Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Lesser of Two Evils

One might wonder why the "world's greatest democracy" offers only two choices, both of them evil.  Remember that the operative term here belongs to the exalted electorate, not mine.  And it's not a term I myself would choose.  "Evil" is freighted with unneeded metaphysical baggage, when I'm almost certain that what is meant here is simply that one choice is less harmful than the other.  But that the weighty term evil would be chosen to describe any part of this celebrated system of government--a government "for the people, by the people," etc.--is telling, a testimonial to the special social schizophrenia that belongs to the American tribe.

On the one hand, the United States is claimed to be the birthplace of the grandest political experiment in human history, but on the other hand this experiment has in recent years regularly generated substandard, evil political choices.  And since the evil govern with the consent of the governed, this makes the electorate complicit with the evil that it burdens itself with, and about which it complains incessantly.  This is a singular accomplishment in unconscious disjunctive thinking: the people create and command the very same government they disparage, hate, and loathe.  It never occurs to them that a grand political experiment might produce more than two choices, or at least a choice between the better of two goods. But this would require a political imagination, a spirit of daring, the will to begin the experiment anew, or at least the frankness to face the flaws that have evolved over the years--all of which are absent here. Because the electorate considers the nation's founders to have been demi-gods and the founding documents sacred, nothing essential can be touched, and no mere mortals are allowed to think outside the ossified cage of exceptionalism.

And so every four years the electorate trundles off with hunched shoulders to perform what they take to be their sole duty as heirs of this political arrangement: to cast a ballot, with great, mournful sighs, for the "lesser of two evils."  It has been said, and this is obviously true, that such a choice is still a choice of evil. But what is often overlooked is that when political decisions are made on the basis of the relative absence of evil, this in effect makes evil the standard by which political choices are made.  Thus evil becomes the field within which the electorate and its leaders move, and is it any wonder that in such a politico-moral context the relative difference in evil between any two candidates or parties will inevitably shrink?  If this is so, it must be asked, after performing the appropriate calculations and calibrations, and upon determining that the "gap" of evil between two political choices has grown so minuscule that neither choice yields significant benefits to the electorate, doesn't this system nullify itself as a mechanism of rational choice?  This is the logic of "the lesser of two evils," internalized as a political philosophy.  How great of a betrayal is this philosophy to the founders, who, after all, regularly spoke the language of morality and virtue?  Would they be content to move exclusively in the sphere of evil?  Can greater treachery be done to their courage, their grand experiment, their utopianism?  Isn't this a grand negation of everything they thought, wrote, put their names to, and risked their lives for?

In the few single-party states that still survive, citizens are compelled, in a perverse pantomime of democracy, to report to the polls and cast their ballots for the only political choice available to them. Here, we have a similar democracy of drudges, dutifully engaging in a similar performance, though it is infinitely more perverse because it is performed not out of coercion but out of a combination of self-delusion, a crippling fatalism, a denial of political agency, and a lack of imagination.  Our "democracy," driven by the philosophy of the "lesser of two evils," is not long for this earth.

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