Exclusive: As President Obama faces a tough reelection fight, some on the Left vow to sit it out or vote for a third party, saying support for Obama would dirty them. But there is another moral imperative, to mitigate the harm a U.S. president can inflict on the world’s people and the planet itself, says Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Some Americans view elections as a time to express their disappointment or even their anger at the shortcomings of the major party candidates closest to their own positions, a tendency particularly noticeable on the Left. In recent decades, this behavior has contributed to a string of Democratic defeats at the presidential level – Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Al Gore in 2000 – as well as key setbacks in Congress in 1980, 1994 and 2010.
And, with its disproportionate prevalence on the American Left, this voting pattern now threatens to cost Barack Obama a second term. Some on the Left feel no compunction about aiding in Obama’s defeat even if it means installing Mitt Romney, an unabashed one-percenter in the White House.
Romney also would likely be accompanied by a Republican-controlled Congress with a mandate to complete the dismantling of the New Deal at home and, abroad, to extend the Afghan War and possibly start a new war with Iran. So the question is: should politics be an expression of your feelings or your expectation of consequences?
For the past 40-plus years, this “lesser-evil” debate has been fought primarily on the Left in America. By contrast, the Right tends to challenge Republican candidates in primaries but then lines up behind the party nominees whoever they are.
Progressives have shown less determination to fight for control of the Democratic Party, preferring instead to vote for third-party candidates or simply express their displeasure by sitting out November elections.
While brushing aside alarms about the dangers from the Republicans, many progressives instead focus on the failures and misdeeds of the Democrats. Humphrey was too slow in opposing the Vietnam War; Carter shifted too much to the center; Gore supported the NAFTA trade agreement and military intervention in Yugoslavia; and Obama continued prosecuting the “war on terror” (albeit by a different name and in a more targeted fashion) and didn’t do enough to enact progressive priorities.
While there is surely merit in all these complaints, the other side of the debate would note — from a progressive perspective — that the Republican alternative is often worse, sometimes much worse.
Indeed, one way to view this question is to ask: What might the world look like if the “lesser-evil” Democrat had prevailed in those earlier elections? What if Richard Nixon had lost in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000? Would Americans and the people of the planet be better off?
We now know, for instance, that in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was serious about negotiating an end to the Vietnam War and was closing in on that objective. The evidence is also overwhelming that Nixon’s campaign went behind Johnson’s back to sabotage the peace talks, denying Vice President Humphrey a last-minute boost and enabling Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory.
Nixon then continued the Vietnam War for four more years, while infusing U.S. politics with his paranoid win-at-all-cost poison.
Though many progressives in 1968 may have felt justified in expressing their anger at Johnson and Humphrey by boycotting the Democratic campaign, the practical effect of that behavior was to turn the U.S. government over to a dangerous individual, Nixon, whose policies not only extended the unimaginable horror across Southeast Asia but helped overthrow Chile’s democratic government in 1973 and unleashed a spasm of right-wing terror across Latin America.
For all his faults on the Vietnam War, Humphrey would have supported Johnson’s efforts to bring the war to a close quickly and would have worked to refocus the U.S. government on domestic priorities, like poverty and racism. Humphrey had long been a stalwart for civil rights and economic fairness. The United States also would have been spared the Watergate scandal and the ugly way it changed American politics.
Anger at Carter
In 1980, many progressives were angry with President Carter for shifting the Democratic Party toward the center, a trend that prompted a primary challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy.
After defeating Kennedy, Carter had trouble rallying the Left behind him heading into the fall election against Ronald Reagan (whose campaign apparently had learned some of Nixon’s old tricks and undercut Carter’s efforts to negotiate freedom for 52 Americans held hostage in Iran).
It was common to think then – and it is conventional wisdom now – that Carter was an inept president who lacked a grand vision and over-emphasized issues like alternative energy, human rights, arms control with the Soviets, and peace in the Middle East.
In retrospect, however, a Carter second term could have proved crucial in weaning Americans from their dependence on fossil fuels, restraining right-wing repression in Latin America and elsewhere, pushing nuclear non-proliferation, and pressuring Israel to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
In 1980, the anti-Carter intensity on the Right was driven by those same priorities. Carter was a threat to Big Oil which wanted nothing to do with alternative energy, a threat to Cold Warriors who wanted to heat up international tensions (though the Soviet Union was in a steep decline), and a threat to the Likud’s strategy of blocking a Palestinian state by moving more and more Jewish settlers onto the West Bank.
The election of Ronald Reagan – along with the Republican victory in the Senate – sent the United States off on a very different course than the one Carter had charted.
Reagan more than halved the top marginal income tax rate for the rich; he expanded the military budget even as the Soviets were seeking detente; he created a gigantic federal deficit; he smashed unions; he slashed federal regulations, including on financial institutions; he gutted Carter’s programs for alternative energy and reversed environmental policies; he collaborated with death squads across Latin America and in Africa; he vastly expanded U.S. support for Islamic fundamentalists fighting a Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan; he looked the other way as Pakistan developed a nuclear bomb; and he put Middle East peace on the backburner as Israel bolstered the West Bank settlements and invaded Lebanon.
Ronald Reagan also imposed a new orthodoxy on the way journalists, scholars and politicians could talk about the United States. Whereas the 1970s offered a brief window for looking back honestly at the many wrongful acts committed by the U.S. government, the 1980s saw an enforced “patriotism” that frowned on – as Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick put it – those who would “blame America first.” Critical voices were marginalized, controversialized and effectively silenced.
While it’s impossible to chart alternative histories precisely, it is safe to say that many of America’s problems were made worse by Reagan’s presidency.
He began the systematic savaging of the Great Middle Class, widening the gap between the rich and everyone else; he sharply increased the national debt; he pushed the deregulation frenzy on Wall Street; he continued America’s dependence on fossil fuels and disdained environmental safeguards; he alienated Washington from much of the Western Hemisphere by supporting state terror across Central America; he transformed Afghanistan into a home for Islamic terrorism; he permitted nuclear proliferation in South Asia; he allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester.
It is perhaps a commentary on how Reagan neutered the U.S. press corps and duped the American people that he is remembered as one of the greatest U.S. presidents. To this day, almost no one in Washington’s mainstream dares to speak critically about the real effect that Reagan’s presidency had on the country and the world.
Bush v. Gore
In 2000, the United States was at another crossroads. Eight years under President Bill Clinton had addressed some of the problems left behind by 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
For instance, by slightly raising the top marginal tax rate on the rich, restraining spending and riding the wave of the new Internet economy, Clinton had succeeded in eliminating the federal deficit. By the end of Clinton’s presidency – with employment expanding and poverty shrinking – government budget estimates foresaw the complete elimination of the national debt.
But Clinton had upset the American Left by continuing many of the tough-guy policies from the Reagan-Bush-41 era. Clinton kept in place harsh sanctions against Iraq and intervened militarily in sectarian clashes in the old Yugoslavia. He also had worked with Republicans to limit welfare, to expand trade agreements and to loosen more regulations on the banking system.
So, when his Vice President Al Gore faced off against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, some on the Left decided it was time to teach those “triangulating” Democrats a lesson. However, instead of challenging Gore for the Democratic Party nomination – in the way that the Right has reshaped the Republican Party – these progressives supported Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and ignored warnings that this strategy might doom Gore’s election chances.
Nader encouraged this result by telling young and impressionable voters that Gore was “Tweedle-dee” to Bush’s “Tweedle-dum.” Nader ran on the slogan, “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Bush and Gore. On the Left, many activists appeared persuaded that there really were no meaningful distinctions between Bush and Gore.
However, in retrospect, there were key differences. Experienced on the world stage, Gore was alert to the terror threat from al-Qaeda, while Bush pooh-poohed the danger. He blew off a CIA warning in August 2001 and then sat dumbstruck in a second-grade classroom reading “The Pet Goat” on 9/11 when two hijacked commercial jets struck the Twin Towers in New York and another headed toward the Pentagon.
Bush then followed the advice of neoconservative advisers — rushing through a retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan and letting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden slip away — so the U.S. military could move on to invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
The Iraq invasion and resulting chaos led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – and ironically helped al-Qaeda establish a foothold in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Meanwhile, Bush’s neglect of the Afghan conflict allowed al-Qaeda’s allies, the Taliban, to stage a comeback there.
If Gore had been president, it’s very possible 9/11 never would have happened and – even if it did – Gore would have almost surely responded in a less blunderbuss way. Gore also had a strong record for respecting the constitutional rights of Americans and the principles of international law, while Bush treated both as inconveniencies to be ignored or overridden.
Bush also enacted more tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy, blowing a huge hole in the federal budget and hollowing out more of the middle class. Bush appointed two more right-wing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, key votes in the 2010 Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates to special interest spending to buy elections.
But perhaps most significantly, Gore cared about the looming existential crisis of global warming, while Bush treated the issue with disdain, thus contributing to the hostility now expressed by right-wingers who depict the science on climate change as a myth and as part of some grand socialist conspiracy.
If the planet continues toward climate devastation – with ice caps melting, sea levels rising and droughts disrupting food supplies – a key turning point will have been the presidency of George W. Bush, rather than the presidency of Al Gore.
While many institutions and individuals share the blame for installing Bush in the White House, part of the responsibility must fall on the Green Party and Ralph Nader, who helped Bush get close enough to steal Florida’s electoral votes and thus the presidency. The bitter irony is that the one major mark that the American Green Party may have on history is enabling an anti-environmental president to put the world on course for ecological destruction.
Yes, I know Nader and the Green Party deny all responsibility for this catastrophe; they point their fingers at everybody else including Al Gore. But their arguments are sophistry. The truth is they ignored many timely warnings about the danger that ultimately came to pass; they knew they were playing chicken with the planet; their reckless words (about “Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee” and “not a dime’s worth of difference”) were unsafe at any speed.
Which brings us to 2012 and what many on the Left insist is another meaningless election between two politicians whose only differences are cosmetic. We are told again that it doesn’t matter whether President Obama gets a second term or if Mitt Romney and the Tea-Party Republicans take full control of the U.S. government.
We’re told that elections simply don’t matter, even if these right-wing Republicans will likely gut what’s left of the New Deal and the Great Society; will further concentrate wealth at the top; will free Wall Street from even the modest burden of the Dodd-Frank regulations; will drive more middle-class families into poverty; will let thousands of Americans die prematurely without health care; will put neocons firmly back in charge of U.S. foreign policy with plans to extend the Afghan War and start possible new wars in Syria and Iran.
After all, Barack Obama has not been perfect on these issues. He has blood on his own hands. He has made many compromises. He is far from the socialist that some Tea Partiers claim he is. I’m often told by progressives that they are “disappointed” in Obama as if their feelings are the most important part of this equation.
It does seem that some on the Left will only be satisfied with perfection. They act more like critics whose job is to find fault with a politician than as participants in a political process. “Obama should have done this; Obama should have done that.”
Indeed, some behave as if what’s truly important is that they be recognized as staking out the “perfect” – the most uncompromising – position, regardless of how impractical that stance might be or what harmful side effects it might have.
This vanity of perfectionism sometimes takes precedence even if it may help empower an unstable or incompetent U.S. leader who would implement horribly destructive policies that could kill millions.
What some on the Left fail to grasp is that who is elected President of the United States – even with the deep gradations of gray among the major-party choices – can mean life or death to people around the planet, even life or death for the planet itself.
So, this choice over how to vote should not be a decision based upon personal feelings or one’s flattering desire for a perfect self-image. The American people are hiring the person who will be entrusted with the nuclear codes, who will have the power to start wars, who will decide whether to take action on global warming.
Real people in other countries live or die by such U.S. decisions. Even if some Americans feel that voting for some imperfect candidate is too degrading, too compromising, the decision can have devastating consequences for others.
Yes, there is an element of triage here, since neither Obama nor Romney would be a pacifist. Some people will die regardless of who’s elected, but there can be an order of magnitude difference. There is a distinction between targeted killings of al-Qaeda operatives (even with “collateral” deaths of people in the vicinity) and the mass slaughter inflicted by fullscale war.
At minimum, it would seem to be the duty of American voters to minimize the damage that their country might inflict on people in faraway lands. Even if perfection is not an option, one of the choices is likely to cause fewer deaths and wreak less havoc than the other. It may be impossible to know the future but history can be some guide.
While this responsibility to mitigate harm to the world may seem unsatisfying to Americans who yearn for something much closer to moral purity – and who don’t want to sully their consciences with such moral relativism – this lesser-evilism does have a profoundly moral basis.
Just stop and ask: as imperfect as Humphrey, Carter and Gore were, would the world be in a better place if they had been elected in 1968, 1980 and 2000, respectively.
Would there likely be fewer people living in poverty in the United States or dying without health care? Would American politics be more democratic and less corrupt than it is today? Would the environment be less endangered? Would science and reason be disparaged the way they are today?
Would a lot of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodians, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Afghans, Iraqis and people from many other countries be alive today? Might they have escaped horrible deaths, rapes and maiming? While no one can say for sure, you can make a reasonable guess.
So, in the end, what’s more important? What’s more moral? The vanity of perfectionism when perfection is not an option or doing the imperfect thing to save some innocent lives – and maybe save the planet?
To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.