The cost of voting for the lesser evil

October 30, 2012

Paul Heideman describes how the politics of lesser evilism affects left-leaning people who might criticize Barack Obama if there weren't an election going on.

SOCIALISTS ARE often attacked during election season for refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils. Even if the Democrats are on the wrong side of all kinds of issues, the argument goes, they are still a little better than the Republicans, and that makes a difference.

Frequently, these sorts of arguments are accompanied by allegations that people who won't vote lesser evilism are only being selfish and self-righteous in refusing to be pragmatic.

In fact, the argument against lesser evilism starts from an entirely different basis than who we should vote for. It starts by looking at the effect the strategy of lesser evilism has on the social movements that are the real source of change.

From this starting point, the problem with lesser evilism isn't that it leads people to vote for a pro-war, neoliberal candidate. Rather, it's that a host of left and liberal figures who would otherwise be denouncing Barack Obama for all his outrageous actions--from deportations to drones--instead devote themselves to providing left cover for these actions in service of the cause of defeating the Republicans.

Melissa Harris-Perry, for example, who hosts a show on MSNBC that is generally one of the most left on the network, decided during the Chicago teachers' strike to have on a parent of children in Chicago schools to discuss how she was dealing with the strike, and to suggest that a strike was the wrong way to deal with the issues the teachers were confronting.

Given that polls showed a majority of parents supported the strike, this was an odd choice. Later, Harris-Perry hosted a discussion on the strike, and while she was critical of Republicans who demonized teachers, there was no mention of Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who repeats the same lies about lazy teachers.

After the strike, Harris-Perry wrote a piece in the Nation lamenting the strike. She argued that children were being left behind in "the wars between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost."

In Harris-Perry's world, teachers fighting for smaller class sizes and more programs for kids are in the same league as union-busters like Rahm Emanuel who want to close down neighborhood schools.

Thus, even though Harris-Perry is a relentless critic of the Republican war on women, racism and inequality, when a devastating attack on teachers comes from an Obama ally, she repeats anti-teacher talking points in an effort to stay on the fence. This is the real danger of lesser evilism--not that people with politics like Harris-Perry's will vote for Obama, but that they will refuse to stand up to the terrible things he does and will do.

ON A larger scale, the logic of lesser evilism is deadly to the social movements that will be necessary regardless of who's in the White House. The union movement, for example, spends millions upon millions of dollars every election cycle on the Democrats, and encourages its members to spend significant amounts of time phone banking and going door to door for votes.

This, at a time when the union movement is under attack from Democratic politicians like Emanuel, and when that money could be spent in support of organizing campaigns like the recent strikes at Wal-Mart.

Take the case of AFSCME, the public workers' union. AFSCME regularly denounces Republican governors in national press releases. But you'll search their website in vain for press releases attacking anti-union Democrats like Jerry Brown of California or Andrew Cuomo of New York. On the local level in New York, where AFSCME districts have to lobby against Cuomo's pension reforms if they are to have any credibility with their members, their ads denounce "Albany politicians," and Cuomo's name is conspicuously absent.

This is the reason leftists refer to the Democratic Party as the "graveyard of social movements." Once you accept the logic that defeating the Republicans is the most important task, it makes sense to subordinate everything else to that goal. The result is that movements don't stand up when the attacks come from Democrats, as they inevitably will.

Ironically, this makes it easier for the Republicans to become even more insanely reactionary. When unions, or any movement, fails to respond to something because it comes from the Democrats, it reinforces a sense of passivity among people, that these sorts of things--whether they're drone attacks or attacks on workers--are just part of political reality that can't be contested.

When we accept the idea that it is our obligation to support the lesser evil, we make it that much harder to fight the greater evil.

There's a paradox in American politics. Voting is the least significant and least effective form of political action. Yet it is also the form most people are most heavily invested in (as anyone who has come out to their liberal friends as a third-party voter knows). As such, the case against lesser evilism shouldn't be based on an evaluation of whether Obama deserves our votes. No matter how bad the Democrats are, the Republicans will always be worse. In this context, the argument against lesser evilism has to start from an entirely different basis than who we vote for.

To argue this way isn't to duck the question of voting. Indeed, we should be unapologetic about not voting for Obama. Rather, it's that our starting point with people who are planning to vote for him shouldn't be to convince them not to, but rather to look at the consequences the logic of lesser evilism has for the left as a whole.

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