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What a Vote for Obama Actually Endorses (Jonathan Turley)

The following are excerpts from an interview of constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley by John Cusack. Turley brings up some profound considerations we as voting citizens should be reckoning with.

Well, first of all, there's a great desire of many people to relieve themselves of the obligation to vote on principle. It's a classic rationalization that liberals have been known to use recently, but not just liberals. The Republican and Democratic parties have accomplished an amazing feat with the red state/blue state paradigm. They've convinced everyone that regardless of how bad they are, the other guy is worse. So even with 11 percent of the public supporting Congress most incumbents will be returned to Congress. They have so structured and defined the question that people no longer look at the actual principles and instead vote on this false dichotomy.

Now, belief in human rights law and civil liberties leads one to the uncomfortable conclusion that President Obama has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution. But that's not the primary question for voters. It is less about him than it is them. They have an obligation to cast their vote in a principled fashion. It is, in my opinion, no excuse to vote for someone who has violated core constitutional rights and civil liberties simply because you believe the other side is no better. You cannot pretend that your vote does not constitute at least a tacit approval of the policies of the candidate.

This is nothing new, of course for civil libertarians who have always been left behind at the altar in elections. We've always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. We're used to politicians lying to us. And President Obama lied to us. There's no way around that. He promised various things and promptly abandoned those principles.

So the argument that Romney is no better or worse does not excuse the obligation of a voter. With President Obama they have a president who went to the CIA soon after he was elected and promised CIA employees that they would not be investigated or prosecuted for torture, even though he admitted that waterboarding was torture.

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That was the truly other-worldly moment of the speech. He [Eric Holder] went to, Northwestern Law School (my alma mater), and stood there and articulated the most authoritarian policy that a government can have: the right to unilaterally kill its citizens without any court order or review. The response from the audience was applause. Citizens applauding an Attorney General who just described how the President was claiming the right to kill any of them on his sole inherent authority.

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But the thing about the Obama administration is that it is far more premeditated and sophisticated in claiming authoritarian powers. Bush tended to shoot from the hip — he tended to do these things largely on the edges. In contrast, Obama has openly embraced these powers and created formal measures, an actual process for killing US citizens. He has used the terminology of the law to seek to legitimate an extrajudicial killing.

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The greatest problem is what it has done to us and what our relative silence signifies. Liberals and civil libertarians have lost their own credibility, their own moral standing, with the support of President Obama. For many civil libertarians it is impossible to vote for someone who has blocked the prosecution of war crimes. That's where you cross the Rubicon for most civil libertarians. That was a turning point for many who simply cannot to vote for someone who is accused of that type of violation.

Under international law, shielding people from war-crime prosecutions is itself a form of war crime. They're both violations of international law. Notably, when the Spanish moved to investigate our torture program, we now know that the Obama administration threatened the Spanish courts and the Spanish government that they better not enforce the treaty against the US This was a real threat to the Administration because these treaties allow other nations to step forward when another nation refuses to uphold the treaty. If a government does not investigate and prosecute its own accused war criminals, then other countries have the right to do so. That rule was, again, of our own creation. With other leading national we have long asserted the right to prosecute people in other countries who are shielded or protected by their own countries.

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Well, the biggest problem is that when the administration was fishing around for some way to justify not doing the right thing and not prosecuting torture, they finally released a document that said that CIA personnel and even some DOJ lawyers were "just following orders," but particularly CIA personnel.

The reason Obama promised them that none of them would be prosecuted is he said that they were just following the orders of higher authority in the government. That position gutted Nuremberg. Many lawyers around the world are upset because the US under the Obama administration has torn the heart out of Nuremberg. Just think of the implications: other countries that are accused of torture can shield their people and say, "Yeah, this guy was a torturer. This guy ordered a war crime. But they were all just following orders. And the guy that gave them the order, he's dead." It is the classic defense of war criminals. Now it is a viable defense again because of the Obama administration.

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The civil liberties perspective is rarely given more than a passing reference while national security concerns are explored in depth. Fox is viewed as protective of Bush while MSNBC is viewed as protective of Obama. But both presidents are guilty of the same violations. There are relatively few journalists willing to pursue these questions aggressively and objectively, particularly on television. And so the result is that the public is hearing a script written by the government that downplays these principles. They don't hear the word "torture."

They hear "enhanced interrogation." They don't hear much about the treaties. They don't hear about the international condemnation of the United States. Most Americans are unaware of how far we have moved away from Nuremberg and core principles of international law.

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Oh, President Obama has created an imperial presidency that would have made Richard Nixon blush. It is unbelievable.

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The question for people to struggle with is how we ever hope to regain our moral standing and our high ground unless citizens are prepared to say, "Enough." And this is really the election where that might actually carry some weight — if people said, "Enough. We're not going to blindly support the president and be played anymore according to this blue state/red state paradigm. We're going to reconstruct instead of replicate. It might not even be a reinvented Democratic Party in the end that is a viable option. Civil libertarians are going to stand apart so that people like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and others know that there are certain Rubicon issues that you cannot cross, and one of them happens to be civil liberty.

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One of the things I teach in my constitutional class is that there is a need for what's called a bright-line rule. That is, the value for bright-line rules is that they structure relations between the branches, between the government and citizens. Bright-line rules protect freedom and liberty. Those people that try to eliminate bright-line rules quickly find themselves on a slippery slope. The Obama administration, with the Bush administration, began by denying rights to people at Guantanamo Bay.

And then they started to deny rights of foreigners who they accused of being terrorists. And eventually, just recently, they started denying rights to citizens and saying that they could kill citizens without any court order or review. It is the fulfillment of what is the nightmare of civil liberties. They crossed that bright line. Now they're bringing these same abuses to US citizens and changing how we relate to our government. In the end, we have this huge apparatus of the legal system, this huge court system, and all of it has become discretionary because the president can go ahead and kill US citizens if he feels that it's simply inconvenient or impractical to bring them to justice.

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If you want to make a protest vote against Romney, go ahead, but I would think we'd be better putting our energies into local and state politics — occupy Wall Street and organizations and movements outside the system, not national politics, not personalities. Not stadium rock politics. Not brands. That's the only thing I can think of.

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Well, the question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what's left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It's not enough to say, "Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System."

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I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes. We have to recognize that our political system is fundamentally broken, it's unresponsive. Only 11 percent of the public supports Congress, and yet nothing is changing — and so the question becomes, how do you jumpstart that system? How do you create an alternative? What we have learned from past elections is that you don't create an alternative by yielding to this false dichotomy that only reinforces their monopoly on power.

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malagodi's picture
Submitted by malagodi on

The fundamental issue is well stated and well documented. The problem comes in the last paragraph; if enough people walked away and we could finally galvanize people into action.

First, enough people won't walk away. I see no evidence of it. The desire for heroes and saviors is palpable and growing stronger. I have a joke that goes: "There IS a difference between the two parties. One is a poison, the other is a placebo. One or the other will be administered, now take your pick." Point is, there will be an administration imposed on everyone.

Second, 'galvanization' in effect means civil war. We hear constantly the idea that the mainstream wants 'bipartisanship' to 'get things done', to 'solve problems'. What this actually speaks to is finding some non-radical way to maintain the current status-quo, or a return to the feeling that the middle class was receiving its share of the Empire's profits. Since this is no longer possible, what we radicals of left and right actually want is not democracy, but that our preferred position be dominant. Leadership. Strong. With Backbone. Standing on principle. Our son-of-a-bitch in charge. [This was stated quite well by Bill Maher in calling for Obama to be 'more like Bush' in administering what Maher believed to be Obama's mandate.]

Third, as to the means of creating an alternative Turley actually offers no suggestions except the obvious; local self-sufficiency. Survivalism. Ok. OWS and social movements outside of the political apparatus; yes. But it is a non-sequitur to then say that you don't do that [create an alternative] by yielding to false dichotomy [of the two parties]. Choosing between a poison and a placebo need not be a moral validation of bad and useless medicine, but merely an expediency, knowing that something is going to be shoved down your throat. One may then, and simultaneously, work on our galvanization project and maybe finding just the right son-of-a-bitch that we can believe in.

Stephen Malagodi

nomad2's picture
Submitted by nomad2 on

Yeah. This was the first election that I did not vote for a Democrat for president. I saw the first term of Obama as an outrage. Criminal. Murderous. Rivaling and even exceeding Bush. I refused to support him. Even though, as I discovered in the run-up, statistically in my district, my vote could not make any difference whatsoever in the presidential election, I voted Green.