Elementary logic seems to demonstrate that self deception should be impossible. Deceiving others is not comparably paradoxical. When A deceives B, A causes B to believe what A believes to be false. Happens all the time. But how can anyone deceive herself, i.e. make herself believe (to be true) what she in fact believes to be false? She’d have to be both deceived and not deceived at the same time. Yet this too happens all the time. How is it possible?
Let’s tackle that brain teaser by reflecting on what is probably the most conspicuous examples of its operation in politics, the person who holds a position she tacitly knows to have logical implications she would disavow, and the person who puts forward plainly counterfactual descriptions of salient political realities. In both cases we find the kind of lesser-evil thinking that has become in these times indispensable to the true-believing Democratic Party liberal. I begin with the odd logic of lesser-evil thinking, and then move on to a remarkable recent instance of political self deception which almost certainly employs lesser-evil thinking as a means of disguising the incoherence of the political self deception at work.
The Logic of Lesser Evil Thinking
In America, the most familiar examples of lesser-evil thinking have to do with voting behavior. We can’t help caring about elections, which are the most common occasion for extended political discussion. That said, voting decisions do serve as the clearest example of lesser-evil thinking. Thus, I will use voting to illustrate the logic of lesser evilism.
We have heard it said countless times that while president Obama was a colossal let-down to his initial boosters, voting for him was imperative “given the alternative.” He may be “a disappointment,” but the other guy will be much worse. This is surely the reasoning behind the lesser evil apologist Let’s spell out the logic at work here. The thought pattern is clear enough to represent in the form of a deductive chain of reasoning from premises to conclusion:
1. The world of politics is coextensive with the range of possibilities permitted by the Democrat-Republican Party system. (To think otherwise is unrealistic, utopian, naïve and, worst of all, unpragmatic. The idea is to win, and right now the only possible winner is a Democrat or a Republican. To vote otherwise is to “throw away your vote.”)
2. Therefore, when voting the choice is always and only between a Republican or a Democrat. TINA.
3. There are no finite limits to the possibilities of greater badness. (However bad a policy might be, it could always be worse. ‘Worst possible policy’ is like ‘greatest possible number’. No such thing.)
4. However bad the Democratic candidate may be, the Republican will be worse. (well confirmed empirical generalization)
5. The lesser evil is always a better choice than the greater evil. (self-evident tautology)
6. Therefore, when voting the best choice is always the Democrat. (follows from 2-5.
Note that when the only choice is between a greater and a lesser evil, the lesser evil is not only the better choice, it is the best choice. How about that?)
7. However bad the Democrat is -and there are no limits to how bad he can be [cf. 3 above]- it’s always best to vote for him. (follows from 4-6)
8. It doesn’t matter how bad the Democrat is, I’ll vote for him. (follows trivially from 7) This capitulation has taken two forms in the Trump era. The first was Anyone But Trump. In order to drive home the dogma that any alternative to Trump must be a Democrat, the slogan became Blue No Matter Who.
9. Accordingly, I need know nothing more than that a candidate is a Democrat to justify voting for him. Being sufficiently informed about a candidate’s politics comes to… knowing whether he’s a Democrat! (follows from 7 and 8)
This little exercise in Logic 101 does not suggest that the voter is Mr. Spock, always and only moved by unadulterated reason. Outside of philosophy class no such creature is recognizably human. Still, while reasoning in accord with logical canons is not sufficient to render one’s thinking impeccable, it is necessary. Our lesser-evil liberal is unassailable on this ground: his conclusion does indeed follow from his premises. (Let’s ignore for the moment the problematic premises.) What is relevant to self deception is that the liberal pays a heavy price for constructing a valid inference from his premises to his desired conclusion, 6 above, that it is always best to vote for a Democrat. For the same line of reasoning that got him to 6 also sticks him with 7, 8 and 9, claims he will surely wish to disavow. (Ok, there are probably a few Democratic votaries out there who would, as the philosophers say, “swallow the reductio.” Since these specimens will have voluntarily embraced absurdity, we allow them to hold their peace.)
No one will unabashedly aver that he would vote Democrat whatever policies the latter might endorse. Nor would any liberal admit that the mere fact that a candidate is a Democrat is sufficient to win his vote. Perhaps especially in politics, we feel obliged to give reasons for our choices, and “just because he’s a Democrat” doesn’t make it as a plausible reason.
The Psychological Strategy of Self Deception
What then would our liberal say were he presented with the above chain of reasoning and reminded that he has plainly committed himself to the very claims -7, 8 and 9- he disavows, i.e. that he has contradicted himself? He might simply choose not to think about it. This is the kind of thing we do unobjectionably all the time. As I type this article there is the sound of kids playing loudly outside my window. While I take account of the noise by trying to block it out and by focusing more intently on my computer screen, I do not pay attention to it lest I become distracted from the task at hand. The situation is so common that this mental strategy has become habitual; blocking out and focusing more intently is second nature to me when I write. It is a habit that I have become (for all practical purposes) unaware of. The self deceiver does this same thing with regard to swallowing contradictions or refusing to face recalcitrant facts (see below on banishing the embarrassing fact). He relegates these to the margins of his awareness and diverts his attention away from them. This is a political species of mental “avoidance behavior.” He focuses his attention on something else, like the fact that the other candidate is worse than the bad one he feels obliged to protect.
Here is Todd Gitlin’s version of this way of thinking, from his book Letters to a Young Activist: in the presidential contest between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, Humphrey “would have phased out the war,” as opposed to Nixon, “who proceeded to extend the Vietnam war for five years.” Gitlin takes the lesson to be clear: “You either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule of the Republicans…The Democratic Party is the inescapable field where we either win, lose or draw.” Nowadays, the apologetic slogan is “Blue no matter who.” I.e., Anyone but Trump.
I have described a familiar mechanism for coping with incoherence and unpleasant facts. But even more is at stake. Our liberal sees the political world as coextensive with the world of the two-Party system, and he correctly rules the Republicans out. Thus, were he disallowed to commit to the Democrats, he’d be left with no politics at all. He’d be deprived of the linguistic and conceptual resources he has limited himself to, the cognitive means, to think about the political. He will perceive your heterodoxy as making political choice impossible for him. This can’t be tolerated. If accepting the self-contradictory or counterfactual implications of one’s politics is the price to pay for having any politics at all, then so be it.
A Paradigm Case of Political Self Deception: Obama As New Deal Liberal
An example in neon of political self deception can be found in an article, “Obama: The Conservative in 2012,” in the Washington Post (Dec. 25, 2011) by E.J.Dionne, a prominent liberal columnist for Commonweal, The Washington Post, and formerly The New York Times. The title of the piece is meant to be ironic. We ordinarily think of a conservative as a right-winger, but Dionne wants to draw on the original meaning of the term: a conservative seeks to preserve a hallowed tradition under attack by radicals. What is astonishing is that the venerable tradition Dionne alleges Obama to be working to sustain is “the consensus that has governed American political life since the Progressive era… a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy, a guarantor of fair rules of competition, a countervailing force against excessive private power, a check on the inequalities that capitalism can produce, and an instrument that can open opportunity for those born without great advantages.” Romney and the rest, we are told, would overturn the revered tradition of the New Deal and Great Society, which Obama is dedicated to nourish. Contrary to Obama’s own protestations to the contrary, we are to believe that he is a champion of Rooseveltian liberalism, a fierce opponent of “excessive private power,” and a staunch egalitarian.
Obama, writes Dionne, “is the candidate defending the modestly redistributive and regulatory government the country has relied on since the New Deal, and that neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush dismantled.” But Obamanomics is not merely “modestly redistributive,” it is massively so, and in the opposite direction intended by Dionne. We’ve experienced the greatest transfer of income to the very rich from the rest in human history. Is Dionne unaware that Obama, in The Audacity of Hope and in multiple interviews, has described the liberalism of FDR and LBJ as “the old-time religion”? He’s averred that of all postwar presidents, his greatest admiration goes to Ronald Reagan, who understood that in a commercially globalized world economic policy must follow “a fundamentally different path.” He’s repeated the mantra that government may respond to severe unemployment only by offering bribes to companies (tax breaks) and banks (injections of liquidity) to hire and lend. Hiring and production are the business only of the private sector.
In the FDR/LBJ tradition, Social Security was refered to as “the third rail” of American politics. It was inconceivable that any Democrat would consider touching it. Your political career, be you Democrat or Republican, would be over were you to suggest either reducing benefits or extending the retirement age. Even the Tea Party seems to be in step with that. But Obama wasn’t. Recall, it wasn’t the Republicans who “put Social Security on the table” during the silly debt ceiling controversy. How could Dionne and many other Democratic stalwarts think of Obama as a champion of the New Deal legacy? Whether Obama is a liberal in the post-Depression pre-Carter sense of the term is not a matter of theory or ideology. It is a matter of fact that he is not. Dionne and others of his kidney must know this, in the cognitively attenuated sense of ‘know’ required by the self-deceptive psychodynamics described above. But paying attention to it would wipe out the framework they depend on to think about politics at all.
In confining the political to the Republocrat consensus, the liberal exhibits a common political vice that needs to be called for what it is: a deficiency of historical imagination. The logic that says one should vote only for someone who can win is self-perpetuating. If it’s good advice now it will necessarily be good advice next time around, and the time after that, and the time… The bare possibility that the Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative dichotomies may be historically obsolete in these neoliberal times is ruled out a-priori. The present moment is frozen in time. This is a poorly disguised version of the End of History thesis. We turn out to inhabit what is in effect the only possible world, which must be, if you think about it, also the best possible world. The liberal as Pangloss. The late historian Tony Judt expressed the loss of historical imagination this way:
“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?…Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things.”(Tony Judt, The New York Review, 2009)
Do Democrats ever entertain the notion of the intolerable?
A key reason why Americans seem to be unable to think and talk about the kind of society they might strive to bring into being is the absence of a politically and morally indispensable concept, that of the intolerable. The formation of this notion is virtually ruled out by the approach to assessing objectionability and support-worthiness by e.g. composing a list of evils or bads embraced by each of a number of presidential candidates and choosing to support the one with fewer evils, i.e. the lesser evil. This supposes that evils are of the same kind and commensurable on a single scale. But what if at least one of the evils in question represents an intolerable policy? Intolerability is an evaluation necessarily absent from debates on lesser evil thinking.
More realistically, suppose a candidate urged the dismantling of Social Security. Or its privatization. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich put together a bill that would initiate the gradual privatization of Social Security. Barack Obama appointed as co-chairs of his deficit reduction committee Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, two of Washington’s most ardent opponents of Social Security. The following remarks of Republican president Dwight Eisenhower underscore the flight to the right of the Democratic Party:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs 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.” (letter to his brother, November 8, 1954)
It’s clear that Eisenhower regarded the elimination of Social Security as intolerable. How about the participation of Washington in the Saudis’ vast bombing of Yemen, producing the biggest cholera epidemic in human history? Or the long war in Afghanistan? The Vietnam and Iraq and Libya abominations?- You can addmore… These exercises in mass destruction are, by any decent values, intolerable. No political entity that would deny these truths deserves our allegiance. Hence the call for a third, genuinely democratic Party, an alternative to the intolerable. – And, most to the point, a different kind of society. But we have done too little to provide the historical imagination with material for its task of creating an image of an alternative future. What would a democratic economy and polity actually look like? How might it work? A detailed description of a post-capitalist order is impossible, since it is the process of getting there that will determine the specific contours of the outcome. But a critique of the existing order without at least a rough outline of what a genuinely democratic economic system (for example) might look like can breed cynicism. “Another Future Is Possible.” And…?
For a detailed account of the historical development and the key features of contemporary American capitalism, and the way in which the current pathologies of financialized capitalism point to the institutions of Democratic Socialism as the only way to secure full employment, high wages and ample leisure time for all, see my Overripe Economy: American Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy.