A friend tweeted a resolution not to vote for President in 2012; I’ll avoid citation to save him from the trolls. His concerns center around Obama’s embrace of the targeted killing of terror suspects without any suitable juridical process. These concerns are reasonable. I think — I hope — that history will look back at the events of the last ten years with a shudder. It’s undoubtedly grim.
I do not at all want to diminish his concerns; indeed, the purpose of this blog post is mostly to share the analogy that was the fruit of a meditation on those concerns, which I think any reasonable person would share. But I should make clear where I stand from the outset. My position is that it is irresponsible for “beautiful soul” reasons to act as though a vote is to be an expression of one’s own personal political beliefs. That’s the sort of thing I did as an eighteen year-old. A vote is a much more Hegelian expression of one’s dissolution into the polity, an oscillation across the divide from quality to quantity and back. It’s not about you. Not at all.
It’s not even about “choice.” To hear all these lefties critique electoral politics as consumerism, as the adoption of a subjective attitude centered on choice, and then propose instead that we counter that by not voting: …well, I’ll be blunt. That’s a precritical stance. So much for the fucking dialectic, right? Presupposing for the moment that we all accept that the space of the political is deeper and broader than the sphere of the electoral, how, exactly, has the withheld vote carried these non-voting lefties past the impasse of choice? What great emancipatory possibilities do you see from your new critical standpoint sulking in the corner?
(Seriously, though: if you see some, let me know. Until then, I’m planning to vote.)
It makes me mourn the state of critical theory education in this country. With that rant out of the way, though, I want to turn to the analogy that prompted this post.
In California and likely elsewhere, there is a well-documented relationship between the parole board and the Governor. The Governor has the ability to overturn the recommendations of the board as to which prisoners should be freed. In principle, this means that an elected representative of the people has a say on these important decisions. But in practice, this produces a situation in which extremely few prisoners are ever paroled. The governor, more directly accountable to the voters, is necessarily more risk averse than s/he probably should be: Schwarzenegger got a lot of attention for overturning something like eighty percent of the parole board’s recommendations. If a paroled criminal were to commit a serious crime, well, you can already hear the attack ads, can’t you?
Now, the thing is this: California paroles a number of criminals routinely, upon release. These peoples’ recidivism rate is high, around 70 percent. But those whom the parole board has examined and reviewed? Their recidivism rates are quite low, around 1 percent. Right?
I think a similar effect is at work with respect to targeted killing. Now, I am not a pacifist. I don’t think it’s unimaginable that there could be a legitimate reason for a state to kill someone. Shit gets real out here on these streets: life is conflictual. Decent people see this as regrettable.
But it does not follow that the government should kill everyone we think might pose a threat to the United States. So we need to set up a decision-making process that errs on the side of letting people live. Presidents are too accountable to the bloodthirsty electorate to get these decisions right: like the governors of California, presidents have a structural impediment to doing a good job on that question. Presidents will get this wrong not because they are unaccountable, but because they are: they are accountable to the worst attributes and tendencies of the electorate.
And I don’t want to hear any guff about how democracy is incompatible with this sort of atrocity. An honest look at the American nineteenth century should disabuse any but the most blinkered of such a ludicrous notion. Executive summary: Andrew Jackson, the man who ‘democratized’ the Presidency, is also the man most responsible for the popular and genocidal Indian Removal Act. Representative democracy at work.
Obama, for me, has been an interesting test case. I see him as an intelligent, capable, decent man, who is sincerely trying to do the best he can. As an individual, he’s probably about as good as we’re ever likely to do under our current electoral arrangements. This is not to say he’s infallible: not at all. Rather, he’s a test of the system — it’s not the President, it’s the Presidency. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
In practical terms, then, this means that we need the Supreme Court to take this out of the Executive Branch’s hands; it’s not like President Hillary is going to do any better.
Between Romney and Obama, who’s more likely to nominate justices who will get this one right? Yeah. So vote.