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White House photo by Pete Souza.

An Open Letter to Fellow Leftists: Please Support President Obama’s Reelection

On LA Progressive's pages, I have read many articles and commentaries which threaten not to support President Obama’s reelection. Although I distrust political labels, I consider myself a liberal and progressive, and thus a leftist, but I differ from some of you in several ways.

First, I embrace an ethics that is heavily consequentialist. A consequentialist would not say, “it is always wrong to lie.” What if a Nazi asked you if you were hiding a Jew during World War II? A consequentialist would consider the consequences of his/her actions, whether it be lying or voting in November and let that affect his/her decision.

I understand and admire some people who take a different approach (even during World War II) and have written at length on one of them, pacifist Dorothy Day. Her approach to ethics stressed more the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of an act. But I side more with various thinkers like Max Weber​, Isaiah Berlin​, and Reinhold Niebuhr​ (Obama’s favorite theologian) who advocated a more consequentialist ethics. These three men also took what they considered a realistic approach to politics and recognized the importance of compromises and toleration.

This did not mean ignoring the importance of political passion and pressure. Weber wrote that “devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone.” And Niebuhr wrote: “Political strategy, therefore, always involves a combination of coercive and persuasive factors. . . . The welfare of society demands that enough social intelligence and moral idealism be created to prevent social antagonism from issuing in pure conflict and that enough social pressure be applied to force reluctant beneficiaries of social privilege to yield their privileges before injustice prompts to vehemence and violence.”

Pull Quote Reinhold Neibuhr-Optimized

He applied these ideas already in 1932 to the black struggle for justice. He declared, “The Negro will never win his full rights in society merely by trusting the fairness and sense of justice of the white man. . . . Neither will the Negro gain justice merely by turning to violence to gain his rights. . . . If he is well advised he will use such forms of economic and political pressure as will be least likely to destroy the moral forces, never completely absent even in intergroup relations, but which will nevertheless exert coercion upon the white man’s life.”

Considering these words and Niebuhr’s strong influence in Protestant circles, it is not surprising that he had a strong influence on Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In his famous April 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

On April 13, 1970, two years after King’s assassination, the editor of the journal Christianity and Crisis wrote to Niebuhr: “Let me tell you that Andy Young told me recently that in the quiet hours when he and Martin King would sit and talk that Martin always said he was much more influenced by you and Paul Tillich [another important Protestant theologian] than by Gandhi and that the nonviolent technique was merely a Niebuhrian stratagem of power. Enough said!”

Pull Quote Reinhold Neibuhr2-Optimized

For workers, Niebuhr also advised pressure tactics because “the group which is able to wield the most economic and political power really determines its [the state’s] policies.”

The advocacy of various forms of pressure by Niebuhr and the employment of nonviolent pressure tactics by Gandhi and King all suggest that among the masses and non-politicians, political wisdom often calls for more partisanship and passion and less compromise than for politicians, who often must compromise to advance the common good.

Gandhi and King were not modern-day politicians, but more akin to the Biblical Jewish prophets who attacked the evils of their day. These two modern prophets displayed the “prophetic charisma” that Weber believed was helpful to challenge an increasingly rationalized and bureaucratic state.

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More recently, Cornel West has emphasized the importance of prophetic action within the political realm. He asks, for example, “Can prophetic religion, in all of its various forms, mobilize people, generate levels of righteous indignation against injustice—not raw rage at persons, not ad hominem attacks—can we put pressure on President Obama? He’s listening to technocratic elites in his economic team who have never had any serious concern with poor people and working people.” Without necessarily agreeing with all that West states, his stress on moral fervor against injustice seems appropriate.

So I applaud the passion and pressure that many of you, my fellow leftists, demonstrate in fighting for such noble ideals as peace, equality, freedom, and justice. And I recognize that President Obama has not always pursued these goals as passionately as you would like. But our roles as private citizens and his as president are different. Politicians must always remember that politics is, as Bismarck once stated, “the art of the possible.”

As John Kennedy wrote in his Profiles in Courage:

“We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not of principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves. We can resolve the clash of interests without conceding our ideals. And even the necessity for the right kind of compromise does not eliminate the need for those idealists and reformers who keep our compromises moving ahead. . . . Compromise need not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents.”

We, as private citizens, can and should apply pressure. The president often must compromise if he (or, hopefully some day, she) desires to advance the common good.

Has President Obama often perfectly balanced his desire for justice and the need to compromise? Undoubtedly not. Like all of us, he is an imperfect creature. But as I hope to demonstrate in a forthcoming essay, “Barack Obama and Political Wisdom,” he admires political wisdom and often demonstrates it.

In 1968, for the Democratic nomination I first supported Robert Kennedy and then, after his tragic assassination, Eugene McCarthy. But after Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, I voted for him against Richard Nixon in the November election. Some of my leftist friends refused to vote for him and instead wrote in McCarthy—in California he received more than 20,000 write-in votes.

Even then, I took the more consequentialist position I still do: a vote for McCarthy (he ran again as a third-party candidate in several later elections), Nader, or anyone else on the left rather than the Democratic candidate often helps the Republicans. And whatever my reservations about the Democratic candidates, I thought they would advance the common good more than would the Republicans.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof reminds us that in 2000: “Many Democrats and journalists alike, feeling grouchy, were dismissive of Al Gore and magnified his shortcomings. We forgot the context, prided ourselves on our disdainful superiority—and won eight years of George W. Bush.” He concludes, “This time, let’s do a better job of retaining perspective. If we turn Obama out of office a year from now, let’s make sure it is because the Republican nominee is preferable, not just out of grumpiness toward the incumbent during a difficult time.”

I think Kristof is correct. So I ask you, my fellow leftists, do you really think any of the Republicans likely to win their party’s nomination would further our ideals and the common good more than Obama? Do you think, for example, a Romney, Santorum, or Gingrich would nominate Supreme Court justices more to your liking?

walter moss

Walter Moss

Walter G. Moss