The Myth of the Lesser of Two Evils

To My Radical Revolutionary Friends:

Much of the commentary surrounding the Integral Obama initiative (on Integral Life, on Facebook, and on this website) has focused on whether it makes sense to support Obama or not. I hope I’ve made it clear that although I obviously have taken a stand on that point, I’m interested in looking at deeper questions, such as:

  • Our responsibility to engage in civic political engagement as an aspect of our integral practice
  • The tricky business of integral evolutionaries learning to cooperate politically to obtain and exert actual political influence (going beyond the futile gesture of “speaking truth to power”)
  • The questions of exactly what integral or evolutionary policies we would recommend if we actually could bend the ear of the next administration? (And how we could agree upon them)

But it seems necessary to weigh back in on the basic question of supporting Obama in the first place. A lot of the controversy I’ve stirred up has revolved around a particular moral question: Is it better to support the “lesser of two evils” or to opt out of the choice between evils altogether, and instead throw one’s support (including, presumably, one’s time, energy, and money) to other, more pure and untainted choices outside of the system?

The assumption behind some of these comments is that Obama is the “lesser of two evils” and Romney the greater of the evils (though some would reverse this)—but either way they both essentially represent an “evil,” namely a corporate-military-industrial state that has co-opted both political parties and is bent on destroying individual liberties, killing indiscriminately, and hastening a global economic takeover by a ruling elite. And therefore: the choice is either to vote for Obama because at least he is not as radical as Romney on some important issues (social issues such as gay rights, women’s health, etc. at the top of the list), or to take a stand, refuse to play the game, and stage one’s own personal protest (however merely symbolic) by refusing to vote altogether or by voting for a third-party candidate that has no realistic choice of winning in this election.

There are big problems with the assumption that the two candidates are merely two different flavors of evil, not just philosophically but in practice. But before I get into the problems, I want to assure you that I see why many are so leery of President Obama. I agree on many points. I sometimes follow and resonate with the work of Glen Greenwald, Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, et al. I’m profoundly disturbed by Obama’s support of the National Defense Authorization Act, the expansion of domestic spying programs, and the obvious corrosive influence of big money throughout our political system. Believe me, I agree with all these objections to Obama’s presidency! The fact that Obama might be good on many other issues is no solace to the families of those innocents in Pakistan or Yemen killed by drone strikes, or to the millions of Americans like myself who feel like they’ve been shut out of a government that is supposed to be “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” It’s why I often support the Occupy Movement, as well as various trans-partisan, more fully and purely integral social and politics movements, including, for example, the Power of We Campaign.

I want to be very clear: My support for President Obama is not instead of my support for more radical and more integral perspectives and initiatives, but rather in addition to them, as one part (though a timely and important part, I believe) of a more holistic and multi-dimensional expression of integral activism. I don’t pretend that any one perspective or initiative—whether radical, revolutionary, trans-partisan, liberal, conservative, or attempting to be integral—is adequate to the incredible complexity of the situation we face. But neither do I believe that merely “holding the big picture” and waiting for evolution to catch up with our own more evolved sensibilities is sufficient.

As we know, evolution has a special way of approaching these kinds of problems: It tries every strategy at once. Some ultimately work and some don’t, but that all gets sorted out through the evolutionary process itself; the optimal path forward is not given a priori. Therefore, as we face a very complicated and even perilous situation in our nation and world, it seems to me of paramount importance that we not polarize into either naive idealism or angry cynicism, but that we remain open, flexible, and pragmatic. This does not imply becoming any less principled or “integral,” but rather looking squarely at the choice before us, holding the cognitive dissonances that arise, and making considered, well-argued, intelligent judgments, as best we can. I cannot guarantee that my judgment will be right—but I can darn well offer my best arguments in as rational and civic way as possible.

As I’ve made clear, I’m open to integral arguments in support of Mitt Romney, and of the libertarian and green candidates. I’m even more open to integral arguments for fundamentally changing the way our system works. At the end of the day, however—barring an act of God—we face a choice: it’s either going to President Obama or President Romney for the next four years. Those are our two options in this election. No protest, no vote (or non-vote) of conscience, no online discussion is going to change that. We can blog about it till our fingers fall off, but that’s the reality. We can dream big, we can work for fundamental reform—and we should—but there is no excuse, in my opinion, to not vote in this election for the better of the two candidates, however we determine exactly which one that is. (If you live in “safe” blue or red state, then of course, you might want to make a symbolic statement by choosing None of the Above—but in a close race or swing state, the calculation must be different; the 2000 election is case in point. Don’t those who refused to acknowledge the real differences between Gore and Bush have some moral responsibility for America’s post 9/11 behavior? Are the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis not evidence enough that elections DO matter?) I’ve made what I believe is a strong argument for President Obama not because I believe he is the “lesser of two evils,” but because I believe he has already done, and has the potential to do much more, good.

Are there deeply troubling aspects of Obama’s foreign policy? Is Obama responsible for the deaths of innocents? Yes, certainly. But are Obama’s military actions in any way comparable to the colossal arrogance and deadly blunders of the previous administration? Be serious! I cannot see Obama’s policies only through the prism of his most objectionable programs. I have to try see the biggest picture I can, to take into account his many positives as well: the shift to multilateralism and more nuanced, skillful diplomacy, for example; the cautious approach the Iran nuclear issue; and the attempt, however slow and painful, to extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I have to ask myself, do I feel aligned with Obama’s vision for the world? Do I believe it’s authentically worldcentric—in other words, do I think he’s ultimately trying to do good in a way that I can recognizehowever messy and frightening some of his policy choices have been? Now here, of course, we could have serious and far-ranging debate. But at this point, I have to say yes. I do believe Obama is trying to do good, and that he’s extremely competent. I believe he will do more good than Romney would, if elected. I also think he can do a lot better than he’s done during the last 4 years. But I also think “doing good” is a lot more complicated and compromising than many of us tend to appreciate. It’s like a high-speed game of 3 or 4-dimensional chess in stormy seas, and as far as I can tell, Obama is a rare fellow, one of our few current national politicians with the intellectual and emotional capacities to play this game with integrity and skill.

And that brings me to the problem with the “lesser of two evils” idea. So long as we follow the predominant popular habit of projecting our own shadow onto politics—seeing politicians and politics as essentially evil—sold out, bought out, corrupted, nefarious, and necessarily violent—we will fail to see clearly. We won’t understand, appreciate, honor, or gain influence with those elements within it that are actually quite “good.” Because our view of politics (and politicians) is partial, often loudly so, we are far too prone to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in our political judgments. We simply don’t take enough complexity into account. Not only that, but because we so habitually and reflexively dishonor the whole endeavor of politics, we tend to get exactly what we’re looking for: villains, scoundrels, and liars. We thus discourage men and women of greater character from entering the fray.

Finally, we disempower ourselves when we frame our political choices in terms of the “lesser of two evils.” When we circumscribe our domain of action only to those areas that we perceive as being untainted and ideally aligned with our moral preferences, we in effect cut ourselves from the arenas where decisions are actually made, where often, very consequential decisions are made that effect us all, for better or worse. Does this mean that protest movements such as Occupy are wrong? Absolutely not! But it does mean they’re partial, if they only want to challenge the system from without also changing it from within. (Just as it would be partial to work within the system only and to delegitimize more radical reform.) To change it from within takes playing the game, raising the money, getting the votes, and yes, making decisions that will often appear to compromise with evil.

Does this mean that we must accept all Obama’s policy choices—including those we passionately object to, that we find morally repugnant? Should we passively fall in line? Absolutely not! I welcome and applaud the journalism and activism that seek to expose the limitations, failings, and dangers of Obama’s choices. I believe that both within and outside the Democratic party, we should amplify these critiques.

But right now, in these next two months, we face an inescapable choice. It’s either going to be Obama or Romney. No amount of personal disgust with the two can change that. No amount of fulminating will replace this choice with a more ideal choice or give us a candidate who is pure. On the other hand, we can ask ourselves: What is the choice I can make that will do the most good? All it takes is casting a vote. It’s doesn’t mean you have to philosophically and morally agree with everything about the candidate you’re voting for. But what I also hope to do is use this vote for a “meta” purpose. I think we (as “integral evolutionaries”) have the opportunity to generate an even greater good by pooling our money and making an attempt to gain some actual influence in the political process. Not just talk amongst ourselves, but influence. However little it turns out to be, it will be infinitely more than nothing. And even if it’s nothing, we can only learn from the experience.

So again, I invite you to join me. I support Obama not because he’s “the lesser of two evils” but because I believe the choice to do so, in the big picture as I understand it, will result in the best possible outcome that is available to us now—will result in “more good.” That satisfies my conscience more deeply than withholding my vote (or money) would because I strongly disagree with some of Obama’s decisions. I have no illusions that this little experiment in collective action will radically change the course of things—which is why our activism needs to be sustained over time. It also must be full-spectrum and more fully engaged, both inside and outside the existing political system. But I do think we have much better chance of influencing the system (not just as integral practitioners but as citizens in a broader progressive/evolutionary movement) if we’re dealing with an Obama administration rather than a Romney one. (Want just one more example? Obama has recently said that he would support a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United to help get the big money out of politics. I’m fairly certain we will never hear the same from Romney.)

It’s going to be one of the two, folks. So there’s moral value in getting serious and making a choice, and enacting it in a way that can actually matter.

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4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Lesser of Two Evils

  1. Terry – thank you for this thoughtful, passionate and considered post. Ever since I was a young woman in Berkeley in the 60’s and early 70’s this same question has surfaced every time the opportunity of casting a vote or otherwise working ‘within the system’ has presented itself. What if all the purists who never voted or supported a candidate had actually thrown themselves into the messy fray and lent their voices to change? Where might we be now? Yes, we’re horribly imperfect and that shows up particularly loudly in politics, but this is the life we have to work with now. Being ‘integral’ doesn’t mean we never get our heart broken. We should look for good and support it. Perfect is the enemy of good.
    Thanks so much for your cogent arguments for staying involved, bearing the pain, celebrating the good, keeping the vision, and working hard both in and out the ‘system’. “May my consciousness be of service to all beings, and all PATTERNS of being” – Someone wise said that!

  2. Your proposal page does not allow for any proposals to be posted, or else I am simply a neanderthal. Here are a few: one six year term for president, same for senate, national sales flat tax, with discounts/rebates/exemptions for anyone under a defined poverty level, legalization of most illegal drugs, balanced budget amendment to the constitution to be phased in over x years to mitigate the stressors of change. No PACS, no individual contributions to any elected officials by anyone personal or corporate, campaign times of 90 days tops, change voting system over time to expressive voting, move towards voting on long term initiatives, with approvals every 2-3 years, use electronic voting with appropriate controls for fraud, start a world political party. Thank You, Tom Woodard

  3. Hi Terry,
    I think the issue for most people who are writing in opposition is that we should not be promoting partisan politics on an Integral site – at all!

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