These are bleak times on both sides of America’s partisan divide.
It’s not looking good for the Republican establishment; their (ever less) useful idiots have taken charge of the GOP, and the hooligans are out of control. But the plutocrats who enlisted them can’t or won’t jump ship. Greed rules; and, despite all Obama’s efforts to prove them wrong, they still believe that they can better enrich themselves with Republicans calling the shots.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, enthusiasm is in short supply, especially in the party’s more progressive quarters; and there seems to be no chance that any left challenge, or indeed any challenge at all, will be launched against President Obama and the rightward-drifting party he leads.
Liberals, along with African Americans, Hispanics and the other constituencies that elected Obama in 2008 – and the “independents” he assiduously courts — are more than a little down on the Great Capitulator. But count on them, as Obama and his advisors do, to close ranks behind him. It is an abject posture. But, for all but a handful of ambivalent dissenters, it seems reasonable nevertheless, given what the Republicans are likely to put on offer.
Thus the 2012 election is shaping up to be a contest in which both parties will advance what their saner members regard as lesser evils. This has become the norm in our political culture, though never quite so starkly as now, inasmuch as the evils involved have seldom, if ever, been so plain.
For the plutocrats behind the GOP and those who identify with them, the problem will just be to stay on board, despite a yawning cultural divide. This has been and should continue to be easy, so long as the belief persists that a more dignified, or more snobbish, stance would cost them. In other words, unenlightened self-interest should see them through – at least until November 2012. It doesn’t hurt either that, on the issue of paramount concern to the pillars of the Republican establishment, enhancing the wealth and power of their class, there is a meeting of minds. Despite the “populist” tone of Tea Party blather and the theocratic leanings of so-called values voters, the motley that comprises the GOP base agrees on at least this: that public policy should serve plutocrats to the hilt.
Establishment Democrats are not so lucky because their party’s base hardly sees eye to eye with them – especially when it comes to wooing the rich and powerful or succumbing to the dictates of the military brass and the lobbies that own Congress. Party loyalties count for something. But, for the most part, the Republican Party stays together, despite enormous cultural contradictions, because its several constituencies agree on fundamental policy questions; the Democrats stay together for lesser evil reasons only.
By definition, a lesser evil is better than a greater evil. But it’s a long way from that truism to the idea that it is always better that Democrats beat Republicans. And even if, in some generally agreed sense, Democrats are better than Republicans in all or almost all instances, and granting that Obama is sure to be less onerous than whomever he runs against, it doesn’t automatically follow that they or he should be supported now or even, in the atomized solitude of the voting booth, on election day.
If it is by their fruits, not their roots, that we know them, it is not always obvious, even in hindsight, who the lesser evil in a presidential contest is. Let’s concede, though, that, in recent decades, the Republican candidates have been worse. Was it therefore better that Bill Clinton beat Bush I and then Robert Dole or even that Barack Obama beat John McCain? And would it have been better if Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry had won? I would venture that a positive answer is certain only for the 2004 election, when the sheer awfulness of George Bush was already in full display; then “anybody but Bush” was an apt principle. In each of the other years, including 2008, the answer, though probably Yes, is far from obvious.
That’s because just having a lesser evil in the White House is only part of a larger story, and not taking the whole picture into account can be seriously misleading.
Democratic administrations generally do make better lower level appointments than Republican administrations do, and that can matter to real people in countless ways. But Democrats also tend to rally around their leader and so, when the leader is spineless, their characteristic pusillanimity rises many-fold. This is what we have witnessed since 2008. And it is why Wall Street Democrats like the Clintons and Obama have a good argument; they can deliver for plutocrats better than Republicans can because they are able, as Republicans are not, to demobilize the opposition.
That’s one thing Obama has been good at. But he couldn’t have done it without many willing accomplices. If, over the next few years, we finally lose what remains of New Deal and Great Society reforms, of American capitalism’s best efforts to date to assume a human face, it is not just Obama and his advisors who will be at fault. Liberals will have much to answer for too; for it is their reflexive lesser evilism that will have brought us to that sorry state. Was Robert Frost right when he said that liberals are too “broadminded” to take their own side in a quarrel? It sure looks that way.
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. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.