If You Think Kerry Is the Answer, You’re Asking the Wrong Question

A reader writes:

I’ve been meaning to do a Picket Line entry about something like this. A friend asked me once what I thought would be good investments, expecting a stocks / bonds / real estate / gold sort of answer. I’m apocalyptic enough in my outlook, and long-term enough in my investment thinking that my answers were things like: foreign language skills, the best dental work you can find, etc.

If all you’ve saved up for retirement is money or a promise of money (social security, a pension plan, etc.), then I’ve got a bunch of elderly Russians I’d like to tell you about. When your company and your government goes under and your currency becomes a laughing stock… so much for your portfolio.

But if I learn Spanish… how’s the song go: “They can’t take that away from me.”

I got a lot of feedback about my lesser of two evils post . One reader wrote:

Another reader makes the case for the importance of choosing the lesser evil (edited slightly for clarity):

A presidential election is a mighty fulcrum. In one day of voting, the face of the executive branch of the U.S. government may change, and with it four years of presidential decrees, regulations, appointments, and saber-rattling. The presidential election of looks like it will be a close one, so it’s reasonable to feel that although the lever in a voting booth is a small one, its fulcrum is situated as well as any for a single citizen who wants to make a difference.

A little effort on your part now to encourage people to vote for Kerry — by telling them how important voting is, by playing up Kerry’s comparative positives and staying quiet about what makes him distasteful — could conceivably make a big difference in how this country gets run for .

And even if Kerry isn’t much to get excited about — a lesser of two evils at best — even such a small difference, when seen in a person occupying such a powerful office, can make a big difference indeed. We don’t know for sure what a President Kerry would be like, but even if you ignore his hopeful campaign promises and just rely on the law of averages, he’s unlikely to be any worse than what we’ve got now.

So okay, let’s hope Kerry wins in , and let’s be glad if he does. And now let me try to convince you why you shouldn’t vote for him, support him, or encourage people to vote for him.

What does supporting Kerry’s election campaign mean? It means more than just attempting to dethrone Bush. A pretzel almost did that without any votes at all. Kerry’s campaign is a big package, being sold with a multi-million-dollar budget, and win or lose it is going to define the opposition to Bush and his war and his policies.

Kerry is defining the opposition to Bush in this way: We are passionate about war and the military, and think America’s mission in Vietnam was a heroic one — in fact if you went over to Vietnam and killed people, you’re probably a better person than someone who didn’t. We support the Iraq war, but wish it was turning out better, and think we should have gone in with more troops. We think our military is too small and doesn’t have enough equipment. We don’t want anybody to mistake us for being less hawkish than the Dubya Squad. We didn’t lose much sleep over Abu Ghraib. We think that the Patriot Act and the “burqua resolution”1 gave awful powers to people who used them unwisely, but that doesn’t mean we’re against them.

In fact, Kerry isn’t running against the Dubya Squad so much as he’s campaigning to normalize what they stand for. Worse, he’s being so hawkish that he’s actually causing Dubya to stake out even more belligerent positions for fear of being outflanked! By supporting Kerry, by standing by him, by applauding his talking points, by cursing those who slander him, by vowing to dance on his inauguration day, you’re helping him do this. If Kerry wins, it will mean that something like half of the voters, the ones who don’t think Bush is doing just great I mean, rallied behind this “opposition” message.

And you won’t need to wonder why when you start to hear things like “hardly anybody questions that the American mission in Vietnam was essentially an honorable one” and “everybody agrees that we need a large, global military presence” the same way that this cowardly herd behavior from Democrats led to things like “nobody doubts that Saddam threatens the United States with weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s easy to give yourself over to wishful thinking. A politician’s campaign speeches are as vague as they think they can get away with — promising positive-sounding things in general, and not much in specific. The intent is that the audience will think “maybe he’s talking about me and my hopes.” Some take this to ridiculous extremes and try to believe that Kerry secretly stands for what they stand for, and not for the things Kerry has been voting for, has spoken up for, and has centered his campaign around. Kerry’s the last person a “lesser of two evils” voter has to vote for, so that voter is looking at Kerry like a horny drunk boy looks at the last girl left in the bar — her bad breath and missing teeth are vanishing from attention and thoughts like “I bet she’s got a pretty voice” are starting to pop up.

Don’t fall into this wishful thinking trap. If you’re going to vote for the lesser of two evils, at least look that lesser evil in the face first. Look at what Kerry has actually done and is actually doing. Case in point: Kerry didn’t just “believe Bush” about these mythical weapons of mass destruction — he was part of the choir singing the WMD chorus. I think you’re fooling yourself if you think that Kerry “opposed Bush going to war.” Hardly. He voted to enable and authorize it, and even now insists that this was the right thing to do. Another thing a vote for Kerry will be is a vote for someone who helped lead the war parade.

His spin, now and then, is that by voting to give Dubya the power to go to war in Iraq, he wasn’t actually voting for war in Iraq but simply to give Dubya a bigger stick to wave when trying to enforce weapons inspections and such. But millions of us knew that the Dubya Squad was hungry for war and we begged Congress not to let them have it. We knew that this resolution was like the Tonkin Gulf resolution — what passes for a declaration of war in today’s Congresses. Kerry’s aw-shucks position reminds me of someone who admits that sure, he gave the loaded pistol to the chimpanzee, but he first admonished the chimp never to touch the trigger.

Now you may say that while all of what I’ve said is true, or true enough anyway, this still doesn’t change the brutal but necessary “lesser of two evils” calculus.

But you have to answer, realistically and not just hopefully, whether the likely reduction in “evil” from a Kerry victory over Bush is worth the cost of further degrading the political opposition and further legitimizing jingoistic bullshit, worth the cost of moving the country, the Democratic party, and the media more in favor of this grotesque dream of ruthless American empire. Remember that it was cynical political calculation of a very similar kind that caused so many journalists and legislators and such to get swept along by the war frenzy in the first place.

We need to start saying “no” and no more of this “well I really’d rather not but just this once more if you promise you’ll be better about it next time” whining. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t include a big “no” to John Kerry, and a lot of reasons why we should. It might even be helpful.2

Is there a good reason to believe that Kerry couldn’t take sensible, half-way decent, good positions on the war in Iraq or the Abu Ghraib scandal and still win?3 Are we that pessimistic? Is his insistence on decking himself out in a set of New Clothes just as transparent as the Emperor’s really such a great campaign tactic? I mean, hell, even Republican congressmen from Nebraska are coming out against the war these days. Maybe it’s time to start wondering whether Kerry is doing this hawk act not from reluctant political expediency but because he’s deeply mistaken and a Dubya-like jerk.

A losing candidate who ran a campaign dedicated to making the U.S. a better, more honest, more respectable and self-respecting country, and who conducted a campaign that reflected this, would leave us in a better place than a candidate like John Kerry will leave us, even if he defeats the awful Dubya. In fact, such a person wouldn’t even have to be a candidate — such a campaign doesn’t have to wait for election season to come around.

I’m with Thoreau on voting — it’s nothing to get excited about, and nothing to be proud of:

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to? Shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought.

The “lesser of two evils” argument says that we’re at a point where we can make two choices, one will add a certain amount of evil to the world, the other will add more. We’ve got to choose one, so choosing the lesser evil is the right thing to do, even though it means choosing evil.

The answer to this argument is that in the real world we have a wide and ever-changing array of choices, each of which may move us and the world in more or less good or evil directions. If Bush or Kerry were our only choices, Kerry would be the lesser evil (by all appearances), and the right choice. In the real world though, we can do better by rejecting them both and choosing something good instead.

The second of my footnotes is rendering strangely in Mozilla 1.4.1. Starting with the link to An Echo, Not a Choice, the font switches over from my standard footnote font to the larger main-text-sized font, and there’s an extra line-break where this switch occurs. I’ve double-checked my XHTML and CSS and run the page through a validator and nothing seems amiss there. The third footnote also has a hyperlink in it, but doesn’t show this problem. Any idea what’s going wrong here? Am I making some subtle error or have I found a Mozilla bug?

Update: it’s a bug of sorts. Has to do with my XHTML being served to some browsers (by necessity) as “text/html” rather than as “application/xml” which is technically correct. This causes the browser to misinterpret empty a elements (e.g. <a name="foo" />). Since I can’t avoid sending pages as “text/html” to browsers that tell me they don’t know how to handle “application/xml”, I guess I have to give up on using empty a elements.

My subsequent move to HTML5 makes all this discussion obsolete…