Lesser evilism gave us Trump

(PikPick)

bizarre new game is taking Twitter by storm. Liberals are competing with one another to come up with the most extreme and grotesque scenarios in which they would still vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump

Often you’ll see this sort of discourse in reference to the sexual assault allegations of former Biden staffer Tara Reade. One Twitter user wrote: “I would vote for Biden if he raped 100 women at gunpoint. The stakes are high in this election.”

Another tweeted: “Biden could be murdering puppies and raping their cadavers, and I would still vote for him.”

Of course, this is hyperbole meant to express how committed Democrats are to getting Trump out of office, but it’s still disturbing for a number of reasons — aside from the most obvious.

For starters, if the goal is to get rid of Trump, it doesn’t really doesn’t bode well for the Democrats’ prospects that they’re talking this way about the guy charged with that task.

Pleas to vote for Biden frequently start with the preface “He’s hardly my first choice, but…”

He excites voters less than any candidate in 20 years, standing in stark contrast with Trump and his fired-up base. It’s not a good sign that rank-and-file Democrats are having such a hard time coming up with a valid defense of their candidate that their minds go immediately to macabre hypotheticals about barbecued babies and canine necrophilia.

These are extreme examples, but they represent a pervasive attitude among liberals that has only been aggravated by Trump’s gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak. There’s a monomaniacal focus on ousting him that renders every other issue all but irrelevant.

At the root of this mentality is the view that Trump is an aberration rather than the logical end point of a long-term trajectory. Yes, Trump is in many ways uniquely dangerous and unfit for the job, so the sense of urgency is understandable. It’s like a tumor that has to be removed immediately or the patient will die.

However, the cancer itself remains and continues to metastasize. And in this metaphor, Biden is not the cure, but merely a smaller, marginally less threatening tumor.

Trump is the result of American political dysfunction — not its singular cause. His election is the culmination of three decades of continually lowering the bar. The Democrats have been accomplices in that process, constantly managing the public’s expectations and policing the boundaries of what is politically possible.

Rather than articulating a courageous progressive vision for the country, the Democratic Party has settled into its role as the lesser of two evils, and as the Republicans continue to drift further and further to the right, that threshold becomes increasingly easy to pass.

Partisan politics of this century have been largely defined by culture war issues instead of traditional ideological differences about the role of government. The parties have coalesced around two competing and virtually irreconcilable sets of policy positions on abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, etc.

(Etsy)

The electorate is highly polarized around these social issues— split neatly down the middle into two mutually hostile camps, with a tiny sliver of swing voters between them. The Republicans present themselves as the protectors of Christian values against the God-hating babykillers while the Democrats posture as the last line of defense against science-denying cretins who want to return women to the days of back-alley abortions.

In a two-party system, this dynamic leads to a breakdown in the basic mechanism of democracy.

Ideally, parties are supposed to respond to the will of their constituents, who in turn reward them with votes, but with entire blocs voting consistently for one party over the other, there’s no motive to address their problems. Political scientists call this “electoral capture.”

For their part, Republicans are fairly effective at delivering the goods for the various groups in their coalition. They placate big business with deregulation and tax cuts. At the same time, they please the religious right with aggressive actions limiting access to abortion at the state level or “bathroom bills” targeting trans people.

But the Democrats have to do next to nothing to keep their voters’ loyalty. They don’t need to actually protect the rights of women, unions, people of color or the LGBTQ+ community. It’s sufficient to merely emphasize (correctly) that those rights are under assault, and how it’s imperative now more than ever to “vote blue no matter who.”

The Democratic Party doesn’t have constituents — it has hostages.

Electoral capture explains the party’s long-term trajectory since the 1990s and the prolonged decay of American democracy that made Trump’s election possible. The term was coined to describe the relationship between black voters and the Clinton Administration.

The so-called Third Way politics of New Democrats like Bill Clinton flow naturally from a lack of incentives to cater to “special-interest groups” that ostensibly make up the core of the Democratic coalition, such as labor unions, women’s organizations, civil rights groups, progressives, etc. With these constituencies in the bag, there’s a greater impetus to spend energy courting wealthy donors, white suburbanites and college-educated moderate Republicans.

Welfare reform, tough-on-crime policies, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell , NAFTA— Clinton pioneered a centrist style of politics based on triangulation with the right that survives to this day in the person of Joe Biden. In his 2016 book Listen, Liberal, left-wing social critic Thomas Frank describes the Clintonite strategy of “counter-scheduling:”

This was such a cherished idea among New Democrats that they had a catchphrase for it: Clinton’s campaign team called it “counter-scheduling.” During the 1992 race, as though to compensate for his friend-of-the-little-guy economic theme, Clinton would confront and deliberately antagonize certain elements of the Democratic Party’s traditional base in order to assure voters that “interest groups” would have no say in a New Democrat White House. As for those interest groups themselves, he knew he could insult them with impunity. They had nowhere else to go, in the cherished logic of Democratic centrism.

Clinton was a centrist in all dimensions, but the next generation moved left socially and right fiscally — an inverse of the original New Democrats of the 1980s, whose goal was to win back white, socially conservative Reagan Democrats.

The Bush-era Democrats largely abandoned the white working class in favor of a coalition that united professionals with the woke capitalists of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Immigrants, minorities and young voters remained a junior partner in this coalition who could be taken for granted and safely ignored.

Obama ran as a progressive, with a promise of hope and change. And in the wake of the 2007–2008 financial crisis, he had a mandate for it — not to mention a majority in both houses. Instead, he declared himself a New Democrat and embraced the politics of triangulation.

In office, Obama governed from the middle, combining incremental social reforms with a neoliberal Wall Street-friendly agenda that served to deepen inequality while failing to adequately fix health care.

There’s a tendency to explain Trump’s election primarily in terms of factors like racism, xenophobia, misogyny and the DNC hacks. While that argument has some merit, it’s a little facile. The political failures of the Obama Administration also played a role.

Studies and focus groups on Obama-Trump voters found that three-fourths of them wanted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As a share of household income, premiums have continued to rise steadily since the act was passed. Almost half of adults in the United States are either uninsured or underinsured.

These conditions left a lot of people vulnerable to a flashy huckster promising that he could make it all better. Trump’s talk of “draining the swamp,” however disingenuous, resonated as well.

His portrayal of Hillary Clinton as a career politician in thrall to Wall Street rang true. The Obama Democrats did have a cozy relationship with the financial industry. And the fact that Trump would ultimately fill his cabinet with a different set of Goldman-Sachs cronies doesn’t make the charge any less valid.

What’s more, Clinton’s ads were mostly free of policy. While Trump ran a mixture of policy-based ads and personal attacks, her campaign went all in on the “Dangerous Donald” strategy.

And that’s the problem. The Democrats can’t articulate an affirmative vision because they don’t really have one. Since Reagan, the Democrats have defined themselves purely in opposition to Republicans, opportunistically changing their positions based on which way the winds blow.

But in a time of polarization, occupying the middle doesn’t cut it — the center is collapsing beneath their feet. They can’t put forth anything to excite the base or expand the electorate nor can they appeal to conservatives. All they have is an ersatz righteousness based on the notion that they’re not as bad as the other guys.

Trump is what you get from a milquetoast liberal opposition eternally ceding ground to the right.

Filling the role of the greatest of all conceivable evils, Trump is a gift to the Democrats. He gives them a raison d’etre, freeing them once and for all from the burden of actually having to be about anything. According to one poll, only a third of voters believe that Democrats stand for something. The majority see them as merely an anti-Trump party.

By forsaking any firm principles and making opposition to Trump the center of their political identity, the Democrats are slowly morphing into the Republican Party circa 2003. They welcomed the late John McCain, Bill Kristol and various amoral neocon ghouls into “The Resistance.” George W. Bush started a war that killed half a million people and funneled untold amounts of wealth into the pockets of his cronies, but even he gets rehabilitated in the Trump era.

Lesser evilism has to be recognized for the slippery slope that it is. If a line in the sand is never drawn, then the inevitable result is greater and greater evil.

And whatever claim that the Democrats even have to being the lesser evil becomes a harder sell because it is increasingly hollow. The pink pussy hat — in reference to Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” remarks — became the symbol of “The Resistance.” Yet, now the presumptive Democratic nominee has been credibly accused of literally doing that very thing, so the Democrats retreat into relativism: Well Trump has been by more than 20 women; Biden only less than 10!

That is what the politics of the lesser evil means in practice. It’s a negotiation about how much evil we are willing to accept. And given the balance of power in the country, the leverage is such that we’re constantly being haggled upward.

In addition to “pussy grabs back,” the other rallying cry of Democrats is “Trump puts children in cages” as if he were somehow different in that regard from Obama, the “deporter-in-chief.”

In 2018, the ACLU wrote that “a pattern of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by Customs and Border Protection officials against child immigrants that existed long before President Trump emboldened the agency by unleashing its officers to enforce his draconian immigration policies.”

The title of that article: “The Border Patrol Was Monstrous Under Obama. Imagine How Bad It Is Under Trump.

And that’s where we’re at. We’re deciding what level of heinous brutality, rape and child incarceration we we deem acceptable, when the correct answer is none. Is it that much of an improvement to have a militarized border agency that’s merely “monstrous” under a thin veneer of Democratic compassion versus one that is “emboldened” by a far-right demagogue?

Resistance liberals love to talk about “disinformatzya” tactics employed by Russian bots who are supposedly everywhere at all times. One of these is “whataboutism.” Ironically, with Biden as the likely nominee, tu quoque is now the dominant mode of debate, as Republicans and Democrats exchange roughly symmetrical attacks about whose family is more corrupt, who is more of a sex pest, and who is the most senile and incoherent.

It would be comical if it weren’t so depressing.

More than anything, Democrats want to have the moral high ground, but they’re not willing to commit to the arduous climb up the mountain. Instead, they stand at the edge of the sinkhole the country has become smiling smugly. They dust their hands and say to themselves: “We did it.”

Journalist, socialist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD

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