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The Evil of the Lesser Evil
Pham Binh

With the regularity that even Old Faithful can't match, the American Left dragoons itself into supporting the Democrats every election cycle, no matter what office is up for grabs, no matter what the candidate's message, and no matter what their record. 2008 is no different.

For this ritual, progressives, liberals, unions, civil rights organizations, and even self-described revolutionaries scramble to come up with reasons why we should vote for the party that got the U.S. into most of its imperialist wars, nuked Japan twice, opposed and tried to co-opt the civil rights movement, repealed welfare, gave us NAFTA and the WTO, deregulated the financial sector (paving the way for our current economic debacle), refused to deliver universal health care for over half a century, gave away our civil liberties, and continues to this day to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Progressives who want real, substantial change find themselves apologizing and making excuses for Obama's sprint to the right after clinching his party's nomination. Some, including historian Howard Zinn, have signed an open letter begging him to take more progressive positions. Apparently they see his move to the right as a simple mistake and not a calculated move designed reassure the corporations funding his campaign that he's their kind of guy. Progressives who support him claim he's just pandering to "swing voters," that he spoke in favor of an undivided Israeli Jerusalem because he "had to," that his vote to give telecom companies retroactive immunity has nothing to do with the fact that they've given tons of cash to his campaign, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

Despite the hand-wringing, whining, and anger at Obama from progressives, on election day all of them will pull the lever for Corporate America's favorite son. Once again, progressives will vote for a candidate who is structurally incapable of advancing a single item on their agenda and in spite of the fact that he didn't even bother to pander to them. His refusal to pander to his "friends on the left" speaks volumes about irrelevance of those “friends on the left” and highlights their failure to move the Democratic party in a progressive direction.

Most leftists, or at least those who aren't willfully blind Obama groupies, will concede that Obama isn't perfect. But they'll still vote for him because they believe, fundamentally, that the Democrats are "the lesser of two evils." Tweedledee (D) is always and will always be "less bad" than Tweedledum (R) because he/she has the letter D next to his name.

Only a profound ignorance of history and its lessons about the mechanics of change can sustain the lesser evil argument.

The Fire Last Time
The last time politics in the U.S. moved to the left was during the heady days of the civil rights, Black Power, anti-war, environmental, gay rights and women's liberation movements of "the ’60s," a period that extended from 1955 until the mid 1970s. Did these movements succeed because the Democrats were in office? Was it easier to organize a movement because a Democrat was in the White House? Was it a Democrat who brought the troops home from Vietnam, ended the draft, lowered the voting age to 18, set up the Environmental Protection Agency, established the first federal affirmative action program, and set up the Occupational Health and Safety Organization? No. It was Richard Nixon. No wonder why comedian Stephen Colbert called Nixon "the last liberal president."

Just so that no one is confused, Nixon didn't do these things because he was secretly an anti-war, anti-racist, environment-loving hippie fronting as a right-wing anti-communist racist warmonger. The fact of the matter is that protest movements became too powerful to be ignored, rebuffed, or repressed, although he certainly tried his best. He had no choice but to make concessions. Refusing to implement reforms would have led to even more militancy at home and opened the possibility of a revolutionary situation in the U.S. (Given the rank-and-file troops’ refusal to fight peasants in the jungles of 'Nam by the early 1970s, there was no guarantee they'd shoot their own people on the streets of America.) Taking a hard line against the evils of reform and calling out the troops to suppress demonstrators didn't work so well for Tsar Nicholas II. Nixon was crafty, paranoid, and manipulative, but he was not a fool.

In 1973, the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion in the historic Roe v. Wade decision, a reflection of the strength of the women's liberation movement. At the time, the court had six Republican appointees on the bench. They weren't weathermen, but even they knew which way the wind was blew. So much for the Supreme Court argument of the Lesser Evil crowd.

Donkeys Can Do What Elephants Can't

Due to the party's liberal veneer, there are some things that the Democrats can get away with the Republicans can't. Ending welfare is a case in point.
Reagan fired the opening salvo in the right's assault on welfare by citing a fictional "welfare queen" from Chicago who used 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards, and four fictional dead husbands to rip off the federal government for a hefty sum of $150,000. The woman Reagan referred to actually defrauded the government of $8,000 and used only four aliases, but when did facts ever factor in to the ideological agenda of the right?
It was Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who fired the last shot in this fight, finishing what Reagan had started. In 1996, Clinton abolished welfare and replaced it with a "temporary assistance" program that placed a five-year lifetime limit on benefits and other serious restrictions on those who received public assistance, including children. Predictably, a record number of black children fell into extreme poverty during the first recession after the bill was passed and the number of Americans in "deep poverty" is growing today.

Only a Democrat could have delivered this major strategic victory in the war on the poor because, as one Clinton official put it, "If Ronald Reagan was doing this, they'd be dragging poor kids up to the White House in wheelchairs to oppose this." But because there was a D next to Clinton's name, there were no poor kids in wheelchairs in front of the White House, there was no protest. Instead, there was behind-the-scenes lobbying against the bill which failed miserably and a few liberals who resigned from the administration.

Ending welfare was an inside job.

Only toward the end of Clinton's second term did opposition to his imperialist pro-corporate administration begin to develop, albeit tentatively.

Activists opposed to the sanctions on Iraq ripped Secretary of State Madeline 'Mad Bomber' Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger live on national television at a town hall meeting hosted by Ohio State University and broadcast by CNN. The event was organized by the Clinton administration to drum up support for bombing Iraq in 1998 supposedly because Iraq's evil murderous dictator Saddam Hussein — a.k.a. “the New Hitler” — refused to let weapons inspectors look for nonexistent WMD. (Hussein found out that the CIA had infiltrated the UN's weapon inspections teams to spy on him to allow the U.S. to assassinate him. Predictably, he kicked them out of the country.)

Instead of the heartland-loves-bombing-a-rabs dog and pony show they expected, Clinton's team found articulate activists asking penetrating questions: Why did the U.S. have no problem supporting Turkish and Israeli genocide but blast Hussein for being genocidal? Why was it OK to sell weapons to murderous Indonesia dictator Suharto but enforce a genocidal sanctions policy on Iraq which killed 1.5 million people? Exposed as cold-blooded murdering hypocrites, Clinton's foreign policy team lost the hearts and minds of the auditorium, and the whole thing was a huge embarrassment. (No wonder Obama doesn’t want to do town halls with McCain.)

The PR disaster didn't stop Clinton from signing the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, making "regime change" in Baghdad official U.S. policy, thereby paving the way for his successor to make the policy a reality under the same bogus pretext of WMD.

Bear in mind that Clinton killed 1.5 million Iraqis while Bush has killed an estimated 1.2 million. By the twisted logic of the body count, Bush is the lesser evil here. Scary thought.

In 1999, there was the Seattle protest against the WTO meeting which marked the birth of the global justice movement. There were big protests against the Confederate flag in the south. A pro-death penalty Republican governor in Illinois was forced to halt executions by an activist campaign. This simmering discontent expressed itself in the electoral arena with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's run in which he won a bigger slice of the electorate than any left candidate since the revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs in 1920.

Again, the Lesser Evil?
The neat thing about the lesser evil argument is that, like the argument about whether or not God exists, there is no way to design an experiment to prove it right or wrong.

No one has a time machine that could rewind us to 2000, give Al Gore the presidency, and see if he too would have invaded Iraq after Afghanistan. I strongly suspect he would have, given that "regime change" was official U.S. policy, given that the U.S. tried to assassinate Hussein in 1998 as part of that policy, given that Iraq was the weakest country on the American hit list, and given the enormous gain in geopolitical power the U.S. would enjoy by putting permanent bases over the world's second largest oil supply. But I suppose what Gore would do is debatable.

Similarly, no one has a time machine that will take us into the future to see what both John McCain and Barack Obama will do, which is the only definitive way to answer the question of who is the lesser evil. It should be said that, as a black Democrat, Obama will have a lot more credibility and public support should he decide to bomb Iran, start a draft, or end affirmative action the way Clinton ended welfare.

Regardless of what Obama does, liberals will whine and cry when they discover that the wolf in sheep's clothing they befriended is intent on devouring all that they hold dear. They will say they are disappointed, upset, frustrated, and shocked by the gap between Obama's rhetoric on the campaign trail and his record in the White House.

After they're done blowing their noses and wiping away their tears, they will look at the calendar, see that it's 2012, and say, "imagine if John McCain was president how much worse off we would be" and start the cycle all over again. This ought to be in the Guiness Book of World Records under "world's longest running abusive relationship."

The point here is not that Obama is the greater evil, or that Obama and McCain will be exactly the same things, or that will be absolutely no difference between them.  The point is that lesser-evilism as a progressive strategy has succeeded ¾ succeeded in making American politics progressively more and more right-wing, more and more "evil," if you will. It has succeeded in lowering people's expectations. And it has helped put Nixon to the left of Clinton on domestic policy.

The lesser-evil, applied to Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, would be an interrogator informing a prisoner that they have a choice to either to be water-boarded or have their genitalia electrocuted at high voltage." After the first interrogation session, the voltage would be turned up and the time spent being water-boarding time would be increased. The cycle would be repeated again, with a higher voltage and more time. Choose again, the prisoner would be told. Eventually, the prisoner's spirit would be broken and would be delirious and desperate enough to believe one method was “less bad” than the other. The only real choice here is organize a prison break.

Whether or not 2008 is a change election depends not on what Obama does after he's sworn in but on what people do or don't do at the grassroots level. Change from below is the only change we can believe in. Choosing the so-called lesser evil only makes things worse.