We can’t doubt the prima facie seductiveness of lesser evil (LE) thinking. Faced with two alternatives, one “good” and the other “bad”, why of course you go for the good. Isn’t it just as obvious that if you are faced with the misfortune of having to choose between two evils, and one is not as bad as the other, you should cast your lot with her? No, it is not at all obvious. You have to go past what is presented prima facie. Sometimes what we observe reveals its true colors only after we have dug out its implications. And its implications are often evident only after a bit of Logic 101. Our liberal acquaintances don’t do implication-digging. Pity, since one need not dig too far, and you don’t need a degree in Philosophy to go for the shovel.
Debates about LEism typically arise when it is taken as given that the choice is and must be between a Democrat and a Republican. This assumption begs the most pressing questions, but let that go for now. Even on Democratic terrain, the implications of LEism are unbearably embarrassing. The liberal Democrat is happy to affirm that a Republican will always be worse than any Democrat. Now I disbelieve that, but let’s give the devil his due. So we concede that a Republican is always worse than a Democrat. But we also underscore what is built into this concession: because there are no finite limits to the possibilities of greater badness, it follows that no matter how bad the Democrat may be, the Republican will be worse. Thus, on the LE principle, one knows in advance that, however bad the Democrat may be, she will always -always- get the Party loyalists’ support. The commitment to the Democrat alternative requires no thought or empirical investigation into, e.g. what the Democrat’s political agenda, values, policies might be. No need for that. The Republican will always be worse. End of story.
LE Thinking Would Render Any Politics Tolerable
If this does not ring a bell, you haven’t had 5 minutes of political discussion with a liberal Democrat. The thing is, these people will tolerate anything – from the Party, because the other Party will always make the favored jackanapes look comparatively good. And there is the rub. LE thinking renders inoperative the notion of the intolerable. No moral or political system has lacked this concept. It’s never the case that anything goes morally and politically. A good part of what defines one’s moral and political integrity and identity is where one draws the line de-marking the tolerable from the impermissible.
But no politics can be intolerable to the liberal. (S)he will, and must, swallow whatever is fed. But that can’t be right. Are we to believe that no line is to be drawn between politics that are legitimately debatable, and policies that are beyond the pale, off the page, unacceptable under any circumstances? Not only is this stance out of accord with what everyone believes, but its logic would rule out a-priori the kind of questions that were raised by students in France 1967, and have reappeared on the page now -in the wake of endless wars, the protracted economic crisis, and the legitimation of discussions of ‘socialism’ as a result of the Sanders campaign- as to whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the kind of society we live in. We are to be disallowed from asking whether the defining systemic arrangements of “our” political economy are disadvantageous to most people, whether the existing settlement has outlived whatever usefulness it once had, and can be sustained only at the expense of the vast majority who lack effective political and economic power, whether some of the defining features of any form of capitalism are intolerable.
Reintroducing The Intolerable and With It the Big Issues
But in fact LE thinking has in these very dark times failed to rule out these Big Questions across the board. Among the Party faithful LE has indeed successfully proscribed critical heterodox thinking. But the Party acolytes are now fewer in number than they have been in living memory. Not only are the two presidential aspirants unpopular, but the Parties themselves are under a disdain I’ve not seen in more than three quarters of a century. The door is now at long last open to inquiry into whether the entire Establishment is committed to the neoliberal re-making of America along lines that we must regard as intolerable.
The Occupy and Sanders movements bespeak a deep sense that something is wrong beyond this or that particular policy. It is not an uncommon belief that wealthy elites have bought Capital (sic) Hill, that policy is made largely in the interests of Big Money. Multiple surveys indicate that the Congress and the press are mistrusted to the hilt. A great many liberal economists accept Thomas Piketty’s argument that capitalism as it normally operates, and with no market failures, systemically generates ever-widening inequality and, eventually, anti-democratic rule by a dynastic plutocracy. Thus, it’s not all that surprising that the Sanders phenomenon has triggered what was inconceivable one or two years ago, a new discussion among non-radicals of socialism. Yes, ‘socialism’ remains vague and undefined in popular discussion, but for the first time since the 1930s it’s not uncommon for “ordinary people” to be discussing this very question. Among these people are lapsed and on-the-fence formerly self-styled liberals.
A fruitful course for this discussion would rule out LE strategies by introducing the notion that some political alternatives are in fact intolerable, that these very alternatives are essential to the present political-economic settlement, and that LE thinking disallows us to entertain these thoughts. Such a conversation will be protracted, will persist through a number of presidential campaigns, a number of economic crises, a number of increasingly unpopular wars – occasions when relatively large-scale popular political questioning is most common. New stage settings are historically common, but they do not happen overnight.
Putting new scenery in place should begin with values and political arrangements shared with those with whom fruitful discussion about unfamiliar and once-threatening alternatives -like the desirability of socialism- is possible. I asserted above that “everyone believes” that some political positions are intolerable. The restoration of Jim Crow is intolerable. Forbidding women the vote is intolerable. It is not unusual in our times that the no-brainer examples of the intolerable tend to cluster around race and gender issues, or philosophy-class ones like “Another holocaust would be intolerable.” Once-uncontroversial intolerables about class seem to have been forgotten. But the forgotten can be remembered. Here is an example.
Social Security is absolutely essential to the well being of America’s elderly and retired. Without it, almost half of this contingent would be living in poverty. Not long ago it was a truism that undermining Social Security was intolerable. Social Security was commonly called “the third rail of American politics”; messing with that program was held to be a political kiss of death. Eisenhower wrote about Social Security in a November 8, 1954 letter to his brother Edgar:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws… you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Ike’s words still ring true for virtually all Americans, but it is no longer “a tiny splinter group” that would whittle away at Social Security. Bill Clinton in cahoots with Newt Gingrich tried to begin its privatization -a beautiful example of the “bipartisan consensus” Obama holds so dear- but was foiled by the Lewinsky scandal. Obama continued the effort to normalize the intolerable by appointing as co-chairs of his 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, put together with a charge to “address the growth of entitlement [read: social] spending,” two longtime enemies of Social Security, one of whom described Social Security recipients as “greedy geezers.” Based on the Commission’s rigged change in the cost of living measure, the president went on to encourage a reduction of benefits.
LE thinking won’t allow these reminders to get off the ground. How many liberal Democrats have spoken out loudly and clearly against two Democratic presidents’ signing off on the shrinking of Social Security and the beginning of its creeping privatization?
Is it tolerable that Washington is whole hog committed to global hegemony, Full Spectrum Dominance (FSD), with America’s elites calling the shots in every region of the world? From this it follows that Washington should wield predominant power in, e.g., China’s and Russia’s neighborhoods. The point has been stated explicitly by key Establishment figures. Since policymakers are obsessed with prevailing in what they regard as the fastest growing and soon to be largest consumer-goods markets in the world, intense competition is inevitable among these great powers. American would-be hegemony will be challenged. It is the insistence on FSD that makes this expected outcome an occasion for military confrontation and a war far more expansive and intense than the nation-destroying devastation in process now.
Nuclear war is a threat now as it has not been since the Cuban crisis. (In a forthcoming article I discuss the step-by-step path to nuclear confrontation looming now.) The knee-jerk bellicosity of president Hillary Clinton greatly increases the probability of a major large-scale war. This is intolerable. But it is merely the latest in a series of global disasters in the making that must attend the imperial ambitions that are inseparable from capitalism as a global system. Capitalism features three war-generating combined detonators: the system must expand globally, it requires a hegemonic power to manage its contradictions and hegemony is never uncontested. Competition for imperial supremacy has given us two World Wars and countless regional conflicts. Are the conditions making for another conflagration tolerable? Surely not. But if these conditions are endemic to capitalism…..
LE thinking does not merely commit liberals in principle to a LE worse than the last LE, its logic does not permit the mind to wander in the directions elaborated above. It makes our world the only possible world. And the only possible world is ipso facto the best possible world. Dr. Pangloss has traditionally been a model of ridicule-worthiness. LE is no less so.