Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hillary & Barack (& Lyndon & Martin)

I've been recently addicted to TV news shows about the presidential primaries. It's great entertainment, even though I don't have a horse in this race. Come November, I expect to vote Libertarian, regardless of who's running for the Dems and Repubs.

(Since I'm a member of the tiny Libertarian Party, and make small donations to them, it wasn't so surprising that I got a call from the state Party a few months ago, asking if I myself would run for the California legislature. I didn't seriously consider it; running for office -- let alone actually serving -- seems like torture. My only regret is that I won't get a chance to use the perfect campaign slogan: "Vote for Stuart, Because the Entire Universe is an Illusion Anyway!")

When I last registered to vote, I did so as an independent. Most parties don't allow independents to vote in the California primary, so I can't vote Libertarian. The Democratic Party is an exception, so I am considering voting for Barack Obama. Here's why.

In a New Hampshire debate, Hillary Clinton famously said, "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." I believe her point was that Obama, like Martin Luther King, is inspiring to many ordinary citizens. That's all fine and good (Clinton implies), but such inspiration becomes real only when it's made into law by skillful politicians like Johnson. Clinton is suggesting we support her based on her mastery of these political skills.

Clinton's comment reveals her lack of appreciation that laws are only one way to change society. The federal government has huge power: piles of money, and control of lots of men with guns. When they pass a law, it's an attempt to use these powers, from the top-down, to force citizens to behave better.

A civilized society depends on people refraining from violence, theft, and lies. Just as war is sometimes necessary to control tyrants, we sometimes need the force of law to control the worst elements of society from killing and stealing etc. And like war, the terrible power of federal laws ought to be a last resort, not the first or only option considered.

ML King represents the other way to transform society, from the bottom-up. He helped to change the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary people. King taught and inspired people to look to the content of one's character, rather than skin color. He deserves major credit for the fact that nowadays, there's a solid national consensus against racial discrimination. It's true that many Democrats still passionately support racial discrimination (as long as it's called by a different name), but thankfully that's a minority of the overall population.

King improved society with the power of his words and the example of his actions. His was a non-violent method, inspiring people to change voluntarily. The use of force and threats (as in wars or law-making) may be a very efficient way to get what you want, but it always has negative consequences. To the greatest extent possible, we ought to prefer the non-violent method exemplified by King.

Now consider what Clinton said: "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." She's suggesting that the top-down force of federal law is more real than the bottom-up power of inspiring the masses. I'm suspicious that after all her years in Washington, she thinks of passing laws as the only way to help society, and is tone-deaf to the possibility of voluntary, non-violent, bottom-up change.

Recall Clinton's attempt to reform health care during her husband's term. She made no reasonable attempt to teach or learn from the public on the issue. It was as if she considered ordinary people too stupid to understand the problem and contribute to the solution. She relied on closed-door meetings to produce a plan that no one understood. If instead she had tried to educate and inspire the citizenry in a bottom-up way, it may not have immediately resulted in exactly the policies she wanted... but in the long-run, it would have been a far more effective strategy.

This issue is well covered by the Jan 28 New Yorker article "The Choice." In it, George Packer writes of Clinton's MLK remark, "Clinton was simply expressing her belief that the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society." He quotes Obama saying that the Presidency "involves having a vision for where the country needs to go... and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change." Contrast that to Clinton's reply that the job of President is like that of a "chief executive officer" who has "to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy."

As a computer programmer, my style is to create simple little solutions to tiny problems, then slowly build them up and link them together to produce tools that help users in big ways. I have a natural affinity for bottom-up solutions. And as a youngest child, I'm well experienced in getting pushed around. This leads to my preference for the Libertarian-style of inspiring people through vision, rather than forcing values on us with laws. Neither of the Democratic candidates embodies Libertarian ethics, but of the two, my heart is with Obama.

If anyone wants to leverage their own political power by trying to sway my vote one way or the other, kindly do so in the Comments section. Before Tuesday!


Doug said...

I shredded my primary mail-in voting card (Washington State.) WA only allows Dems and Repubs on the official primary, and like CA, only the Dems allow independents to vote in their primary. I'll wait to see who the members of the parties (to which I don't belong) offer up for me to consider. I don't think it makes sense for me to vote for a candidate in a party that I probably wont be voting for in the real election anyway.

I prognosticate that if Hillary wins the Dem nomination, she will lose the general election. There's a reason that conservative politicos and neocons like Karl Rove have nice things to say about her now (See article: Why Hillary Won)... and its not because they intend to vote for her later.

Stuart said...

Thanks, Doug. I agree (and polling supports) that Obama would be a stronger candidate in the general election. Barack & Hillary run very close among Democrats... and all evidence suggests that among independents and even Repubs, Barack has cross-over appeal, whereas Hillary is actively disliked outside the Dem party.

One scenario that I wouldn't mind is if the general elect of Clinton vs McCain would draw Bloomburg into running. (He wouldn't enter if it meant opposing Obama.) I'd love to see the 2-party duopoly broken.

It's insane that our system allows someone to be elected with less than 50% of the vote in a 3-person race. We ought to be allowed to vote for both a 1st AND a 2nd choice; that'd allow 3rd parties to enter the race without being "spoilers," since there'd be an "instant runnoff." (If no candidate got 50% of the vote, the votes of the candidate in last place would go to their voters' 2nd choice.)

I support Instant Runnoff Voting (IRV) not so much on political grounds, but on pure logic. Voters DO have preference as to their 2nd choice, so why not have a system that takes that into consideration? An election should allow voters to contribute as much information as possible. Information is good.

Here's a fantasy. Hillary looks at the polls and sees that Barack's likeability is much higher than hers. She understands that the 2 of them have very little difference on policy, but Barack is more electable. So out of loyalty to her party's principles, she quits and throws her support to him. It'd be a Christ-like, or at least Krishnamurti-like move. How could that be bad? Talk about going down in history.

Stephen said...

I think Hillary will go down one way or another. :) I have been vocally for Barack not because I believe he is a messiah, but because I like his church and the gestalt that he and Michelle Obama have which I think is close to what I have. I did my formative adult years in CHicago and my wide is a South Sider. I hope he wins in California tomorrow (hint > leverage vote) and that he wins again in November. I cannot imagine anything more depressing than a McCain-Clinton contest. I think McCain will be a lackluster candidate and that Romney may still end up the nominee following a palace revolution if McCain comes close to locking it up after Super Tuesday.

I was just rereading a piece I wrote in a book I wrote about the state which says the state was formed from failure. I believe that. Ultimately it is individuals who count and make the difference. I think Barack understands that. I think Hillary does not. Best, S