a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

How’s that lesser evil thing working out?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 12th, 2012

Welcome to your new country, where speaking loudly about losing your guaranteed right to trial
gets you arrested within minutes.

“Occupy Wall Street Protesters shout warnings of a creeping police state in Grand Central terminal and are
themselves quickly arrested for speaking in public.” —

It’s an even numbered year, so it’s time again for leftish pundits of every shade — from Democratic blue to radical red — to warn their angrier, more fed-up friends that we must choose the lesser evil within this political system, or bear the blame for the results. Thus we have digby writing in her blog “Hullabaloo”:

Unless you believe, as some do, that we must get on with our impending dystopian nightmare so that we can rebuild from the rubble (sometimes known as destroying the village in order to save it) this is probably a useful group of articles.

The articles are from a Washington Monthly issue on the topic “What if Obama Loses?”, and they complete the arc of the argument: you just don’t get how really bad a Republican win would be.  Either that or, to paraphrase digby’s charge, you must be some kind of irresponsible nihilist itching to zippo-raid the hooches of the American political system — probably just because you like to see stuff burn.

Now it is undoubtedly true that Republican candidates up and down the 2012 ballot will generally be a bunch of pinch-souled corporate lick-spittles, pious frauds, and incoherent cranks.  In a sane world — and judging mainly by their presidential candidates — they’d be fit at most to write daily letters to the editor or mutter about the slow service at McDonald’s.  In our world, however, their political prospects are good, “thanks” in part to the diarrheal eruption of campaign cash unleashed by the Citizens United ruling.

The life cycle of the Democratic base
The life cycle of the Democratic base

But “thanks” — regrets really — are also in order about the quality of their opposition.  And what’s remarkable is that if you read some of the “What if Obama Loses?” articles, that comes through just about as clearly as the intended “barbarians at the gates” message.

In what seems the most widely linked (hence presumably most persuasive) of the Washington Monthly articles, Dahlia Lithwick (whose coverage of the Supreme Court and civil liberties issues I truly admire) warns that Justice Ginsburg is 79 years old, ergo it had better be Obama who nominates her successor and not Romney.  So far, so unremarkable — but then she starts to discuss who’s manning the castle walls, as it were:

Imagine a Democratic presidential nominee running on promises to reshape, remake, make over, hog-tie, or even just refinish the federal bench. It doesn’t happen. And so, even though the most conservative Supreme Court in decades sits poised to decide cases ranging from the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care legislation to the future of affirmative action in schools, the rights to gay marriage, and the fate of the voting rights act, Republicans portray both the Supreme Court and the lower courts as a collective of lefty hippies. And Democrats mainly just look at their fingernails. If you care about the future of abortion rights, stem cell research, worker protections, the death penalty, environmental regulation, torture, presidential power, warrantless surveillance, or any number of other issues, it’s worth recalling that the last stop on the answer to each of those matters will probably be before someone in a black robe. Republicans have understood that for decades now, and that’s why the federal bench—including the Supreme Court—is almost unrecognizable to Democrats today. (emphases added)

So there you have it: our choice will be between evil Republicans and stupid, apathetic Democrats who don’t actually seem to care about the “last stop” in our political process.  And while court reporter Lithwick is somewhat imprecise about what she means by “Democrats”, the construction is such that it means “powerful Democrats” with similar potential to influence the judicial selection process.  I.e., this is about the political pros, not the base, which in my experience has been saying “The Supreme Court” as the number one reason to hold their nose and vote “Empty Suit for President” for decades now.

And yet not only do Democrats not fight the Roberts and Alito nominations, they also anoint a president who nominates milquetoast, centrist justices like Sotomayor and Kagan to murmur in quiet opposition to bombthrowers like Scalia and Thomas. More importantly, they and/or the president who leads them…

  • passed the FISA Amendment Act
  • passed — and have since reauthorized, at Obama’s request — the PATRIOT Act
  • have continued indefinite detention practices overseas pre-NDAA
  • have ratified and extended the reach of those practices with the NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions
  • failed to hold torturers and more importantly torture policymakers accountable
  • criminalized speech as ‘material support’ of terrorism
  • conducted drone missile assassinations without trial of Americans abroad
  • continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that should have ended sooner
  • increased military spending even as plausible threats diminished
  • continue to appoint financial industry foxes to guard the national interest henhouse

…and the list could go on — often (pace Jonathan Bernstein in a companion Washington Monthly article) in direct contradiction to the campaign rhetoric they ran on.  If the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that one side truthfully promises evil, and the other deceitfully promises good, surely it’s OK — perhaps even the right thing to do — to judge the difference too small to be worth calculating, and walk away from that Hobson’s choice?

So in reply to the handwringing pleas to hold your nose and vote Obama, I suggest that scenes like those Grand Central Terminal arrests in the video — and laws like the one these good people were protesting — are the fruits of accepting that kind of “lesser evil” advice, over and over and over and over again. It’s counsel that in my experience is usually given sincerely, and sometimes given angrily. But at long last, I think it is always given wrongly.  We don’t have to work, vote, and apologize for a mere lesser evil.  We need to finally work, vote, and advocate for a greater good.

IMAGE CREDIT (“Most Important Election Ever”): Jason Zanon for Democracy In Action, 2007 (link no longer works); I first used it here.
NOTE:  In my experience, critiquing “lesser evil” politics reliably deteriorates into a reliably stupid discussion of Nader, Gore and the 2000 election.  In such discussions, there seem to two kinds of people — those who think Nader cost Gore the election, and a remarkable few who think that perhaps it was Gore who cost Gore the election. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of the latter proposition, which this blog post is already too long to contain.

2 Responses to “How’s that lesser evil thing working out?”

  1. Joe Blunt Says:

    We are faced with a multi generational struggle for greater purity within the Democratic party. The party platform voted on in state caucuses is far more representative of the views of the base and yet the ‘pros’ do a lousy job of representing the platform.

    The GOP was in a similar situation in the early to mid 70s and it might be argued that things started to change for them with the emergence of an more extreme wing in their party and a media that represented these extremes.

    Maybe we need extreme left liberals getting more media exposure. I’m thinking about talking heads further to the left from Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann and their ilk.

  2. » Blog Archive » Change we can accomplish Says:

    […] more.  Let’s not just settle for the lesser evil every time.  Let’s take every possible opportunity to say and do and vote for the greater […]

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