Obama Might Not Even be the Lesser Evil
Better Than Lesser Evilism, Version 2012
If the idea is to vote in a way that brings about the best outcome, and if “best” and “least bad (or “least evil”) mean the same thing, then it is a simple point of logic that, in elections with only two candidates – or where only two candidates have a non-trivial chance of winning — voters should vote for the one they deem best (least bad). For people who normally vote Democratic, and for many “independents” as well, this year that would be Barack Obama.
Except for a few willfully blind holdovers from 2008, voting for Obama is a distasteful prospect. But with Mitt Romney and his Republican-Tea Party cohort for the alternative, the lesser evil case for Obama seems a no-brainer.
Or not! That argument — and there really is nothing else to say in Obama’s behalf – is superficially compelling, and it is hard not to succumb to its appeal. But not succumbing is worth considering. It may also be worth doing.
For one thing, the argument’s premise is not obviously applicable. After all, it is reasonable not to vote at all — perhaps to send a “message” or out of the conviction that the system is so flawed that participating in it will only make its problems worse.
Or the lesser evil may still be so evil (or so undeserving) that it would be wrong, on moral grounds or for other principled reasons, to vote for him or her, regardless the alternative.
It is relevant too that our elections, at the national level especially, have almost nothing to do with the elections envisioned in all the many varieties of democratic theory. They are more like marketing campaigns where the side with the most commercials usually wins. That means the side with the most dollars.
This is outrageous, of course, but it is also the law of the land inasmuch as our highest judicial authority has determined that disallowing all but the most blatant forms of political corruption is tantamount to an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. In these circumstances, non-participation is an attractive option; “great refusals,” as Herbert Marcuse called them, often are.
There is also the fact that, in the United States, we have two semi-established political parties, each of which is dedicated to representing the interests of those whom Franklin Roosevelt deemed “economic royalists.” The interests of everyone else – more than 99% of us – hardly register, except rhetorically, as Democratic and Republican marketing campaigns unfold.
It is from these parties that we get our feasible alternatives. Arguably, voting for the least bad of them reinforces the duopoly regime, disabling the kinds of democratic initiatives that could break the duopoly’s hold.
But non-participation can be and often is indistinguishable from plain apathy. It therefore sends no message at all. Even when enthusiasms run high, as they did four years ago, the turn out for American elections is so paltry compared to world standards that no one even notices when tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people stay home.
Then too we must factor in civic duty. Given how hard so many have struggled for so long for the right to vote, it would be churlish not to exercise it. This is why I, for one, always vote even when there is no one to vote for, as there almost never is. I usually vote for one or another of my dogs or, regardless who the actual nominees are, I write in the name of one or another of the tiny handful of genuinely progressive legislators in the House of Representatives.
These considerations suggest that, to avoid the snare of lesser evilism, a better way than non-participation may be to vote, when possible, for a non-feasible alternative. I would suggest that, come November 6, the best way to do that will be to vote, if one can, for a “third party” candidate who is not a lesser evil.
To be sure, third parties are marginal in the United States, and there is no reason to think this will change any time soon. But even if party building outside the bounds of the duopoly system is not on the agenda, it is still worth keeping existing third party ventures alive; especially inasmuch as Democrats and Republicans have seen to it that ballot access is difficult for anyone but themselves to obtain.
Circumstances change, sometimes abruptly and in ways no one can foresee. If and when an opportunity arises to seize the time, it is well to be prepared.
There are additional reasons to support third parties in presidential elections, especially in states where the electoral votes, the votes that matter, are already effectively cast. This would include all the so-called “red” and “blue” states where votes for third party candidates are certain not to affect the assignment of electoral votes.
In those cases – in other words, in all but a dozen or so “purple” or “battleground” states — even dedicated lesser evilists should concede that no harm can come from voting for a candidate certain not to win.
But good can come from it – and not just because it is a way to express contempt for the feasible choices. Even marginal candidates can force otherwise suppressed issues out into the public arena. And they can enhance the range and depth of political discourse for anyone able to hear what they have to say.
Lets concede, though, for the time being, that in the coming election, the better (less evil) of the two major party candidates should get our vote. Even so, the lesser evil case for Obama is still problematic. He may not be the lesser evil.
Needless to say, were we to compare the Obama of eight or even four
years ago, with Mitt Romney now, or even with Romney before 2007, when he was governor of Massachusetts, there would be no contest. There is ample evidence that Obama knows better than he does; that he sees, or once saw, the world aright and that his instincts are, or were, decent.
What happened? To answer that question, it is worth reflecting on how he got to where he now is.
With a Kenyan father, a childhood spent in Indonesia, and the middle name Hussein, the man was hardly destined for a successful political career in the Home of the Brave. Yet, in four short years, he went from being a minor figure in Illinois politics to being elected president of the United States. No African American before him, no person of color, had ever even come close.
Wouldn’t the best way to account for this be to infer, as I have suggested several times in the past, that he sold his soul to the devil? If there were devils and souls, I’d stand by that explanation. Since there aren’t, I’ll have to go with a variation: that America’s economic royalists are diabolical enough to stand in for the Prince of Darkness, especially when it comes to gaming democracy for their ends. Figuratively speaking, Obama sold his soul to them.
And so, today, in exchange for the highest office in the world’s sole remaining (and rapidly declining) superpower, the man who used to organize the poor in Chicago and “pal around” with liberals and radicals and even former fugitives from the Weather Underground in Hyde Park has morphed into a Wall Street flunky and enabler of corporate malfeasance.
Not coincidentally, he has also taken it upon himself to engineer extrajudicial assassinations and, as President Drone, to promote wanton violations of international law. He and his Justice Department have also taken it upon themselves to protect Bush era war criminals, undermine privacy rights, and continue each and every departure from the rule of law broached since 9/11.
After the 2008 election, as it became increasingly clear that old Clinton hands would dominate the “team of rivals” Obama was assembling, the word was that at least he’s “better than Bush.” That’s still true, of course. A turnip would be better than Bush.
Is he better than Romney? Man for man, there’s no denying it – especially now that Romney, with a degree of abjectness greater even than Obama’s, has definitively shed his “moderate Republican” persona and gone over lock, stock, and barrel to the side of the terminally whacko – the Fox News demographic.
But Romney at least has the excuse that he had no choice: to pander to his “base,” a zillionaire’s gotta do what a zillionaire’s gotta do. Obama did have a choice; and his base would have been more than happy to cover his back. But he’s not cut out for the task.
In a series of articles and postings published over the past four years inThe London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The Huffington Post and elsewhere, David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale, has read Obama’s character as if he were a figure in a literary text. He has discerned a pattern through the myriad of details and the variety of circumstances.
Whatever the issue, Obama speaks, once or several times, and then leaves it to others to follow through. It is as if he believes that words alone, his words, suffice. Then, no matter what the issue, when the powers that be, sensing weakness and a lack of resolve, pounce back, he acquiesces. And why not? He has spoken, and his words should be enough. When this conviction proves false, as it always does, he responds by moving on — to other words about other things.
It could be worse: at least he does not exude ruling class cluelessness or peddle nineteenth century economic nostrums. At least there’s not the suspicion that, given half a chance, he’d peddle Mormon snake oil.
Had Obama gone into some other line of work – had he become a consultant or an advisor to some domineering and ruthless government or corporate figure — a character like the one he’s got might have served him well. No doubt, he’d have made an outstanding corporate lawyer. As his Republican foes like to say, he might have excelled too as a machine politician. But Hope and Change presidents are made of different stuff.
Thanks to the Bush administration’s lethal blend of base incompetence and sheer wrong-headedness, Obama took office at a moment when new departures in American politics were possible. He squandered the opportunity. He’s not likely to get another chance. But if he does, count on him to squander it again. It’s his nature.
Obama’s lack of resolve – and, ironically, of audacity and courage – make questions like “what does Obama want?” and “which side is he on?” irrelevant. Whatever he wants and whichever side he favors, his actions and, even more, his omissions reinforce the power structures already in place. The man can’t help it.
This is why even when, in exigent circumstances, Obama talks a populist line, he winds up inevitably on the side of vulture capitalists and Wall Street casino operators – in other words, on the side of Mitt Romney and his ilk. He’s a better man than that, but it doesn’t matter.
Still, let us grant that by any plausible measure of outright noxiousness, Obama beats Romney by a mile and a half. And lets concede that while this difference will have no real effect on existing power relations or on the nature and trajectory of American politics, it can nevertheless be consequential.
On cultural issues, Obama will be better (less bad); his judicial appointments will be better, he’ll appoint better people to run government agencies, and so on. These are not trivial differences; they can affect the lives of many people significantly.
Still, it is far from obvious what a lesser evilist should do.
I say this because, in making lesser evil judgments, it is crucial to look not just at the candidates themselves, but also at the larger consequences of electing one or another of them.
Republican positions are terrible; Democratic positions are generally better (less bad). But Republicans are admirably obstinate, while Democrats give pusillanimity a bad name. Like Obama, they concede too much, and so it hardly matters what policies they promote.
Nevertheless, when a Republican is in the White House, they do sometimes find it within themselves to fight back just a little.
Witness how they held their ground against George W. Bush when he took aim at Social Security after 2004. It is when Democrats are in the White House that they are most craven and therefore most inclined to fall into line.
Yes, Democrats are less likely than Republicans to lead the fight against what little remains of the advances made under the New Deal and Great Society. But “bipartisan” Obama has already demonstrated an eagerness to “compromise” these remnants of past achievements, ostensibly for the sake of budget discipline, the excuse du jour of neoliberal austerity mongers.
Similarly, Democrats are generally less bellicose or at least less wedded to neoconservative illusions than Republicans are. But they have done precious little to restrain Obama’s drones, and if, after he wins a second term, Obama decides to accede to Israeli pressure for a war against Iran, don’t count on Democrats to object. Were Romney the Commander-in-Chief some of them would probably find the courage to just say No.
Then there’s a less tangible benefit that a Romney victory might afford. In recent years, “populist” resentment has taken a cultural turn, leading distressingly many of capitalism’s victims to vilify their natural allies while cutting their real enemies endless slack. In disregard of their own interests, they even join with the rich to resist egalitarian and solidaristic social policies.
Would it not be different if the head of “the executive committee of the entire bourgeoisie” – Marx’s apt description of the state in capitalist societies — were himself the incarnation of all that is hateful in the upper reaches of the one percent. Then distorted and counter-productive populist resentments would have a better chance of giving way to salutary class antagonisms.
With Romney as the face of the one percent, how could they not! George W. Bush was a dull-witted Yalie frat boy with a Buddy Epson accent and demeanor (unlike everyone else in his patrician family). Yet, insubstantial and phony as was, he did just fine with the populists who cheer on the filthy rich. That is because he is “likeable” — or so they (the pollsters) say.
There is no disputing taste and anything is possible, but it is fair to say that nobody on earth, except perhaps a few befuddled Mormons hunkered together in red states, could possibly think Mitt Romney likeable.
These considerations could be taken as an argument in favor of voting for Romney.
I would resist that conclusion however; and not just because I find it repugnant or because, in the final analysis, taking all the pros and cons into account, it’s probably a wash.
Here, then, is what I’m going to do and what I would urge others to do as well: instead of voting for the least bad feasible alternative, whoever that is, I’m voting Green.
For several decades now, the Green Party has put forth a sustained effort to break out of the duopoly’s debilitating grip, and to advance a progressive agenda. Their ticket this time around – Jill Stein for President and Cheri Honkala for Vice-President – is impressive. They will get my vote.
Because the Stein-Honkala ticket is a non-feasible alternative, voting for them doesn’t exactly resolve the quadrennial problem we Americans face, and it’s an option not available in all states. But where the Greens do have ballot access, voting Green is better than writing in the name of a pet or, for that matter, a person not on the ballot. It makes a better statement.
And, like those other choices, it avoids the meretricious temptations of lesser evilism. Best of all, it doesn’t involve Mitt Romney.
It may not help much – it might just seem a pointless gesture — but at least it can’t hurt.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).