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The Logic of Lesser Evilism

From a logical point of view, the case is unassailable: when, for any reason, choosing between X and Y, anyone who, again for any reason, believes that X is better than Y, ought to choose X.

The argument is perfectly general: X and Y can stand for anything, and because “better than” means better all things considered, it always applies; contextual and other pertinent considerations are already taken into account. The availability of other alternatives, if any, does not alter the calculation.

The reasoning that supports lesser evil voting – and lesser evil politics generally – boils down to this argument.

From a rhetorical point of view, however, lesser evilism involves more than just the logical principle behind it. The reason is plain: except in a trivial sense, better choices are less bad only when the alternatives are bad or, more precisely, regarded as bad. Less bad choices are less evil only when the alternatives are or are thought to be bad indeed.

This is all that the “evil” in “lesser evilism” implies. Strictly speaking, evil is a religious, not a political, notion. But lesser evilism in politics is a secular phenomenon, and the force of the word is rhetorical only. Its religious origins and connotations are useful for giving the word a resonance that “bad” and even “very bad” lack; not for making any theological or otherwise portentous point.

Although the logic behind lesser evilism is impeccable, the principle seldom applies directly in real world circumstances. In political contexts especially, there are too many complicating factors, and there is too much indeterminacy.

This is why lesser evilism in politics – especially, electoral politics — can be, and often is, a bad idea.

* * *

An American example, still fresh in the mind, illustrates some of these points:

It is intuitively obvious to anyone to the left of, say, Rachel Maddow that, on the face of it, Barack Obama was a better choice for President than John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. Anyone to the left of Cokie Roberts would probably agree as well.

Maddow, the star of the evening lineup at the cable news channel MSNBC, is a liberal idol and a Democratic Party – or “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — cheerleader. Roberts is the doyenne of conventional wisdom, representing the dead center on network television and National Public Radio.

The 2008 and 2012 election results show that quite a few Americans, including some whose views are surely to the right even of Roberts’, also thought Obama the better choice. After all, he won handily both times – even in 2012, after a miserable first term.

In 2008, many of those voters saw candidate Obama as a Rorschach figure upon whom they projected their hopes. To them, he was not a lesser evil; just the better choice.

This view of Obama is now nearly extinct — except perhaps on weekday evenings at MSNBC.

By 2012, the blinders had already been off for a while. Hardly anyone still harbored illusions about Obama.

Therefore the people who voted for him, the vast majority of them, were opting for the lesser of two evils.

Were they right? Was Obama truly the lesser evil? Perhaps; but the answer is not as obvious as it seemed to Obama voters back then, or as many people still believe.

For one thing, lesser evil Obama voters may have been looking at their X versus Y choice near-sightedly.

Myopia is a chronic problem in electoral contests because voters tend to focus on candidates’ personalities or on what they believe they are likely to do if elected, neglecting other pertinent considerations.

Suppose, for instance, that Obama truly was less disposed than McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012 to expand the wars he inherited from George Bush and Dick Cheney or to extend the range and intensity of the Bush-Cheney “Global War on Terror.”

Of course, war making is not the only thing Presidents do, but even if we focus only on that, we can still wonder whether voters favoring peace who voted for Obama served their cause well.

With Obama in the White House, Congressional Democrats have felt obliged to back continuations of the Bush-Cheney wars, and the additional under-the-radar wars that America is now waging throughout the Muslim world. Were a President McCain or a President Romney in charge of the empire, they would likely now be more oppositional.

Democratic acquiescence in the Age of Obama was predictable; Democrats may not be good for much, but when one of their own is in the White House, they, like Hillary Clinton, stand by their man.

How many lesser evil voters for Obama factored this likely consequence of an Obama victory into their calculations? There is no way to know for sure, but a good bet would be – not many at all.

By 2012 especially, the evidence was plain: between 2006 and 2008, Congressional Democrats offered at least milquetoast resistance to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; they would have offered yet more had not the Pelosiite leadership of the Party reined them in. When Obama took office, they became meeker than lambs.

Obama was seemingly the lesser evil in matters of war and peace but, even confining attention only to that, he may not have been the lesser evil all things considered.   This, of course, is what matters in the end.

The kind of problem lesser evil voters in the United States faced in 2008 and 2012 is hardly unique, to the United States. But it is especially salient in American elections where there are effectively only two candidates with any chance of winning.

Unofficially, but most assuredly, America has a duopoly party system – in consequence of deeply entrenched practices and traditions, and thanks to laws that make ballot access difficult for candidates who are neither Democrats nor Republicans.

Therefore, in Presidential elections and most others as well, Americans face straightforward X versus Y choices. Independent or third party candidates have no chance of winning. They seldom even have a chance of affecting the outcomes in more than negligible ways.

However the logic behind lesser evilism applies even in the more democratic (less undemocratic) electoral systems of other so-called democracies, where easy ballot access is assured and where not all electoral contests are decided on a first-past-the post, winner-take-all basis.

Strategic voting is usually a more front-and-center issue in those circumstances, but the principle – if X is better than Y, choose X – is compelling everywhere.

* * *

Even so, its applications are often problematic – thanks to the level of abstraction from real world voting situations at which it is pitched. Voter myopia is not the only complication.

Myopic voters focus narrowly on personalities and policies, and therefore fail to take all pertinent considerations into account. Another danger is not looking far enough ahead.

Some of the problems this raises have nothing to do with the comparative merits and shortcomings of the candidates themselves; they are problems with lesser evil voting itself.

This is because elections in the present affect elections in the future; among other things, they can and often do initiate or continue trends.

As a general rule, but especially when the choices voters face remain above the threshold beneath which talk of lesser evil voting becomes rhetorically appropriate, choosing the better candidate is no guarantee that the choices will be better still the next time around or the time after that.

But once the lesser evil threshold is crossed, it does seem that the choices keep getting worse. There is no inherent reason why this must be so, but there is ample anecdotal evidence that bears out the suggestion that, in our time and place, lesser evil voting encourages a downward spiral, “a race to the bottom.”

To be sure, America’s deteriorating political culture cannot be blamed entirely, or even mainly, on the pervasiveness of this practice. The corruptions of money undoubtedly play a larger role.

Still, lesser evil voting does seem to feed upon itself – hastening a downward trend.

The consequences are especially damaging in a duopoly party system like ours, where choosing the lesser evil means choosing a Democrat or (in very rare instances) a Republican, further diminishing the already meager prospects of breaking free from the duopoly’s stranglehold.

* * *

Is lesser evil voting itself an evil?

To say Yes would be to overstate the point – not just because the principle behind the practice is sound but, more importantly, because sometimes worse really is worse.

The problem, though, is that there is often no way to tell. There is too much indeterminacy.

Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that, all things considered, there has been less peace under the rule of Nobel laureate Obama than there would have been had the war-mongering McCain or the War Party pandering Romney defeated him in 2008 and 2012, respectively.   Lets suppose, in other words, that the increased pusillanimity of Democrats in Congress swamped the advantages of electing a less bellicose leader.

It might still be the case that Obama’s nominations for the Supreme Court and for other seats on the federal judiciary have been better, less retrograde, than McCain’s or Romney’s would have been. We can never know, of course, but there are no plausible grounds for doubting that this is the case.

Then how are we to apply the lesser evil principle, taking both considerations into account?   How can voters make considered judgments that involve comparing apparently incomparable considerations?

And if the problem seems disabling with only two factors taken into account, what can we do when all the many respects in which X can be better or worse than Y must also be factored in?

Yet voters take the lesser evil route apparently without anguish or effort. How is this possible? How can they ignore so many complexities?

For those who voted for Obama, the answer is plain: it reduces to one word – Republicans.

As the 2016 election takes shape, it is looking like this will happen again, notwithstanding the effects of the race to the bottom. Once again, Republicans will be the reason why liberals will turn out in droves to vote for – God forbid! – Hillary Clinton.

However awful Democrats become, however Clinton-like, and however plain it may be that, where Democrats and Republicans are involved, worse can be and often is better, Republicans are there to make voting for the Democrat seem the clear lesser evil choice.

It is as if the Republican motto were: we will not be out-eviled. Bring on your Clintons and Bidens and, yes, your Obamas – and we will raise the ante a hundred, a thousand, fold.

This may have more to do with appearance than reality. But where Republicans are concerned, appearances tend to overwhelm. Even voters who expect the worst cannot help but be amazed at how awful Republicans sometimes are.

In just the past week, for example, there was the unmitigated, oh so Christian, nonsense pouring forth out of the mouth of Texas Senator and declared candidate for the GOP nomination, Ted Cruz.

His audience of evangelicals at Liberty University reportedly loved it; so, it seems, did a gaggle of viciously Zionist donors in New York. One would think that nothing could make Hillary Clinton look good – but they do.

And then there is Scott Walker, and others even more risible. As Al Jolson, used to say: “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Tea Party Republicans – are there any other kind? – probably think about Democrats in much the way that sane people think about the Tea Party.

Some of their reasons are even worth listening to because, as the Germans say, der Hass sieht scharf (hatred sees sharply).

But, in the end, when dealing with whack jobs or worse (like those Zionist donors falling in behind Cruz), the wisest course is to ignore them, as best one can. It is either that or stack up on blood pressure meds.

Unfortunately, ignoring them isn’t always possible – because of the power they wield.

This is where Democratic Party cheerleaders like Rachel Maddow have a use. They are good for spreading the word when Republicans embarrass themselves – in other words, when they do anything at all.

What a dreary prospect the impending lesser evil election will be, what, as Chester A. Riley would say, a revolting development!

But we can always hope for a silver lining: we can hope that, with Hillary Clinton for the lesser evil, the American electorate may finally wake up from its acquiescent slumber.

The downward spiral is bound to bottom out eventually. If not with Clinton, who? And if not now, when?

* * *

Incomparability is not the only source of indeterminacy; sometimes it is hard to get a purchase on just how bad or good an alternative is.

Obama voters in 2008 and 2012 could be reasonably confident that McCain’s or Romney’s judicial appointments would be worse than their candidate’s, but by how much?   Who knows!

Yet the lesser evil voters who fell in behind Obama must have had some idea. Otherwise, how could they factor this consideration in with all the others?

Of course, they weren’t exactly weighing plusses and minuses; they were making choices based on informed intuitions, as voters characteristically do.

Therefore, at least to some extent, their vote for Obama reflected a considered judgment. But with all the indeterminacies involved, it was a judgment made in conditions of uncertainty – and it may well have been wrong.

Indeterminacy is an even more disabling problem the more remote one is from the scene.

What, for instance, are Americans (or anyone living far away from the quotidian politics of the Promised Land), who care about peace and justice, to make of the recent election in Israel?

Was it best, all things considered, that Benjamin Netanyahu won? His victory does make the true face of Israeli intransigence harder to deny; and this, in turn, makes it harder for the leaders of the countries that make Israel’s colonial project possible – the United States, especially — to justify enabling Israel’s continuing predations.

Many Palestinians and a few Israelis on the scene, along with informed observers from abroad, have argued – seemingly cogently – that, Netanyahu’s sheer awfulness notwithstanding, his victory was a good thing.

Some have even argued that the daily lives of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories would be no better under Isaac Herzog than under Netanyahu. If they are right about that, then, at least from a Palestinian perspective, there is no doubt that it is better that Netanyahu won.

Of course, there are also cogent arguments on the other side.

And if we take other relevant perspectives into account – among others, those of Israeli Arabs and Jews — the situation becomes murkier still.

What then is the lesser evil conclusion?

Especially from the outside looking in, it is difficult to say. It is difficult from within as well. There is just too much indeterminacy involved.

* * *

One final point: we should be careful not to confuse lesser evil thinking with the kind of strategic maneuvering that is the heart and soul of politics, or with a political line based on what Lenin called “the concrete analysis of concrete situations.”

Greek voters in last January’s election, the ones whose highest priority was to end, or at least mitigate, the effects of, the brutal austerity regime that the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund had imposed on Greece, had two choices.

They could vote, as many did, for Syriza, the party now in power; or they could vote for Antarsya, a party to its left. Both parties seek an end to austerity politics. But Syriza is pledged to try to keep Greece in the Eurozone – at least until it becomes clear that the situation is hopeless. Antarsya favors immediate withdrawal.

Most anti-austerity voters chose Syriza. For some, this may have been a strategic choice; they may have thought that the more “moderate” of the two anti-austerity parties had a better chance of scoring enough votes to form the next government; or they may have thought that, were it to come to power, Syriza’s chances were better than Antarsya’s for winning over necessary public support in Greece and throughout Europe.

Others may have agreed with Syriza’s analysis of the situation: that because fascism is a live threat in Greece today, and in other parts of Europe as well, that now is not a good time to risk causing increased financial instability in Greece and throughout Europe or otherwise to put the fragile economies of the continent in jeopardy.

Some of those Syriza voters might, under different circumstances, have preferred Antarsya’s program. But in the circumstances they faced, they opted for Syriza instead.

These voters were not choosing the lesser evil or even the less good choice among acceptable alternatives. It might look like they were, but the similarities are superficial.

They were engaging in real politics.

This is what is supposed to happen in democracies, where, in theory, the demos, the people (in contrast to social and economic elites) rule. Elections are one way democratic politics gets done.

In actually existing democracies – our own and, until recently, Greece’s – the opposite is the case. Social and economic elites do the politics, and then, when election time comes, they sell the voting public on the results they want – calling on the people to legitimize the outcomes with their votes.

Elites do not always get the candidates or parties they favor – indeed, they disagree among themselves — but they always win.

This is what our elections are about; and this is not about to change between now and November 2016.

At this point, it seems clear – let’s say 85% likely — that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic candidate. If she is, then it is maybe 90% likely that she will be the lesser evil candidate with the most votes. What is 100% likely is that the demos will lose again.

If we do indeed have another President Clinton in our future, then it is also extremely likely that, this time, the true lesser evil will be the one who has the honor of doing the demos in.

In retrospect, Obama may not have been the lesser evil all things considered. But Clinton, if she runs, surely will be — not because voters now are less myopic than they used to be or because she is a better choice than Obama was. In fact, she is a worse choice – by far.

But she will be the real lesser evil because the Republican candidate, whether Jeb Bush or somebody even more ludicrous, is sure to seem utterly vile – even from the most far-sighted vantage point available.

And she will win because that Republican will scare even right-wing voters away – either because he will be so retrograde that even voters far to the right of Cokie Roberts’ dead center will not be able to abide him, or because, like Mitt Romney in 2012, he will be so phony that Tea Partiers will refuse to jump on board.

Plutocrats will fuss – and spend – to keep that from happening, but their efforts will be in vain.

And so, one likely election result will be that there will be less evil than there might otherwise have been. But the downward trend of our politics will not change; quite the contrary, it will continue unabated.

And, needless to say, the election will have nothing to do with changing the world for the better.

For that, what is needed is the kind of politics that is now taking shape in the land where the idea of democracy first emerged – and in other countries on Europe’s periphery, where finance capitalism’s predations have been more than usually intense.

If it can happen in those places, under those conditions, it can happen anywhere.

It can certainly happen here. The indignation that gave rise to the Occupy movement cannot remain repressed forever. And it is surely not beyond our capacity to find ways to seize that energy, and use it to transform the economic and political conditions that make it both possible and necessary.

The Greeks are on to something, the Spaniards too – and the Portuguese, the Irish, the Italians and more. Even in Germany and other redoubts of finance capitalism, the idea is dawning that the same old, same old cannot go on much longer.

There must be a way for us too to ride the wave– even with a more than usually dreary electoral distraction looming in the months ahead.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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