An Open Letter to the Undecided: You’re Better Than This and You Know It

To Whom It May Concern,

With so little time remaining before election day, and with so many things running through my mind–things that I’m hoping might, if presented correctly, somehow influence your vote–I hardly know where to begin. I guess I could speak to you about one or another public policy issue–perhaps health care, or education–and try to convince you that Barack Obama is the better choice. But I’m not going to do that. Not because I doubt that it’s true, but because there’s something more important to think about. It’s about you, and who you are, and what you want to stand for and associate with come election day.

I won’t try and change your mind about issues. My own ideological commitments are decidedly to the left, far more so than Barack Obama by the way (which is why I actually find it funny when folks suggest he’s some far-out radical or socialist). I actually wish Obama were more bold in his progressivism, but many years ago I learned that when it came to presidential elections, I’d likely have to settle for voting for the candidate who I felt was better, even if they were far from my own ideal. I could spend the other 364 days fighting for what I believed in, without apology or compromise. Election day, for me, has always come to be about harm reduction: a political equivalent of the hippocratic oath. And that’s OK.

I’m asking you now to make that same leap: to relinquish the need to be totally behind the person you vote for, and instead to make the best out of a situation that you may see as less than ideal, but which nonetheless posits a very serious choice in terms of which direction this nation travels, less so in terms of policy than in terms of tone, demeanor, and its overall political culture.

Because this election isn’t just about taxes, or the war in Iraq, or energy policy, though it is all of those things. Honest and decent people can disagree about those subjects, as with any political issue. But this election is about the public face of the United States of America in the early twenty-first century. And when it comes to such a matter as this, the difference between an Obama and McCain vote couldn’t be clearer.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to take a look at the numerous video clips of McCain and Palin’s hardcore supporters (links embedded at the end of this letter) as they scream words of anger and hatred at Obama supporters who are merely standing with signs announcing their preference outside one or another McCain rally. These mobs, and that is what they are, are not merely people who disagree about issues with Senator Obama–which would be fine–but rather, they are persons who seem incapable of even seeing the humanity of their opponent, or his supporters. They are people whose vitriol and venom know few if any bounds. They are people who call him names that are only thinly-veiled racial slurs, who threaten him with violence, and who suggest that he is a “baby killer” whose election would destroy America. These are dangerous people, and what’s important here, is that they are not like you.

If you agreed with this kind of rhetoric, I suspect you wouldn’t be undecided, or perhaps merely leaning towards McCain. You would be a full-blown acolyte. That you are not suggests that you are trying to avoid the trap of overblown emotionalism. For that, I thank you. And for that reason I am asking you to consider that if you vote for McCain, you will not merely be voting for policies that you may prefer, but you will also be empowering some of these very forces visible in the videos. You will be casting your lot with them, making common cause with persons whose anger and rage threatens to tear the country apart at a time when we desperately need to come together to solve common problems. These forces, if victorious, would think their triumph a signal event, one that would give them a green light to ramp up the volume of their hatred even louder.

Although most McCain supporters are not like the thugs attending these rallies, surely it must give you pause to think that you could vote as they vote, that you might contribute to the election of a man whose base includes such persons as these. People who have verbally abused Obama campaigners canvassing door-to-door or on the phone, who suggest that we should “Bomb Obama,” and who have spread vicious rumors about the candidate with no basis in fact. And through it all, Obama himself has sucked it up, smiled through it and tried to take the higher ground.

And so we return to that notion of the public face of our nation, which is on the line in two days. Do you want this nation to elect a man whose victory would be dependent on the kind of persons as you can see in these videos? People whose sole commodity is fear, contrasted with Obama supporters whose mantra of hope–however simplistic you may think it, and however vague it may indeed be–at least appeals to the better angels of our natures, and to the positive, constructive impulses that have animated the nation’s people in their better moments.

Perhaps you think it unfair to link John McCain to the yahoos attending many of his events. Perhaps you feel that his status (self-proclaimed at least) as a maverick, would mean that, if elected, he would clearly distance himself from fringe wingnuts such as these. But you know what a real maverick would have done by now? A real maverick would already have distanced himself, clearly and repeatedly, from these folks. And John McCain has not. These videos have been bouncing around for weeks, and with the exception of one tepid comment about how both sides need to tone down the hostile rhetoric–which seemed to imply an equivalence between Obama supporters and the folks on those tapes that simply doesn’t exist–McCain and Palin have said nothing. Rather, McCain said he was “proud” of the people at his rallies, including, apparently the kinds of people we can all witness spewing their bigotry for the world to see.

A real maverick would have said the following: “My friends, I want your vote, and I sincerely believe that I am the best man for this job. But if you are supporting me because you are afraid of having a black president, or because you believe my opponent to be a terrorist, or a Muslim (and you believe Muslims are evil and unqualified to hold office), or because you believe the long-since discredited rumors about him that have been bouncing around the internet, or if you wish him harm, either now or in the future, I am asking you not to vote for me. More than that, I am telling you not to. I am asking you to stay home on election day, because I don’t want the support of people like you. If the only way I can win the presidency is on the backs of bigots, I’d rather not win.”

Now THAT would have been a maverick move. It would have been a bold move, one filled with courage and honor and character. It would have cemented McCain’s place in history as a man of principle. But he never said this, or anything remotely like it. He knows he can’t win without the support of two groups: the crazies, and the undecideds. The first of these he feels confident he can hold. The second of these? Well, that’s for you to decide. But for my money, I think you are not only smarter, but fundamentally more decent than that. On election day, please show the nation and the world that my faith in you was not misplaced.


Tim Wise


Leave a Reply