Actually, Re-Writing History Is a Bit More Complicated
So what can the 2000 election, and subsequent events, tell us about how we cast our votes for President in 2012?
That’s the rhetorical question Kevin Drum asks as a way to set up the following argument:
- Many people considered Al Gore the “lesser of two evils.”
- Some people still considered him to evil to vote for.
- And so we got Iraq!
He concludes that,
“Even if you assume that Al Gore would have passed the Patriot Act; and invaded Afghanistan; and given the NSA free rein to engage in wholesale amounts of warrantless surveillance; and approved the torture of enemy combatants — even if you assume all that, do you think we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been president? That didn’t just happen, after all. It’s not as if the public was baying for Saddam Hussein’s scalp. It happened only thanks to a very determined effort by Dick Cheney and his fellow neocon sympathizers, and it happened only after a very deliberate, months-long marketing campaign from the Bush White House.”
The wrinkle here is that no one in 2000 had any strong reason to believe that allowing George W. Bush to win the election would lead to an occupation of Iraq. First, Bush was a “compassionate conservative” and self-proclaimed non-interventionist. Second, 9/11, which as you know changed everything, hadn’t occurred yet.
2000 just isn’t a good parallel to today. In fact, I think the case for voting third party in 2000 was much, MUCH stronger than it is today. Precisely because of how the two parties reacted to 9/11: the Republicans lurched rightward and took the Democrats with them.
So even if Drum’s analogy is an extremely poor one, there is a grain of truth in it. I want to make clear though that combing over history for data points that support a foregone conclusion is extremely dubious work.
“Now sure,” writes Drum dismissively, “you can spin weird counterfactuals here if you want to, but really, there’s just no plausible scenario in which this would have happened under President Al Gore.”
There might be no plausible scenario under which Al Gore would have invaded Iraq in his first term, but that’s not to say there’s no plausible scenario in which he would have invaded any number of other countries.
The truth of the matter is that the political center has grown more non-interventionist in the last decade precisely because of the how horrible the Iraq invasion went. Afghanistan was still the “good war” for many moderate liberals even as recently as 2009 when Obama ordered the “surge.” Even with Iraq as a case study. Even still, the Democratic party reminds at best divided on the issue of occupying Afghanistan.
This is not to say that our country’s invasion of Iraq was worthwhile. I have no idea. As they say, only time will tell. But any kind of consequentialist analysis must take the long view. Immediate moral outcomes must be reconciled with future ones, to any degree that they can be. This makes it hard work requiring patient and ongoing discussion.
Wright uses a thought experiment to help show that many people might have a bit more consequentialism in their bones than they initially thought,
“By the way, the reason I started out with relatively small stakes–only 100,000 dead–before moving up to a million and beyond is that when the number is 100,000, this isn’t a mere thought experiment.
In 2000, a bunch of voters on the left decided that Al Gore’s likely policies included some “deal breakers,” so they voted for Ralph Nader. That’s why George Bush became president.
Bush then started a war that Gore probably wouldn’t have started, and as a result at least 100,000 people died, and the international arena was inflamed in a way that gave his successor a rationale to (unwisely, but fairly predictably) conduct lots of drone strikes and disregard civil liberties.”
First off, “that’s” NOT “why George Bush became president.” Wright’s definitive declaration ignores the multitude of other factors that go into deciding elections. Campaigns could have been better, or worse. Court decisions could have gone one way, or another. Hell, even the weather on that day, had it been drastically different in critical counties, could have dramatically changed the outcome of the election. I won’t dwell on this much further, because to do so would take us down a rabbit hole of causality, intentionality, and any number of other mind-fishes. Maybe another time.
For now, I want to point out something else Wright says,
“Obviously, there is no way of knowing for sure what the consequences of a Romney or Obama presidency will be. But I’m convinced (for reasons I will spell out in a later piece) that Romney is more likely to get us involved in a war with Iran than Obama is.”
“No way of knowing,” indeed! He is convinced though, as he notes, and so pending later posts will just have to take his word for it. All I’ll add is that I’m glad he WILL be making the case for why he thinks Romney would go to war with Iran, and Obama would not. Perhaps he could title it, “The Lesser of Two Probabilities.” Either way, it is a good start for talking about the actual merits of Romney vs. Obama, vs. Johnson, vs. Stein, etc.
Because though it might not have been clear in previous posts, I do believe that a good case can be made for why principles and moral scruples that liberals hold dear actually compel them to vote for Obama, despite some of the evil behaviors he’s engaged in.
What I am fervently against are unsubstantiated counter-assertions that contradict and dismiss without actually engaging in the nitty-gritty case building that their positions require.