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Lesser Evilism, 2012


At this time of year it is not uncommon to become wistful and look back at the time that has passed, but oddly enough, I find myself becoming nostalgic for the time of the last Bush administration. I remember it as a time when people still expressed opposition to a regime that had contempt for them. It was scarcely possible to be in any social setting without people grumbling about Bush and expressing their disgust, even people of an apolitical nature.  How freely the “F”-word, fascist, was bandied about!  Anti-Bush sentiment permeated the culture to such an extent that there were even books written discussing the merits of assassinating the president……and that was just the pacifists!*

Now, even mild expressions of disapproval are largely absent. These days who is saying she is ashamed to be from Hawaii, Chicago, Kansas, Indonesia? Or that Obama doesn’t care about black people? Who is singing “Let’s Impeach the President”?  Occupy Wall Street is putting up a struggle and there are other pockets of resistance, but within the electoral system:

the citizens

don’t want to put up a defense

they enroll in accelerated courses

in falling to their knees**

Almost weekly, progressives and liberals are faced with some new “betrayal”, but they appear unable to rebel, bound by the self-imposed limits of the concept of the lesser of two evils.  Obama may be bad, they say, but the Republican will be much worse.  Many people appear to be absolutely committed to this pessimistic short term approach to a bleak situation and so will always vote for whomever they consider to be less damaging: Pinochet versus Duvalier, Suharto versus Saddam, Idi Amin Dada versus Mobutu Sese Seko. No matter how bad the choices, the doctrine of lesser evilism compels them to choose, they cannot opt out.  It seems appropriate to refer to this group as “purists”.

I suspect that many who claim to make such a clearheaded appraisal actually possess a predetermined bias, and so believe the Democrats’ evil, as if an equation from a calculus text, can approach ever closer, but can never cross the Republicans’ axis. In order to effectively engage these people, however, one must take them seriously and try to answer the question of who is actually the lesser evil. I would begin by suggesting that although it used to be taken for granted that Bush was the worst president ever, in those areas in which the president is able to operate without the need for 60 senators, Obama has actually been worse.  To test this notion, a simple question for the purists: Can you name one country on the planet where the policies of Obama have been less militaristic than those of Bush? (Expect either Iraq[hah!] to be offered in response, or a very long pause.) In the area of civil liberties we can echo Obama’s hero and ask: Is the Bill of Rights better off today than it was 3 years ago? This should “frame” the discussion for introducing as much detail as you desire, or, given the level of ire so many of this group possess, is allowed.

In these two areas most at the mercy of the unitary executive those at the outer edges of dissent among the Democrats seem to have it precisely backwards—Bush was Obama lite.  But we must remember that George W. Bush is not running in 2012, that unless Dick Cheney makes a last minute entrance into the race, Obama will be competing with someone who has not prosecuted illegal wars, rained down missiles on the heads of civilians, had people incarcerated and killed without trial. So many of the Obama loyalists rely on the subjunctive mood to carry their argument about who is the lesser of two evils. It would be prudent to follow the lead of another president, who also received rather too much credit for being slicker than the Bush who preceded him, and pay strict attention to what the meaning of “is” is. By doing this, who is the lesser of two evils becomes quite clear.

But I should try not to be so rigid; let’s play along and try to divine what the Republican candidate would do. Let’s imagine that the favorite, Mitt Romney, wins the election. Will he be a greater or lesser evil that our current president?  Their similarities have been often mentioned, most notably their health care plans. Similarities exist also in outward characteristics: Romney is seen as a slickly packaged empty suit with little of substance to offer; Obama has been frank that this applies to him as well, confessing in his writings to being a “blank slate”. There really aren’t so many ways we can be sure about Romney’s eventual policies– after all, it isn’t very wise to believe what any politician says. This fact of life actually would be slightly to Romney’s advantage—Obama lied to get the support of those to his left, whereas Romney is seeking support from those on his right, so it is probable that he would be not quite as evil in reality as he is promising on the campaign trail to be.  Liberals could also feel proud for supporting him and striking a blow against religious bigotry, regaining the good feelings they had in 2008.  In those matters where the president needs the support of congress, Romney would have to move to the left in order to get anything passed. In the seemingly unrestrained role as commander-in-chief we have no way of knowing what the real essence of Romney is that ultimately would be revealed if he were to reach the position of near absolute power.  It is feasible, I suppose, that he will turn out to match or even surpass the icy viciousness, the elegant brutality of Obama, but it is far from certain. What is certain is that, given what we know at this time, a vote for Obama in 2012 is a much greater evil than it was in 2008.

Michael Kaufman can be reached at:


*Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

**” Mr Cogito on Upright Attitudes”, Zbigniew Herbert, translation by Allissa Valles.

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