I gotta tell you something: I didn’t vote for Obama in 2008.
I was glad he won. I cried during his inauguration. But I didn’t vote for him.
When people discovered my intentions before the election, they didn’t understand. I’d explain that voting for the lesser of two evils was a lie — the same kind of lie that constituted the corrupt system they were hoping their candidate would reform. If they suggested that voting for a third party candidate was basically voting for McCain, I’d smugly quip back, “it’s gotta get worse before it gets better.”
In 8 months, I’m going to vote for Obama.
A couple years ago, working as a case manager for at-risk and homeless youth, I met a young man who completely changed my mind about the importance of symbolic victories versus the tangible consequences of fiscally conservative government.
If you told him that, he would have no idea what you were saying. See, Ben (not his real name, of course) was 19 at the time, suffering from mental health concerns and a developmental delay from FASD. He was estranged from his family, yet trying to take care of a newborn and learn coparenting skills with his on-and-off girlfriend. He always tried to do the right thing, but most of his friends spent their time partying and doing petty crimes, and his childlike innocence often saw him in the middle of their antics.
Ben’s dad had never been there for him, so more than anything in the world, he wanted to be a good father. But no matter how hard he tried, he kept slipping up. He’d get fired from jobs, he’d stop going to GED classes, he’d get into fights with his girlfriend. I told him that he was trying to move to fast, that he needed to address his mental health before he could work toward these other goals.
He had messed up too many times to disagree.
He started going to life skills classes, interviewed at a board & lodge for adults with persistent mental health issues, met with me to learn how to set attainable goals and break them down into concrete steps. Finally, after months of hard work, he was making progress. At the same time his self-esteem was low, his friends weren’t supporting him, and his Bipolar Disorder led him into unnecessary conflicts that made his life even harder and more complicated.
Things were looking good, though, he had finally stopped self-medicating with marijuana, and he had an appointment set up with a psychiatrist to update his medications and really start looking at his mental health.
And then a Republican governor cut back state Medical Assistance and Ben lost his insurance.
He didn’t get to go to the psychatrist.
He resumed self-medicating with marijuana. He had a blowup with his girlfriend who told her kids he was an idiot and they wouldn’t get to see him any more. He stopped showing up for appointments. He tried to rob one of his friends.
All that hard work and all that momentum was shattered, not by Ben’s lack of will, but by a fiscally conservative governor who was so unwilling to raise taxes that he’d rather see Ben in jail. And eventually that’s where he went, followed by court-mandated in-patient treatment, both paid for by the state.
I don’t know what would have happened if Ben hadn’t lost his Medical Assistance, but I know the week before that happened he was dead serious about getting his life together and I never saw that level of conviction in him again.
Ben is the real face of welfare. He didn’t need government assistance because he was lazy. He needed it because life screwed him over by not giving him the skills or resources needed to be independent.
It kills me now to think that the symbolism of voting for someone with policies I wholly support versus the lesser of two evils is more important than the real impact these things have on people’s lives.
So when I vote this November, it’s not really for Obama.
It’s for Ben.