July 13, 2012 at 16:25

    Let’s look at this another way.
    I had the pleasure of working until the wee hours of the morning with some Jill Stein volunteers attempting to get Jill Stein on the November ballot in Illinois. Many of these volunteers came from out of state, because there evidently weren’t enough individuals in Illinois who were fed up enough with the bipartisan status quo to get off their butts and be citizens. The hard work of the volunteers I met may have put Stein on the ballot in Illinois; the Green candidate is expected to be on the ballot in at least 45 states, and all through the work of dedicated citizen volunteers. I also have had the pleasure of working here in Il’s 5th Congressional, where a similar small group of dedicated citizens put forth the effort required of them as citizens and put an excellent Green candidate on the November ballot. So now voters in my congressional district, and throughout most of the country, have another choice. What’s to stop all those so-called liberals and progressives from going into the voting booths in November and choosing Jill Stein?

    It’s ludicrous to say that there are no ‘realistic’ or ‘viable’ choices available. There are, and if there aren’t you can get off your butt and make them. The two corporate parties have made it more difficult in most cases, but they haven’t yet made it illegal.

    My point is that all this hand-wringing and arcaneness over Citizens United and the bipartisan stranglehold is just complex excuse-making for the real problem, which is a tragically corrupt electorate. The majority of U.S. citizens are self-serving, narrow-minded cowards, and they wouldn’t touch real progress or change if it were handed to them on silver platters. No matter how many of these erudite liberal bloggers try to rationalize it, the corruption of the electorate– liberal, conservative, and, yes, ‘moderate’– is the real culprit. We have the democracy we deserve. If we deserved better, we’d go out and get it.

  2. George W Obama
    July 9, 2012 at 12:05

    “One can counterbalance this with a list of good things that Obama has done (withdrew from Iraq, endorsed gay marriage, restored stem cell research, etc.)”.

    Obama wanted to keep troops in Iraq past Bush’s withdrawal date. It was only when the Iraqis refused immunity for US troops that Obama withdrew UNIFORMED troops. The uniformed troops were replaced with private mercenaries.

  3. July 8, 2012 at 21:20

    We can look at the question this way:

    Which of these statements do you most agree with?

    (a) Our present political system is basically functional; the question really is which party should be running it, and that is a meaningful choice.

    (b) Our political system is fundamentally broken; it doesn’t matter who’s “elected”, the same people will actually be calling the shots.

    If you believe (a), then life is simple: you pick the one of the two candidates/parties that you like the most, work like hell to get them elected, and if you lose you go into the Loyal Opposition and keep slogging till the next election.

    If you believe (b), though…

  4. Carax
    July 8, 2012 at 02:22

    Don’t kid yourself. The entire presumption we should be even picking a president is false. Voting for either candidate will NOT make a difference. By voting you’ll only be participating in the crime. If no one came to the polls, the entire political system could be declared illegitimate, which it is, and news systems could be created where the interest of the people would actually be represented.

    • Robert Schwartz
      July 8, 2012 at 10:35

      How low would it have to be to be reported as illegitimate?

      Consider the 1994 Texas Gov race which put GWB in the office. The percentage of registered voters participating was just 50.87% and that isn’t the whole story. The percentage of participants in relation to the voting age population, instead of registered voters was only 33.62%. (figures from: )

      Now, GWB reportedly (by,_1994 ) received 53.48% of the vote tally. That comes out to a little more than half of 50.87% of the registered voters or maybe more importantly a little more than half of the approximately third (33.62%) of the voting age population that bothered to show up.

      So GWB received the consent of a bit more than one-sixth of the voting age population in the State of Texas to assume the office which then propelled him into the presidency.

      How low does participation have to go in order to challenge legitimacy?

  5. Paul G.
    July 8, 2012 at 01:37

    “The Picking-a-President Dilemma”, at first I missed the most obvious flaw in the article, the assumption the title makes. Guess what folks, we don’t pick the President the wealthiest campaign donors do. Starting with the primaries, it is the candidate, who most ingratiates himself with the party powers that be that facilitate opening the spigots, that prevails. El Clinton had a good handle on this. Then we are presented with two remarkably untalented-except at lying-candidates who will present themselves primarily with paid TV advertising concocted by PR minions whose skill would make Joseph Goebbels blush with envy. The media hacks will respond with superficial interrogation of the fortunate two; except for Fox News which will openly propagandize for the Repugnants. Then the three generations of Americans, who have been trained by Madison Avenue to respond like Pavlov’s dog to television commercials, will go merrily to the polls thinking they are making an educated choice. A choice, said pols will remind us, our dead heroes died to preserve-isn’t “freedom” wonderful.

  6. July 7, 2012 at 16:52

    There’s no substantial difference between Obama and Romney. They are both servants of the plutocracy.

    People who do not wish to vote for either lawless, authoritarian, warmongering, neoliberal tyrant, can support either Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson.

    Oh, and let me plug a contender for the book of the year: Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History (updated edition), available now from Haymarket Books for $16.

  7. Eddie
    July 6, 2012 at 23:15

    RE: Sam Brown’s “buyer’s remorse” – – conversely, how about the 10s of millions of we liberals whom experienced the same remorse when Bill Clinton betrayed our votes and pushed through NAFTA, welfare ‘reform,’ Balkanization/bombing, repeal of Glass-Steagall Act, the uncontrolled bubble, etc??

    And after seeing the way Gore became Clinton’s ‘poodle’, I’m not at all convinced that a President Gore wouldn’t have been coerced into attacking Iraq after 9/11. While it sounds crazy to say that now that he’s done his laudable work educating mainstream America on global warming, he didn’t become a semi-independent voice until he dropped his presidential aspirations, decided he wanted to continue to be in the spotlight, and came back to his environmentalism.

    As other critics have noted in prior comments to Bob Parry’s column’s promoting the ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ voting strategy, it’s in no way clear how this approach would EVER result in ANY party feeling any compunction to take a significantly moral/ethical position – – – using that approach, they just have to (at least appear-to) kill/injure/impoverish slightly fewer individuals than the other party to get our vote. There’s ultimately never any necessity to STOP any of these things, just slightly diminish them or do them in new, ‘media-sexy’ ways to mask them. Additionally, if this became the accepted modus-operandi of progressives, why WOULD anyone bother to think any differently than Rahm Emmanual’s cynical statement noted above? If you’re not worried about a bloc of voters ever deserting you, you’ll focus on the undecideds and try to accommodate them at the expense of your locked-in voters (especially when there’s strong financial incentives to do so, as we have now).

    I’m not decided for whom I’ll vote for this year — BO or the Green candidate — but at least the Greens’ platform normally espouses the ideas I support, vs BO’s vague ‘hope’ talk and ‘reverse-bargaining’ with right-wingers. I’m coming to believe (especially after the failed gubernatorial recall here in WI last month) that ONLY when issues clearly & directly ECONOMICALLY affect them will US citizens take an interest, and then they will only choose a moral/ethical choice by accident. Author Morris Berman is starting to appear less a hopeless cynic and more a realist…

  8. Paul G.
    July 6, 2012 at 14:06

    I have quoted this before but since Consortium, a great source, keeps beating this putrid horse; I will again. That consummate Chicago style pol, Rahm Emmanual, when he was Obamascam’s Chief of Staff, replied to the criticism that the O had abandoned the ideals and efforts of the liberals and progressives that had voted and worked for him thusly: “What are they going to do? Vote Republican.”
    Vote all you want but you really don’t count. Ask yourself how many presidents have we had who were half decent human beings since 1960. Maybe Carter and JFK(who was withdrawing from ‘Nam just before he was shot). No they mostly represent more powerful forces than you or I can touch. The fact that each candidate will be spending over a billion dollars each to get elected says a lot, especially with Citizen’s United greasing the wheels.
    Looking at this as an either or, “lesser of two evils” choice leaves one stuck in a conundrum. To break out of that stuck logic ask yourself, do you want to reward and legitimize what is truly malfeasance and go along with Mr Emmanual’s illogic. Maybe when we start getting a succession of one term presidents these clowns will wake up; and realize they can’t take their supporters for granted.
    Comparing the present to the Humphrey/Nixon race doesn’t fly, that was before Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Committee made the party into Republican lite. Hubert’s biggest problem was he was a wimp. Obama’s biggest problem is he is a fraud and a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street and the Military Industrial Complex. He is a quantum leap downward from any Democrat who ran in the ’60’s. Republican Eisenhower was flaming liberal compared to him.
    I have no illusions about third parties, at least at the Presidential level. The winner take all system makes it impossible for third parties to survive effectively. If you look at history they either die off, get absorbed or putter along inconsequentially. Until we get some sort of proportional voting system they are toast.
    Personally I am writing in JFK, a dead president is better than the choice we have now, he stood up against the MIC, which is why he is dead. The only real hope is putting the Repugnants back in the minority in Congress.

    • F. G. Sanford
      July 6, 2012 at 17:32

      Thanks for reminding us all of Rahm Emanuel’s sarcastic betrayal. I had forgotten about that, but it should be sticking in everyone’s craw. Of all the forgotten campaign promises, have any of you read the latest news about the multi-million dollar GITMO refurbishments quietly being conducted? They include a $750,000 new soccer field. I’m not sure if that’s for the inmates or the residents. Yes, it’s a Caribbean paradise if you’re one of the “permanent party”, with beautiful beaches, terrific scuba diving, fantastic deep sea fishing, a fabulous club, and even a golf course. But the golf course, I admit, hasn’t been so green since Castro shut off the water. So, we spend millions of dollars annually on desalination, and the 24/7 air conditioning bill isn’t anything to sneeze at either. Yes, it’s rough duty, but somebody has to do it. People actually get stationed there, and try to extend their tours (Not the inmates-the military).

      I wonder how the residents of some of our gutted cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Camden, or Cleveland would feel if they could visit and find out what kind of hardships their tax dollars are used to overcome. I’m sure they’d understand. They’d forgive the present administration for NOT closing it in a New York minute…or would they? With all the electronic, drone, satellite, and cyber surveillance technology available today, there’s hardly a strategic need to be that close in order to keep tabs on a decrepit old fart (Castro). If Consortium News wants to do a REALLY REALLY GOOD expose, I would suggest a run-down on how much we pour into that bottomless money pit annually. That would REALLY shine a light on Government Minimalism, not to mention empty campaign promises. Regards to Detroit, Baltimore, Camden and Cleveland: I hope your AC is working fine.

  9. F. G. Sanford
    July 6, 2012 at 12:23

    I got stuck on a term while reading this article: “government minimalist”. Where does one get the idea that increased surveillance, increased incarceration, increased militarization, increased corporate manipulation, increased campaign spending, increased lobbying, especially by agents of foreign governments, increased media manipulation, increased prosecution of “whistle blowers”, expansion of military bases, increased secrecy and bigger tax breaks result in reduced government?

    Yes, I realize Bush was the “minimalist”, but by comparison, his minimalization looks, well…minimal. Sam Brown had buyers’ remorse, so we’re all supposed to think twice now, right? Here’s a story for you to consider. We attack a Pakistan military base and kill 24 (or some odd) Pakistani soldiers. Then, Pakistan shuts down our supply line through their territory because we won’t apologize. This costs the American taxpayers something like $100 Billion to fly in supplies, all because we won’t apologize. Then, Hillary goes to Geneva and meets with Lavrov (the adult in the room), and suddenly decides to apologize. So Pakistan re-opens the supply route.

    In the meantime, the “minimalist” whiners are fighting over food stamps and health care, which could have been significantly defrayed with that $100 Billion. So, in other words, everybody is OK with Fascist military face-saving and pissy-assed infantile diplomacy, but programs which actually benefit Americans are a “bone of contention”.

    Something REALLY WEIRD happened in Geneva, otherwise our “fingernails on the blackboard” chief diplomat wouldn’t have changed her screechy tune. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall. But Sam Brown’s regrets or not, I’m not voting for any of these incompetent Constitutional Deconstructionists. There comes a time when free thinking people have to stop lending legitimacy to the folly that our democracy has become: government by the lowest common denominator.

    • Dory in Az
      July 6, 2012 at 13:24

      Excellent response, F.G.!…I’m with you!!!!!!!

      • Esabi
        July 6, 2012 at 15:06

        I agree, too! A threshold number of people have to dare to stop voting for one of the two bad guys.

        It takes courage to opt out of a system that is for the most part rigged and not healthy, and try something new. Lots of work ahead. But well worth the effort if we can pull it off.

    • July 13, 2012 at 21:48

      We will rise when the progressive movements of America coalesce into one political movement, quickly morphosing into a political party, registered in all 50 states. Not likley this year– but, it may very well start this year because of the profound disgust we have for the degenerated American political system. Our opportunity is at hand……We lack media–we need expansive media……perhaps thru colleges and small, low wattage radio & TV, locally produced, yet, tied to the vast progressive network that is already inplace…(EvenAmyGoodman’s “DemocracyNow!” is heard on WLRN-NPR, SouthFlorida and the Keys ). …… Let’s call a convention for September 2012- let’s get rise! let’s get started!

  10. July 6, 2012 at 11:25

    This is a false comparison. Barack Obama is no Hubert Humphrey. HHH was a traditional Democrat. Barack Obama is a neo-liberal who tears down the New Deal and much of what the Democratic Party has stood for during the last seventy years. I changed my registration from Democratic to Green after 35+ years, and will happily vote Green this year.

    • Pprairie
      July 7, 2012 at 09:25

      With respect, under our system, it seems to me, you have happily and greenily just cast your vote for Mr. Romney.

      • Robert Schwartz
        July 7, 2012 at 18:33

        First off, you do not know what state Mr. Iacovelli resides and votes in, so you really can’t make the Florida/Raplph Nader argument with any seriousness.

        Secondly, that argument falls flat anyway, as the strategy of voting for the lesser evil candidate has produced a steady rightward momentum, even when candidates win who have a small “d” after their names. Clinton and Obama stand as examples.

        Third, if more voters would refuse to vote for War Criminals and hucksters, maybe we could alter the trajectory. As it is, it isn’t the third party voters that are the problem, rather it is the people who blindly allow the media to instruct them who the serious candidates are. If people would vote for the policies they would prefer to see enacted instead of who is raising the most money from scoundrels and banksters perhaps the choices would be very different.

        Fourth, only a vote for Romney is a vote FOR Romney. Given only a choice between today’s Democratic Party or today’s GOPhers, I’d elect to stay home. I will not offer my consent to either of these corrupt institutions. Someone brought up Rahm Emanuel’s quote about “What are they going to do? Vote Republican?”
        Let me remind all that he also called the left (not my words, his) “Fuckin’ Retarded.” He later apologised, not to the left, but to the mentally challenged who reject the “R” word.

        It is only by breaking the Dictatorship of the Duopoly that we are ever going to change things. And Pprarie, repectfully, (which is more than the DLC democrats will offer) you are part of the problem.

      • Kathleen
        July 9, 2012 at 12:58

        (3rd party? WE DON’T EVEN HAVE A 2ND PARTY!!!)

        So a vote for Jill Stein is a a vote for Romney? Would you use that same analogy if the “choice” were between Romney and Bush? No? Then why would you say that about someone who has proven himself to be more extreme than Bush?

        But your argument also fails on one extremely important point:

        If Republicans need low voter turn-outs to win elections then isn’t supporting Obama a sure-fire way to guarantee the low voter turn-out Romney needs to win? What was the unprecedented high voter turn-out, 2008 landslide all about if it wasn’t about getting rid of George Bush’s policies?

        In the last 3 years we have all watched Obama uphold and expand the ugliest policies of George Bush. So how did “Yes We Can” turn into “No We Can’t” get rid of George Bush policies?

        The “reality,” that we must vote for Obama, is in direct conflict with a much more real reality that if we do not get rid of Obama we WILL lose human rights, democracy, and the earth. It is not possible to disable corporate rule by supporting corporate rule. (Besides, if the “choice” really ends up being between death vs quicker death, then you’d better hope Romney wins because at least he’ll be the quicker kill!)

        We have not a damn thing to lose by supporting Jill Stein because we will definitely lose it all if Obama wins. Therefore a vote for Obama is worse than not voting at all.

        • Kathleen
          July 9, 2012 at 13:04

          oops! another part of my argument is that “lesser of two evils” elections always guarantee low voter turn-outs.

          (So what better way to guarantee the low voter turn-out that Romney needs to win than by supporting Obama as the only other choice?)

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