The 2012 Election and the State of the Nation

Back in 2004, I send out a little essay on post-election reflections that several folks passed around (by e-mail, back in those pre-Facebook days). In 2008 I sent another, more hopeful post-election message; and I guess I'm making it a tradition now.

One bit of good news, looking back at that 2004 message, is how the landscape has shifted on the question of marriage equality. In that election, gay marriage was used to as a hot-button issue to get right-wing voters to the polls. But today I stand as a proud citizen of one of the first states to have its electorate affirm the civil marriage rights of same-sex couples, as Maryland voters approved Question 6. Hooray!

But that 2008 message of hope in the wake of Obama's first victory looks incredibly naive now that he has given us his policies of assassination and drone terrorism.

We could also detail the detention provisions that he not only signed into law in the NDAA but has fought for in court; the continuation of conservative policies that have almost destroyed the American middle class and fostered injustice and inequality; the increased prosecution of medical cannabis (and what hypocrisy it takes for an admitted former pot-smoker to prosecute pot users); and the failure to close Gitmo (remember Gitmo? No one else seems to...) and to investigate and prosecute torture and war crimes committed during the Bush administration. But all those other sins pale next to Obama's claim to have the power to put anyone he wants, even an American citizen, on an unreviewable kill list.

If in 2004 I spoke of the sickness of the body politic, and in 2008 of the placebo effect, then I suppose this metaphor this time around would be of iatrogenic disease -- a disease caused by medical treatment. If Obama was the medicine, that medicine is proving toxic.

I don't mean that Obama is toxic because he's some sort of secret socialist Muslim anticolonialist born in Kenya and come to deliver us all into the hands of the anti-Christ, or any of those ridiculous claims. But the problem is that in refuting and denying that bullshit, many people have come to embrace the other line of bullshit: that Obama is a good guy doing the best that he can under difficult circumstances and if only the Republicans would get out of his way life would be grand.

I actually saw someone post on Facebook today about how this Obama victory is a dream come true. If your dreams include women, children, and first responders killed by drone strikes...you need to dream better. Because I'd call remote control terrorism a nightmare.

The iatrogenic disease that this campaign has inflicted upon us is the "lesser of two evils" syndrome, the idea that real change isn't possible and so we must not only choose but enthusiastically endorse the major party candidate who will take us to hell more slowly, who will slaughter innocents at a lesser rate.

We often use the phrase "lesser of two evils" to mean a choice between two non-optimal approaches or two unpleasant results. If, for example, a patient has a terrible infection or injury on one limb, we might describe amputation of the limb as the "lesser of two evils" versus taking a high risk of dying. But neither of those is an "evil" in the ethical sense. What faced voters who restricted themselves to major party candidates this year was a choice between two genuine evils, not merely non-optimal or unpleasant alternatives but an incumbent whose policies are killing people and corroding civil liberties and a challenger who would continue those evils in an even greater degree -- and add a few new ones, such as rolling back progress on women's rights.

Several times this political season I have asked the question, "How bad would the two evils have to be before you would choose to vote third-party? Would a Stalin/Hitler race, or a Kim Jong-il/Pol Pot match-up, do it?" No one has yet chosen to take up that question.

(Note that admitting that both choices are evil is not to say they're both the same; just that they're both evil.)

The lesser-of-two-evils fallacy is so horrible that only dark comedy can really reveal it. Such as Douglas Adams in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish:

"I come in peace," [the alien robot] said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, "take me to your Lizard."

Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this...

"It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see..."

"You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"

"No," said Ford..."...On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."

"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said Ford. "It is."

"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."

"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in...."

Or the fantastic short "Citizen Kang" from The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VII, in which aliens bent on enslaving Earth replace both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. (For the kids: these were the major party candidates in 1996, the year the episode came out.) When the aliens' true identities are revealed, they laugh evilly as they announce that the people have to choose one or the other of them, because "it's a two-party system." One rebel announces that he will vote for a third-party candidate, but Kang and Kodos tell him "Go ahead, throw your vote away!" When Kang wins the election and humanity is enslaved, Homer says "Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos."

The most likely immediate outcome of this election is that Obama will take this victory as an endorsement of all of his policies, and continue and intensify the disregard of civil liberties and the policy of murder-by-drone. Whoever the Democrats run in 2016 will probably continue in the same vein, and Democrats will swallow the partisan Kool-Aid and continue to cheer their guy or gal on. Meanwhile, the Republicans are likely to conclude that Romney just wasn't conservative enough, and to double-down on the reality-denial and general insanity and give us a 2016 candidate at least as unhinged as Paul Ryan. (Though perhaps with a nod to the demographics, and a softer stance on immigration, maybe even a Hispanic VP candidate -- Hispanic Catholics are ripe targets for socially-conservative, anti-choice and homophobic appeals, and the GOP utterly blew their potential in with them this year.)

Am I saying it's hopeless? No. If I may use a Star Trek metaphor (for I am, at heart, a geek), this election was a Kobayashi Maru for the thoughtful and informed voter, a no-win scenario -- so long as you stay within the rules as presented. As Captain Kirk taught us, it therefore becomes imperative to change the rules.

One of the few bright spots in this Presidential election is that over 1% of the electorate rejected both Kang and Kodos. Hundreds of thousands voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and over a million people voted for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. And looking outside the Presidential race, the U.S. Senate will gain another independent member, Angus King. While it's unlikely that a third-party candidate will win the Presidency in 2016, third parties have historically been able to exert significant pressure on the big two. The Prohibition Party, for example, never put anyone in the White House, yet its primary platform plank became the law of the land for over a decade. Teddy Roosevelt lost when he ran as a Progressive (Bull Moose) candidate, yet many parts of its platform were eventually enacted.

More than that, we're now at a point where frustration is growing with both major parties, and it is foreseeable that a third party could break through within the next decade. It's a good time to push for ballot access, reform of the debates, instant runoff voting, opening or eliminating primaries (let the parties choose whoever they want, but don't give them public resources to do it if they're going to exclude people), and electoral college reform (such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact).

Salvation will not come from either major party. We must declare that "the lesser of two evils" is not good enough for a great nation, encourage each other to put down the poison cup of partisanship and realize that both major parties suck, and work to change the rules so that we can vote for our inspirations and not against our fears.

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