Matt Stoller thinks this would be a good time to vote for a third-party candidate. His case, approximately, comes in two parts. The first is a sheet of charges against Obama for bad things he did and good things he didn’t do in his first term (some of which are a little naïve about what actual presidential power), all of which grade him on an absolute scale. Observations like this are not without value as guidance for a second term, or just interesting policy discussion that makes participants smarter. No great harm done here, and I myself deplore Obama’s environmental non-record and much else. But this stuff is entirely vacuous as guides to action: to decide what to do we need measures that obey the “compared to what?” rule, in this case comparing Obama to Romney, not to the paladin of your imagining. Opinion formation and schmoosing are not at all like making decisions (irretrievable commitments of resources to one alternative rather than another).

What makes this column one of the worst pieces of discourse on the left in this election cycle is the second part, where Stoller gets up on a high horse of principle and starts advocating actually voting for third-party candidates who cannot possibly win. It is a cascade of mush-headed apocalyptic dreaming about how things might be if they weren’t the way they are: vague, romantic claptrap from a dream world. The alternative to Obama in this election is not a revolution of progressives seizing the nation and saving it, it is four or even eight years of accelerated income disparity, two supreme court appointments of Neanderthals, horrific oppression of women, quite possibly a military adventure in Syria and Iran, and submergence of those progressives for decades. That is the alternative on the ground, no matter what fairy stories anyone wishes to tell around the campfire of the apocalyptophile meeting.

It is also an exercise in arrogant, self-important posturing and preening, and particularly distasteful coming from a white man with a job, because the rain that will fall in a Romney administration will not fall nearly as much on the male intellectual upper middle class as it will on women and the poor. There’s a long history of smart people with morals and a good sense of strategy and tactics moving the world in the right direction, but there is also a long history of people to whom nothing is more important than looking in the mirror at their ineffable personal purity and high standards, who think that because Grandma would be a streetcar if she had wheels, it’s OK to jump on her back for a ride, and who have either made no difference whatever, or done some real damage. Any sane person could predict that the Florida vote would be very close in 2000: the 60,000 Nader voters there who would otherwise have voted Gore and swamped Bush’s 500-0dd margin were not heroes of right and principle to admire, they are self-indulgent jerks who, I hope, have spent the last twelve years in shame and guilt. As Little Fauss explains to Big Halsy, “No. It’s not how you look; it’s how you do.”

When we start up a faculty search, we always get confused about what we are up to, and try to put everything we want into the job description, but when real live candidates show up, we realize we are engaged in a selection process, not a design exercise. Elections are the same way, choosing between the real alternatives on the table, and playing fantasy candidate remodeling is not a harmless diversion when it gets into a voting booth. Just as it is a moral fault to pretend climate change isn’t happening in the face of facts and science, because actions have consequences, it is not harmless but vicious to do politics, including voting, as though the world were completely different from the way it really, demonstrably is. Voting a third-party candidate in a non-parliamentary system in a close state, which is where Stoller wants you to act out this fantasy, is doing everything you can – short of pulling the R lever – to trash your country no matter what purity of motive you want to cloak it in.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.