No Such Thing as Lesser Evilism?

Paul Jay, senior editor of TRNN says:

There’s a debate raging, you could say, in progressive political circles, particularly those who have been very critical of the Obama administration over the last four years, whether or not to vote for President Obama, especially in swing states. Some people have called for taking a stand, which amounts, essentially, in non-swing states to vote for third parties, like, for example, the Green Party, but in swing states, to vote for the president, Obama, and the Democratic Party.

It is not by any means a new debate; it is a debate that occurs with presidential elections, at least since George W. Bush. Jay takes the debate in a recent segment of the Real News to anti-war author David Swanson.

Jay’s argument throughout the interview is based on fear. Obama will do terrible things, fearful things, but Romney might do more terrible things. Because of this, people should fear what Romney would do. So great is this fear that people should give up voting for non-scary candidates and vote for supposedly less scary Obama to ensure that the scary specter of a Romney presidency does not happen.

Is Jay playing devil’s advocate in the interview? If so, it was masterful. It seems clear from much of the questioning that Jay embraces much of his argument. You judge:

Swanson considers that lesser evilism “tends to make the movement less powerful and fundamentally corrupted year in, year out, so that even when there’s no election, we have activist organizations and labor unions going to Washington and asking the Democrats, what should we ask you to do, and turning their activists into props, essentially, for campaigns, whether there’s an election immediately coming up or not…”

Swanson is worried about the weakening of any progressivist movement, and the powerless message lesser-evilist voting sends: “… that we will vote for you [Democratic candidate] no matter what you do…”

In other words the electoral strategy of fear is destructive to progressivism and movement building.

Jay: “… Do you not think there’s the possibility, for example, given where Romney’s money’s coming from and the kind of support he gets on the far right and the pressures to bear on him, he’s—if there is a President Romney, the day he gets elected, he starts campaigning for four years hence, and so, clearly there are going to be enormous pressures on him to pay the piper, do you not think you could see a Secretary of State Bolton or something like that? … I don’t think there’s any evidence that a Gore presidency would have invaded Iraq… [italics added]

Really? Jay asks whether there is evidence that Gore — who was a party to Operation Desert Fox, the Clinton administration bombings of Iraq (is that not evidence enough?) — would have launched a war on Iraq. This also presumes that Gore would have responded differently, less or non-aggressively, to 9-11.

Jay: “… But I don’t know there’s any evidence he would have invaded Iraq, and there’s hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis who might not be dead if that election had gone otherwise.”

Swanson quickly took Jay to the task for massively under-reporting the number of Iraqis killed. Jay, as a newshound, must be aware that the peer review journal Lancet published studies that indicate a probability of 655,000 excess mortalities occurred during the US war on Iraq.1

Jay’s hypothetical went from pondering whether there was any difference between Obama and Romney to whether Gore would have started the Iraq war, based on the factually inaccurate statement that there was no evidence that Gore would have launched an invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Jay: “But certainly you agree that none of those candidates are going to be elected president. And the question I’m raising or other people are raising in this debate is that there is going to be either Romney or Obama elected, and in swing states, should people vote?”

I can agree that if one talks to people on the street, very few would state that anyone but Obama or Romney would be elected president. Such news coverage, however, is just pandering to self-fulfilling prophecy. My argument is that progressivist media should not be fence-sitting or acting like corporate and state media. Show some balls and present the best possible progressivist outcomes of an election instead of rehashing every election cycle whether there is substantial difference between the two factions of the business party in the United States.

Jay: “… I think this whole terminology lesser evil, it’s a terrible mistake to use such terminology. The problem is it’s turning this whole thing into some kind of moral debate, and neither Romney nor Obama are evil. They are the products of a social-economic system. They represent different sections of the elite…”

I was flummoxed by this rhetoric from Jay. Jay is one of the most astute interviewers in news. When called for, he plays the role of devil’s advocate as well as anyone. However, Jay has just denied the existence of evilism, lesser or greater, resides in candidates. He has implied that morality has no role in politics. Obama is not evil and Romney is not evil. What then of Saddam Hussein, Binyamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, all the way back to Adolf Hitler who corporate and state media (not Jay) always portray as evil incarnate in the West (except the cherub Netanyahu, of course; he’s fighting terrorism)? Are they not also products of the socio-economic system?

The terminology lesser evilism is not so much directed at the person but rather at the policies and actions carried out by the person. Insofar as the words and actions define the person, then labels may apply.

Jay pointed out in the video interview that Obama is under investigation for war crimes – crimes that Romney would likeliest also commit. Are war crimes not evil? It makes one wonder just what is evil. Is waging war not evil? Is the killing of humans not evil? Is the mass transfer of wealth from the poor and working classes to the überwealthy not evil? Or is this all, as Jay seems to suggest, a product of the socio-economic system? And is not this economic system of capitalism that leads to imperialism, wars, poverty, starvation, classism, racism, and so on not evil? Because that is the system that Obama and Romney buy into. Jill Stein does not seem to buy into this system, and since there is no evil candidate anymore (according to Jay), then Stein is on equal footing with Obama and Romney; she is just a product of the socio-economic system.

Who is not a product of this system? Just because “we” were raised in the system does not mean that we all come out of the system the same; it does not mean that we support the system. After all, what is an anarchist but a person who disagrees with the system? A person who disagrees with hierarchies among humans, who disagrees with classism, racism, wars, poverty, etc. Anarchists come out of the same socio-economic system, but they disagree fundamentally with that system. I submit that most would also disagree that morality is irrelevant in society and politics.

Swanson: “… more important [than lesser evilist voting is] whether we manage to develop an independent force that is willing to take a stand as the people for the things we believe in, regardless of who is in office…”

Jay is focused on an electoral strategy of fear. He does not deny Obama is terrible; he knows that. His premise is that Romney might very well be substantially worse. What if Romney surrounded himself with Cheney-Bush people. Swanson easily dispelled that canard by noting that many of these people were included in Obama’s government.

Swanson: “There is a very small number of people who are very well informed about Obama’s crimes, and are even engaged in active resistance, who nonetheless say we should vote for Obama. I’m not slandering those people by suggesting they are ignorant or uninformed or not engaged in activism; I’m suggesting that the activist movement as a whole is dramatically weakened when its position is we denounce your war crimes and we will vote for you if you continue and escalate them, that that is a weak stand to be building a movement from.”

Jay responded with more politics of fear.

Jay: “And what do you make of the other argument, the issue on women’s reproductive rights, Supreme Court appointments, federal court appointments and such, that some of these decisions could be different, would be different, and that matters?”

William Kaufmann wrote an article that compelling refuted any such fear-based claims about women’s reproductive rights and Supreme Court appointments:

An extensive quantitative analysis in the American Journal of Political Science concludes that ‘the public mood directly constrains the justices’ behavior and the Court’s policy outcomes… The prevailing tides of public sentiment create an active, meaningful constraint on many of the tangible policies that emanate from the U.S. Supreme Court.’ …

Roe v. Wade was a conspicuous case in point. The pro-abortion ruling was not the result of seven elderly, mostly reactionary, mostly white patriarchs suddenly discovering their inner feminist soul—it was, rather, the fruit of the rapidly intensifying social and political ferment of the late sixties and early seventies.2

The facts are that Obama has been antithetical to progressivism, of that there is no debate among progressives.

Many pundits hold that if there is any difference between Romney and Obama, it is very slight. Therefore, the argument is whether the slight difference could be characterized as substantial and worthy of influencing one’s vote.

People outside the US, who are designated for bombardment, invasion, regime change, will die regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican sits as president in the White House. History bears this out.

So whatever areas slight differences exist — substantial or not — they matter very little to those people who are about to be killed, maimed, have their homes destroyed and their livelihoods wrecked. This is undeniable, so all the shallow discussion about lesser evilism (and it is evilism despite what Jay asserts) occurs in a moral lacuna.

Morality dictates that people should not live in fear of being killed. A peace president is needed to save lives. That means that Democrats and Republicans are both anathema. If people vote, then the only conscionable vote is for someone not of the business party factions.

  1. Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, Gilbert Burnham, “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Lancet, 364, 29 October 2004: 1857-1864. This article conservatively estimated the death toll of Iraqi citizens at 98,000. This was updated to 655,000 excess mortalities. See Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, and Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey,” Lancet, 368: 21 October 2006: 1421-1428. []
  2. William Kaufmann, “The March of Supreme Court Zombies,” Dissident Voice, 5 November 2012. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.