Choosing the lesser evil in 2012

Writing about egalitarian politics is, for me, a way to imagine a utopian world. You can supply the John Lennon reference for yourselves. This is what I have in mind:

Practicing egalitarian politics, however, does not take place in utopia, and offers few straightforward moral choices. Obama seemed to put utopia on the ballot in 2008, but it isn’t there in 2012.

Conor Friedersdorf is appalled by the choice between Obama and Romney, and writes that

some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying.

Although Friedersdorf is not a liberal, his post echoes the views of many leftists. Crimes that may disqualify Obama include:

The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children… Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did.

Why stop there? Let’s add that the domestic surveillance infrastructure that was grew significantly under George W. Bush has continued to grow and perhaps accelerated under Obama, as shown in the graph on the left of the surveillance authorizations from 2004-2011. Or read this terrifying report by James Bamberg on the new NSA surveillance facility in Utah.

Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.

And what about the economy? The best you can say for Obama is that he may have not redistributed as much to the plutocrats as John McCain would have. But as Chris Hayes notes

these same plutocrats are enjoying possibly their best run ever since the financial crisis, nay since, perhaps, the roaring twenties! The Dow is way up, corporate profits are near record highs, taxes are near record lows, wages are stagnating, unions are fighting for survival and 8% unemployment means that employers have a constant ready supply of excess labor, which keeps wages and demands down. More or less a capitalist paradise.

So how should we vote? My answer is Obama, because I think the Republicans would lead to worse consequences on every ‘deal breaker’ issue, a risk which Friedersdorf himself acknowledges.  There is much else at stake as well, like the protection of Medicaid (see Harold Pollack’s extraordinary youtube below) that Friedersdorf does not discuss.

Friedersdorf rejects this choice of the lesser evil because Obama’s policies are morally abhorrent. He says that “I am not a purist.” And he is not, even though he quotes the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals in his defence:

I am hardly the first to think that humans should sometimes “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

He must know, however, that Kant did not intend that we should behave this way “sometimes.” Friedersdorf acknowledges that politics routinely involves choices that transgress our moral principles:

There is no such thing as a perfect political party, or a president who governs in accordance with one’s every ethical judgment.

So what is about this election that makes the choice of the lesser evil impossible? Apparently what Obama is doing is so bad that we cannot ratify it with a vote even though the alternative could be worse. I find this hard to credit. Consider the example of a war between two countries:

Country A. An apartheid society in an alliance with a mass murdering totalitarian, Country A prosecutes war through the strategic killing of hundreds of thousands of non-combatant civilians.

Country B. All of the above, amplified by at least an order of magnitude, plus systematic genocide.

This example is, of course, World War 2, and Country A is the United States. Perhaps Friedersdorf would have been a conscientious objector in World War 2. But if he would have chosen America as the least evil then, I am puzzled why he will not choose the least evil now. The evil of 1940s America is far more evil than Obama’s America. Friedersdorf could argue that it was the far worse evil of the Axis powers that would have forced his hand, but that is the kind of consequentialist argument he’s said he will not make.

By my lights, the choice of the lesser evil — that is, voting for Obama — is justified in 2012. That doesn’t address, however, the morally abhorrent policies of the Obama administration. The thing is, voting is just one element of political practice. You can vote for Obama and criticize him, as I have above. But what we really need is a better alternative than the current Democratic Party. Friedersdorf views his abstention as a move toward that better world:

If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

Yes. However, that “If” is rhetorical, because Friedersdorf knows as well as I do that the electorate will not vote this way in 2012. More importantly, an electorate that would vote this way is conceivable only on the assumption that we would have already accomplished enormous political, cultural, and institutional change relative to Obama’s America.

So we need to discuss whether to vote for Obama, but we should talk about that in the context of a larger discussion. That discussion is about how to create a movement that could transform America into a society that would actually choose peace, equality, and liberty. I don’t think a victory for Obama advances us very far towards that goal. Nevertheless, a defeat for Obama would set that cause back.

Yet liberal egalitarian politics is based on hope. So let’s end on another note:

About Bill Gardner

A health care researcher and a child and quantitative psychologist by training. I am an American living in Canada and am Professor of Paediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University; and Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. I also blog at The Incidental Economist ( and you can follow me @Bill_Gardner on Twitter.
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2 Responses to Choosing the lesser evil in 2012

  1. Provocative and interesting as ever, Bill. I think I would give the administration a higher grade then you would, but let’s take your premise at face value. You clearly are not going to vote for Romney, so like many people that are on the progressive left you basically have a choice between voting for Obama (and holding your nose), voting for Jill Stein (the Green Candidate), or just sitting it out altogether. My question is, how bad does the least bad mainstream choice have to be in order for you to bolt? Isn’t there something to be said for trying to operate within the established political order to try to build a progressive coalition? There are lots of progressive Dems to champion this year (Elizabeth Warren is the first person that comes to mind).

  2. Bill Gardner says:

    Brendan, I am embarrassed that a crucial point — that I do plan to vote for Obama! — got lost in the editing of this piece. I updated the post.

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