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Obama and the politics of the "lesser evil"

Many well-meaning and “progressive” people urge us to support one of the two main capitalist parties, the Democrats, on the grounds that they are a “lesser evil” than the Republicans. One example is film maker Michael Moore. Another is Paul Street, who has written two useful books about Obama and his record.1 Although Street calls himself a libertarian socialist, he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

What they say versus what they do

How much less evil, then, are the Democrats?

A mistake that voters often make, especially during election campaigns, is to compare what the Republicans say and do with what the Democrats say. The relevant comparison is with what the Democrats do. The trouble is that when the Democrats have been out of office for a few years most voters no longer remember what they do. But those familiar with the record of the Clinton administration in the 1990s, for instance, or with Obama’s record as a congressman, might have noticed that between what the Democrats say and what they do yawns a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon. 

In stump speeches in the mid-West, candidate Obama thundered against regional companies such as Maytag and Exelon. And yet these same companies, justifiably confident that he would do nothing to harm their interests, made large financial contributions to his campaign. Speaking before audiences of workers, Obama would denounce Maytag’s decision in 2004 to close the refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, entailing the loss of 1,600 jobs to Mexico. But he never raised the issue with Maytag directors Henry and Lester Crown, even though he enjoyed a “special relationship” with them.

Differences that make no difference

Many of the “differences” between Bush and Obama (or between McCain and Obama) make no difference. Or very little.

Obama initially opposed Bush’s military intervention in Iraq – hastening to add that he was not against all wars, God forbid, but only against “dumb” ones. Before leaving office, Bush initiated a gradual and partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Obama is pursuing the same course, breaking an earlier promise of rapid and complete withdrawal.

Bush was heading toward war with Iran.2 Obama is not. Probably. Hopefully. True, he did back off from his promise to meet with Iranian leaders. Commentator Steve Clemons informs us that “while there are individuals in the Obama administration who are flirting with the possibility of military action against Iran, they are fewer in number than existed in the Bush administration” (The Huffington Post, July 23, 2010). How’s that for reassurance?

Before the election, there seemed to be several very clear-cut differences between Obama and the Republicans on issues regarded as important by large numbers of voters. And yet these differences proved illusory.

One of these issues was torture. Many supported Obama in the expectation that he would halt the shameful practice of torturing people detained, often on the flimsiest grounds, in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere on suspicion of “terrorism” – a crime taken to include any resistance to U.S. occupation forces. There is now abundant evidence that torture has continued on a large scale in Afghanistan – for example, at the notorious Bagram jail – as well as Iraq.3

Offshore drilling for oil was another such issue. How many people must have voted for Obama in horrified response to the exultant cry of John McCain and Sarah Palin: “Drill, baby, drill!” Then in March 2010 Obama broke his campaign pledge and gave the go-ahead to offshore operations over large areas. The very next month an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Another rig caught fire in September.

Obama won trade union support by promising a new law to facilitate union organizing -- the Employee Free Choice Act. He also said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to include stronger labor and environmental protections. We have heard nothing more of these things. Obama, we are told, does not want to look “pro-labor.”

And so the sad litany continues.

Obama and “black” people

There is one group to whom Obama made no promises – “black” people. He didn’t need to promise them anything, because with few exceptions they were happy to support him just for being – more or less – one of them. He himself was the promise, you might say. He promised them nothing and gave them nothing. He reckoned that to win the “white” support he needed he must not even give voice to the grievances of “black” people, let alone do something to address them. Only then might he escape the terrible fate of being labeled an “angry black man” by the corporate media.4

Does it help “black” people to have a “black” family in the White House? It does not help them in any practical way – for instance, in breaking down the residential segregation that persists in most areas of the country. Any effects are purely psychological. No one who witnessed the emotional reaction of most “black” people to Obama’s triumph can deny that it enhanced their self-respect and in general made them feel better. That is no small thing. On the other hand, the fact of a “black” president gives “white” people an excuse to claim that racism is no longer a problem in America, which is at best a self-delusion. Psychological effects are hard to weigh up. Perhaps, on balance, they cancel one another out.    

A political cycle

I do not mean to deny that in some ways or in some situations it may be better to have a Democrat rather than a Republican in the White House. For instance, isn’t it worthwhile just to reduce, even if not eliminate, the probability of an attack on Iran? 

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the Democrats are a significantly lesser evil. In that case, helping them into office does ward off a greater evil. But only in the short term. For once in office, Democrats come under irresistible pressure from their capitalist masters to break their “populist” promises, to disappoint, disillusion and betray the working people who placed their trust and hope in them. Some sink back into apathy and despair, while others fall prey to a racist or fascist backlash. These reactions give the Republicans their chance to return.   

This is a recognizable political cycle. We have been through it before. Over and over again. Not only in the United States but (with variations of detail) in many other countries. Those who support the lesser evil play an essential role in constantly reproducing the cycle. They share the responsibility for its persistence. Support for the lesser evil also entails support – indirect and delayed, but support nonetheless – for the greater evil. 

A two-phase strategy

To be fair, supporting Democratic politicians as a lesser evil is only part of the political strategy advocated by Street and those who think like him – Phase One in a two-phase strategy. Phase Two, which they say is equally important, is to build popular movements (against war, for action on behalf of the environment, for civil rights, etc.) strong enough to put effective pressure on Democrats once elected. This pressure is supposed to neutralize the pressure exerted by capitalist lobbyists and force Democratic politicians to deliver on their promises.

The problem with this strategy is the extreme difficulty of combining the two phases, which have contradictory requirements. To campaign effectively for a candidate you have to conceal your reservations and simulate some real enthusiasm for him or her. You cannot knock on people’s doors and tell them: “To be honest, none of the candidates are much good. None of them can be trusted. My candidate isn’t so great either. But he isn’t quite as bad as the others, on some issues anyway.” This is how Street justifies his support for Edwards in his first book, but you can bet that he didn’t talk that way on the campaign trail!

Let us suppose that “your” candidate gets elected. Time to switch to Phase Two. You go back to people and tell them: “We got our candidate elected. But now we have to organize and demonstrate and kick up a huge fuss, otherwise he’ll do nothing for us. We can’t trust these politicians, you know!” The likely response is: “What the hell! Only last month you were telling us how great this guy is. What sort of game are you playing?”

Before very long, new congressional or presidential elections are in the offing. Time to switch back to Phase One. 

Wouldn’t we be doing more to enhance the long-term prospects for progressive change if we were honest with people and consistently told them the score as we see it?

The difference that matters

For us as earthlings, the difference that matters is that between socialism and capitalism. Will we continue on our present course to the irreversible destruction of our home world? Or will we make the fundamental change needed to give us a decent chance of survival?

From this perspective, the differences between “greater” and “lesser” evils do not matter. Some capitalist politicians are totally subservient to the oil, gas, and coal corporations and recklessly oblivious to the looming danger. In their hands we are doomed. Other capitalist politicians are a little less subservient, show a limited awareness of the situation, and try to do something to mitigate it. Something, but much less than is absolutely essential. In their hands we are still doomed.  

Pass or fail. The “lesser evil” is simply not good enough.



1. Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2009) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) (both from Paradigm Publishers).

2. See Iran in the Crosshairs.  

3. Several former detainees who had been interrogated at Bagram testified to having been tortured in 2009 and 2010, after the Obama administration claimed that torture had stopped (Mike Ludwig,, October 15, 2010). Wikileaks has made available a complete set of situation reports filed by soldiers in Iraq over the period 2004 – 2009; they reveal that all the abusive practices prevalent under Bush have continued under Obama.  

4. His wife Michelle, not always as self-restrained as Barack, has not escaped being labeled an “angry black woman.” But “white” people are not so frightened of “black” women. 

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