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All American Presidential Elections Are Choices Between Evils

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Obviously, I concur with pretty much everything in djw and Erik’s posts about the inexplicably celebrated Conor Friedersdorf essay in which he congratulates himself for being too good for the compromises of electoral politics.  (With, to be sure, some protesting-too-much about he’s no purist.)  With Fridersdorf, though, his trivialization of the issues other than his selected pet ones is internally consistent; as a libertarian, he presumably doesn’t care about the evisceration of the American welfare and regulatory states that would likely follow a Romney/Ryan win or sees it as a feature.   That any progressive would take this seriously, though, is beyond belief.   So I was dismayed by this Henry Farrell post:

You can make a good case, obviously, that his main opponent, Mitt Romney, would be even worse. But it isn’t at all clear that the consequences of voting for Romney over the longer term, would be any worse than the consequences of voting for the guy who was supposed to be better on these issues, and was not. Indeed, the unwillingness of American left-liberals to criticize the opprobrious foreign policy of a Democratic president (and the consequent lack of real public debate over this policy, since most of the right tacitly agrees with the bad stuff) weighs the balance in favor of voting against Democrats who you know are going to sell out.

Obviously, the fact that he’s simply placing no weight at all on the many issues on which Romney/Ryan would be far worse than a second Obama term, virtually all of the consequences of which would be disproportionately borne by America’s most vulnerable citizens in exchange for no actual benefits — is frankly appalling. Erik made this point and I have discussed it recently at great length, so I won’t reiterate the whole argument. But I will make a couple of additional points.

First, I would note that the heighten-the-contradictions argument being made here is very weak tea indeed. Henry concedes that Romney is no better on the issues under discussion and is probably worse. But, the argument seems to run, at least Romney would generate more opposition from Democrats when he committed similar and worse abuses. I believe this is true. But to carry any weight that would justify the repeal of the ACA, the overruling of Roe v. Wade, the gutting of environmental and civil rights enforcement, massive upper-class tax cuts, etc. etc. etc. it’s not enough that there be more opposition; it must be the case that this opposition be effectual. And it’s overwhelmingly clear that, in fact, this increased opposition would be extremely ineffectual. The liberal opposition to Bush over his stupid wars and egregious civil liberties abuses didn’t create the first powerful pro-civil liberties faction in American history, and it should be pretty obvious that this wouldn’t happen as a result of a Romney administration either.

Second, as a follow-up to djw’s point about the fallacy focusing on “deal-breakers” rather than engaging in a holistic evaluation of the consequences of electoral outcomes, I could understand the argument more if Obama was some kind of outlier on these issues among moderately progressive American presidents. But, to state the obvious, this is very much not true. Even the few presidents with greater records of progressive accomplishment than Obama have much more egregious deal-breakers to their discredit. LBJ, of course, was responsible for far, far more needless deaths than Obama (although it must be conceded that these deaths generally didn’t involve unmanned planes, which is apparently relevant for reasons I’ve never understood.) FDR had not only the horrors of the Japanese internment but the fact that the already insufficient social welfare programs that represent the enduring legacy of the New Deal were structured so that African Americans received grotesquely lesser benefits. Lincoln was a white supremacist, wasn’t an abolitionist, and even if we give him a pass on most Civil War deaths because it was a just cause it’s hard to argue that, say, all of the property destruction in Georgia was strictly necessary. And these are the good presidents. There’s no president that doesn’t have any number of potential “deal-breakers,” and as djw says this is inevitable given that American political culture and constitutionalism have always been saturated with any number of evils and injustices.

So, to be clear, to believe in this kind of logic is to permanently abstain from American electoral politics. All meaningful votes for president are at best a choice for a lesser evil. What abstinence or voting for nothing but vanity candidates is supposed to accomplish I have no idea, but nothing good and much bad would come from it. (Like Henry, I’m assuming that we’re not discussing “how any individual should cast her meaningless vote” but are making an argument about how progressives should vote. If any individual wants not to vote for Obama as a moral statement on the grounds that it won’t actually have any consequences, knock yourself out. I’ll only note that the ineffectuality argument cuts both ways — if your vote doesn’t matter, abstaining doesn’t somehow morally insulate yourself from the consequences of bad American policy either. Refusing to vote for Obama because you’d prefer to wait for Godot isn’t actually any kind of meaningful moral statement, and you can’t escape moral consequences by refusing to vote for anyone who might actually become president.)

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