Monday, February 04, 2008

I will vote for Obama tomorrow.

Warning: Upcoming exercise in rambling self-justification that tells you almost nothing you don't already know, and comes far too late to make any difference to anyone.

I was going to vote for John Edwards.

Early in the campaign, Edwards was the only one of the three major candidates who seemed to fundamentally understand that you cannot defeat toxic Republican policies except by opposing them forcefully and with conviction. You cannot defeat them by offering the public watered-down versions of Republican policies; you cannot defeat them by offering the public the sheer force of your charisma; you can only defeat them by fighting them until you win: by convincing the public that your opponents are wrong.

Edwards was also the only candidate who, I believed, was motivated by genuine outrage about the suffering of poor people in America. I'm not poor — in fact, I'm so socially insulated from poverty that nobody I know is genuinely poor (note that I don't count grad students who could get decent jobs if they chose) — but I know that the default setting of politics is to serve the well-to-do, and any counterweight in the other direction seemed like a welcome change.

But Edwards dropped out of the race last week. So I had a choice.

I had been strongly leaning one way for a long time; the direction will surprise nobody who knows me. Recently, however, I was almost dissuaded by Obama's very real badness on health care reform — consult Krugman and Ezra Klein for details.

But ultimately, for me, the candidates' differences in individual policy positions are overwhelmed by structural differences in their relationships to political power. Clinton is far more in thrall to existing power structures in Washington, both financial and rhetorical. Clinton not only understands how Washington works, as she boasts; on some basic level, she agrees with its basic premises. And therefore, in the year 2008, electing President Hillary Clinton would be a vast improvement over the status quo, but also a disappointment.

Last Thursday, I ducked out of work to see Lawrence Lessig speak at Stanford. The talk was billed as his final speech on Free Culture, but he spent the last quarter hour speaking about his new focus: the corrupting influence of money on politics, via lobbyists, PACs, etc. When policy chases the median dollar instead of the median human life, human happiness is not the optimized variable. To make public policy work for human beings, therefore, one must actively fight against money's influence.

Lessig argued, furthermore, that unless a significant bloc of voters makes this issue non-negotiable — he said it must be a "litmus test" — then change will never occur. (Note that he carefully avoided stating the converse proposition that change will occur if voters do make it a litmus test. Lessig is an idealist, but he is not an optimist.)

Clinton's campaign has been, to a large degree, powered by the influx of lobbyist and PAC money. No surprise, therefore, that Lessig endorsed Obama early; he has a new video up tonight reiterating his support (in his widely-imitated and wildly effective slideshow style, about which more later).

Anyway, I'm no more optimistic than Lessig about the possibility of pruning the influence of money from politics, but it seems like it's worth a shot. We'll never weed the money out completely, but Lessig made it seem tantalizingly possible that we could dramatically reduce its influence in the foreseeable future.

Lessig alone didn't sway my vote, but I walked out of that lecture confirmed in my conviction that the structural differences between Obama's campaign and Clinton's were reason enough to overcome my feelings about particular issues, even those as important as health care.

With luck, therefore, for once in who knows how many election cycles, California will play a meaningful role in choosing the next President of the United States. And with luck, it will be Obama.

p.s. Incidentally, one of the most interesting moments in Lessig's talk came afterwards, when someone asked him about running for Congress — a question perhaps prompted by rumors floating around the Bay Area. Lessig's answer (approx.): "This was supposed to be the last Free Culture talk, not the first running for Congress talk." I don't hear a denial there. Note also that Lessig's famed slideshow style has evolved from the grunge P22 Typewriter-on-black he used in the Free Culture days, to a more refined serif font on a slate-gray background, which looks (to my eye) more "Washingtonian" somehow.

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