The myth of the ‘lesser evil’: Why US progressives back Biden

President Joe Biden took office this month after defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 vote (AFP/file photo)

Joseph Massad

29 January 2021 11:26 UTC 

As beneficiaries of the country’s imperialist system, supposedly progressive Americans have never truly sought radical change

Ever since I arrived in the United States to begin my university education in 1982, I have been baffled by arguments used by white (and some Black and Latino) American progressives, leftists and socialists to justify voting for Democratic presidential and congressional candidates.

Unlike mainstream liberal and conservative Americans, who believe their country is God’s gift to the world, the arguments of progressives often stress that Democrats are the “lesser evil” of the two contending parties.

The Democratic commitment to the rich was made amply clear with the major subsidies given to them by Clinton and Obama

Many agree that, in the words of Gore Vidal: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently… and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”

Still, progressives always proceed according to the “lesser evil” theory. If I raised the question of US imperial policy, dubbed “foreign policy” in the US liberal mainstream media, I would be told by the more astute progressives that both parties were “equally imperialist”, and therefore their vote for the Democrats was justified by distinctions in their “domestic” policies.  

Still, because the elected Democratic presidents after Ronald Reagan, namely Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were as neoliberal as Reagan and proceeded with his agenda of mercilessly dismantling the US welfare state, I remained at a loss as to what magnitude of difference existed between the two parties.

The more class-conscious socialists assured me that they were under no illusions that either party defended the white poor, let alone the downtrodden, impoverished racial minorities of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Indeed, they insisted that both parties defended the rich, with the Democrats also defending the middle class in a limited way, although that commitment had declined measurably since the Clinton years.

So what, I asked, are the essential benefits to middle-class Americans that you are defending as progressives, socialists and leftists? Their sober responses highlighted issues of healthcare, social security and women’s reproductive rights. I replied that all of the above had been weakened by the neoliberal Democrats.

Enriching the rich

Support for women’s right to abortion declined considerably when the Clinton administration declared that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare”. Obama acknowledged the arguments of pro-lifers and called for reducing the demand for abortion, while Joe Biden, until his recent campaign, was a regular supporter of the 1976 Hyde Amendment (he changed his position in 2019), which prohibits federal healthcare programmes from directly funding abortion procedures except to save the life of the woman, or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape.

As for Social Security, a bipartisan effort began the war on it in a set of 1983 congressional amendments, which Reagan signed into law. Both Clinton and Obama attempted to cut Social Security and government health benefits to Americans during their respective administrations, but were prevented from doing so by the Monica Lewinsky scandal in Clinton’s case, and public opposition in Obama’s.

Many American progressives contend that Democratic neoliberal presidents are a 'lesser evil' (AFP/file photo)
Biden and former President Barack Obama have been described as a ‘lesser evil’ (AFP)

As for health services, attempts to offer universal healthcare to all Americans were obstructed by Clinton and later Obama, who adopted a Republican plan to subsidise private, for-profit health insurance companies, rebranded as “Obamacare”, and who paved the way for the horror that Americans found themselves in with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. The US empire is falling apart. But things can always get worseOscar RickettRead More »

While President Donald Trump also proposed cutting health benefits, which he did not do, anti-Trump propagandists accused him of proposing to cut Social Security, which he never did.

What about the Democratic policies of enriching the rich? Yet again, the party’s commitment to the rich was made amply clear with the major subsidies given to them by Clinton and Obama. The latter subsidised them to the tune of  $350bn in his bailout of the banks at the expense of middle-class homeowners whose houses were foreclosed upon. Obama did not hold Wall Street firms accountable for the economic meltdown, which followed Clinton’s 1999 repeal of New Deal-era banking regulations, but rewarded them instead.

Ideological blindness

So what justifies progressive, leftist and socialist Americans voting for the Democrats as the “lesser evil”? Is it ideological blindness, or attachment to the cosmetic political language of Democratic politicians, whose actions might have been worse than Trump’s, but whose style of delivery tends to be “kinder and gentler”?  

Why did the policies of Clinton, which transformed the criminal justice system in 1994 to expand the mass incarceration of African Americans, not cause a public outcry among liberals? Indeed, it was none other than Biden who helped to write the crime bill – the same Biden who opposed the racial integration of schools in Delaware back in the 1970s. And what about Kamala Harris, the grand incarcerator, who may succeed Biden in the 2024 election, assuming he does not step down due to ill health before then?America Last: Coming to terms with the new world orderRead More »

Why did Obama’s deportation of millions of “illegal” immigrants not garner the kind of popular opposition that Trump’s policy, which is a mere continuation of Obama’s atrocities, has encountered? While the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Obama in the courts, such legal opposition never translated into a public outcry against the “Deporter-in-Chief”.

Why was there no outrage over the fact that it was only in the last few months of Obama’s eight-year term that his Justice Department finally prosecuted one lone white cop for the racist murder of an African American?

In four years, Trump’s Justice Department did not prosecute a single white killer-cop, but this was a continuation of Obama’s practices. Yes, Obama’s Justice Department pursued “pattern of practice” investigations against police departments, which Trump discontinued – but that is hardly a major achievement on Obama’s part.

Hypocrisy and propaganda

And, yes, the so-called “Muslim ban” – yet another of Trump’s racist policies against some Muslim-majority countries – which people forget was based on a list of countries prepared by none other than Obama.

A legitimate feeling of horror was expressed on account of the 13 federal executions of convicted criminals carried out by the Trump administration in recent months, but these were never compared with the thousands of people that Obama killed by checking targets off his weekly drone kill list. Does it not matter to US progressives and leftists that unlike his Democratic predecessors, Trump, while continuing some of the subcontracted wars that Obama started – and presiding over a rise in civilian deaths as a result of US actions – did not launch a single new all-out war on some hapless country?

There is no such thing as American ‘foreign’ policy when US power controls the entire globe, making foreign policy ‘domestic’ policy

Could all these people who voted for Biden (slightly more than half of those who voted) – especially the benighted, white liberal intelligentsia – not know that many of the things they complained about during Trump’s rule were in fact done by their own beloved liberal presidents?

Most of them know, and their campaign against Trump was nothing but hypocrisy for the sake of propaganda, so that the poor and downtrodden would believe that Trump was evil while Obama, Clinton, Biden and Harris were good – or at least, the “lesser evil”.

Complicit in imperial crimes

In my conversations with progressive, leftist and socialist Americans over the decades, I have tried to point out that the US is not just the “leader” of the world, as asserted by liberal and conservative Americans equally committed to US jingoism, but that the US has been since 1991 the primary ruler of the world.

I explain to them that as US citizens, they are the only people on Earth who have the right to vote for a government that rules the entire globe, and that they are thus complicit in American imperial crimes when they decide, based on some illusory domestic agenda of the “lesser evil”, to vote for a government that would launch wars and kill hundreds of thousands of people. I add that there is no such thing as American “foreign” policy when US power controls the entire globe, making foreign policy “domestic” policy. 

Iranians burn a US flag during a rally in Tehran on 12 April 2019 (AFP)
Iranians burn a US flag during a rally in Tehran on 12 April 2019 (AFP)

Like their liberal and conservative “patriotic” and imperialist compatriots, many progressive and socialist Americans are not moved by such arguments. Indeed, they enjoin poor white Americans (“the deplorables” as former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called them), along with downtrodden Black, Latino and Native American communities to join them in celebrating the Biden victory.

Why do they expect these Americans to celebrate with them, let alone the rest of the Third World – where millions have been killed by US firepower and covert operations since 1945, in wars launched by both Democratic and Republican leaders – when they know the US will probably initiate more wars against them? The reason is that these “progressive” and leftist Americans, like their liberal and conservative compatriots, are beneficiaries of the racist, classist and imperialist US system, which has always prevented them from seeking any real radical change.

The most they are willing to do is vote for a leftist imperialist Democrat, such as Bernie Sanders – who, like them, commits to changing very little, yet presumably also represents “the lesser evil”.

Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Desiring Arabs, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated to a dozen languages.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

One Response

  1. Excellent!

    In the company of a few others, I met the great Ralph Nader in 2004. His prime advice: “Never vote tor the lesser evil.” I’ve adhered to his prescription ever since.

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