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The Reflective Voter's Fear

by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Historians tell us that as the Year One Thousand approached, fear that the world was about to end engulfed the entirety of Christendom, not just the benighted precincts of the era’s functional equivalents of Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum voters.

As the Year Two Thousand (Y2K) approached, there was a more timely concern: that the world “as we know it” would end because many of the computers in operation at the time were not programmed to handle the transition.

Both fears proved unfounded, of course; but it is starting to look now as if the people who panicked as Y2K approached were onto something. The computers were fine, but something awful, something that would break the world as we knew it at the time, was, sure enough, about to happen.

What was about to happen was – George W. Bush.

We are only now beginning to appreciate the apocalyptic impact of his rise to power. It has long been plain that he broke the Middle East, but it is still far too soon to gauge the full effects of his malfeasance.

It is not too soon, however, to reflect on Y2K’s implications for the impending 2016 election.

On the face of it, the specter of Y2K puts wind in the sails of defenders of lesser evil voting – at least for anyone who thinks, as any sane person would, that in the year 2000, the lesser evil lost to a very great evil indeed.

But we must not rush to judgment.

* * *

It is hardly news that American voters don’t choose candidates the way democratic theorists say they should; candidates are sold to them, in much the way that consumer goods are.

A difference is that there are usually several varieties of, say, soap or refrigerators on the market; in American elections, there are, in practice, only two choices.

Another difference is that consumers can consume what gives them pleasure – or, rather, what they think will have that effect — given their tastes and their budgets. Voters typically find themselves choosing the lesser or two evils.

Also, in voting, brand loyalty matters more than it does with most consumer choices.

Most voters vote reflexively for one or the other semi-established party based mainly on cultural identifications — not reasoned arguments or examined ideological convictions.

It would be fair to say that, in Presidential contests especially, many, maybe most, Democrats would find voting for the Republican candidate unthinkable. Many, maybe most, Republican voters feel the same way about the Democrat.

Therefore, electoral sales campaigns are targeted at only a small part of the electorate – undecided voters in “purple” (swing) states.

Only the swing states matter because Presidents are elected by electors in the Electoral College, assigned, state-by-state, on a winner-take-all basis. In most states – roughly forty of them – the statewide outcomes are predictable enough that the electoral votes might as well be pre-assigned.

And so, voters in purple states are barraged with nonsensical political advertisements, while voters elsewhere escape the onslaught.   Or rather some of them do. Since media markets sometimes overlap state boundaries, not as many voters are spared the torment as the Electoral College numbers would suggest.

Democracy is the first casualty of this state of affairs. Serious political discourse follows close behind.

This is why, in practice, it hardly matters, for most citizens, how debates about lesser evil voting turn out. Americans vote, or not, as they see fit, without giving the matter much thought.

This may be irresponsible, but it may also be the wisest course, given how little democracy (real people power) Americans actually have.

Nevertheless, some voters are disposed, for whatever reason, to follow the arguments wherever they lead.   In some cases, those arguments may even affect how they vote.

Their main use, though, is for shedding light on the maladies afflicting politics in our time. For genuine and worthwhile change to happen, public consciousness of that is indispensable.

High on the list of maladies is the fact that thoughtful voters, choosing between Democrats and Republicans – that is, between evils of greater or lesser magnitudes – cannot avoid facing a deep problem that the Y2K election perspicuously illustrates.

On the one hand, lesser evil voting produces evil (very bad) outcomes. It also encourages a general decline in the political culture.   This is certain.

On the other hand, sometimes the lesser evil really is lesser – in ways that can matter catastrophically.

This doesn’t happen often because the candidates of both parties are usually so awful that it hardly matters, except at the margins, who wins.   Sometimes, though, it does.

The problem, however, is that it is clear only in retrospect, and sometimes only after a lot of time has passed, that the difference between the lesser and the greater evil truly was significant enough to matter.

In real time, we just can’t tell.

To gain some purchase on what this entails for thoughtful voters, an example will be helpful.

With the Y2K election, we have one at hand — with consequences that are still unfolding in ways that voters inclined to reflect seriously on what to do in 2016 cannot reasonably ignore.

* * *

No good will come from that election; no prediction could be more sure.

It is also sure that the candidates – Hillary Clinton (or, if we are lucky, some less noxious corporate Democrat) and Jeb Bush (or some certifiable whacko that the Republican base will like better) – are not the main reasons why.

Corruption American style – what corporate media call “campaign contributions,” and what the Supreme Court calls “free speech” – will play a far greater role.

So will systemic features of the electoral system itself. Some of these – the Electoral College, for example – are constitutionally required. Others, like the duopoly status Democrats and Republicans enjoy, are not.

But both kinds work to democracy’s detriment –at least insofar as “democracy” means rule of the demos, the people. Both kinds also tend to make outcomes worse than need be.

And then there is the leftwing of the duopoly, the Democratic Party. Its shortcomings are legion.

With Chuck Schumer about to take over as Senate Minority Leader, this point may seem too obvious to require stating. Yet, in liberal circles, the reality barely registers; faith in the Democratic Party’s rectitude is seemingly as unshakeable as ever.

And yet the Democrats are clearly part of the problem – an important part, in just the way that only center-right parties with center-left reputations can be.

By drawing potential opponents of the increasingly aggressive machinations of the one percent into their fold and then disabling them, and by fully participating in the neoliberal consensus, they enable the depredations the rest of us, the ninety-nine percent, endure.

These figures, one and ninety-nine percent, come from the short-lived Occupy movement of 2011. They make for good and inspiring slogans, but they are not quite exact.

The main beneficiaries of actually existing capitalism, the people who already own nearly everything there is to own, measure far less than one-percent.

And the ninety-nine percent number is probably a few percentage points too high, inasmuch as the “trickle down” effects neoliberal ideologists make so much of do exist – for people at the very top of the income and wealth distribution.

But the Occupy numbers are close enough.

Another obvious point, the most relevant of all for thoughtful voters, also needs making: that while the “winner” in 2016 won’t be good for much, she or he can do a great deal of harm.

This is the main reason, arguably the only one, why it matters who wins.

It mattered after the events of September 11, 2001. It mattered then that George W. Bush – and therefore Dick Cheney – had won the Presidential election the year before.

In fairness, “win” is not quite the right word; a divided Supreme Court handed the White House over to them. Even at the time, it was plain that Bush had lost the popular vote. We now know that if all the votes had been counted and all the rules obeyed, he would have lost Florida too. He would therefore have had fewer electoral votes than Al Gore, and would have been declared the winner.

Democrats would not even have been able to blame Ralph Nader for their own shortcomings!

But the people behind Bush were more capable and determined than the people behind Gore, enabling Republican Supreme Court Justices to get away with handing the winnings over to their man.

Thus five of nine Supremes will never themselves be brought to justice, but they plainly have much to answer for; thanks to their skullduggery, Bush and Cheney were let loose upon the world.

Nothing in recent history – perhaps nothing in American history – better illustrates the point that worse sometimes is catastrophically worse.

Because counter-factual claims are impossible to verify, we cannot be certain that a Gore administration would not also have broken the Middle East.

We can only be as sure as can be: not because Gore would have been a decent President – quite the contrary, he was another Bill Clinton in waiting — but because, like Bush the Father a decade earlier, and like Clinton too, he was reasonably astute, and would therefore have known enough not to act like a bull in a china shop.

Bush the son should have followed Poppy’s example. Instead, after 9/11, he set about putting that bull to shame.

He and his posse broke everything they stumbled into. The only way they could have done more harm would have been by tossing a nuke into the shop they had already wrecked.

Fortunately, there were enough grownups around – not in the White House or in the Vice President’s office, but in the “defense” and “intelligence” establishments — to insure that that wouldn’t happen.

We must not exaggerate, however: Bush and Cheney cannot be blamed for the rise of political Islam. Building on decades of groundwork encouraged and funded by the Saudi royal family and other reactionary Gulf State oligarchs and potentates, Zbigniew Brzezinski was responsible for that.

To this day, he boasts of his machinations, claiming they helped bring the Soviet Union down.

The Israelis helped politicize Islam too, though only in and near the territories they occupy. Back then, they tolerated and even encouraged Hamas — a godly and therefore biddable alternative, they figured, to the secular Palestinian national movement they feared.

Brzezinski’s shared their rationale – in part because, like many imperialists before him, he saw religion as a spent force and secular nationalism as a threat. But he was a Cold Warrior first and foremost.   His main goal was to draw the Russians into the functional equivalent of a Vietnam War. Afghanistan provided him with an opportunity.

He was wrong, of course; the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan did it no good, but neither did it bring it down. It imploded for other reasons altogether.

Brzezinski’s boasts are nearly as silly as Republican blather about how Ronald Reagan’s military spending and his speech at the Berlin Wall brought the “Evil Empire” to its knees.

But his diplomatic guile — and the guns and money he supplied to the mujahidin — did help get political Islam up and running.   It took a while before the realization dawned that, for both the dominators and the dominated, the cure is worse than the disease. For the American political class, it took 9/11.

Bush and Cheney made the problems associated with political Islam worse by many orders of magnitude, but their efforts to reshape the region did far more harm.

In view of the political fragility of the countries they stepped into, the guns and money they had at their disposal, and their ignorance of the world in general and the Muslim world in particular, the situation was bound to unravel – once they set their minds to making Afghanistan and Iraq and the rest of the Middle East accord with neoconservative designs.

And so it did.

They were hardly groundbreakers, even so. They were only inept continuators of what their predecessors had begun.

The Iraq War that Bush and Cheney launched – for no remotely defensible reason – was, in effect, a continuation of Bush’s father’s war a decade earlier.

He, at least, had a plausible pretext for that misadventure – the Iraqis, under Saddam Hussein, had invaded Kuwait. Also the father’s advisors – including Cheney at the time – had enough sense not to try to take the country over and run it themselves.

Their goal was not so much to make the world over as to make an example of Saddam Hussein – lest any other uppity leader get ideas about defying the Empire’s will.  This presumably was also the rationale behind the sanctions regime that the first Bush put in place.

The Clinton administration embraced those sanctions enthusiastically. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, famously went so far as to say that she was not bothered by the premature deaths of the half million or so people the sanctions caused; she said it was “worth it.”

It isn’t clear what it was worth it for – except to make it easier to overthrow the Iraqi government ten years later, as George W. and Cheney went on to do.

It goes without saying that neither those two nor anyone around them had the slightest idea what to do next with Iraq. They broke it, but they could not put it back together.

It was much the same with the war they started against Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. Its purpose ostensibly was to punish the Taliban for harboring Al Qaida and its leader, Osama Bin Laden.

Its actual purpose was to get the war machine up and running, and to get public opinion riled up enough to support “taking down” Iraq, once the situation in Afghanistan was under control.

It is hardly surprising that some fourteen years later, the Afghanistan War is still not under control. Somehow, though, this plain fact did not stop Barack Obama from striking political pay dirt in the 2012 election for allegedly winding it down.

Obama and his Secretaries of State –first Hillary Clinton, then John Kerry — carried the Bush-Cheney wars on; apparently unconcerned that it had been clear since long before they took office that they were fighting lost causes and making a bad situation worse.

They added on a few additional wars as well.

The most egregious example is Libya, where their machinations broke that country just as surely as they and their predecessors had broken Iraq.

Libya too had a villainous dictator whom they overthrew without giving much thought to what would follow.

What followed, predictably, was civil war – proving, yet, again, that the empire’s ability to learn from its mistakes is nil, while its capacity for spreading murder and mayhem is limitless.

Obama’s main concern in both Afghanistan and Iraq was saving face – the bully’s first priority always. This is what he set about doing. For more than six years, he kept at it – “surging,” then winding down, then “surging” again.

His administration’s cluelessness rivaled his predecessors’; his strategy amounted to playing it by ear whenever problems arose.

It is therefore hardly surprising that even the War Party in Washington seemed to be losing interest. After all, what glory is there in in muddling along?

Obama’s preference for weaponized drones over “boots on the ground” helped quiet opposition at home.

It has also been a boon for radical Islamists — because nothing helps recruiting better than keeping entire populations under the shadow of sudden death descending without warning from the skies.

When there was still an anti-war movement in the United States – in other words, before Obama took office and liberals started cutting him slack – it was often pointed out that Bush and Cheney were the real terrorists. If liberals today would wipe the scales from off their eyes, they would see that, in the terror department, Bush and Cheney were small potatoes compared to President Drone.

But there is even less glory in turning murder into a video game played in safe retreats on the other side of the world than in sending economic conscripts out to be killed or maimed by roadside bombs.

This is why, in due course, even the pillars of the military-industrial-national security state complex had had enough. They wanted to move on to better things.

There are other causes too, but this was at least part of the motivation behind the Obama administration’s reckless efforts to provoke Russia into a sustainable Cold War.

And it was why Obama and Company were always on the lookout for new theaters of operation – on the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa, and wherever else they could make war without stirring up opposition at home.

Not much is known about them; the corporate media doesn’t tell.   But now that Yemen is broken too, we are likely to hear a lot more about what the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been up to.

It is already plain that he has put the entire Muslim world in jeopardy – just as radical Islamists had been hoping the West would do since even before 9/11. Our Commander-in-Chief is their Recruiter-in-Chief.

But Obama was only standing on George Bush’s shoulders. He has done a lot of harm and killed a lot of people; but, for a long time, nothing he did differed fundamentally from what they had begun.

This changed when the hopes raised by the Arab Spring turned sour. Responsibility for the Obama administration’s botched handling of the spontaneous eruptions of people power that swept the Middle East four years ago, and for America’s role as the reaction to it unfolded, is his alone.

Through it all, Obama’s foreign policy team, led by Hillary Clinton and comprised of barely disguised neocons and hapless humanitarian interveners, was in way over its head.

But had Obama’s predecessors not seen to it that so much of the Middle East was already broken, Team Obama’s incompetence would not have had the dire effects that it has.

They, not he, are the ones who are most to blame because they were the original bulls in the china shop. Their bungling was the condition for the possibility of his.

And, in his defense, it must be said that Obama had neither the backing nor the political skills to do much better than he did.

Also, it is his bad luck that it is on his watch that we are finally beginning to see the enormity of the mess Bush made. It took a long time for the full extent of it to come to light.

The problem is not just that the fires Bush and Cheney ignited are not easily extinguished or even that the sparks they throw off keep igniting new conflagrations. The new twist is that their wars, along with blunders that Obama and his team added on in their feeble efforts to make those wars go away, reinforce each other.

Now Syria is ground zero in the latest stage of the free fall Bush and Cheney set in motion.

After supporting the Syrian government and then opposing it, the Obama administration has taken to siding with it when it defends itself against some rebel militias, and siding against it when it fights others. Their strategy – or whatever we call it — is a mind-boggling mishmash.  Is anyone even trying to keep score?

Of course, the elephant in the room, in Syria and elsewhere, is Iran – America’s mortal enemy but also its indispensable ally. Iran is also Israel’s current “existential threat.”

In the Age of Obama, the Middle East is divided into two parts: those ruled by regimes that the American empire can count on for reliability, and those ruled by dubious stooges or outright foes. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states fall into the former category along with Egypt, now that its revolution has been overturned.

Everywhere else in the region falls into the other category. There, thanks both to drones and boots on the ground, instability reigns.

And there, enemies’ enemies are friends and enemies both – at the same time, though seldom also in the same place. There, alliances rise and fall with astonishing rapidity, often for the flimsiest of reasons or for no reasons at all.

Then, of course, there is Israel, still in a category by itself – no matter how strained personal relations between its leaders and the Obama administration become.

In the United States, as in Europe, though still to a lesser degree, public support for that ethnocratic settler state is rapidly diminishing.   Also, the reasons of state that brought Israel so thoroughly into the American ambit no longer obtain with the force they once did; arguably, they even pull in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, the tail still wags the dog, and this is not likely to change any time soon.

In the near term, Israel is likely, instead, to complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to engineer a much-needed rapprochement with Iran, adding to the general incoherence of American policy in the region.

What a tangled web empires weave when they have guns and money to squander, and leaders without backbones — and advisors who don’t have the sense they were born with.

Just when it looked like it couldn’t get worse, it did.   The Islamic State (IS) emerged seemingly from nowhere, but actually out of the morass the Bush-Obama Iraq War created. In short order, it took over large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory.

Its goal, it claims, is to recreate a Muslim Caliphate, governed on principles that were already antiquated in the centuries following the Prophet Mohammed’s death.  Good luck on that!

But the danger their project poses to Shia communities in the region is incalculable. The Iranians, self-appointed protectors of the Shia faith, understand this perfectly.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival for regional dominance, along with other Sunni majority states in the region, are fine with the peril Shia Muslims face. They have different reasons to oppose the IS. They, or rather their ruling circles, see it as a threat to their own powers and privileges.

The IS’s military prowess is evidently first rate, and, thanks to Western bungling, the organization is armed to the teeth. Its strategists are also adept at what anarchists used to call “propaganda of the deed.” But where anarchists were mindful of the requirements of morality, the IS’s thuggery knows no bounds.

For sheer monstrousness, neither Al Qaeda nor any other Islamist group comes close. Neither do the many Shia militia now engaged in the region’s battles — though, reportedly, some of them try, and sometimes come close to succeeding.

Meanwhile, the likelihood that events in the region will spin even more thoroughly out of control rises with each passing day.

Events now unfolding in Yemen are a sign of things to come; the U.S. endorsed Saudi intervention there could turn into the greatest leap forward for regional instability since Bush and Cheney got the ball rolling in the aftermath of 9/11.

So far, President Mansour Hadi, one of Washington’s most reliable stooges in the Arab world, is gone; Houthi rebels are in. The Saudis want them out; so does the United States. To that end, the Saudis are dropping bombs on Yemen; the Obama administration evidently approves.

The Houthis belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam – not quite Tehran’s cup of tea, but close enough to worry the quasi-feudal leaders of Saudi Arabia. They are exponents of the Wahabi strain of Sunni Islam. They are also America’s favorite partner in the region – after Israel, of course.

From Riyadh’s standpoint, it just won’t do for Tehran to be the most influential power in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and now in Sana’a, too.

And so, they plunged into the fray. They have quite a juggernaut at their disposal. Over the years, they bought it from America’s merchants of death — with money forwarded to them from American taxpayers and from oil consumers around the world.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian army – also supported by the United States and supplied with American arms – is eager to join in; eager to go after enemies more formidable than Egyptian citizens robbed of the democracy they fought so hard to obtain.

Does anyone in the White House or at Foggy Bottom appreciate the irony?

When the Saudis drop bombs on the Yemeni people, and threaten, along with Egypt, to invade – ostensibly to protect Sunni communities from Shia (or quasi-Shia) militias — the American government applauds.

But when Russia does much less to protect Russian-speaking communities in Ukraine – from forces set in motion with American help — they cannot object too strenuously or threaten enough.

The untrammeled incoherence of it all almost rises to the level of the sublime.

Our Nobel laureate is leading the way but, again, he couldn’t be doing it had Bush and Cheney not set the process in motion, and supplied it with the structure and direction it has taken on.

Ultimate responsibility for past and present catastrophes therefore lies with them.

Obama will have to do far worse than he already has before he will come close to being in their league – even for catastrophes yet to come.

* * *

When five retrograde Supreme Court Justices put Bush in office after the Y2K election, voters and other observers who considered Bush the greater evil, thought the situation disgraceful but not especially calamitous.

The “compassionate conservative,” was, after all, just a bumbling fool; Bush family fixers would keep him in line and, when all else failed, make his missteps right. They always had.

It didn’t quite turn out that way – he and his nefarious éminence grise made more of a mess of more of the world than anyone would have thought possible. We still don’t know the full extent.

Dreadful as Hillary Clinton is, her Republican rival, even if it is only Bush’s younger – and reportedly more reactionary — brother, is likely to seem a greater menace than George W. did.

But will it matter who wins?

Most likely, it will not – not if history is any guide.

Nine times out of ten — maybe ninety-nine times out of a hundred — lesser evil voting itself does more harm than any Republican could – assuming, as right-thinking, lesser evil voters would, that the greater evil is the Republican candidate.

But then, there is the long shadow cast by the Y2K election, the election that gave us George Bush.

The specter of that year’s election has haunted every election since. It will haunt the 2016 election even more than any of the others, now that, thanks to what happened then, the Middle East is now falling apart, and world peace is in greater jeopardy than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

The case against lesser evil voting is compelling and, if only because there is no way, in real time, to know when another catastrophic outcome might result from the wrong choice, it survives even the lesson of Y2K.

But even the most reflective voter cannot entirely exorcise the fear that the very thought of another Y2K result elicits. The presence of yet another Bush in the race makes this even harder than it would otherwise be.

Now, more than ever, it is time to think hard about what to do, and to worry.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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