Deja Vu.

A good friend who I don't see often but have kept in touch with on facebook commented a few days ago that she has decided to vote for a third party candidate. S is in her early twenties, an artist, super smart, politically engaged (she's very involved in activism around coal mining and mountaintop removal in Appalachia where she grew up). Seeing how she lives her life makes me optimistic in these scary, conservative times. She's one of those young people who give me faith that the world isn't going to go completely to shit. 

It was bracing to read of her decision. This is what one of the smartest young people I know makes of this election?

I have to admit I left a couple very long-winded comments (yes, sometimes I'm one of those people) but to be fair I wasn't the only one on the comment thread and it was a thoughtful, civil conversation, considering the forum. I thought I'd share some of what I said here:

S, I completely understand, but let me just share this with you, from Noam Chomsky. I don't know what state you vote in, but even the great Noam Chomsky advises that if you live in a swing state it's best to vote against Romney/Ryan. I voted for Nader in 2000 and, even though I was voting in Tennessee so my vote didn't matter much, I still cringe when I consider how that election turned out. It's not that I regret it, I just have come to believe that presidential elections are, for all of us for whom neither major party candidate represents our values, an exercise in cynicism. Still, if you want to do the thing that causes least harm, I think it's important to hold your nose and vote for a Democrat sometimes.

Another of her friends commented:

I think my problem with this, and where I disagree with Noam, is that Obama has been terribly harmful when it comes to foreign policy, civil liberties, and corporate power. To be fair, he is less harmful than Romney would be, but still, the violence perpetrated by this administration has been frightening.

And it makes me ask, if that's the price of doing business...if we trade a protection of what little social democracy have for murder overseas...then why even play the game?"

To which I replied:

Not voting or voting for a 3rd party candidate is motivated by a sort of outrageous optimism, a hope that, if enough people express a desire for an alternative, we will, at some time -- and it will not be in my lifetime and I doubt it will be in yours -- bring that alternative into being. Like I said, I voted for Nader in 2000. I understand and still admire and respect this point of view. But my optimism has come to be tempered with the belief that, if you're going to make that decision you also have to come to some kind of peace with the fact, by acting on that optimism you are, in the short term, going to cause things to get a lot worse before they get better, that you are going to cause real harm to people, because in practical terms, in the short term, a non-vote or a vote for a 3rd party will help Romney/Ryan get elected. It just will, and you can't dismiss that fact. You have to take responsibility for that. The reason you "play the game" is that, whether you stay at the table or walk away, somebody is going to win. And that winner will have a huge affect on you and the rest of the world.

Like I said, I don't know where S votes. In my defense, I did not live in a swing state when I voted for Nader. (I've voted in Indiana, New York, Tennessee, and Texas. Do you remember that clip in the opening credits of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, not the first season but later, where she's in a grocery store and she throws something in her cart with a look of mild disgust and resignation? That's what I feel like when I vote.) That was and is part of the calculus, and for all I know S has already done that math and decided that her state is safe enough for her to cast a protest vote. That's what I did. I still believe there's some middle ground here, a way to make the statement we want to make but avoid electing Romney/Ryan who would inevitably be worse than Obama. (You have to know that's true!)

Still, this time, even though New York is safe, I will vote for Obama. I voted for him wholeheartedly in 2008, and -- despite the drone attacks, despite habeas corpus, despite civil liberties, despite the war on drugs, despite my heart that is breaking -- I still want to support his second term, I want to know who Obama is when he's not concerned about getting elected or re-elected.

I am cynical, and I am optimistic, at the same time. It's the only way I know how to be American.

(C linked to this article in the Atlantic with a provocative thought experiment.)