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A Defensive Vote for the Culturally Progressive Centrist: President Barack Obama

November 1, 2012

by Eric Stetson

Like millions of Americans, I believe that taxes should be kept low, especially on the middle class, so that ordinary people will have money to spend and help the economy grow. I believe in a balanced budget and sound monetary policy. I oppose bank bailouts, corporate welfare and the concept of “too big to fail.” I believe in a restrained foreign policy that defends America without attempting to police the world, which means we can significantly cut the bloated military budget, leaving more tax dollars available for positive investments here at home. I believe the government should ensure that nobody goes without food, shelter, or medical care, and should invest strongly in education, infrastructure, science and technology, green energy and space exploration. I support the right of all people to marry whomever they choose and decide according to their own convictions on the personal choice of abortion. I believe the American people should be freed from an oppressive “war on drugs” that locks up innocent marijuana smokers, and from unnecessary curtailments of civil liberties in a “war on terror” that was largely an emotional overreaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks, which could have been prevented had intelligence warnings been heeded and appropriate actions taken.

Sadly, there is no political party in this country today that embodies my views. I agree with the Democratic Party on some points, the Libertarian Party or the Green Party on others, and even occasionally with the Republican Party. But no party’s platform resonates with the overall political philosophy I have described – a moderately progressive, moderately libertarian, generally pro-reform, forward-looking philosophy that I have noticed is shared by many, if not most of the people in America today who consider themselves disgruntled with the state of politics in general. Until people who think this way have an organized political home, we have no choice but to vote for “the lesser of two evils.” Therefore, let us consider the Democrats and the Republicans and decide which side has more fully earned our opposition, so that we may reluctantly vote for the other side, fulfilling the duty of citizenship.

The Democratic Party today is primarily a mixture of urban liberals and suburban center-left pragmatists. The latter type have the upper hand, for three reasons: (1) Most wealthy people and institutions do not favor liberalism, so politicians find it harder to raise money and get elected on a liberal platform – especially on economic and foreign policy issues. (2) National elections are usually won by appealing to the center, so moderate Democrats have an advantage rising up the ranks of office. (3) The current leader of the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama, is by temperament a cautious, centrist technocrat, not an ideologue. What this means is that the Democratic Party in 2012 leans mildly to the left – more on social issues and less on everything else – and is dominated by a pro-establishment, don’t-rock-the-boat kind of attitude, which precludes any extreme ideas from becoming the mainstream policy proposals of the party. Culturally speaking, the Democratic Party leans toward intellectualism, secularism, and ethnic diversity- the values of better educated and more globally oriented Americans.

The Republican Party, in sharp contrast, is mostly composed of rural conservatives and a dwindling share of center-right suburbanites who have traditionally voted Republican because the party was seen as more fiscally responsible than the Democrats. Over the past couple of decades, rural Republicans have gained influence, pushing the GOP increasingly toward evangelical religion, anti-immigrant sentiments, and an interventionist “neo-conservative” foreign policy based on the concept of “American exceptionalism.” As this has happened, significant numbers of moderate, suburban Republicans have left the party and become moderate Democrats or independents. These two concurrent trends seem to be somewhat of a vicious cycle, entrenching the more extreme elements within the Republican Party and pushing the party as a whole further and further to the right. It remains to be seen whether this will cause the GOP to become a long-term minority party, or instead, whether it might push the entire political spectrum of the United States to the right, since the Democratic Party has also been moving to the right as a strategy to appeal to independents and former Republicans.

One of the most interesting developments in the Republican Party today is the rise of libertarian Republicans, primarily the supporters of Congressman Ron Paul, who received significant support in the Republican presidential primaries. Unfortunately, so far it appears that the majority of Republicans are embracing Paul’s idea of severe cuts to the federal budget but only for non-military expenditures, and outright rejecting his non-interventionist foreign policy and support for civil liberties. Thus, his influence has primarily been to push the Republican Party further to the right without liberalizing its views in any way.

The choice we have in the 2012 election comes down to a few key issues and differences of culture and tone. The most important policy differences are: (1) Mitt Romney wants to increase military spending and adopt a more aggressive posture toward the rest of the world, even leaving the door open for a preemptive war with Iran, whereas President Obama supports a cautious approach and small cuts to the military. (2) On taxes and the budget, Romney wants to cut taxes for everyone, including the wealthy, but does not explain how this could be done this without exploding the deficit or making deep cuts to entitlement programs for the elderly, sick and disabled, or discretionary spending such as education and infrastructure. Obama, on the other hand, favors allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire and returning to Clinton-era tax rates, and some relatively mild spending cuts, which together would reduce the deficit. (3) On health care, Romney has pledged to repeal Obamacare, including the requirement that health insurance companies cover people with preexisting conditions, and also supports his running mate Paul Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system whereby seniors – no matter how old or sick – would have to shop for private insurance. Obama supports the status quo with minor reforms.

On these important issues, I believe President Obama’s centrism and avoidance of radical change are more reasonable than the plans of Mitt Romney. The Romney/Ryan approach to our nation’s problems seems reckless and their priorities misplaced, likely to do more harm than good – whether on foreign policy, taxes and spending, the deficit, or health care. Obama will probably accomplish little in a second term but not do much damage either; thus he is the safe choice in this election.

There is also a deeper question we must consider when choosing between Obama and Romney, and for me, this is most important of all. Which cultural coalition does each candidate represent? Which set of advisors would influence each candidate as president, and from which pool of applicants would each of them appoint cabinet members, judges, and other important officials? It is crystal clear nowadays that the Democratic Party is more culturally oriented toward higher education, science, social tolerance, and globalism, and that the Republican Party embodies a disdain for “intellectual elites” and a fervent support for conservative Christianity and American nationalism. In this cultural divide, I know where I stand. I do not want the country I love to be led by people whose party has a tendency to reject science in favor of Biblical literalism, who want the values of conservative religion to be injected into political policy, who scoff at professors and artists, who have an “America kicks ass” attitude toward the rest of the world, and who cling to old-fashioned lifestyles such as the rural gun culture and oil drilling as our primary energy source. Instead, I want the party that controls the White House to lean in the direction of celebrating intelligence, arts and sciences, the greatness of cities and planned civilization, a secular government that maintains a firm separation of church and state, respect for the planet’s environment and the need to move beyond dirty fuels of the past, and striving for cooperation and compromise between the world’s nations and peoples rather than an itchy trigger finger for war.

President Obama is not a president to get excited about. He is very much a candidate of the status quo, with a cautious tone and temperament, and lacking the kind of bold policy agenda that could make a big difference for America’s future. However, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have bold plans to move our country in the wrong direction, both in terms of government policy and the dominant culture of our society. Hopefully someday there will be a reason to cast an enthusiastic vote for a candidate or party, but in the 2012 election that is not the case. This time, we must resign ourselves to using our votes to prevent greater damage from being done, and I believe that the damage to America and the world would likely be much greater in a Romney/Ryan administration. Therefore I am casting a defensive vote for the culturally progressive centrist in this election, President Barack Obama, and I hope all people who stand for or lean toward the progressive side of America’s cultural divide will do the same.

Eric Stetson is a contributor to the Daily Kos, his articles may be seen at this location. Eric Stetson is the founder and CEO of an information technology startup in Fairfax, Virginia.


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