In ancient Greece, an “apology” was a formal speech presented by a defendant in a legal proceeding; thus Plato recounted Socrates’ defense against charges of impiety and corrupting the youth in a dialogue called “The Apology.” Early Christian writers used the term to refer to formal justifications of theological positions. They produced “apologia” directed, in the first instance, to pagans, heretics, schismatics and other non-believers. This usage was revived in the late Middle Ages and continues in theological circles to this day.
Of course, this is not how the word is mainly used. In English and other modern languages, to apologize is to beg forgiveness. This usage has become so pervasive that even when people use the word in its original sense, it is usually to designate a special kind of defense – one that aims to deflect the idea that there is something to seek forgiveness for.
In 2008, there were no Obama apologists, only enthusiasts. This was because candidate Obama was adept at turning himself into a Rorschach figure upon whom Bush-weary voters projected their hopes. But his administration dashed those hopes, and so if there is to be any enthusiasm for him at all in the upcoming election, he will have to rely on apologists to provide it.
To be sure, with Mitt Romney or worse for an opponent, Obama can win without enthusiasts; all he need do is remain the lesser evil in the minds of everyone to the left of Congressional Republicans. This is not a hard standard to satisfy. Democratic Party cheerleaders have therefore been able to fear-monger since Day One. They are at it full blast every weekday evening on MSNBC and Current TV.
The Republican leadership is easy prey, but they seem almost reasonable compared to the Tea Partiers and theocrats, and birthers and other loony tunes, who comprise the Republican “base.” And as if that wasn’t enough for the likes of Rachel Maddow, the sell became even easier once the primary season got underway. No need, any longer, to castigate Republican obstinacy; it suffices now just to report on how, as the saying goes, the scum rises to the top.
But lesser evilism won’t do for the public face of a presidential campaign in full throttle. Even if the Obama candidacy has nothing more going for it than the current incarnation of Mitt Romney, Democrats can hardly put up yard signs to advertise that sorry state of affairs. They must at least try to accentuate the positive.
The problem is not just that lesser evil arguments are problematic at best. It is that they are also poor motivators because they induce apathy, not conviction. Republicans have this problem too. But if Obama and those who depend on his victory want to sleep easier
between now and November, they will need an extra something, and they have nowhere to go for it but to the apologist’s corner.
Apologia aim to convince the unconvinced but, ironically, in politics as in theology, they work better at shoring up the faith of those already on board than at winning over those who are not. There is little chance that Obama will again fire up his base, but clever apologetics might just keep a few sparks alive.
For the “moderates” whom he tries so hard to please, lesser evilism remains Obama’s best, perhaps his only, hope. Whether he will be able to capitalize on that hope in what Gore Vidal aptly calls the United States of Amnesia depends on Romney’s transformations between now and November. There is little his apologists can do.
Obama apologists are already at work so, even now, we know what wares they will be peddling. Too bad for them that none of what they have to offer is even remotely convincing, except insofar as the case they concoct for Obama collapses back into a case against Romney; in other words, back into lesser evilism.