Why Leftists Should Support Obama’s Reelection

obama purple lady

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.”

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!”

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.

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.”

walter mossI 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 G. Moss





  1. Maria Garcia says

    How good could a commentary piece be if it censors its very own readers from posting comments. This is exactly why President Barack Obama should not be president.

    • says

      Maria: Not sure what you mean by censorship. As stated in our comments policy, we do take down threats of violence, name-calling, and comments filled with foul language. I don’t recall that we did that on this article, but if so, refile you comment without those features and I imagine we’ll approve it as we do with the great majority of comments posted here.

      — Dick

  2. Maria Garcia says

    Dear Progressives, Liberals, leftist or whatever you wish to call yourself like the 99% we have been fooled by President Barack Obama whom represents none of us. The message was controlled by the media during his run for the White House and appointed by the elite before we knew him as Mr. Obama. No man walks in Washington towards the White House saying they’ll clean it up. Its not that easy. The mood of the nation was headed against Bush and Company and so a Black knight comes galloping in to rescue the master. I am one of those believers whom voted for Mr. Obama and like a wife whom after marriage and the honey moon wears off realizes the folly of marring this fool. Oh! How disappointed and I believed his “Hope and Change” what a crap of bull. He just finished signing the National Defense Authorization Act after saying he’ll veto it. There is nothing coming out of this man’s mouth worth believing, nothing. I say vote third party and dump him, if not impeach him outright. Do not trust him any further and give him credibility for he has none, other to support the corporate elite which empowered him. He is a puppet and bids his masters tune and if we fall prey by his convincing words we will all pay the consequences of this traitor’s vision.

    Folks these are not harsh words to describe this president, but the truth as he is not our President, but an imposter and a quack disguised as a President and protected by the mass media and congress. Every American citizen know what valuable except the president. Bring back our troops, end the wars, create jobs and imprison the thieves whom have robbed and ruined our economy. We want a National health program for all, clean energy, stop nuclear proliferation, stop deep oil drilling, stop deforestation, halt coal mining, etc and etc. He promised to close Guantanamo and end illegal surveillance yet he has done NONE! I ask everyone of you now if you had the chance of a life time what would you do first. Its not like we have a second chance global warming has over taken us and the ozone hole is pretty big and the birds and fish dieing by the thousands if not millions and how about our Japanese brothers and their nuclear disaster it no longer covered in the mainstream news. Why should it its not good news after millions of gallons of toxic radio active water have been dump into the ocean. Folks, I’m not one to believe in miracles, God or the Virgin Mary, but for the love of humanity and our beloved earth we’ve have better begin praying now or its over. Adios!

  3. Joseph Maizlish says

    To deal with Mr. Moss’ consequences question, without making any plea or recommendation about for whom to vote:

    The consequences for the people of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia (particularly the women of that country), Palestine (& Israel too), and likely many other lands will very likely be better if an anti-imperialist and non-militarist like Ron Paul is elected — not because a president can reconstruct all the policies, but because the “personal-ambition-firsters” who populate our politics will get the idea and turn flips. The prospects that this media will permit the advance of an anti-imperialist candidate are slim.

    But the outcry against Ron Paul’s opposition to the humane values progressive-liberal-etc. folks pride themselves/ourselves on is much more strident than the outcry against the opposition to those values put into deadly practice around the world by the Obama administration (and other administrations of whatever rhetorical style).
    That difference indicates a dangerous and even fatal imbalance.

    Let’s start reconstructing political consciousness by pursuing our values in a consistent way.
    One example of how: Instead of headlining our opposition to empire and wars with complaints about how economically harmful they are, let’s talk about the impermissibility of doing violence and endorsing oppression around the world on the speculation that someone out there doesn’t like us for some reason other than that they’re being exploited.

  4. Joe Weinstein says

    Like Moss I too am a consequentialist – and so are almost of the prior commenters.

    You have to judge: what is the more useful and important consequence: putting in Obama rather than someone else for 4 years, or confirming a pattern of rubberstamping a Dem incumbent, no matter his actual performance – which in this case for me is a an underpar mix of acceptable, knavish, foolish, wimpy, and downright incompetent.

    You should also judge the consequences of doing pre-vote as Moss does here – unconditionally endorsing Obama’s reelection now, no matter what happens – as versus at least waiting to see whether just possibly an unexpected alternative comes to pass – a real Dem will finally rising at the last minute, or a reasoning Gop like Huntsman, or a credible third party candidate. (Or better yet, not just waiting but actively helping to offer an alternative.)

    Besides being yet another consequentialist I am also a PhD mathematician – and I work in natural resource assessment, not just academic math. After disregarding the topic for a lifetime, a few years ago I finally did some elementary math pertaining to voting and consequences.

    I quickly found out that, in a mass vote, chances are negligibly infinitesimal that my vote will in fact decide the outcome. So for that consequence, my vote will be “wasted” NO MATTER HOW I vote.

    Chances may be greater but are still negligibly small – NO MATTER HOW I vote – that my vote will make a difference in regards another consequence: the mix of perceived issue-and-ideology ‘messages’ sent by all the voters.

    But what counts are the long-term consequences of a consistent totality of your actions and stances, not just of a one-time vote – especially in their impact in and on your family, friends, colleagues and communities.

  5. Bob G says

    I think the sophistry is on the side of those who are commenting here, suggesting that people should not vote for Obama because he is an imperfect vessel for their principles. They suggest that the alternative is to teach the Democratic Party that it can’t automatically expect leftist votes if it takes centrist (my word) positions. Why do I say that this is sophistry? It’s actually simple: The argument assumes that the Democrats have room to maneuver to the left and still have a chance at winning. Two centuries of experience suggest that this is not the case. I would argue a different model for our system: There are two choices both in the short run and in the medium run (ie: the next 4 years and the next 25 years). One is Republican rule, which transfers money to the rich, refuses to fund social and medical services, and continues to whittle away at our freedoms including privacy, reproductive rights, and the right not to be spied on. The alternative is the Democratic Party rule, which pushes (albeit slowly) for medical and social services, resists the hard-right reduction in freedoms, and resists the uncontrolled creation of new wars of conquest by the Republican leaders. I would suggest that there is no realistic alternative that includes a leftist government combining international isolationism with strongly redistributionist domestic policies. We can push for moderate redistributionism (my choice is to add a modest amount to the income tax equivalent to the current level of social security taxation, and provide each person the equivalent of minimal health coverage using that amount — in other words, the public option made as a default, which would get all the younger folks into the system).

    I would suggest that the alternative to Obama is a president who will appoint more Supreme Court justices who side with the corporations and the very wealthy. We are dealing with that problem now in the form of uncontrolled political contributions by the super Pacs, which is the result of a very bad Supreme Court decision made by Republican appointed justices.

    Shorter version: reality is what is left after you throw out all the wishful thinking. Defeating the moderate Democrat does not historically lead to a better set of Democrats. It just puts conservative Republicans in power.

    • Alan K says

      Of course it’s ironic that people on this page who have warned us about “wishful thinking” and called themselves “consequentialists” do not perceive that the very LACK of “wishful” or visionary thinking has led to the Consequence that for over 50 years the Democratic organization has LED working-class Americans first to the Center, and now to the Right. They completed that mission slowly, almost imperceptibly for too many (including these writers) to notice, like boiling a frog — if the heating is fast they jump out of the pot, if not they slowly die. Welcome to America in 2012.

      Real change against such well-funded foes takes time, human effort, and serious education. Ignoring the consequences of rightward drift (and some leaps) like the Telecommunications Act Clinton championed, refusing to illuminate, name names or resist collectively brought us to the brink upon which we now stand. From the Clinton to the Obama “health plan” 17 years went by with countless illness and death. We STILL have no “plan.” Is this “progress”, or just the Right’s plan unfolding? More people die in one year from privatized health “insurance” than ten 911 equivalents per year. Now THAT’S a Security Hole.

      Indeed. These ARE the consequences of a cynical and collaborationist Democratic leadership and those that support it. Obama got backing from AT&T, banking and others in the oligarchy because only HE could melt the growing Public Resistance to corporate board-room rule that was developing against Bush, yet continue the same agenda and trillion-dollar “defense” posture.

  6. Alan K says

    “[…] 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? ”

    That’s the same “logic” used every 4 years by the Democratic Party. What’s new here? Anything goes! Torture, indefinite detention, waffling on taxes, health care, the environment, etc., etc. NOTHING is sacred or worth fighting for. Let’s ALWAYS go for the “lesser of two evils and” and NEVER stand up for anything!

    Always the same ‘ol story: go 2 or 3 years expect little, ask for less and then pose the above question at “election” time.

    Mr. Moss, you have no character. After Dems had the Congress, they let BushCo get literally away with murder, stealing elections and trashing the Constitution. They let the country slide and instead of accusing the Republicans and corporate perpetrators (that we’re now asked to “defeat”), they cut deals with them. NOW you ask “leftists” to REWARD them for this behavior??

    Shameless, gutless, whimpering. According to Mr. Moss, Americans will NEVER even begin to build an alternative party, vision, OR consciousness.

    If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for — and accept — anything. Even the demise of America.

  7. James Clay Fuller says

    Utter nonsense.

    No “leftist” who is capable of critical thought could have written this piece of sophistry, so I assume it’s an attempt by the Obama/Democrat true believers to play the usual Democrat election year games with progressives.

    Any real liberal or progressive who can think has figured out by now that as long as we keep giving the rightist Democrats a free ride, they will go on giving us, and the people of the country, the shaft, by ignoring us and loyally serving their corporate funders. We have to slap them upside the head — which is to say, refuse by the millions to vote for the corporate toadies — until we get their attention. We obviously have to force them to serve the public, not the super rich, or get out of the way. And, no, a Republican president wouldn’t be all that much worse, simply more open about what he is doing — and that would bring real opposition to his policies, which hasn’t happened under corporate servant Barack Obama.

  8. Eugene Hernandez says

    Point #1- we are about to go to war with Iran, all the signs and propaganda are in place- Why? Obama is using the same tactics that Bush used to go to war and occupation in Iraq. We are still in Afghanistan is no strategy, goals or exit- Progressive President? I think not. Obama has deported over a million Latinos, more than Bush and ICE has gone on a rampage deporting innocent and even U.S. Citizens( except the uncle of Obama. Why-many Southern and other states have constructed private prisons and they want to fill those prisons with Mexicans. Obama has done nothing to stop this Two minutes into Obama presidency he reneged on his promise to close Gitmo, he has endorsed torture and secret prisons, he has coddled bankers and refused to enact true banking and other consumer reform. But he has established laws which would imprison innocent Americans who are exercising their free speech rights. He has not prosecuted any of the Bush officials, including George who led us to an illegal war, yet he prosecutes activists like L.A..’sCarlos Montes. In his new defense bill, he has made it possible to arrest animal activist who document animal cruelty in farms and factories. He has done more environmental damage than Bush, which includes destroying the Arctics for oil, allowing BP to ruin the Gulf and not sending any to prison, killing our remaining wolves. No I think leftists should not re-elect Obama, that is not to say to vote for any Republican, but vote independently-Vote Green Party in 2012

    • James Clay Fuller says

      Utter nonsense. No one who is anything close to a “leftist” could have written this piece of sophistry.

      The reason is this: Anyone who shares progressive values and is capable of critical thought knows by now that so long as we keep re-electing right-leaning “Democrats,” we will be stuck with either Republicans in thin disguise (Obama, Clinton, et al) or extreme right wingers, and the corporate-supported political flunkies will continue to pull our government farther and farther to the right until we end up with the government-by-the-rich that we are so close to having now. Democrats must be taught that they cannot automatically get our votes no matter how far they go to please their corporate masters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *