Red Lines: A Fantasy in American Politics

Friedersdorf responds to critics of his recently viral piece, "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama."

In the Age of Obama, I find that Democrats -- especially self-described liberals and progressives -- are acting in ways that don't accord with the core values they previously espoused.

My piece spurred a lot of discussion about theories of voting. I explained that, for me, "some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying .... If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn't cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care."

In other words, certain things are just dealbreakers. ...

When pressed, most people who responded to my piece by touting a utilitarian model of voting couldn't bring themselves to apply it if it benefited an anti-Mexican racist who took pleasure in deporting illegal immigrants. Take the talented Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect, who wrote one of the most thoughtful critiques of my piece. He responded to my hypothetical by saying that he'd stay home rather than vote for Pretend Racist Obama or his opponent, acknowledging that his answer was "in tension" with his critique of my article. I pressed Brad DeLong, another critic, to answer the hypothetical. He proved understandably evasive.

I respect Conor's principled approach, and I wish it worked. But he undoubtedly understands why it won't: the most pernicious outrages in our political culture are ones observed, let alone considered worthy of concern, by very few people.

Drone strikes in rural Pakistan, enhanced interrogation (torture) in unnamed sites, militarized police, spying on private citizens, and a host of other concerns are issues that will most outrage the principled. They're also the ones that least concern the masses, and that won't be changing in the near future.

Conor's dealbreakers are out of sight, out of mind for most Americans. And frankly, if you asked most pundits their answer to this (as Conor did), their answer to these questions would better reveal their partisan loyalty than their real feelings.

I'll be neither the first, nor hopefully the last, to suggest to the infuriated, principled few that the road to restoring the America they desire won't be coming on a presidential ticket. Rather, it must be via the much difficult path of pressuring Washington from below. The relative consensus currently enjoyed in Washington was not built in an electoral cycle. It certainly won't be dismantled in less.

And although it's not fun to hear, either find more publicly visible dealbreakers, or put together arguments in a more populist, accessible manner.

Good luck. (Seriously)