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Non-voters need results to vote, not scolding

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Matt and Sir Charles have a lot of angry words for progressive bloggers who are threatening not to vote for Obama if we don’t get a public option in health care, specifically “grow the fuck up”. The problem, however, is that they don’t link to any of these progressive bloggers, so that a reader like me can verify for herself where these threats are coming from and how valid they are. I haven’t actually read any blogger threatening not to vote in 2010 or 2012 in order to punish Obama or any Democrats; the most I’ve seen is lamentations that Ned Lamont lost and suggestions that this might be a wake-up call for the Lieberman voters. Matt links Greg Sargent blogging about a poll that shows that 1/3 of Democratic voters would be so demoralized by losing the public option that they may not bother to vote, but Greg’s not endorsing this attitude, just reporting on it. And Democratic politicians really should consider this attitude when making decisions; it’s possible that cutting out the public option could cost them seats. This is not a threat, but an observation. Democrats are not well-served by being lied to about their election prospects.

To be fair, Matt and Sir Charles are more admonishing these demoralized voters to grow the fuck up than anything else. As someone who still wakes up with screaming nightmares about the 2000 Florida election debacle, I can’t help but sympathize with that point of view. Punishing neoliberals by allowing a conservative to win basically fucked this country over in ways that we may still not recover from. But I’m not so sure that just getting angry will make much of a difference here. The people who are demoralized so much that they check out are probably not the same people writing or reading political blogs. They’re probably the least political of the bunch, the people who get no pleasure from the game and only want results. That’s why they’re the most likely to focus their ire on the nebulous “Democrats”—the more in the know you are, the more likely you are to realize that more Democrats are on the side of right than not on this issue, and that it’s a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans that are the main obstacle. It’s the people least interested in the details who are likely to say, “No matter who I vote for, my life doesn’t get any better, so why bother?” We’ve known all along that the greatest danger for Democrats is that they pass a bill so weak that the public at large doesn’t appreciate it. It’s when the public appreciates legislation that Democrats can really shine, because they can work to protect popular legislation against Republicans. But in order to do that, they have to pass it.

Pointing this out feels like a threat, and that seems mean, especially when a lot of Democrats are trying really hard to do the right thing. But it’s not a threat. It’s just the ugly truth, and it’s better to have it out on the table than to delude ourselves about it. Few people can make good decisions with less information, and I really don’t think that liberal Democrats, who have a tendency to want to see the best in people and be conciliatory much of the time, are really working in their or our best interests if they don’t understand how much the Democratic majority hangs in the balance if they fail.

I think it also is important for progressive bloggers, even those of us who vehemently disagree with those who sit out elections, to sympathize with the point of view of those voters. We’re not going to be able to come up with good suggestions on keeping them in the fold if we’re too angry at them to understand their point of view. Sure, it seems crazy to suggest that voting is too much work to be bothered if you perceive both parties as being wholly owned by corporate America, but that’s easy for those of us who have flexible schedules and are looking for an excuse to get out and about once in awhile to say. The same people who have the most immediate need for a public option or a Medicare buy-in are probably the people who don’t have the sort of high-esteem jobs where they can tell their boss they’re going to duck out to vote. As long as voting remains a one-day affair put in the middle of the week, the “voting’s easy!” thing needs to be dialed way back.

And then there’s the emotional cost. For a lot of people in America, the slide downhill of their fortunes has been going on so long that they’re feeling bereft and hopeless. And I think that Obama actually did give a lot of people the first taste of political hope they’ve had in their lifetimes. It’s easy for those of us who are cynical political bloggers to admonish people for seeing Obama as anything but a centrist Democrat, but he really did present himself on the campaign trail as a new FDR, someone who would be able to improve your life in solid, measurable ways during hard times. He seems like such a nice guy, too! So it was easy to believe. So it’s unfair that he’s getting dinged for what Joe Lieberman and other Senators are technically doing, but that’s just the way it goes when we’re talking about inevitable low information voters.

And while I do think that Sir Charles’ list of Obama’s achievements was really helpful to me, I don’t want to let him 100% off the hook for this debacle of health care reform, for two major reasons. One, it was Obama who insisted on making this entire thing “bipartisan”, which any fool could see what going to be an epic failure. What that goal did was not get any Republican votes, but it meant that Democrats came to the table with an already-compromised bill and a mindset to keep compromising, to get a single Republican vote and get that precious bipartisanship medal that counts for nothing in the real world. Voters are more interested in whether or not their health care improves, not whether or not there’s an R in the yay votes. If nothing else, the goal of bipartisanship meant that more time was spent on this bill than should have been, and gave opponents time to gather momentum. The other thing is, well, they aren’t so innocent in all this. Rahm Emanuel personally pressured Reid to give in to Lieberman. This is Obama’s fault. Reid has been fighting a pretty good fight on this—even shoving aside his anti-choice views to help kill anti-choice blowhard crap being attached to the bill—and he’s got the power to really make Lieberman pay for this bullshit. With Emanuel breathing down his neck to pass some weak ass bill, so that Obama can say that it was done, perhaps this situation would have looked much differently. So yes, I blame Obama for that. He needs to fire Emanuel and get someone who realizes that winning a victory is meaningless if the public at large doesn’t perceive any victory.

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As for the low-information voter, the list of Obama achievements that Sir Charles puts out is going to be the sort of thing that voter doesn’t know much about. The stimulus was big news, but unfortunately, all it did was slow down a disaster, and that’s harder for the low-information voter to wrap their heads around than a material improvement to their own fortunes or that of their neighbors. Financial regulation reform is something of a joke compared to the perception that the banks own the Obama administration, and certainly it’s not helpful when the administration is part of the bank bailout that is so completely unpopular. (And for good reason; high and low information voters alike agree that it’s fucked up to give the people who ruined our economy many times the amount of money it would have cost just to buy people’s fucking houses for them.) The draw down of Iraq troops is going to be overshadowed by the recommitment to wasting lives and money in Afghanistan. The rest are items that are interesting to high information voters, but not to people who tend to vote or not vote based on the hope that their vote personally matters to them.

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