Opening scene of ‘Mourning in America’
Lesser-Of-Two-Evils-Ism: Participating in Election 2020 USA
How is one to consider the 2020 US Presidential election, to get involved either mentally or in any practical sense? Jeremiah Day discusses the choice between two evils. Can “non-participation” have public meaning?
(…When last year Dutch leader Mark Rutte arranged a “one against one” debate with Thierry Baudet  he joined ‘Macron vs. Le Pen’ and ‘Merkel vs AFD’ as part of a broader European dynamic limiting discourse to center-right vs far-right. The agendas of both factions seem to be served by such a manipulation, as like Macron and Merkel, Rutte effectively re-framed his own positions as moderate in comparison to the explicit ethno-nationalism of the debate partner, while Baudet reaped the rewards of being elevated to the position of the defining challenger. This “lesser of two evils” politics is normally more associated with the US political system than the multi-party parliamentary democracies of Europe, but as this dynamic plays a larger and larger role in Europe, perhaps it also gives the reflection below a direct relevance.
The question raised below is this: how is one to consider the 2020 US Presidential election, to get involved either mentally or in any practical sense?)
[h1]Part 1: The Biden Movement
My grandmother loved Joe Biden. His appearance on the TV, on the Sunday morning talk shows or the times he ran for President, made her pull her face into an enthusiastic smile, lifting her shoulders and almost to punch the air in a “Go get’em!” She smiled when he smiled, like it was contagious, matching that tough-guy gleam in his eye.
My Nana had sat on her uncle’s shoulders as a small girl, walking the voting precincts in Brooklyn, turning out the vote for the Democratic machine and she kept that same loyalty. My grandmother was for Biden every time he ran and when Obama picked him for Vice-President, she was for Obama all the way. I think there’s a lot of people like that, probably. Because Biden indeed is a kind of an old-fashioned democratic machine politician, not playing at the city level like the Daley gang in Chicago, nor even at the state level because Delaware is tiny, but at the Federal and even global level, and people recognize that in him. Keeping the wheels moving and keeping the troublemakers in line has been Biden’s rationale for literally longer than I’ve been alive.
[blockquote]Keeping the wheels moving and keeping the troublemakers in line has been Biden’s rationale for literally longer than I’ve been alive
Biden’s 2005 bankruptcy bill – perhaps his signature achievement in public life – attacked the institution of bankruptcy and reduced the ability of people to re-negotiate their debts. Always considered to be a humiliating process, bankruptcy had been a kind of American tradition wherein one earned the right to a clean start through declaring one could not pay one’s debts and entering a unpleasant legal process of re-negotiation with one’s creditors, the pain involved being the price of some kind of personal re-birth. The 2005 bill not only blocked people from entering the process by making it expensive, it also made relief from credit card debts much more difficult. Biden also made sure it was difficult to get out of debt from medical expenses, which in the privatized model of the US is exactly what pushes many people into bankruptcy. But what might seem to be a small-scale technical change actually had vast implications because the bill also blocked any ability to get out from under loans taken on to pay for education, leading to the so-called “student-debt crisis” of today which not only is a cause of personal suffering but has put a tremendous burden on the economy of the US overall.
Biden claimed that his motivation was twofold: to protect women and children by making it impossible to renegotiate child support payments, and second of all to make sure the bill was not even more harsh, to hold back the Republicans. His way was proposed to be “the lesser of two evils,” while locking social inequality in as a structural aspect of American life, which many would observe of course affects women more than men.
While Biden has played a key role in shifting the Democratic Party from the home of the peace movement to a consistent advocate for military aggression – suppressing dissent within the party over the 2003 Iraq manipulations and invasion, for example – besides the bankruptcy reform his most significant work in public life has been to be “tough on crime.” As author of the 1994 crime bill, which until recently he referred to as “the Biden Crime Bill,” he changed the landscape of the United States, bringing in more extreme punishment at almost every level of crime, and the era of what is politely called “mass incarceration.” This was not an exception, but rather represents a core part of Biden’s role in public life as is widely recalled for his bragging about an earlier 1992 crime law that “We do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill.”
Ultimately, though, Biden is of course best known as the Vice-President under Barack Obama. With this track record, why did Obama pick him? As was understood clearly at the time, for the general election, Obama sought a powerful figure of the establishment, a counter-weight to the image of reform and change Obama had created, to reassure those who thought Obama might indeed try to be the “community organizer” he’d said he was. While trumpeting his opposition to the Iraq war and his commitment to social justice, Obama balanced this aspect of his campaign with Biden, an anchor of the pro-war, big bank Northeast establishment.
To make the point sharper, Obama had picked the specific individual who had made what was widely understood as a sly racist comment about Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
The implication of Obama’s choice was that – just as Biden often worked with white-supremacist politicians on those crime bills – here Obama signaled that anti-racism was not a defining part of his agenda.
But the full meaning of this quote is lost until one recalls that Obama was not the first African-American to run for President and garner substantial support – that was Jesse Jackson, who ran twice after all, including doing better than Biden in 1988 (Jesse was me and my mother’s candidate at the time.) Biden’s exact point was that Obama was not like Jesse Jackson, who had lifted the elegant phrase “Rainbow Coalition” from Fred Hampton the young Chicago organizer murdered by the state. Obama might be from Chicago, but he wanted everyone to know he had nothing to do with the civil rights tradition of Hampton, not even to steal catchphrases from it, and picking Biden in 2008 was done, I suspect, in no small part to signal that to all, friends and enemies alike.
[blockquote]Biden has a unique reputation for lying, very publicly and about very serious issues. His main topic for fraud is his own biography and political history
The last aspect of Biden as a leader to consider is that Biden has a unique reputation for lying, very publicly and about very serious issues. His main topic for fraud is his own biography and political history. His plagiarism of a speech to misrepresent his own life (a double lie, if you will), about which he then lied (making it a triple), was the basis for dropping out in shame from the 1988 Democratic Primaries – which I recall vividly because he was indeed my Grandmother’s candidate and this was a subject of discussion while my mother and me were for Jesse Jackson.
Incredibly, many of his other famous lies are about misrepresenting his actions on behalf of racial justice. Due to the visibility of the current Presidential race, some of these cannot simply be passed over, and Biden has had to even fess up about a particularly stunning whopper, repeated more than once to African American community leaders: the anecdote that he was arrested in South Africa meeting Mandela, implying that he was some kind of practitioner of civil disobedience, for which he claimed Mandela had thanked him, personally, with a hug. Nothing like this even vaguely happened. To lie about one of the most famous dissidents in world history to a room full of those who struggle against racial injustice and claim you are one of them, when it is hard to find a moment in 40 years in public life when Biden ever lifted a finger, let alone risked arrest and violence, in solidarity with anyone…
In other words, I’m lead to the conclusion: Biden is indeed an old-fashioned totally shameless politician, willing to sell you anything for your vote, and counting on your willingness to let it go in the face of… of what, exactly? In the face of the greater evil.
I have not mentioned his now famous episodes of “cognitive decline” or “gaffes,” which include biting his wife’s finger in public, confusing his wife for his sister, and forgetting the Declaration of Independence half-way through quoting it. Besides overlooking the peril this might place the world in, the widespread desire to avoid these issues reveals an implicit acceptance of the President as a figurehead for a broader machine. Indeed this is what I mean by the “Biden Movement” – it is not a movement of people committed to Biden as a leader or even as a person, but rather a broad political movement that has used the “lesser of two evils” argument to justify almost anything in the pursuit of defeating Trump.
Which is understandable and even logical: Trump’s attempt to govern through media manipulation has rocked the core of people’s ability to even consider facts or even think, and most people are desperate for it to end. Trump’s active incitement of mob violence alone would justify the argument that any chance for a working civil society depends on the end of his administration and this hysterical and dark chapter.
So there need be no affirmative argument for Biden, just that anything “normal” would be better than this horrible aberration. In such a context, even Biden’s most fierce critics, those dedicated for decades to opposing his vision and policies, have become his active supporters, and here is revealed a very deliberate aspect of the Biden Movement: to neutralize any opposition to the status quo Biden would restore. Indeed, one of the largest facts that is glossed over in the fugue-desire of removing Trump via Biden is that Biden himself achieved the nomination through party manipulations designed precisely, like in 2016, to block the leader of the largest movement for social and political reform in the last century. The effort to grapple with structural problems was in fact the first victim of the Biden Movement, but oddly enough that is forgotten precisely because most of the leaders of that coalition of self-styled “progressives” are now loud Biden supporters, including the figurehead, Bernie Sanders himself.
One of the largest facts that is glossed over in the fugue-desire of removing Trump via Biden is that Biden himself achieved the nomination through party manipulations designed precisely, like in 2016, to block the leader of the largest movement for social and political reform in the last century
For those anti-war and pro-social justice activists, the turnaround was so rapid as to be stomach churning, as in this emotional exchange between a key voice of reform, the comedian/journalist Jimmy Dore and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, on how she exited the Presidential race to support the embodiment of the politics she’d been campaigning against.
Dore: “You know people like me wanted you to form a third-party, and the reason why is right now we’re in this position that someone who is anti-war is going have to endorse and support a guy who is diametrically opposed and is a war-monger. And then Bernie Sanders, the guy whose signature issue is Medicare-For-All is going to have to support a guy who just promised to veto Medicare-For-All even if it passes the house and the Senate.
So we have two big progressives endorsing the guy who has publicly guaranteed not to do what we want him to do. So do you understand…?”
Gabbard: “I totally understand. I completely understand your frustration. Again I look at things at a very practical level and I see how the existing political infrastructure makes it virtually impossible for any third party candidate to be viable. So, let’s look at it: for those who are advocating for a viable third party and start working towards changing that infrastructure to make that a real thing.”
To talk about a hypothetical “infrastructure” project seems tone-deaf in our moment of urgency, so in the meantime, all critiques – the Iraq war, privatized health insurance, the lack of commitment to election integrity and other corruption; the actual policies proposed – all get flattened into the Biden Movement. Cornell West says we need to support Biden as part of an “anti-fascist” coalition and Noam Chomsky, who has basically been a non-participant in US electoral politics for decades, demands that we support Biden because Trump’s anti-ecological policies pose a greater threat than Hitler.
Cornell West says we need to support Biden as part of an “anti-fascist” coalition and Noam Chomsky, who has basically been a non-participant in US electoral politics for decades, demands that we support Biden because Trump’s anti-ecological policies pose a greater threat than Hitler
Could this movement to support a figure head – who may not be competent, and certainly has lied repeatedly about himself and his actions, and who has a clear track record of supporting injustice and repression – somehow save the world? Has Trump been the cause of all of our problems, and once out of the way we can get down to the business of making the world a better place?
What about those – like Dore – who suggest that Trump is a logical outcome of the dispossession of masses of the body politic, a symptom more than a cause, and if this system is not reformed it will lead to something far worse than Trump, an actual violent mass movement? Is voting for Biden simply the end of the conversation? Are there no other forces on this earth we could ally ourselves with besides the Biden Movement?
Part II. Hannah Arendt and The Question of Responsibility
In this quandary, I found myself recalling a short passage on the subject of the “lesser of two evils” from Hannah Arendt’s work. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and those who participated in criminal government is well known, but she also dwelled in detail on those who chose not to participate, and what that reveals about citizenship, thinking and action. Arendt’s analysis was that “lesser-of-two-evil-ism” actually has a political function, not just a moral one.
In her 1964 public address “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” a lecture given widely in the aftermath of her controversial report on the Eichmann trial, Arendt argued that under certain regimes this “lesser of two evils” argument is actually “one of the mechanisms built into the machinery of criminality.” The political function is to make the citizens, in general, responsible for evil and that this sharing of responsibility is itself a political tool for building a specific kind of criminal government.
“Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning the government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such,” and Arendt goes on to suggest that this “acceptance,” far from being passive or distant, actually constitutes a form of consent, of tacit support. Arendt in her writing dwelled on those who chose to “stay out” of such things, and ultimately she concluded that a certain quality of skepticism and free-thinking made it possible for some people to judge for themselves, and decide that they would rather give up many things, even their lives, rather than to become an accomplice to murder or supporter of war criminals. Arendt defends the position of those who withdraw from public life in such moments.
But besides our private lives, can “non-participation” have public meaning? A few years later, after the experiences of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, Arendt addressed this topic in response to a panel on “Collective Responsibility.” Going through a reflection on the way that in republics and democracies, the citizens bear some share of blame or praise for the actions of their governments, “we are here concerned with only one special case, with the case of collective and vicarious responsibility in which the member of a community is held responsible for things he did not participate in but which were done in his name.”
Thinking through the various forms of this “responsibility,” Arendt came to those who wanted to withdraw their support for the course of affairs:
And we have finally the case in free countries where nonparticipation is actually a form of resistance – as in the case of those who refuse to be drafted into the war in Vietnam.
This resistance is often argued on moral grounds; but so long as there is freedom of association and with it the hope that resistance in the form of refusal to participate will bring a change in policy, it is essentially political.
What is the center of consideration is not the self – I don’t go because I don’t want to dirty my hands, which, of course, may be a valid argument – but the fate of the nation and its conduct toward other nations in the world.
Is it possible to connect these arguments in the context of our landscape today? Could “nonparticipation” be a form of resistance?
It would seem to be a purely academic question, except for the fact that the streets of every Western city are now full of those gathering to say that they refuse to tolerate the status quo.
Part III. “A Radical Non-Cooperation Movement”
In spring of 2019, I read in the news that students in Belgium were on strike, national strike, to protest the “climate emergency,” or rather the perils caused by the collective decision to not deal with this emergency. As this protest movement spread around the world and I grappled with how to understand its meaning, I was struck by a memory of a text my collaborator Fred Dewey had produced as his contribution to a program we made with Simone Forti in 2010.
Miracles have happened, however, and they need to be remembered for what they achieved. The unprecedented revolution began in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, popularly called a “bus boycott,” was nothing less than a radical non-cooperation movement of the people, as King preferred to call it. It sent ripples in every direction, bringing about changes that we are still the beneficiaries of. …
The lessons of this for the democratic republic, for all the people, nonetheless, and tragically, failed to materialize…
How might the polis, and principles of a democratic republic, be updated, how might we begin to think politically again, in shared, widespread discussion, not in response to issues or cult figures, but concerning how we are and are not able to govern our lives, and mutually support each other in this? How does this relate to made things, to culture and to meaning?
The title of Dewey’s book “The School of Public Life” is partly a reference to Rosa Luxemburg and her critique of the emphasis on political party organizing, placing instead her emphasis on a civics that would encompass and include the most number of people’s participation and action. For Luxemburg, the general strike was not just a tool but a form of political education, an organized refusal to carry on with the status quo functioning of society, a space made for describing and demanding a new political framework.
My attempt to understand this connection led in the fall of 2019 to me organizing a series of discussions with a veteran of this Alabama movement – Joanne Bland – with a representative of the Belgian climate movement, Gilles Vandaele. The video documenting this tour explores the intersections between two approaches to civic action, but events of the last year have made the stakes even more vivid:
Each and every night, for months now, people gather in Portland, Oregon, not to push for any specific policy, party, or politician but to blanketly declare that the systematic violations of human rights in the society are unacceptable: “Black Lives Matter.”
Each few weeks in Paris the streets fill with masses demonstrating – again with little or no representatives, party organisations or goals – simply to declare very loudly and very widely that they will no longer be voiceless.
Each Friday the whole world is filled with children who will not go to school in order to declare that they will not go along any longer with a system that will not even reflect on it’s own destructiveness.
What else are we living through but a moment where “nonparticipation is actually a form of resistance”?
70% of those in the United States recognize that the for-profit health system needs to be abandoned and health organized as a public utility, as in most of the developed world.  It is obscure exactly how many Americans want to maintain the NATO military occupation of Afghanistan but 73% of military veterans want to withdraw immediately. While candidates pay lip-service to such issues (Biden on the so-called “public option”; Trump on troop withdrawal) the overwhelming consensus of those in government is to maintain these unpopular and widely acknowledged to be destructive projects.
So why do we follow Chomsky in debating Trump vs. Biden and not instead Youth For Climate vs. Yellow Vest? Participation after all is not about just about the act of voting, but about the entire discursive apparatus which under-describes the struggle of the people. To not participate in this “lesser-of-two-evils-ism” does not mean to not vote, it means to no longer fall victim to the manipulation that these forces represent us at all, or probably much of anyone. How many names of Black Lives Matters or Yellow Vests organizers are even known? Why is our thinking, our discussions, our publications (and our art) not grounded in the political moment of the Greta Thunberg or Patrisse Cullors, a writer and an artist who have dramatically reshaped public life across the globe?
In the US both parties have toyed coyly with the idea that extra-constitutional measures should be employed if the November election is disputed, and if so then the meaning of citizenship itself will have to be found outside either party. We will need to find the “mutual support” in “widespread discussion,” that Dewey suggests. My grandmother and her loyalties stood for a long time, but Election 2020 seems to mark the end of something, and perhaps even she would give up on the “lesser of two evils.” Perhaps she might say it is time to shift our compass to those – our neighbors and in some cases our children – whose non-cooperation is resistance, who offer us the project of not just building a new party as Tulsi Gabbard advised, but actually a new politics: in search of a project in which we might find a greater of goods.
1 Apparently Rutte’s demand for a debate was made public after the debate had in fact already been arranged. The demand itself was part of a publicity campaign with the aim of limiting public discussion to the two positions. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/22/netherlands-european-election-tv-debate-labelled-a-sham-mark-rutte
2 The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 or BAPCPA. As the American Prospect elaborated: “Biden also consistently voted against efforts to soften BAPCPA’s blow on vulnerable populations. He voted against three amendments to ease bankruptcy requirements for consumers whose financial troubles stem from medical expenses. He voted against an amendment that would have helped seniors keep their homes. He voted against exempting servicemembers and widows of servicemembers killed in action from the law’s eligibility restrictions. He voted against an amendment to exempt women whose financial troubles stemmed from deadbeat husbands’ failure to pay child support or alimony. And Biden even voted against an amendment that would have ensured that children of debtors could still be given birthday and Christmas presents.
3 Biden also voted against allowing debtors to pay their union dues during bankruptcy, potentially imperiling their employment and ability to achieve financial rehabilitation.” https://prospect.org/politics/bidens-votes-on-the-bankruptcy-bill-middle-class-joe/
4 Biden organized several such efforts, playing a leading role in the wider “tough on crime” movement, which to many seemed to be an appeal to racist voters. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/25/us/joe-biden-crime-laws.html
8 Printed in “Responsibility and Judgment”, Schoken, 2005.
9 Further, her unfinished book “The Life Of The Mind” was entirely motivated by this discovery that the capacity for independent judgement was so decisive in the organisation of criminal governments.
10 Also collected in “Responsibility and Judgement,” quotes from page 154-155.
is an artist and writer