The Illogic of Lesser Evilism

Barack Obama will likely be the lesser evil in the 2012 election.  That may be a reason to vote for him then; perhaps even a compelling reason in some circumstances.  But it is not a reason to support him now.

What follows is addressed to Obama supporters who disagree, “progressives” who think that it is illogical not to support the lesser evil.  To those who are in Obama’s camp and whose support is not of the lesser evil variety ? who think Obama’s presidency is good for liberty, equality and fraternity or that it is as good as can be in the circumstances he confronts, I can only say that, given all that has happened in the past two years, I find unambivalent support incomprehensible, and “panglossian” : support only slightly more plausible.


In Candide, Voltaire had the character Pangloss advance the view that ours is the best of all possible worlds.   This was a clever caricature of some important metaphysical doctrines of the great German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.   The idea that Obama is the best of all possible presidents, given the constraints under which he governs, is an unclever and, for most liberals who believe it, unwitting misapplication of the familiar Marxist account of the relation between political “superstructures” and the “economic base” they superintend.  Marx knew what Obama’s panglossian supporters evidently do not: that constraints are malleable, and that how malleable they are depends on contingent circumstances.   When Obama took office, after eight years of Bush-Cheney misrule, they had not been so malleable for decades.   So far from having done the best any American president could do in the circumstances, Obama squandered a rare historical opportunity.


Unlike his unambivalent and panglossian supporters, Obama’s lesser evil supporters have a point — though hardly a compelling one.  Their position rests on an unassailable principle: that if all that matters for choosing between X and Y is their relative merit, then one should choose the better (or less bad) of the two.  Other things being equal, that consideration would be dispositive.  But other things are usually not equal.  In this case, they certainly are not.


As a general rule, the worse the greater evil is, the more compelling lesser evil considerations become.  That was the case in 2004, when abhorrence of Bush and Cheney was the message many expressive voters wished to convey.  With the Tea Party making the GOP more dangerous than ever, the lesser evil argument is likely to seem irresistible again.  Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and every other Obama opponent in sight are living, breathing arguments for keeping Obama in the White House.  For Democratic Party cheerleaders, like Rachel Maddow and the other talking heads who populate the MSNBC evening lineup, that’s the whole story.  But they are wrong.  No matter how ridiculous ? and therefore scary — the alternative is, the case for supporting Obama, especially with the election more than a year and a half away, is far from conclusive; and scaring people into the Obama camp now is, to put it nicely, unhelpful.


Lesser evilism is ultimately illogical because lesser evil choices can and do affect future choices in ways that make the lesser evil down the road worse than the greater evil now is.  The process, which in its current incarnation began when Ronald Reagan became president, proceeded slowly enough to be difficult to discern.  Thus, as recently as 2008, it was still possible for ostensibly reasonable people to maintain the illusion that all that was needed to reverse the trend was a candidate upon whom hopes for “change” could be affixed.  Liberals were therefore able to deceive themselves into thinking that, with Obama’s election, the Reaganite effort to restore the untrammeled power of capitalists that popular movements throughout the twentieth century had progressively diminished ? a program implemented in bipartisan fashion by the Great Communicator himself and then by two Bushes and a Clinton — would soon be reversed.


That was an illusion in Freud’s sense, an unconscious expression of a wish; and what Freud called “the reality principle” has finally done it in.  It should now be obvious to all but the willfully blind that accumulated barely noticeable changes in the party of the New Deal and Great Society have become significant over time.  Who, looking back, can fail to see how much more willing Democrats have become to do what the titans of our capitalist system want them to do — not just out of pusillanimity or greed, though there is plenty of both in the lesser evil party, but from conviction as well.  The illogical logic of lesser evilism has played a role, a decisive one, in this general decline.


Since Obama’s election, the process has picked up speed.  Part of the problem is that incoherent Tea Party fury, conjured into being and then shamelessly exploited by our Gilded Age’s malefactors of great wealth, has spurred on the race to the bottom.   But Obama et. al., diligently tracking the rightward drift of their servile and mean-spirited  rivals, have much to answer for as well.


Thus it was that even in the darkest days of the Bush-Cheney torture regime, there was at least a pretense of intellectual and moral seriousness.  The neocons who called the shots in foreign and military policy fancied themselves intellectuals — disciples of Leo Strauss, a respectable political philosopher whom some of them had encountered as students.  Arguably, they misused Strauss’s ideas; and their guru was, in any case, a flawed thinker and scholar whom most philosophers never took seriously.  But he did attract an almost cultish following in a few prestigious political science departments in the United States and therefore did exercise some influence in academic circles.  Identifying with Straussian thinking may be a sign of poor philosophical judgment, but it is not evidence of off-the-wall lunacy.


One can hardly say the same for those who are drawn to the thinking Tea Partier’s cult intellectual, Ayn Rand.  Rand was at best an author of steamy second-rate novels, much read years ago by horny adolescent boys.  On this basis, her followers derive what they take to be a full-fledged philosophical system ? one that glorifies our greediest and most myopic capitalists.  Except for those who enjoy scoring easy victories, life is too short even to try to reconstruct their positions, much less to engage them philosophically.


The descent from Strauss to Rand is an especially egregious case of a general decline in political discourse that has carried down the Obama administration in tow.  Lesser evil logic, seen from the candidate’s vantage-point, has made Obama a willing participant in this moral and intellectual degradation.  Putting his reelection above all else, Obama and his advisors reason that to win in 2012 all he need do is stay one step to the left of his opponents.  They calculate that that will be enough to win over lesser evil voters, no matter how thoroughly Obama dashes their hopes and concerns.


Thus the erstwhile harbinger of “change” is now set on outdoing all past presidents in implementing the Reagan agenda. Count on Obama to keep on defunding the affirmative state and to keep regulation at bay.  Count on him to continue the wars he inherited and the ones he has started.  Count on him too to enhance the power of the “unitary executive” and to ride roughshod over the rule of law, not just overseas but in the “homeland” as well.


The result will be that everyone will suffer; except, of course, the super-rich, who will continue to make off like the bandits they are.  In the process, the lesser evil party’s role is especially pernicious.  On the whole, Democrats represent the quotidian interests of the bottom 98 per cent better than Republicans do.  But when it comes to rescinding the progressive achievements of the twentieth century’s popular, especially working class, struggles, it is less clear that “we, the people” are better off with Democrats running the show.


Were a Republican president to go after the last vestiges of the New Deal and Great Society ? Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security ? as George Bush attempted in 2005, or to escalate capital’s war on labor, Democrats would seize the opportunity to quash the attempt.   But a president who is a beneficiary of lesser evil logic can deflect public opinion enough for these and other Reaganite predations to go through.  This is why Bill Clinton was, to date, our most successful implementer of the Reagan agenda.  Now Obama is poised to surpass him.  He will too, unless the 98 per cent of the population who would be even worse off if Obama succeeds in this mission make it impossible for their “leaders” not to stop him in his tracks.


So far, though, these leaders are still, for the most part, enabling him.  Organized labor is especially culpable now that overreaching Republican governors and state legislators have backed workers up against the wall, shattering the idea that what’s good for the few at the very top is good for everyone else.   But, so far from forcing Democrats to change course, union leaders, along with other mainstays of the Democratic power structure, have taken it upon themselves to bring their members back into the Democratic fold.  Obama is counting on their continuing support, counting on them to demand nothing from him, and counting on the likelihood that they will succeed in getting their newly insurgent base to acquiesce.


Perhaps the Democrats will succeed in finding a way to put the genie back in the bottle; it’s what they’re good at.  But it won’t be easy for them this time around if they face a real threat of defection.  For no matter how much they tailor their words and deeds to appeal to “moderate” and “independent” voters, they can’t win if the voters they most take for granted are not there for them.


With no primary challenge in the offing and no credible “third party” to fear, it is not clear how a credible threat of defection might materialize.   One way, ironically, would be to listen to the Reagans.  They ? or, at least, their better half ? weren’t always wrong; and on this issue they actually have something useful to say.   When Obama’s minions come asking for support, we can, following the late Lady Gipper’s advice, “just say no.”  A few dissident union leaders have already done that.  It is a basis upon which to build.

Of course, saying No is no substitute for building a real alternative; but at this point, with an election looming, it is a quick and dirty way to launch a credible threat that just might make the lesser evil less evil.  This is why now is emphatically not the time to come to the aid of the Democratic Party.  Perhaps in a year and half, for the few minutes we spend in the voting booth, lesser evil logic will be less illogical than it now is.   But that will be then; this is now.  And now the first order of business is to break the fall into “bipartisan” lunacy.  To that end, it is crucial to realize that lesser evil thinking, so far from dictating what should be done, should itself be undone.  It is a part, a big part, of the problem we confront.

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.



ANDREW LEVINE is 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 (AK Press).