Glenn Greenwald on Lesser Evilism

The following is from Glenn Greenwald’s remarks at the Socialism 2011 conference last week in Chicago. I found it in comments at John Caruso’s excellent Distant Ocean.

The idea of working to reform the Democratic Party by electing better Democrats or more progressive Democrats that I thought was a viable course of action even as recently as a few years ago is something that I have completely rejected.

And I think the only means of true political change will come from people working outside that system to undermine and subvert it and weaken it and destroy it and not try to work within it to change it.

There have been lots of people who have made radical critiques of the government like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and others who have said that as horrible as the Democrats are, the fact that they’re even a little better than the Republicans means that it is important that they win because with an entity as powerful as the U.S. government even small differences can make meaningful differences in the lives of millions of people.

And that to me was an argument that was persuasive for a while. (But) what I have actually concluded is that even if there are short term benefits to electing Democrats instead of Republican-you get Sonia Sottomayor instead of Antonin Scalia that’s a benefit that will sway cases in better directions-there’s also extreme costs to pledging your fealty to a political party.

Knowing as party leaders do that many people on the left are convinced by this reasoning they can continue to ignore people on the left, because they know that at the end of the day they’ll scare enough of them with scary images of Michelle Bachman or Newt Gingrich so that they’ll continue (their) support even though they’re ignored and get nothing and they’ll get nothing and be ignored forever, and that’s a huge cost.

Another huge cost is the opportunity cost of doing activism for a political party which doesn’t care at all about you instead of using your money and time on more meaningful changes. And so that is the ultimate formula which needs to be evaluated, the ultimate weighing of costs and benefits which needs to be assessed, not just that there are some benefits to Democrats therefore let’s vote for them. But what are the costs from continuing to support and prop up this party and having them know that they can take the support for granted and putting our time and energy into that rather than into something more significant that can achieve something more enduring and more fundamental and longer lasting benefits.

That’s the calculus which has swayed me away from that view.

The full video, which is really quite amazing, even for a long-time follower of Greenwald like me:

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10 Responses to Glenn Greenwald on Lesser Evilism

  1. LorenzoStDubois says:

    Hey Ohtarzie,

    Funny I should have just discovered you (by your twitter exchange with Mike Fluggenock) tonight, when it looks like you just restarted blogging at the same time. Real glad that I did.

    Your comments/writing are/is funny and incisive, and I hope you keep it up. It’s been a cold, dreary world since IOZ hung up his spurs, and I’ve been making do with Mike, Glenn, and Charlie, and now, hopefully, you. You seem to have a lot of opinions after my own heart, though I don’t understand anarchism, am not queer or have a husband, and live on the Upper West Side.

    I’ll be listening.

  2. ohtarzie says:

    Well thanks. I can’t hold a candle to those other dudes but hopefully just the fact that I’m a different person will carry its own merits. Glad you’re here.

  3. ohtarzie says:

    I am not sure I understand anarchism myself. I like Chomsky’s very general definition, which is that it requires all assertions of power to justify themselves. Embracing this simple idea has actually changed the way I view things and behave quite a lot.

  4. LorenzoStDuBois says:

    Thanks, that does shed some light.

    Just came across the following. A harrowing glimpse into the stunted mind of an O-Bot? Obotronics distilled to its essence?

    Maybe fodder for another posting?

  5. SocraticGadfly says:

    I have emailed and Tweeted Glenn to actually mention the Green Party in a column. Maybe he will?

    • Angus MacAskill says:

      Gadfly: I think the lesson to draw from Glenn’s comments above is not just that pro-Democrat activism is a waste of time, but rather that electoral politics itself is not an effective way to bring about social change.

      The only real win you get from supporting a third party is the satisfaction of staying truer to your principles. It’s hopeless to expect the Greens (or anyone else) to gain a foothold in a rigged political system.

      Also, read this piece.

      • ohtarzie says:

        I don’t know what Greenwald thinks about third parties, Angus, but I don’t think you can infer a general rejection of electoral politics based on his remarks. He is specifically addressing Democratic Party participation.

        I’ve read the piece by Charles Davis and while I respect Charles a great deal, I am not won over to the idea of surrendering state power to the ruling class. This is effectively what Charles and similar anarchists are arguing. My problem with this type of anarchist is that they don’t differentiate among states. In my view, state power has been tempered somewhat in European social democracies because non-oligarchic factions such as organized labor have siezed some share of state power and because there are stricter limits on campaign finance than here.

        I find the anarchic assertion that the state is fundamentally an instrument of the ruling class and the proposed remedy, effectively turning your back on it, to be at odds.

        I agree, that at this juncture third parties can not expect to gain power. At the same time they seem like a worthy avenue for creating leverage against the worst excesses of the two-party duopoly.

        The state is not going away anytime soon. I don’t fault people for choosing to build alternatives or to do charity work, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to recommend this for everyone. I find the utopianism that underpins a lot of this kind of talk very personally distasteful, as I find most religion.

  6. mardy says:


    How far you’ve come. It’s like night and day. Reading vintage Greenwald, it’s almost like a dream.

    • Tarzie says:

      Well, I noticed around the same time that he was never that explicit in any forum where it really mattered. Libertarians point to his involvement with The Cato Institute and feel good. Socialists see him at a Socialist Conference and feel the same way. Despite YouTube, this stuff is largely off the radar, to be savored by fans in various camps. He’s a chameleon.

      • Mardy says:

        Word. He’s actually explicit about his purposeful evasion of questions surround what he really believes.

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