Voting and the Lesser Evil

By Patrick Barrett

I realize that many people have probably had their fill of opinions about the election, but I thought I would take the opportunity to engage in a bit of public reflection on what this election has meant to me.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that I’ve been something of a political animal, and in fact kind of obsessed with politics, nearly my entire life, having been indoctrinated at a very early age by my father, a long-time civil rights and anti-war activist whom I accompanied on all sorts of activities, electoral and otherwise. Since I reached voting age 35 years ago, I’ve voted in nearly every election, large or small, except on one or two occasions when I was outside of the country.

Through all of those elections, I have to admit that the experience of voting has rarely been an invigorating or fulfilling one. It’s not just that I regard voting as the least significant act that a citizen can engage in (certainly far less significant than building a social movement, for example) or that it has absorbed far more than its fair share of political energy in this country. It’s also that it has proven to be such an ineffective means of creating social change, as clearly evidenced by the steady rightward drift of the political system over those three and a half decades.

Thus, with each passing election, I have found myself becoming more and more disillusioned with the experience of voting, to the point that I have come to see why so many people just can’t bring themselves to do it. Until fairly recently, I continued to hold out hope that there was a possibility of turning things around, but this election season is somehow different. In fact, I have to admit that I have never found an election more disillusioning or depressing. Part of it, of course, stems from the altogether vapid and inane spectacle – indeed, freak show – that electoral politics have become and the utterly predictable repetition, like clockwork, of the same tired and empty calls to participate in this, “the most important election in a generation.”

But a bigger part of it stems from the steadfast refusal of the great majority of Obama’s liberal supporters to acknowledge his abysmal record in so many areas, whether foreign policy, civil liberties, economic policy, poverty, immigration, the environment, and a host of others. What I find particularly appalling is the moral outrage they seem to be able to muster in the face of wrongdoing, but ONLY when Republicans are the perpetrators.

When the Democrats are the guilty party – indeed, even when they are advancing Republican policies that liberals had vigorously denounced only a few short years ago – the response is a deafening silence. I understand, of course, that this sort of hypocrisy and disingenuousness is to be expected in politics, but it seems to have reached new heights this election cycle and the effect has been especially disillusioning.

Now, there is a substantial minority of liberal voters who are willing, when pressed, to acknowledge the Obama administration’s crimes, but they insist that the alternative is worse – that is, that the crimes of Romney and the Republican Party are far more egregious and that we have to do whatever it takes to keep the latter out of office, even if it means embracing some of their policies and principles.

For the great majority of these “lesser evil” liberals, however, their analysis stops there. They offer no suggestion of how we might get ourselves out of this mess, and indeed their greatest aspiration, it would seem, is simply to slow down the rate at which things deteriorate. Most disturbing of all, they evince no apparent concern for the way in which their sanctioning of the Democrats’ move to the right, ostensibly aimed at keeping the Republicans out of office, is the very thing that legitimizes the latter’s policies and thereby enables them to move even further in that direction.

Not all “lesser evil” liberals are this explicitly fatalistic or cynical, of course. A small minority of them not only acknowledges the Democrats’ crimes, but also insists, again usually when pressed, that once their standard bearer is elected (or re-elected as the case may be), they will hold him/her accountable for those crimes and aggressively organize to force him/her to live up to their progressive demands. Unfortunately, very few within this small subset of the minority of liberal voters actually means it, as they apparently hope that the rest of us will have overlooked the fact that this commitment has been made (but left unfulfilled) many times in the past and that instead, their pattern has been to join the ranks of those who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” once their guy or gal is in office.

In fairness, there is a minority of this subset of the minority of “lesser evil” liberal voters who do mean it – that is, who are sincere about organizing to hold the Democrats accountable. Unfortunately, only a minority of them has actually put any thought into devising a strategy for carrying this commitment out. And very few of this minority of the minority of the subset of the minority has in turn confronted the reality of the obstacles imposed by our political system and committed themselves to eliminating them – most importantly, (1) a two-party system that denies voters any real leverage vis-à-vis candidates by preventing them from exercising a credible threat to vote for a viable alternative, and (2) the overwhelming role of money that pulls the whole system to the right.

So what that leaves us with is a small fraction of a minority of a minority of a subset of a minority, greatly outnumbered by a vastly larger number of people who for a variety of reasons (some fatalistic, some hypocritical, some simply conditioned to act unreflectively) continue to participate in an electoral process that can only be described as broken, or maybe simply the quintessential example of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

I’ll confess – I voted yesterday, but not because I saw it as doing much good. I guess it’s more a product of habit than anything. Or maybe, I’m just not quite ready to join the ranks of the majority by staying home, stubbornly holding out hope (call me Pollyannaish if you must) that the fraction of the minority of the minority of the subset of the minority will grow in size over time and I’ll get to participate in a democracy at some point during my lifetime. I’m certainly NOT ready to join the large ranks of American progressives afflicted by that syndrome that historian Lawrence Goodwyn called “sophisticated despair” – the deeply cynical belief that “hierarchical American society [can], perhaps, be marginally ‘humanized’ but [can] not be fundamentally democratized.”

[Patrick Barrett is the Administrative Director of the A.E. Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the A.E. Havens Center.]

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4 Comments on “Voting and the Lesser Evil”

  1. Thomas Cook November 7, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    You know what’s truly sad? I’m coming from the Right/Conservative side of things and, if you reversed the polarity of EVERYTHING you wrote, it’s exactly the same way I feel about our side of the aisle. I don’t even think I can say “our side” honestly anymore. I don’t seem to have a side anymore – every 2-4 years I feel like I have to hold my nose and choose for something less than optimum, which, of course, we all must – we don’t get everything we want, but the choices are getting worse. I’ve the the sense of being used or taken advantage of, being sold a Goldstein to express my two minutes of hate towards (we get to hate Obama, you get to hate Bush or Romney – either way it’s Orwellian and a lie). So what does that say about the situation in America when two people at seemingly opposite ends of the political spectrum both feel so sick of it all? If you’ve found a cure for “sophisticated despair” share it please – because, outside of my religious faith, I am in despair of the American experiment for reasons that, at the core, are not dissimilar to yours it’d seem.

  2. tedvothjr November 8, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Mr Barrett and I are on the same page. I voted, but I didn’t waste my vote on either worthless corporatist candidate, Robama or Omney. I voted for Jill Stein. I was happy to see this shared on WCMC. I’ve made a couple of Singers-Along friends very uncomfortable, unhappy,and angry by telling them just what Barrett says here. The new thing for me was his pointing out that lesser-of-2-evils voting enables the slide to the right; my little brain had been fussing over that for a while. (I maintain there is still a profound difference between the ‘dems’ and the repubs: the ‘dems’ are the whores the coroporate overlords use, but the repubs are the mistresses the overlords actually kinda like.) Thanks, Patrick; thanks, WCMC! Keep up the good work

  3. Thomas Ray Worley November 9, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Voting for a purportedly “non-evil” option enables the slide to the right *faster* than does voting for the lesser evil. 97,488 Floridians cast their votes for Ralph Nader in 2000. George W. Bush won the presidency by 537 Floridian votes. Had some of these Floridian Nader supporters instead voted for Gore, the U.S. would likely be in better shape 12 years later, in many of the ways that matter.

    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0876793.html

  4. Jeff Nguyen November 10, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    When your choice is to die by the knife or by the gun, it’s not much of a “choice” is it?

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