It is, of course, only a coincidence that the formative years of my political consciousness coincided with the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. But for me and, I’m guessing, my peers at the Claremont Colleges, the consequences of this coincidence have been tremendous. As we tried to figure out who we were and what we believed in, it was inevitable that our politics would be shaped by the controversial policies and ideologies of the Bush administration. For those of us with any kind of left-wing sympathies, and even for many of us that considered ourselves measured centrists, this political soul-searching was pretty easy. We wanted to be the denial of everything we read about in the news: fabricated justification for illegal wars, the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, Guantanamo bay, torture.
The tenets of our liberalism became everything we saw lacking in the Bush administration: humility and accountability, respect for the law and due process. We did not necessarily reject American exceptionalism, but we thought that exceptionalism should be opposed to imperialism instead of identical to it. In our first election, we voted for the candidate who promised these things. And when he won, we felt our previously untested political consciousness affirmed.
More on how that turned out in a second. The traumas inflicted on us by the Bush administration, which were largely rhetorical (“with us or against us”, “coalition of the willing”, “mandate”), instilled in us one additional value: compromise. And our candidate was the candidate of compromise. The fact that compromise is so deeply embedded in our political consciousness reveals something else important about the children of the Bush administration: We are, by and large, not ideological liberals in the American sense of the term.
Sure, the Bush-brand conservatism may have entrenched in us a firm belief in progressive taxation, environmental regulation, gay marriage, abortion rights, and social security. But I see no evidence that we have any kind of deep ideological attachment to the liberal tenets under which these issues fall: redistribution of wealth, the welfare state, civil liberties writ large. No doubt some of us believe in these tenets very deeply, but they came from places other than our visceral and highly emotional reaction to the excesses of the Bush administration, which was, at the end of the day, a Big Government presidency.
So the fact that President Obama has not been a true American liberal isn’t the real problem. Indeed, he never claimed to be. The problem is that he has routinely violated the principles of the political consciousness that elected him, the political consciousness that he claimed to share. The Obama presidency has by and large normalized the overreaches and excesses of the Bush administration by eliminating its overbearing rhetoric and, in many cases, entrenching or even expanding its actual policies.
In the national security arena, where the Bush administration’s disrespect for law, accountability, due process, and civil liberties was most unabashed, the congruency of the two administrations is shocking. As the ACLU reports, “…most [Bush] policies—indefinite detention, targeted killing, trial by military commissions, warrantless surveillance, and racial profiling—remain core elements of our national security strategy today.” Government insiders like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and 34-year CIA veteran John Rizzo have also acknowledged these startling continuities. And though the extraordinary rendition and torture of terrorist suspects has been officially discontinued, the evidence is mounting that these practices have been outsourced to foreign governments. Our current president not only claims, like Bush, the right to imprison U.S. citizens without due process, he also claims the right to assassinate any U.S. citizen (and anybody else) that his administration unilaterally deems a threat to the nation. And whatever may be said about Obama’s “inheritance” of the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan (and surely there is much to say on this matter), his widespread and deadly deployment of unmanned drones in numerous Muslim nations has not demonstrated a respect for human rights worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to say the least.
In short, we voted for a president who would respect the law. We got a president who ignored the War Powers Resolution with his engagement in Libya. We voted for a president who would protect American civil liberties. We got a president who extended the Patriot Act. We voted for a president who would hold himself accountable. We got a president who cites “state secrets” to shield his administration from accountability. We voted for a President that would end American imperialism. We got a president who is just as committed to a policy of “force projection” in the Middle East as his predecessor.
We vote because we believe our political system is responsive. But to vote for Obama again would be an outright admission that our system is not responsive and that we don’t expect it to be. It would be an admission that we are willing to vote out of fear, that we will never object to the lesser of two ills. Just like any other good liberal, I don’t want to be responsible for a President Perry. But I also don’t want to be responsible, in any small way, for the extensive violations of life, law, and liberty perpetrated by the Bush/Obama presidency.
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Readers: If you plan on voting for the president in the next election, how do you justify your vote without appealing to the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument? If you’re not voting for Obama, how do you justify your write-in, your vote for the Republican, or your abstention? I’ll be taking submissions until next Tuesday at 4 p.m. Submissions can be any length, but the shorter the better. I’ll be publishing a collection of the best submissions in next week’s issue. E-mail submissions to email@example.com, or leave a comment under this article on the website.