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I just concluded a brief phone conversation with a MoveOn activist. It’s an election year, and her natural and obvious goal was to promote Barack Obama’s cause in November. She did not say much, however, and did not have a chance to speak at length, for when I heard Obama’s name after her organization’s name, I told her that I would never vote for Obama.
“Why,” she asked.
“Because he’s a war criminal, a promoter of authoritarian government, a tool of Wall Street and an opponent of authentic health care reform, among many other reasons,” I replied.
There was a brief silent moment which I used to punctuate my claim that “I [was] criticizing Obama from the left.”
I told her this because I did not want her to consult her talking points when she formulated her response.
She didn’t. In fact, she was shocked, and indicated that she could not understand why anyone on the left would criticize the President.
And that’s one problem with those progressives who tie their political fate to the Democratic Party and its candidates. They lack imagination. Their commitment to a pseudo-pragmatic electoral strategy binds them to a corrupt Democratic Party, to its commitment to war-making abroad, the security-surveillance state at home, to elite lawlessness, to a general austerity, a predatory economic system and the oligarchs who own them.
They are blind to the false dilemma inherent in the lesser evil principle. Why is the dilemma false? Firstly, the Democratic and Republican Parties do not exhaust the political options available to America’s nominally free citizens. Secondly, whereas the policies of the two parties differ on this or that issue and their constituencies differ, they are not so distinct that they differ in kind. The Democrat and Republican Parties are system affirmative entities, and reflect this fact. Voting for a candidate of one party thus affirms the core principles of the other party. This point expresses the gist of George Wallace’s “not a dime’s difference” evaluation of the two legacy parties. Thirdly, both parties form a party system which affirms and reproduces the larger political system of which they are a part. They accomplish these goals because they and the elections they contest operate as filters which eliminate the political opposition as an electoral force while thereby producing legitimacy for the results of the election and for the political system as a whole. Barack Obama was elected President. He legitimately occupies the office of the President. Outsiders — Ralph Nader and his kind — typically are shunned and ridiculed. The party system reproduces itself, and changes little. An authentic democratic politics can be found only in the streets. Sheldon Wolin thus identified the early 21st century American political system as an inverted totalitarian regime, a system without an opposition. Fourthly, there are situations, electoral contests and political choices that feature lesser evils which are too evil to tolerate. A lesser Hitler remains a Hitler. An Obama acts like a Bush. A Clinton works hard to complete the Reagan Revolution. War, war crimes and lawlessness; mass murder, suppression of dissent and incarceration of whistleblowers; social austerity, economic predation and personal hardship — these are some of the policies and policy outcomes which MoveOn supports when it thumps the tub for Barack Obama.
The lesser evil principle acquires its persuasive force when one considers the New Deal and Great Society reforms which once marked the history of the Democratic Party. One may suspect that Americans who voted for Obama and “change you can believe in” affirmed the collective memory of and institutional residues left over from these past victories. But these memories are mostly just memories. The New Deal State and the political culture which supported it parted ways decades back. Militarism and empire, finance capital and the capitalist class pushed labor and the lesser sort to the margins of the Democratic Party. This is the place where one will find MoveOn and the like. Rahm Emanuel once denounced them as “fucking retarded.”
The ideologically committed liberal should ponder well Emanuel’s words and insolence.
Stephen Zielinski can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.