During every presidential election in the United States, the same argument is made, mostly on the left, but also on the extreme right. The candidates don’t represent your views, so you vote for a third party candidate, or don’t vote at all. After all, the argument goes, how are we ever going to get candidates who do what we want them to do if we keep sending the same mainstream politicians to Washington?

There was a time that argument held appeal for me. Now, I recognize it for what it is: a facile line of reasoning that brings enormous consequences upon the heads of less privileged US citizens and people all over the world. They pay the price for the political games and laziness of America’s liberal-left continuum.

Yes, laziness. It is easy to play these games at the ballot box, or to write articles like this one about why a person of conscience shouldn’t vote for Obama. It’s much harder to create the meaningful political movement that would serve as an alternative to Obama. That’s work. Too many progressive Americans don’t like that much.

The extreme right has no similar dilemmas. But the very same despair the left experiences afflicts it as well. That’s where the Tea Party came from. For all its fanaticism, and its inability to reach people outsiders (the Tea Party, as much as any factor, has hamstrung Mitt Romney, as they have made themselves his base which he dare not alienate, but because of that, he has lost the center) they have managed to transform the GOP in its own image. That’s an accomplishment.

On our side, we have the Occupy movement, but that group has shown little interest in an agenda of any kind, let alone one that would reach inside the Beltway. Indeed, the entire spectrum of the center-left has shown no inclination toward real political organization for an alternative to a Democratic Party that has consistently turned its back on its constituents and its professed ideological beliefs. Until that reality changes, progressives have no moral justification for allowing the greater of two evils to win power.

In 2000, I found the protest vote argument persuasive to a degree. Living in California at the time, a state whose polls almost always close after a winner is declared and which was certain to go for Democratic candidate Al Gore, I felt I was risking little by voting for a third party candidate. I don’t think I would have done so under different circumstances. In the event, it didn’t matter in California, but since Gore won the popular vote by some half a million, who can say if he wouldn’t have gotten enough to prevent George W. Bush from ascending to the White House?

And that election had profound consequences, both domestically and globally. We cannot, of course, know what Gore would have done had he been President during and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But we do know that Bush stacked his government with neoconservatives who were just waiting for an opportunity to carry out their massive interventionist policies, and they got just that. The Iraq War seems unlikely to have come about absent the neocons’ influence and Bush’s own deep hatred for Saddam Hussein over a plot to assassinate his father years before, as well as other interests held by him and his Vice President, Richard Cheney.

Bush also broke with decades of US policy when he officially notified Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in 2004, outside the framework of negotiations with the Palestinians, that Israel would not have to withdraw from all of the territories it captured in 1967. There was no quid pro quo for this largesse. I will never forget seeing Colin Powell’s jaw clench during Bush’s announcement of this gift so tightly I thought his teeth were going to shatter. He understood that Bush was fatally undermining any hopes for diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict by determining outcomes unilaterally, but Powell was helpless to prevent it. The neocons, who never got along with him, had won that battle.

The President’s invasion of Iraq greatly increased Iran’s reach in the Middle East. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Iranian power being the issue that it is today, for the Americans, without it. Bush backed the US out of the Kyoto Protocols and increased our greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, he campaigned against the idea that global warming was a political issue, leaving millions of Americans in ignorance of the deep threat to the planet that this phenomenon represents.

Domestically, Bush appointed three of the four arch-conservative justices to the US Supreme Court. This had a profound effect on American law. For the first time since abortion was made legal in the US, women’s rights to control their bodies were rolled back. Campaign finance regulations were loosened, particularly in the so-called Citizens United case, allowing the super-rich to contribute to candidates much more freely and thereby giving them far more influence over elections. And, of course, the finance industries were de-regulated, the results of which were devastating economically in ways we continue to feel. Much of this clearly would not have happened under Gore. Many other things that I did not mention above probably would have. This is the heart of the matter.

There is no doubt we are being asked to choose between the lesser of two evils. Barack Obama’s record is poor on many important issues. The President has maintained the illegal prison camp at Guantanamo Bay; his program of drone strikes kills civilians on a near-daily basis; he and his Democratic cohorts, led by Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, ensured that virtually all government assistance in the financial crisis went to the very same rich folks who caused the meltdown, instead of going to the masses who desperately needed it. I could go on.

So, yes, I get it. The Democrats are awful. Obama certainly is a long way from reflecting my values, priorities and political beliefs. But our task is to build a viable political alternative to the Democrats, whether from within that party like the Tea Party did inside the GOP, or from outside via a new, third party. Not voting for Obama will only allow the liberal-left to sit on a high horse and admire their own moral excellence, while others pay the price.

If withholding the vote from Obama is only symbolic, then it accomplishes nothing. If it is meaningful, then anyone choosing that path needs to consider the ramifications of that choice. Mitt Romney makes no secret of his priorities: they lie with people like him, the mega-rich, to an even greater extent than Bush. He will cut services to the poor and, whether through taxes or other methods of raising prices and fees, he will have the middle class pay for his friends’ tax breaks.

The next four years could see as many as four seats on the Supreme Court open up, two currently held by liberals and one by the most centrist member of the Court. A more conservative bench could well act to roll back not only abortion rights, but also much of the progress we have made toward marriage equality in this country. Such a Court would also be sympathetic to attacks on the meager steps Obama has taken toward ensuring universal healthcare, while it would be even deafer to pleas regarding executions in the United States.

And on foreign policy? Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with neoconservatives, many of them refugees from the Bush Administration. Imagine what their return to office might portend. The neocons charged with running US policy toward Arab countries more responsive to their own populations—populations who are already mistrustful, at best, of the United States after years of western support for dictatorships, the Israeli dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians, and exploitation of local resources. The same neocons that were calling for an attack on Iran long before the debilitating sanctions were put in place. Opposition to progress on climate change would increase greatly as well.

So, this is what we would look forward to if we go ahead with any sort of meaningful “protest vote” or non-vote. Perhaps the leftists in the US who pursue such a course think they can sleep better at night and hold their heads higher during the day. I wonder if they will still be able to do so if they visit a destroyed village resulting from the latest US attempt at hegemony disguised as an attempt to deliver democracy with the barrel of a gun. I wonder if they will be able to do so looking at the single mother caring for a baby she didn’t want. Or for the man or woman who loses everything they had because their same-gender life partner died, and their family took it all from a spouse in practice who had no legal rights.

It’s easy to withhold the vote, and for the most part, it won’t matter much. But at best it does nothing. At worst, we could end up with eight years that make Bush’s policies look liberal. But watch the Democratic Convention again, There are plenty of people in that hall who would welcome a real change and a party that would represents progressive values. Making that happen is a lot of work. If we’re not trying to do that, what right do we have to risk electing someone as obviously deplorable as Mitt Romney? The results would be far worse than a continuation of an Obama-led status quo.

Photograph courtesy of MissMandaPublished under a Creative Commons license.