What’s Wrong With Lesser Evilism

Socialist Worker Oct 27, 2012

Does Barack Obama deserve your vote? That's the question people on the left should be asking as Election Day approaches.

When you consider Obama's record after four years in office–a multi-trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street, the continuing "war on terror," more civil liberties shredded, the Employee Free Choice Act abandoned, deportations on the rise, a deepening assault on public schools–the answer has to be no. The list of broken promises and betrayed hopes goes on and on, outweighing anything that could be described as progress.

But this isn't the question being asked by most liberal and even radical voices. Instead, the question is: What will stop Romney and the Republicans? The Nation magazine didn't mince words in its urgent directive to "Re-elect the president":

A victory for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in November would validate the reactionary extremists who have captured the Republican Party…It would strike a devastating blow to progressive values and movements, locking us in rear-guard actions on a range of issues–from the rights of women, minorities, immigrants and LGBT people to the preservation of social insurance programs and a progressive tax structure.

Millions of people are sickened and scared by the thought of a Romney/Ryan victory in November. It doesn't take many minutes of listening to Romney or Ryan–and especially their fellow Republicans, who are even less careful with their reactionary ranting–to understand these fears.

But behind the calls to vote for the "lesser evil" in order to stop the "greater evil" are some beliefs that have been proven wrong by history.

One of them is the idea that voting for the Democrat does stop the "greater evil." Yet anyone who supported Obama in 2008 believing that a former law professor would at least end the Bush administration's assault on the Constitution will have a hard time explaining what's "lesser" about the evils the White House continues to perpetrate in the name of "homeland security."

Another is the notion that progressives have an easier time winning their goals with a Democrat in the White House. Actually, four years of Obama has proven the opposite–working people haven't seen anything close to the change they expected with his victory four years ago.

Generally speaking, Obama and the Democrats are the lesser evil in this election–on most issues, though not all. But leaving it there lets the Democrats off the hook. If the question is limited to picking which evil is lesser, then the Democrats can take their supporters to the left for granted–and shift more and more to the right in search of support from the political center or worse.

As the late historian Howard Zinn famously said, what matters most isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in. If working people and social movements aren't mobilized and struggling from below, then mainstream politics will be shaped by the pressure from above–by the demands and priorities of the ruling class.

There are two main thrusts to the lesser-evilism argument as it appears in places like the Nation. One is an exhortation to focus on the Democrats' "accomplishments," no matter how rare, modest or token they may be. The second is a call to "think of our movements" and how much harder it would be to achieve success with a Republican in the White House.

So what about those "accomplishments"? Obama has met some longstanding demands on certain issues–signing the Lily Ledbetter Act on pay equity for women, for example; dismantling the Pentagon's anti-gay "don't ask, don't tell" policy; issuing an executive order to temporarily implement the proposed DREAM Act providing a path to legal status for some undocumented immigrant youth.

These are positive steps. But it isn't being dismissive of them to make a few critical points.

First of all, Obama is running for reelection on the basis of some issues where he has done nothing at all–where he has, in fact, advanced the assault on working people.

Thus, the Nation says a Romney victory would lock the left into "rear-guard actions" on issues like "the preservation of social insurance programs"–that is, the Social Security retirement program and Medicare health insurance for the elderly.

Only Obama explicitly offered historic cutbacks in the Social Security and Medicare programs during the 2011 debt ceiling debate. His position on Social Security is so close to the "greater-evil" Republican agenda that he often doesn't claim a difference. In the first presidential debate, for example, when asked about Social Security, Obama said, "You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position."

As for the issues where Obama can claim "accomplishments," there are other problems. For one thing, Obama moved achingly slowly on LGBT rights. By the time "don't ask, don't tell" was finally overturned, an overwhelming majority of the public as a whole, including Republicans, opposed it.

Plus, the "accomplishments" should be judged against Obama's lack of action and outright betrayals on related issues. The Nation credits young immigrant activists fighting for the DREAM Act with "persuading the White House that a political directive halting deportations of young, undocumented immigrants was both good policy and good politics."

But the same administration carried out more deportations of undocumented immigrants than its Republican predecessors–meaning the parents of those same DREAM activists have faced a more dangerous and fear-filled life under Obama.

What's more, it should be remembered that Obama had to be pushed every step of the way to follow through on any promises at all. Obama's "evolution" to support for marriage equality is a prime example of how protest and activism–galvanized by the passage of Proposition 8 in California four years ago–put pressure on a Democrat who showed no signs of moving when he took office.

That's why his liberal supporters' focus on "what Obama has accomplished" gives credit where it isn't due.

Many liberals and progressives–including the Nation's editorial writers–acknowledge that Obama has been a disappointment on a number of questions. But they say we should still vote for him because our movements will be in a better position to accomplish our goals with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress.

Once again, this requires a selective memory about Obama's record. On some issues, Obama has delivered nothing at all. Like the Employee Free Choice Act that would have made it easier for workers to join unions–it was abandoned by the Democrats before it even came to a vote.

Obama and the Democrats took office in 2009 with control of the White House and the biggest majorities in both houses of Congress in a generation–and they did nothing at all on the most important legislative priority for the labor movement. So why is that our movements are better off with a Democrat in the White House?

The problem is that many liberal and progressive voices have stayed silent in the face of Democratic outrages.

If George W. Bush had carried out the extra-judicial assassination of a U.S. citizen (like Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a drone aircraft strike ordered by Obama) or signed legislation allowing indefinite detention without trial of U.S. citizens (like the National Defense Authorization Act), he would have been met with bitter protest. But the liberal establishment stayed silent as Obama put civil liberties through the shredder.

This is a classic pattern for liberalism when Democrats are in the White House. In a 2003 article for, Elizabeth Schulte documented the case of Bill Clinton:

After 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., the expectations of activists were raised by the prospects of having a Democrat in office. Clinton promised health care reform, protection of women's right to abortion and more rights for gays and lesbians.

But rather than create a better climate for activists concerned about these issues, under the Clinton administration, activism was all but suspended–always with the excuse that the Democrat in the White House needed more time to carry out his promises…

Clinton took the opportunity to shift further to the right. He let the Freedom of Choice Act die on the vine. And he accepted the rotten "don't ask, don't tell" compromise for gays in the military and signed off on the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton knew that he could move to the right because he wouldn't lose support on his left…

The victory of welfare "reform" is the best example of this process. Clinton's punitive 1996 welfare law was far worse than anything his Republican predecessors had tried–forcing millions of recipients into dead-end, low-wage jobs in the interest of poor people taking "personal responsibility" for their lives.

The Clinton administration, not Republicans, managed to shred the idea that the U.S. government was responsible for the welfare of the poor. And no liberal organizations lifted a finger. "If Ronald Reagan was doing this, they'd be dragging poor kids up to the White House in wheelchairs to oppose this," said an unnamed Clinton aide in 1994.

What the Nation and others advocating a vote for the lesser evil never consider is how their stance–undertaken in the hopes of defeating the right wing–enables the Democrats' shift further and further toward the right, because party leaders know they can take progressive voices for granted.

Alternative views aren't tolerated by the "party of the people." On the contrary, the Democrats typically save their nastiest venom not for Republicans, but for anyone who criticizes them from the left.

The one-time chief enforcer of the Obama White House, Rahm Emanuel, now the iron-fisted mayor of Chicago, seems to especially relish denouncing progressives who criticize the Democrats. His latest public pronouncement is that Obama was always a "war president"–and so anyone who believed he would end U.S. wars, close Guantánamo and protect civil liberties has only themselves to blame for their disillusionment.

Most base supporters of the Democratic Party despise Emanuel–or would despise him if they knew who he is. But Rahm's calculated insults reveal something about the perverse logic of "lesser evilism" that is accepted much more widely. Since the candidates of the Republicans and Democrats are deemed the only acceptable choices, anyone who stands outside the incredibly narrow spectrum of views is seen as the greater threat.

We need to learn the lesson that the Democrats aren't on our side–that in the U.S. electoral system, both Democrats and Republicans are committed to the interests of big business.

The problem isn't that the Democrats are too timid to fight. As left-wing writer Doug Henwood pointed out in a response to some of the Nation's election commentary:

Another recurrent feature of the ["lesser evilism"] genre: a lament over the Democrats' lack of spine, which is often treated as a curable condition. But in fact, the invertebrate status is a symptom of the party's fundamental contradiction: it's a party of business that has to pretend for electoral reasons that it's not. Related to that, it's getting harder to say what the party's core beliefs are. Republicans have a coherent philosophy–loopy and often terrifying, yes, but coherent–which they use to fire up an impassioned base. The Democrats can't risk getting their base too excited, lest it scare their funders.

The result, as Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald pointed out, is that mainstream politics is restricted to incredibly narrow limits:

Most of what matters in American political life is nowhere to be found in its national election debates…[B]y emphasizing the few issues on which there is real disagreement between the parties, the election process ends up sustaining the appearance that there is far more difference between the two parties, and far more choice for citizens, than is really offered by America's political system.

There are real differences between Obama and Romney. But those who want to see social change have to see that the two candidates and their parties agree about much more than they disagree about.

The politics of "lesser evilism" preached by the liberal establishment accepts the shift of the entire political debate to the right, because supporting the lesser evil requires muting the criticisms of activists and the left–ultimately, tailoring our movements and struggles to the needs of the Democrats, rather than demanding that the Democrats live up to the promises they make to win votes, or face the consequences.

As the U.S. socialist Hal Draper wrote, in an article about the 1964 presidential election, "[It] is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice."

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