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In ancient Greece, an “apology” was a formal speech presented by a defendant in a legal proceeding; thus Plato recounted Socrates’ defense against charges of impiety and corrupting the youth in a dialogue called “The Apology.” Early Christian writers used the term to refer to formal justifications of theological positions. They produced “apologia” directed, in the first instance, to pagans, heretics, schismatics and other non-believers. This usage was revived in the late Middle Ages and continues in theological circles to this day.
Of course, this is not how the word is mainly used. In English and other modern languages, to apologize is to beg forgiveness. This usage has become so pervasive that even when people use the word in its original sense, it is usually to designate a special kind of defense – one that aims to deflect the idea that there is something to seek forgiveness for.
In 2008, there were no Obama apologists, only enthusiasts. This was because candidate Obama was adept at turning himself into a Rorschach figure upon whom Bush-weary voters projected their hopes. But his administration dashed those hopes, and so if there is to be any enthusiasm for him at all in the upcoming election, he will have to rely on apologists to provide it.
To be sure, with Mitt Romney or worse for an opponent, Obama can win without enthusiasts; all he need do is remain the lesser evil in the minds of everyone to the left of Congressional Republicans. This is not a hard standard to satisfy. Democratic Party cheerleaders have therefore been able to fear-monger since Day One. They are at it full blast every weekday evening on MSNBC and Current TV.
The Republican leadership is easy prey, but they seem almost reasonable compared to the Tea Partiers and theocrats, and birthers and other loony tunes, who comprise the Republican “base.” And as if that wasn’t enough for the likes of Rachel Maddow, the sell became even easier once the primary season got underway. No need, any longer, to castigate Republican obstinacy; it suffices now just to report on how, as the saying goes, the scum rises to the top.
But lesser evilism won’t do for the public face of a presidential campaign in full throttle. Even if the Obama candidacy has nothing more going for it than the current incarnation of Mitt Romney, Democrats can hardly put up yard signs to advertise that sorry state of affairs. They must at least try to accentuate the positive.
The problem is not just that lesser evil arguments are problematic at best. It is that they are also poor motivators because they induce apathy, not conviction. Republicans have this problem too. But if Obama and those who depend on his victory want to sleep easier
between now and November, they will need an extra something, and they have nowhere to go for it but to the apologist’s corner.
Apologia aim to convince the unconvinced but, ironically, in politics as in theology, they work better at shoring up the faith of those already on board than at winning over those who are not. There is little chance that Obama will again fire up his base, but clever apologetics might just keep a few sparks alive.
For the “moderates” whom he tries so hard to please, lesser evilism remains Obama’s best, perhaps his only, hope. Whether he will be able to capitalize on that hope in what Gore Vidal aptly calls the United States of Amnesia depends on Romney’s transformations between now and November. There is little his apologists can do.
Obama apologists are already at work so, even now, we know what wares they will be peddling. Too bad for them that none of what they have to offer is even remotely convincing, except insofar as the case they concoct for Obama collapses back into a case against Romney; in other words, back into lesser evilism.
* * *
Lesser evil arguments seem compelling because they are based on a tautology: that the best thing to do, when confronted with bad choices, is to opt for the one that is least bad. This is indisputable. However what lesser evilists take from this simple logical point is anything but.
In the contest between Democrats and Republicans, labor leaders have been in the clutches of lesser evil thinking for decades, and well-intentioned liberals have long been prone to its temptations. Only on the far right are there significant numbers of voters who are immune.
Nevertheless, lesser evilism is deeply, perhaps fatally, problematic. Because its shortcomings have been discussed so often in CounterPunch lately, the issue hardly needs retelling here. I will only say enough to shed light on the forms and limits of Obama apologetics.
One problem with lesser evilism is that it can, and often does, unleash a pernicious dynamic in which choices become progressively worse. This is not inevitable, but it is very likely in a political culture like ours where highly polarized but ideologically similar party organizations compete for the same corporate dollars.
In these circumstances, the party that does the most for the one percent (actually just a fraction of the one percent), by doing the most to disable democratic institutions and to undermine redistributive social policies, often wins. This shifts the spectrum to the right because where one party goes, the other follows. The problem is made worse when when one side, the Republican, aggressively pursues a retrograde social agenda. Add a Democratic president obsessed with “bipartisanship” and a downward slide is, in practice, all but inexorable.
Another problem is that lesser evil thinking is typically myopic; lesser evilists compare candidates only and not the larger consequences of electing one candidate or another. Even granting that Democrats usually (or always) field better candidates than Republicans. Democrats in Congress and elsewhere are plainly better when standing up against a Republican president than when standing behind one of their own. This is why the overall consequences can be and often are better when the candidate who seems worse from a narrowly myopic point of view comes out on top.
Even from that vantage point, it is not always clear who the lesser evil is; it isn’t automatically the Democrat. Was Bill Clinton really better (less bad) than Bush the father or, for that matter, Bob Dole? Perhaps, but it would not be far-fetched to argue the opposite. Even in 2000, viewed prospectively, it was by no means obvious that, compared to Al Gore, George W. Bush was the greater evil.
Of course, by 2004 it had become clear that Bush was as bad as it gets, and that anybody, even John Kerry, would be better. But had some figure less Rorschachian than Obama – Hillary Clinton, for instance — run against John McCain in 2008, it would again have been debatable who the lesser evil was. Barring something unforeseen between now and the Republican convention this summer, 2012 looks on course to be another 2004. This fact plus incumbency makes it Obama’s election to lose.
But, again, “Better than Romney” is not a slogan around which to rally a campaign. Therefore, Obama apologetics matter, especially to a base that is or ought to be aware that “moderate” Republicans, like Mitt’s father George, were at least as progressive as the Obama administration has been or that Republican woman, like Mitt’s mother Lenore, were better defenders of reproductive rights and bolder feminists than most Democrats today.
* * *
There is a strain of Obama apologetics that is untouched by lesser evil considerations – the kind that argues that, appearance to the contrary, there is reason to enthuse over Obama after all. The problem for those who would argue this way is just that they are hard put to come up with examples.
This is because Obama has no positive accomplishments of significance that aren’t encumbered with harms that nearly (or entirely) cancel the benefits. Obamacare (essentially Romneycare at a federal level), supposedly the signal achievement of Obama’s administration to date, is a good example.
This so-called health care reform is really just health insurance reform. Though ameliorative in many respects, it also enhances the power of health care profiteers and the health insurance industry. This is not a good thing at all. And so, whatever the Supreme Court finally decides, for example, on the constitutionality of the so-called individual mandate, it is hardly to Obama’s credit that the law would force individuals to enrich for-profit insurers even if, on balance, they are better off for doing so.
Had Obama insisted on the “public option,” the harm would have been mitigated. Had he proposed Medicare for all or some other state run or state regulated single-payer system, the harm would vanish entirely. But that was off the table from the get go, and it was nearly as obvious that the public option was never anything more than a bargaining chip that Obama’s pro-corporate advisors, not just Rahm Emanuel, were ready, even eager, to discard as soon as they could.
Similarly, by buying Israel off with weaponry, Obama probably has succeeded in warding off an Israeli attack on Iran at least until the election is over. This is unquestionably a good thing: for the time being, it avoids a catastrophe for the peoples of the Middle East, including Israelis, and it saves a fragile world economy from a devastating shock. But this achievement too comes at great cost.
To gain Israel’s acquiescence, Obama endorsed its view of Iran – as an “existential threat” that must not be permitted to acquire even the capacity to build a nuclear deterrent. This is not a ‘solution’ to the problem of Israel’s paranoia-fueled bellicosity and its need to perceive itself as besieged. It is a temporary fix that could lead to future consequences of even greater danger than the ones Obama seems for now to have avoided.
There are countless other examples. It seems that whenever Obama achieves anything beneficial, it comes with consequences that, to put it mildly, complicate the final reckoning.
There is another type of apology, also untainted by lesser evil considerations, that was heard a lot as the Obama administration took shape in the period between his election and Inauguration Day and that continued to be voiced in the early days of his presidency: the idea that Obama is a master-strategist and tactician who, like the godfather, keeps his friends close and his enemies closer – the better to achieve the “change” voters thought he promised. Following an electoral campaign that was masterfully run, this argument once enjoyed a certain appeal within the ranks of the willfully blind. But it is so plainly dissociated from the facts on the ground that, by now, it seems patently absurd.
Don’t be surprised though if, out of sheer desperation, some ingenious pundit doesn’t try to claim that Obama’s first term was just a clever ruse, preparing the way for a Second Coming of the glory days of the New Deal and Great Society. But, by now, this would soon be recognized for the tall tale it is: even with one born every minute, there aren’t nearly enough suckers out there still naïve enough to be taken in.
For Obama supporters anchored in reality, the fact that there is nothing Obama has done that can be unequivocally praised undoes the prospect of a plausible freestanding defense of his candidacy. The best they can do is put a positive spin on a lesser evil case.
Drawing on antecedents in the Christian apologetic tradition, the great German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) argued with great cogency for the sublimely implausible claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds. This was the view that Voltaire famously satirized in Candide (1759).
Properly understood, Leibniz’s theodicy — his attempt to reconcile imperfection and evil with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good God and, in so doing, to justify God’s ways to humankind — is not as preposterous as it seems. This is because, as Marx would say, the “rational kernel” implicit in his reasoning can be disengaged from the theological doctrines it aims to sustain.
Thus the idea that, in theoretically specifiable respects, things are as good as can be has a continuing appeal. To cite just one unlikely example, the core contention of Marx’s theory of history — that epochal historical transformations, from feudalism to capitalism, for example, or from capitalism to socialism, institute economic structures that are optimal for the level of development at the historical moment when they occur is a variant of Leibniz’s position.
Few, if any, Obama apologists would welcome pointing out affinities between their views and Marx’s, but the fact remains that their best efforts to put a positive spin on what is, at root, a lesser evil argument have a similar structure. Their idea is that, mainly for economic reasons, Obama did about as well as anyone could in the circumstances he confronted; in other words, that he was, at least approximately, the best of all possible presidents.
The argument for this unlikely conclusion appeals to the nature and extent of the constraints Obama confronted. Some of those constraints are common to all states in capitalist societies, some are peculiar to capitalist development in the present period. Others are less expressly economic — having to do with governmental structures and processes, and with the exigencies of interest-group politics. Some are consequences of our system of campaign financing.
How constraining are these constraints? There is no general answer; everything depends on circumstances of time and place. But two things are clear:
First, that the expectations Obama raised as a candidate and dashed as a president are certainly realizable under the kinds of constraints he confronted. We know this because those hopes were not for anything unprecedented but for the restoration of what has been lost in the recent past. There is no systemic reason why we can’t have as much rule of law or economic equality – or, for that matter, as much peace and transparency and real democracy — as we used to enjoy.
The other plain fact is that, upon assuming office, Obama possessed an abundance of political capital that was unprecedented in recent American history, and that he squandered it utterly. Perhaps the historical opportunity that was missed is now irretrievable. But the fact that it was there to be exploited not long ago belies the idea that Obama governed as well as anyone could.
It is also clear that arguing for Obama on these grounds is not a promising way to address the enthusiasm deficit Obama apologists aim to overcome. The more it is argued that the constraints a president faces are bound to undo efforts to make changes for the better, the less reason there is to care which way the election goes. If presidents can only influence outcomes in marginal ways, why should anyone take more than a marginal interest in an election’s results?
Of course, it could be argued that while presidents are not able to do much that they don’t need to apologize (beg forgiveness) for, they can make situations worse than need be. George W. Bush could then be adduced as a case in point. The awfulness of Bush-Cheney rule was reason enough to vote against Bush and Cheney, and the Republicans are now doing their level best to make it a reason to vote against their nominee this time around. But if this is the line where Obama supporters want to take their stand, they will have effectively given up on Obama apologetics. The idea that one should vote for Obama for the sake of damage control is lesser evilism pure and simple.
And so, we are back where we began: with Mitt Romney (or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum) being the only reason to vote for Barack Obama. In all likelihood, that will be reason enough to assure him a second term. But it is not a good reason or, rather, a good sort of reason – because reasons of that sort, lesser evil reasons, can be, and usually are, disabling, especially in the long run.
Right-wingers know this, even if they don’t know much else. The time is past due for this awareness to make inroads on the left as well — not just on the hard left, but among the 99% plus who truly can make change for the better.
As in elections past, those of us who live in states whose electoral votes are effectively out of play, whether because the Democrat is sure to win or sure to lose, have always been able to reject lesser evilism without misgivings. Now, courtesy of Mitt Romney, so can everyone else. It would be different if there were enough of us out there genuinely to make the outcome worse by not siding with Obama. This is what Democratic Party chauvinists and fretful liberals fear. But if we really had the power to do that, the political scene would be entirely different and we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.
The task ahead is to get to the point where what we do really can be decisive. To that end, we should take advantage of the fact that there are enough of us already if not to make a difference, then at least to make a point. Never before, has it been possible to do so with so little lesser evil inspired hesitation.
In 2000, a vote for Nader was not a vote for Bush, no matter what Gore apologists claim. Even more surely, in 2012, a vote for Jill Stein, the likely candidate of the Greens, or for any genuinely progressive alternative to Barack Obama, will not be a vote for Romney, Gingrich or Santorum. The GOP has seen to that. There is not a Republican on earth — not even Romney, with all the practice he has had – who is a good enough flip flopper to win for them now.
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, forthcoming from AK Press.