Daniel Ellsberg was infamous during the Vietnam War era for releasing documents that later became known as “The Pentagon Papers.”
Ellsberg was working as an analyst for the RAND Corporation at that time and had access to numerous top-secret documents dealing with the ways in which the United States was prosecuting the war in Vietnam. Through his work, Ellsberg was privy to the fact that the White House under President Johnson had systematically lied to Congress and to the American people about the war in Vietnam.
Ellsberg is a hero for many progressives and Democrats in the United States as someone who was willing to go to jail in order to keep his government honest. He is, however, even more of a hero to those in the United States who see themselves outside of the usual politics, especially the two-party system. For these people, the Presidential election is a pageant held to distract the American people from the fact that both Democrats and Republicans generally stand for the same things.
It was therefore surprising when Ellsberg wrote an article this past week on the progressive news website “Common Dreams” calling on people, especially those in swing states, to vote for Obama. His argument was very interesting as he wasn’t calling for people to “support” Obama, but simply to vote for him. His argument is summed up very well by his title “Defeat Romney, without illusions about Obama.”
Ellsberg states that the idea that Democrats and Republicans are the same is misleading. They may stand for so many of the same basic things, with minute superficial changes between them, but in the minds of progressives one party is clearly worse than the other.
He writes that the idea that “There’s no significant difference between the major parties” amounts to saying: “The Republicans are no worse, overall.” And that’s absurd.” He points out that the Republican party of today is far more extreme in its ideology than Democrats are, and if they came to power it could mean radical, potentially catastrophic changes. Ellsberg points out that Obama and Romney do have some key differences and even if you don’t believe in the two-party system, those differences make participating in the election worthwhile.
This sort of discussion is important because it brings about a central contradiction in terms of the office of the Presidency. Obama himself campaigned on the theme of “CHANGE” in 2008, but so does every challenger for high office. You always propose yourself as different and new and being capable of taking things in a new and different direction. A lot of voter apathy in 2012 stems from the fact that while every candidate proposes that they will use the power of the Presidency to right the wrongs and put things back on track, all of this changes once you actually get into office.
The Presidency has its own logic and power. You could say it looks and feels different from within. From the outside Obama may have criticized many of Bush’s policies as abusive, corrupt and incompetent. But once he was elected he continued many of those policies and expanded others. Candidate Obama railed against so many of the illegal and immoral detention and rendition policies of the previous administration. President Obama has continued most of those programs and in some case even expanded them. The paradoxical power of the Presidency or any high office is that while it can potentially change much and revolutionize things, it also breeds avarice, as if more power must be consolidated and change must be avoided since it may lead to the Presidency or the government holding less control.
The Presidency will most likely never be a “critical” position, regardless of the past of whoever holds it. It is fundamentally a conservative position, interested in protecting American interests and hoarding American power, and will do so legally and sometimes illegally. So people looking for Presidents to change everything and be fundamentally different might as well be looking for unicorns in haystacks or chichirikas in Guam’s jungles.
The vote for Presidency is for whoever will be in charge of that governmental apparatus, and as Ellsberg notes, there are differences that are worth getting out the vote for, for someone you may not wholeheartedly support. In concluding his article Ellsberg invokes a quote from Henry David Thoreau that he states has sustained him in his life: “Cast your whole vote: not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” In other words, cast your vote in elections, but don’t feel like that is how you change the world or how positive change takes place in general. Your role in life is not just to vote, but as community members and individuals you have potentially so much power over the world around you.