Stop fearing what will happen if you give up on the Democrats. Your fear of what will ensue if they wither away is really all they have left at this point. It’s time to look for higher ground. What will happen if the Democrats collapse, after all? The plutocrats will take over? The right will launch an assault on our most essential liberties? The forces of empire will pursue a global jihad against anything that stands in the way of our continuing shaky hegemony over most of the planet’s vital resources? Look around you; it’s already happening, every bit of it, and not because “the Republicans have too much power.” It happened under Carter, under Clinton, under Democratic control of Congress.
— Steve Perry1
And, we might now add, under Obama. The reason that name appears nowhere in the article from which the above passage was excerpted is that it ran a full ten years ago, in the aftermath of the November 2002 midterm elections (for those who need a reminder, those were held a few weeks after the opposition that had risen across the country in response to the Bush administration’s push for invading Iraq had found itself undercut by a congressional pro-war resolution, passed with the help of 82 House Democrats and a majority of Senate Democrats; their results saw the Republicans increase their majority in the House and gain control of the Senate). At that time, the current president was still an Illinois state senator. Apart from such details, however, the arguments presented in that ‘polemical essay’ speak as pointedly to the situation in 2012 as they did that of 2002, since, alas, so little has changed on the American left since then. While examples of the joint culpability of both wings of the corporate party have only accumulated, the American left appears to remain as fully in the grips of the crippling illness known as ‘lesser-evilism’ as it was a decade ago and beyond.
While some might consider the term ‘illness’ to be excessive, I find it hard to describe the phenomenon otherwise. That the affliction is shared by so many, particularly among those self-described progressives in positions of relative prominence in the media and intelligentsia, has the effect of normalizing what otherwise would readily be recognized as delusional behavior. Consider: Trillions in bailouts for Wall Street, while financial fraudsters go unprosecuted; wars sustained and expanded on phony ‘war on terror’ pretexts; executive powers asserted to be bound by no laws–ludicrously exalted to a point that would have made George III and Louis XVI blush–including the power for a president to detain indefinitely and kill on his own say-so, citizen and non-citizen alike; protection from prosecution for torture and warrantless wiretapping; prosecution and persecution for whistleblowers; a health care ‘reform’ of individual mandates–a scheme that originated in Republican circles–with no public option; support for fracking and continued dependence on fossil fuels; placing Social Security and Medicare ‘on the table’ in budget negotiations; the expansion of corporatist ‘free trade’ arrangements through a Trans-Pacific Partnership. When such is the work of a Republican administration, we typically hear progressives describe them in terms such as ‘reactionary,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘evil.’ But when done by Democrats, the vocabulary changes and they are referred to instead merely as ‘disappointments’ or ‘betrayals.’ If this were the record of a McCain administration seeking re-election, we would be told of the urgency of removing them from office precisely because of examples such as these. But in the case of an Obama administration, we are instead told that we must work to ensure his re-election in spite of such a record.
Once again, millions of Americans go to the polls and–in the only poll that counts–give their approval to a host of policies which they otherwise profess to oppose, even as they deny to themselves and others that that is what they are doing. Parties owned by the 1% once again receive the combined support of roughly 99% of the electorate, while those which advocate for the interests of the 99% have to struggle to get even 1% of the vote. Thus the crimes of the ruling class are transmuted into crimes of the public at large–including those crimes committed against that same public. Afterwards, such voters will sound perplexed and indignant when the same politicians for whom they’ve just voted en masse continue to act contrary to their professed wishes just as they had before the elections. And all the while, they will block from their memory and awareness how regularly this pattern has repeated itself, for several election cycles now, the better to justify to themselves that this effective surrender of their political freedom at election time is something temporary and exceptional, rather than the all-too-familiar norm; and subsequently to help convince themselves that they have been ‘betrayed,’ rather than complicit in the policies that predictably ensue.
I recall a scene from a favorite book of my youth, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. At one point in the story, the main characters find themselves in a place called Digitopolis, a city where everyone and everything is concerned with mathematics. There, they are guests of a wizard known as the Mathemagician who serves them a dish called ‘subtraction stew.’ At first, they devour it with pleasure and ask for more. Then they have another serving, then another. Until they realize, to their horror, that they are actually hungrier than when they started. Like adding a negative, each serving leaves them hungrier than they were before. The natural impulse in a state of hunger is of course to keep eating, but these characters finally understand that that is only making the problem worse, and that the thing to do is to have nothing more to do with the stew.
Reaching this understanding required a capacity to reflect on their state, to compare the results of their actions over time, and to learn from their experience. This very capacity is what today’s lesser-evilist voters apparently lack. Presumably opposed to corporate tyranny, such voters in fact perpetuate the very behavior which has led us ever deeper into this corporatist dystopia in the first place. It’s a road that has been paved with lesser-evilism every step of the way. As Democrats have proven ever more deferential to corporate interetsts since, roughly, the late ’70s, being careful to maintain some distance from the Republicans on certain issues (and often mainly rhetorical at that), they have nonetheless managed to hang on to their share of the electorate and drag it along with them. But note that fear of the ostensible greater evil has had this effect not only by inducing masses of people to give their collective seal of approval to still more evil. It apparently also puts these same people in a fog which prevents them from realizing 1) that this granting of their seal of approval to evil is in fact the true nature of what they are doing and 2) how ceaseless this pattern has become in U.S. elections–ultimately 3) the extent to which the worsening state of the country’s politics, from the standpoint of the 99%, is traceable to this automatic placement of fear of the greater evil in the position of ultimate master. The main obstacle to the overcoming of fear, and of all that it has wrought, is, it turns out–fear itself. One won’t perceive the need to overcome fear until one has first overcome it. Talk about a catch-22. It is as though one suffered from a swallowing problem, and the only cure in existence came in the form of a pill.
To what else might we compare lesser-evilist voters, and by what other analogies might we illustrate their politics of ritual self-disempowerment? Often they appear to me to be Charlie Brown to the Democrats’ Lucy. How many attempts to kick the football does it take before we see it as a matter of Charlie Brown’s stubborn folly rather than of Lucy’s deception? Other times, their undying belief in the Democrats as offering some kind of protection from the right appears to me to be like looking to the Vichy French for protection against the Nazis. (That analogy is actually generous to the Democrats, who have acted more like fellow shock troops in the service of neo-liberalism). Other analogies have been invoked before, and may sound familiar–such as the battered spouse who keeps saying, ‘That’s not really him.’ Or the car speeding toward a cliff: Stay still!; Or else the other driver might grab the wheel and we’ll get to the edge even sooner! And then there’s the boiling frog analogy: Stay right there frog!–the temperature will go up, but not as much as it might if you try to jump out! Above all, you must trust us and stay still!
Or how about this: We’re in a dungeon, walking down a staircase in the darkness (we’re not in danger of entering a dungeon; we’re already there). A tall man in a suit walks just ahead of us and, farther down the staircase, we hear this insane cackle. Stay close to the man in the suit, we are told, and we’ll be safe from the cackler. But wait–why do we keep going in the same direction as the cackler? And how the hell did we get into this dungeon in the first place?! Don’t think about it!, we are told, just keep moving in step with the man in the suit. If we move of our own accord, and try to reverse direction, and head back up the stairs, open the door, and get the hell out, well, we might stumble, and fall farther down, and risk falling into the clutches of the cackler. (And is it necessarily a matter of our stumbling if that’s where we wind up? Did the Democrats do anything to expose Katherine Harris’ machinations in Florida in 2000, or Ken Blackwell’s in Ohio in 2004? And what kind of an ‘opposition’ did they pose to Bush’s most infamous policies during his eight years? Remember we’re already in the dungeon, not approaching it.)
Or is it that we’re in a cell? Don’t try to escape! If you get caught, we’ll get stuck with the mean guard who’s always talking religion, instead of the more pleasant-sounding guard, who has better taste in music and has even read some of the same books we have. Or are we to regard our supposed options as between prospective bullies, one of whom won’t push as far across the playground as the other?
Yet should fear of the greater evil prove insufficient, in and of itself, for persuading people, proponents of lesser-evil voting will sometimes try a different tack. We hear the argument that, since ultimately it’s movements that are more significant for effecting political change, it really doesn’t matter whether activists working on behalf of various causes deny their vote to non-corporate candidates who give voice to their positions on the issues, in favor of corporate candidates who stand opposed to them on those same issues. Well, imagine a group of people trying to move a heavy obstacle, and pushing back from the other side are powerful, concentrated interests; and the numbers of the first group are increased as more people join, to the point where it looks like it will be possible to overcome the opposition from the other side and move the obstacle. And then, a vast number of those who were pushing start jumping over to the side of those pushing back, saying that they are doing so in response to an emergency, and assuring those comparative few who remain on the other side that they will return to pushing against the ones they’re now supporting in just a little while. Now imagine that pattern being repeated many times over many years. Where is the obstacle in relation to where the people were trying to push it? Where is it in relation to where it was when they started pushing? Why might that be?
Nevertheless, many on the left keep electoral and movement politics so strictly compartmentalized from each other that they argue for just such ‘pragmatic’ reversals at election time. They may try to rationalize their position by pointing to the success that non-electoral protest movements have had at other times in U.S. history or, more recently, in other countries. But in the latter case, they never (that I’ve heard) venture to inquire further: What is the state of the political system in those countries? What is the structure of media ownership? Is major-party status restricted to those controlled by business and military-industrial interests? What are the laws like relating to ballot access and media coverage? Where the answers to these questions are different than they would be in the case of the United States, what accounts for those differences? And what might the answers to these questions have to say about how and why popular protest movements in those countries have achieved their victories?
Regarding the U.S. left’s own historical experience, selective memory again plays a significant part in the lesser-evilist mentality. Much of the time, American progressives will show an understanding of how much politics and government have changed for the worse since the Powell Memo in the ’70s; of the extent to which corporate America has succeeded in its effort (per the program outlined in that memo by Lewis Powell) to concentrate its power to unprecedented levels by strengthening its hold over both major political parties, all three branches of government, and the news media, buttressed by a host of think tanks, pressure groups, and NGOs. Yet when elections draw near and many progressives are seeking to rationalize a lesser-evil vote, this part of recent history seems to vanish from their memory. Suddenly, we are to believe that the problem of corporate domination of politics doesn’t begin until the Citizens United ruling in 2010. At other times, we will hear them speak as if nothing has changed since the days of FDR and A. Philip Randolph (Obama is not a loyal corporatist, don’t you see; he is simply waiting for us to ‘make’ him act on our issues). Or we’re transported back to the early ’70s, when public opinion succeeded in pressuring Nixon to create the EPA and OSHA–i.e., some of the very actions which caused the Powell Memo to be drafted in the first place.
In fact, it’s high time we recognized mass lever-evilism not as some kind of best-we-can-do-under-the-circumstances opposition in the lamentable landscape of post-Powell Memo America, but as one of the essential features of that landscape. What it has done, and will do again this time, is send this clear message to the powers-that-be: It’s working–keep it up! The most damaging aspects of the Bush legacy that have been maintained or even expanded upon under Obama will have received one giant seal of approval from the American electorate! All it took was yet another odious Republican ticket to induce former opponents of these policies to embrace them in the form of the Obama administration. Want them to sign on for even more of what you want? Next time, make the Republicans even more reactionary–that will free up the Democrats to move still farther to the right themselves, and you can depend that their share of the electorate–still large, thanks to lesser-evilism–will move right along with them, just as the overwhelming majority of it has every election cycle of recent decades.
To be sure, many others will point to the critical, indeed primary, historical role of movement politics and be led to very different positions regarding elections than that of lesser-evilism. Some urge that we not vote at all. But is that really the best response to the situation? Sure, eligible voters might look over a list of candidates and their respective parties, corporate and independent alike, and not find anyone they care to vote for, and–with no ‘none-of-the-above’ option on the ballot–decide not to vote at all. That is one thing. But others like to maintain that not voting constitutes some kind of radical refusal to reinforce the system, and that those who want change thus should not vote, regardless of what independent, non-corporate options may be on the ballot. Proponents of this view never seem to address the question of why the habitually high level of abstention from U.S. elections has done so little thus far to un-reinforce the system.
As for myself, I choose to vote for Green Party candidates, including Jill Stein for President in this election. Lesser-evilism assumes that decisions such as this should depend on whether or not a state is ‘safe,’ i.e., one that is not ‘in play’ between the two corporate candidates. I think we should instead look at recent history and ask ourselves how ‘safe’ it has been for the electorate to keep signaling to the system that it will accept the same kind of ‘choices’ again and again and again. For those who think of Nader in 2000 only in terms of Democratic Party demonology, they should realize–among many other details about those elections that have been brushed aside–that the 2.7 million votes which he received in 2000 was but a small fraction of the total number of voters which, polls showed, actually preferred him among all candidates. In other words, but for lesser-evilism, his final tally would have been many times greater than what he actually received, with those for the major-party candidates reduced accordingly, so that the establishment would have finally had to pay attention to the issues on which he campaigned. Again, but for lesser-evilism….
On the other hand, some might object–so what would that do? No matter how much the Greens or other non-corporate parties receive at the polls; no matter how many voters choose to act independently and wrest control of their system of government from wealthy interests, economic power–for the foreseeable future–will remain vested where it is. And those who hold that power will move swiftly to counter any moves by the public toward independent political action. Nonetheless, it is important that that public will have begun to move, choosing of their own accord to break with the prevailing pattern and forcing the ruling interests to respond. By rejecting compliance in one of the arenas where those interests are most keen to maintain it, they will have taken a critical step toward deciding their own fate, rather than leaving it to be decided for them. By refusing any longer to surrender at the polls on all the issues around which they’ve been organizing between elections, they will have actualized a realization that is crucial–that if we are ever to get out of the dungeon, the car headed towards the cliff, the boiling pot of water, we must act on or own, and stop signing off at election time on the fate to which the corporate powers and their party functionaries would consign us.
Progressives rightly bemoan the baneful effects wrought by corporate money over our political system. But when considering how we have arrived at such a state, where the number of debatable issues, and the range of permissible debate on those issues, have been so reduced, it’s high time that their critiques take into account something in addition to corporate money: The mass acceptance by the electorate, and the promotion by many in the progressive media, of the notion–most peculiar in what is supposed to be a democracy–that we should endeavor to advance the issues that most concern us everywhere except the ballot box.
- Steve Perry, ‘Spank the Donkey: Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: A Polemical Essay,’ City Pages, November 27, 2002. [↩]