Explaining the Problem with Lesser Evilism

According to supporters of Hillary Clinton, anything other than a vote for her is “a vote for Trump,” and according to supporters of Donald Trump, anything other than a vote for Trump is “a vote for Hillary.” Whether you declare that you will vote for Jill Stein, vote for Gary Johnson, write in LeBron James, swear off elections, move to Canada, commit suicide, or take a job for a corporate media outlet that frowns on participation in democracy, no matter what it is you do, it’s “a vote” for the undesired candidate. (Sorry to go morbid with that corporate media option!)

What is the appropriate reply to this?

First, I think it is usually going to be critical to get your lesser evilist friend to believe you understand what they are saying. Of course what they are saying is quintessential common wisdom pounded into everybody’s head year after year. There’s no way you could possibly not understand what they are saying. Nonetheless, it’s important that you let them tell it to you in painful detail, and that you then repeat it to them with some variations. Go over the “reality” of the two-party system. Rehearse the existence of discernable differences between the two candidates. Take deep breaths during the demonization of Ralph Nader. Just listen and agree.

It’s not as if their logic is wrong. Try very hard to get them to understand that you understand that, that you see their points, that you acknowledge that they make perfect sense, that you grasp their way of thinking. And, perhaps more importantly, thank them for giving a damn. Explain to them that you would much rather have a world of lesser evilists who care passionately about making the world evil at as slow a pace as possible, than a world of people who just don’t care at what speed the world becomes more evil.

At this point, in about 50% of cases, you may be able to tease out, before having made any argument at all, that your lesser evilist does not actually believe in lesser evilism, that in fact he or she has more or less convinced himself or herself that either Clinton or Trump is actually good. If that happens, you’ll have to turn to page 163 in this choose-your-own-adventure story. You’re not on this page anymore. What someone who believes in the goodness of Clinton or Trump needs is a supply of critical information selected to fit their needs. Do they believe war is good or that one of these candidates opposes war? Do they support corruption or racism or corporatism or authoritarianism or plutocracy or environmental destruction or do they imagine that one of these candidates opposes some of those things? Or do they believe that their candidate is pretending to hold awful positions while secretly harboring good intentions? Depending on the particular case, each such person can be provided facts and historical background to bring them into touch with reality.

In the other 50% of cases your lesser evilist really does think of their candidate, at least when pressed, as evil. Even if they believe that a candidate who was any less evil could not compete in the U.S. election system, they are still a lesser evilist choosing one evil over another one. Now, your lesser evilist may not see their preferred candidate as being quite as evil as you see them, and may see the other candidate as being even more evil than you believe. There is a time and place for debating these details. It will be important for you to bring your friend to see the full measure of their candidate’s evil. But it is important that first you get them to understand that you are able to see differences, that you don’t believe their candidate is identical to the other one — which would be ridiculous but is nonetheless what your friend will tend to think you think.

Only after you’ve convinced your lesser evilist friend that you are aware of differences between the two candidates, then you should begin to suggest the possibility that a less evil candidate might still be too evil. Ask your friend to try a few thought experiments. Let’s say they are a Hillary Clinton supporter. Ask them if they can imagine a candidate worse than Donald Trump. If they claim to be unable to do it, ask them to consider whether they are really being rational about this. Suppose you had a candidate identical to Trump except that he insisted on the need to sacrifice infants on the steps of libraries to appease the god of children’s books. Which of the two would be the more evil and which the less evil candidate? Now ask your friend, in a situation in which Trump was the less evil candidate, would your friend campaign for and vote for Trump? If not, why not? Isn’t the logic of lesser evilism as solid no matter the details and no matter how evil the less evil candidate may be?

If your friend sticks to his or her lesser evilism, try this. Consider an election between a candidate who proposes immediate nuclear war and a candidate who proposes immediate nuclear war and encourages everyone to commit vicious crimes before the world ends. One is more evil and the other less evil. But both will quickly destroy all human life. Would you campaign and vote for the less evil one?

How about an election between a candidate who promises to make herself empress for life and a candidate who promises to make herself empress for life and to eat live mice. One is more evil and the other less evil, but both quickly create a situation in which, if your friend wants to continue to be civically engaged, he or she will have to try something other than voting.

Through these types of arguments it ought to become possible to bring your friend to see that there might be such a thing as too evil even while being less evil, and that there might be a situation in which something other than voting was required. From there it’s not such a huge leap to the possibility that even in a situation in which voting is possible, something else might be needed in addition to or instead of voting.

Now it still might not be time yet to argue the details of exactly how evil your friend’s candidate is. Just getting them to accept that some candidate might be too evil is the critical first step. And you still may not have succeeded in that. Or you may have succeeded only in the case of a candidate that your friend thinks of as millions of times more evil than theirs.

We’ve arrived at the heart of the matter. You must now try to explain to your friend the real damage that lesser evilism does. This may be very difficult, because the main damage it does happens outside of voting, distant in time and space from the voting booth. There is a reason that many lesser evilists turn out to actually think their candidate is good, and that many others resist acknowledging the full extent of their candidate’s evil. When you become a supporter of a candidate, even for lesser evil reasons, you enter into a particular universe. If you volunteer for that candidate, you encounter nothing but praise for them and denunciations of their opponent. Even if you never leave your house, your web searches gradually begin finding only news sources that slant everything in favor of your candidate. Millions of people put up yard signs and bumper stickers promoting their candidate, and virtually nobody puts a second sign beside the first one protesting some of that candidate’s evil agenda. You can claim that lesser evilism leaves you independent and uncompromised, but you can’t actually protest your evil candidate’s evil in their local office — you’ll be off the team instantly.

Many lesser evilists claim to flip a switch within themselves after a particular period of time. For two weeks or six months or two years they choose to utter not one word against their evil candidate, while swearing that the rest of the time they will bring outside independent pressure to bear on the government without distorting anything in favor of one office holder or party over another. This is at best self-delusional in most if not every case. Right now we have the two parties in Washington, D.C., directing their “grass roots” groups in what to ask for and what to say about it — the complete inversion of representative government. And this is because election season never ends and lesser evilism never ends right along with it. In January of 2007, the Democrats had just taken over Congress with a clear mandate to end the war on Iraq, and Rahm Emanuel told the Washington Post that the Democrats would keep the war going for two more years in order to run “against” it again in 2008. And so they did. And people who preferred having Democrats keep the war going to having Republicans keep the war going stuck tape over their own mouths and lay back and took it.

This is the problem. It’s not that lesser evilism isn’t logical in a voting booth. It’s that it never ever stays within a voting booth. It poisons political activity every day of every year.

To grasp that point, one has to be brought to share the perspective in which voting is not the only important political activity. Now, I’m not against elections. I think we should have one some day! That would require some of these changes that cannot be voted in under the broken system that lacks them: public funding of elections, no bribery, free air time for candidates, automatic voter registration, open debates and ballots, no gerrymandering, hand-counted paper ballots, international monitors, no electoral college, no delegates, no superdelegates, and a three-month election season with a bit of actual governing before the next one.

You cannot vote those things in any more than women voted themselves the right to vote or children voted an end to child labor or any major change has come about through voting. Voting is a critical component in applying public pressure in a system lacking direct democracy, but it is only one small piece — and it’s even smaller when it’s as broken as the current U.S. presidential election system. Why does someone like Hillary Clinton switch from opposing LGBT rights to supporting them? Not because she or someone else was elected to anything, but because a movement that has used dozens of different nonviolent tools has changed society.

Look for a minute at the Democratic Party primary system. On Friday WikiLeaks released emails from the DNC that made clear, as we all knew, that the DNC slanted the playing field for Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Not only might Sanders very well have won without that cheating, but polls for many months have shown him to be the stronger candidate against Trump. When Democratic Super Delegates throw their votes to Clinton they are, by lesser evilist logic, casting votes for Trump. Of course that doesn’t change your options, doesn’t give you the choice of Sanders on your ballot (unless you write him in). But if Clinton really wanted to defeat Trump she would drop out, and if you really want to defeat Trump you’re expected to vote for her.

Maybe that’s just the way it is. But try now to get your friend on the same page with you in terms of the extent of Hillary Clinton’s evil. Provide some missing material in whatever area it’s lacking. Seriously discuss some points like these:

  • She says President Obama was wrong not to launch missile strikes on Syria in 2013.
  • She pushed hard for the overthrow of Qadaffi in 2011.
  • She supported the coup government in Honduras in 2009.
  • She has backed escalation and prolongation of war in Afghanistan.
  • She voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
  • She skillfully promoted the White House justification for the war on Iraq.
  • She does not hesitate to back the use of drones for targeted killing.
  • She has consistently backed the military initiatives of Israel.
  • She was not ashamed to laugh at the killing of Qadaffi.
  • She has not hesitated to warn that she could obliterate Iran.
  • She is not afraid to antagonize Russia.
  • She helped facilitate a military coup in Ukraine.
  • She has the financial support of the arms makers and many of their foreign customers.
  • She waived restrictions at the State Department on selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar, all states wise enough to donate to the Clinton Foundation.
  • She supported President Bill Clinton’s wars and the power of the president to make war without Congress.
  • She has advocated for arming fighters in Syria.
  • She supported a surge in Iraq even before President Bush did.

Go into similar points on trade or environment or healthcare or wherever it’s needed. Then trace back through a bit of U.S. history. Compare the positions and actions — not the public images — of past presidents. I’d take Bush Sr., Reagan, Carter, Ford, or Nixon over Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton any day. I’d take the presidents who came before them over them too. And it’s not as though people haven’t been doing lesser evil voting and lesser evil living all these years. But when you elect a less evil candidate and do little else to improve your politics, the result is another election with a worse pair of candidates, both of them more evil than was the less evil candidate before. This course is unsustainable and leads inevitably to candidates that more and more of us will recognize as just too evil.

Too evil because we need independent uncompromised activism and can expect it to have an impact on whoever is in office. And too evil because we actually can swing this or some future election to an actually good candidate if we put our minds to it. We don’t have a lot of time to play around with. While neither Clinton nor Trump has promised immediate nuclear war, both are eager to risk it and to exacerbate the crisis in the earth’s climate. If we elect one of them, followed by someone else worse, we’re pretty well doomed. If we elect someone actually good either now or next time, who knows?

The chance of electing a good candidate within the Democratic Party is very low. This election saw a perfect storm: a hugely unpopular candidate standing unopposed, and a single exceptional candidate jumping into the election with a stellar record and an independent streak. And it wasn’t enough. For it to be enough would require the same perfect storm plus major systemic reforms within the party.

But 60% of the public cannot stand either Clinton or Trump. If a significant portion of those people back Jill Stein, she could mount a serious challenge and even win. Just saying you support her now while planning to turn against her in November would put her into televised debates with Clinton and Trump, thereby requiring both of them to speak to all kinds of critical issues they’d rather avoid.

So we arrive at two basic questions for your friend the former lesser evilist. First, do you see that non-electoral activism can be more important than elections? If so, are you willing to put your energies there? Second, if you stay focused on this election, would you support Jill Stein if you cast the only vote and effectively selected the winner by yourself? What about if she only needed a few more votes to win? What about if she had a slim chance? What about if a decent showing might help elect a good candidate next time around?