The Dilemmas of Lesser-Evilism in Two Countries


Following the election process in the US, my home country, from Colombia, where I`ve lived for most of the last 20 years, I´ve been very interested in the debates on the left, including this website, over the question of whether or not to vote for the lesser evil (Hillary Clinton to stop Trump in the general election for everyone left of mainstream liberalism, Sanders in the Democratic primaries for those farther to the left). What´s particularly striking is the certainty of those who oppose voting for or supporting the lesser evil (including advocates of voting for the Green Party alternative and those who on principle never vote) and of those who support it.

Treating it as a dilemma is not necessarily being wishy-washy or failing to take a stand, but reflects the complexity of our relationship to electoral politics when we are aware of its limits and manipulations; but also that despite the fact that there is so little difference between the candidates of the two parties, the differences that exist, though not systemic, can still be of importance. And that despite the overwhelming power of capital, there is still tremendous power concentrated in the state and in the government that controls it. The dilemma often comes down to two big questions: first, how much and how important is the difference, and second, is it worth repeatedly voting for evil and reinforcing the two-party, false-choice system and the evils that come out of it, or is it better to accept the greater evil for now in the interest of trying to build up a real, non-evil alternative. There is also the question of what voting actually means to us: is it (1) a personal means of expression, (2) an act with profound moral implications, (3) a practical matter in a society where profound change is unlikely to emerge from elections, at least until mass social movements are organized enough to effectively pressure the seats of power from below, or (4) a way of making people feel that democracy exists and their opinions count while distracting them from how power is really exercised? I would suggest that it is all of these things and more, to differing degrees at different times, hence the contradictions and dilemmas.

The last presidential election in Colombia offers a good case in point. Colombia, like most Latin American countries, has a more democratic system for presidential elections than the US, at least in the purely formal terms of liberal electoral democracy (that is, putting aside questions of fraud, corruption, paramilitary and other forms of violence, and of course corporate media manipulation and the deeper structures of power). If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there is a run-off election three weeks later between the top two vote-getters, so that one of them ends up with an absolute majority. Voters who don´t favor either one have already expressed themselves; in the first round you don´t have to worry about your vote for a leftist candidate helping the farthest right candidate by detracting from the less-far-right candidate, while in the second round it´s clear that you are only expressing your preference between the two candidates and not necessarily your approval of either one. And of course it´s decided by majority rule in the popular vote, without the uniquely ridiculous, only-in-the-USA Electoral College system. Even so, the left faces some serious dilemmas.

In the 2014 elections, there were five major candidates (the problem of minor-party or lesser-known candidates, in the vicious circle of no media coverage because their parties never got a significant percentage of votes at least partly because of no media coverage, and so on, is still a limitation to electoral alternatives). These included candidates of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, and candidates of two of the newer parties that have sprung up in recent years around the electoral aspirations of particular mainstream candidates whose “movements” reflect more personal than political differences from the traditional parties. Incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos ran on the “Partido de la U” created for former president Alvaro Uribe in his 2008 reelection campaign (both are former Liberal Party members), when Santos was his Defense Minister (the “U” officially stands for “unity”, but everyone knows, wink-wink, it really means “Uribe”). And Uribe´s candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, ran on the party created by Uribe, now a senator, after his break with President Santos, with the Orwellian name (given the far right, repressive, and some say fascistic tendencies of Uribe and his party) of the Democratic Center Party. Santos also had the support of the Conservative Party and Cambio Radical (Radical Change, another Orwellian name, as it sprung up in the Uribe years as yet another defender of the right-wing status quo).

The other parties are the Polo Democrático Alternative (PDA) or Alternative Democratic Pole, created in 2005 as the union of several smaller parties and movements, and the Green Party. Known as the leftist party, and certainly the farthest left of the electoral parties, the PDA is a precarious coalition of tendencies ranging from just liberal to different varieties of the radical left. Their candidate was Clara López, representing the more liberal wing and a child of the Bogotá elite (she descends from two Presidents López, including her grandfather). López was tainted by her association, as a high-level and very visible official, with former Bogotá mayor Samuel Moreno, a PDA member on trial for corruption, even though she herself is not generally considered corrupt. Moreno´s highly corrupt and ineffective administration led to a split within the PDA between party loyalists who wouldn´t abandon him until there was absolute proof of corruption, even when it was all too obvious, and those who wanted to expel him from the party and distance themselves and the party from all corrupt elements. This led to a split, with PDA members led by well-known figures Gustavo Petro (then a senator and later mayor of Bogotá) and Antonio Navarro Wolff leaving the party. Their new group, known as the Progressives, soon negotiated a practical, if strange, fusion with the already existing Green Party, which despite the name does not have an environmental focus. The Greens had been a coalition of centrist and center-right politicians who split from their former parties on a mainly anti-corruption platform (a big issue in Colombia). After a predictably heated primary battle, the new Green-Progressive coalition chose right-wing candidate and former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa as its candidate, leaving López of the PDA as the “leftist” candidate even though she was for the most part an old-time liberal (the Liberal Party candidate, Rafael Pardo, is fairly conservative, reflecting how the party has drifted right much like the Democrats in the US and their once-liberal counterparts in many other countries).

The first-round dilemma for leftists was whether to vote for López as the least-evil of the bunch, to vote Blank (a ballot option in Colombia to express inconformity, though it doesn´t distinguish between inconformity with the candidates, the parties or the whole electoral system), or to abstain. But the bigger dilemma came in the second round, between top vote-getters Santos and Zuluaga.

Santos is a major evil. Like other Colombian presidents since 1990, he is neoliberal in the extreme, especially damaging in a country with widespread poverty, lack of social protection and some of the highest inequality indexes of income, wealth, and land ownership in the world. He has continued the policies that were accelerated under Uribe of turning vast amounts of land over to foreign oil and mining companies, resulting in massive contamination of water, land, and air and other ecological catastrophes and displacement of whole communities (Colombia has the world’s largest internally displaced population, mostly due to violence but increased by economic factors and the expansion of extractive industries). But beyond that, he was Uribe’s loyal Defense Minister for three years of that repressive administration. In that capacity, he presided over the armed forces during the “false positive” scandal in which thousands of innocent young men from low-income sectors were killed by army soldiers and dressed as guerrillas in response to an incentive system of bonuses for killing guerrillas. While Santos was not accused of ordering the killings, he bore some responsibility, along with Commander-in-Chief Uribe, for the incentive structures in the army, and for continuing to defend the institution through the familiar “rotten apple” theory, despite it involving so many soldiers and officers. While some officers and soldiers have been tried and imprisoned for the scandal, no responsibility has been borne at the highest levels (Santos, Uribe, and most high-level army officers). He also defended the armed forces against well-documented accusations of close ties to paramilitary atrocities, as well as their own human rights abuses. Santos also ordered, along with Uribe, the illegal bombing of a guerrilla camp hidden over the Ecuadorean border without the permission of the Ecuadorean government, resulting in the deaths of several FARC members, including a high-level leader, but also of several non-Colombian civilians.

As president since 2010, he has remade himself as a man of peace. Among his early acts was the announcement that his administration was pursuing peace talks with the FARC, the larger of the two main guerrilla groups in Colombia, with the aim of ending the region’s longest war that has been going on since 1964. By the 2014 electoral season, the talks were underway and seemed likely to reach a settlement – if Santos were reelected (they are now nearing a successful completion, and talks are expected to begin soon with the ELN, the other long-active guerrilla group). While most of the candidates supported the negotiation process, Zuluaga, Uribe’s former Finance Minister and widely seen as Uribe’s puppet, was opposed and threatened to cut them off the talks and resume Uribe’s military strategy if elected. While Santos was first elected based on the popular perception of him as the continuation, if not the puppet, of Uribe, his independence in negotiating with the guerrillas as well as mending damaged relations with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (Colombia’s second most important trading partner after the US, whose conflicts with Uribe were bad for business) turned Uribismo into the main opposition force. With the left weak and divided, and with the aid of the corporate media (including those owned or operated by the powerful Santos family who have long dominated much of the print and broadcast media in Colombia), the political spectrum seemed to most Colombians to range from the very right wing Santos (now perceived as the “left” end of the spectrum, much like the Clintonite Democrats in the US) and the ultra-right and warmongering Uribe and Zuluaga.

For leftists who could see past the images, the choice could be summarized in the same terms that many are summarizing the probable choice between Clinton and Trump in the US: a neoliberal war criminal versus a virtual fascist. Both represent major evils. But while Santos and Zuluaga were equally evil on almost everything, the difference – a negotiated end to a long war that was doing tremendous damage to many innocent people and that, whatever one may think of the guerrilla groups, had no chance of a guerrilla victory, little chance of ending through military means, and was being used to justify all kinds of repression against peaceful social movements of all sorts, versus an indefinite continuation of the horrors of war – was no small matter. Of course, peace is more than the absence of war, and all the talk of real peace coming to Colombia, where political violence has been prevalent throughout its history and will continue in different forms after the so-called peace agreements have been signed and enacted, is greatly exaggerated. Still, the absence of one very damaging and seemingly endless war is no small thing. And neither is the higher level of repression and corruption represented by Uribismo, even as the lower levels under Santos are only relatively better and still unacceptably high.

The left was, predictably, divided. On the one hand, some sectors of the more radical left promoted abstention, on the grounds that the horrors of neoliberalism and extractivism under Santos made it unacceptable to support or vote for him; some also felt that the peace talks represented the new ruling class consensus and that Zuluaga would also fall into line if elected president. The more liberal members and some of the more radical ones opted to support Santos in the runoff election, but making it clear that it was only to support the peace process and avoid the more openly fascistic extremes of Zuluaga/Uribe while remaining in opposition to all other Santos policies. Yet PDA party leader Clara López, in a move seen by some in the party as a betrayal, chose not only to support Santos but to make a commercial urging people to vote for him for peace, health, education, and so on – that is, say anything for votes and abandon all principled opposition (more recently, López further betrayed the party and the left by accepting the position of Labor Minister in Santos´ cabinet).

My own feeling was that in this case, if I were able to vote, I would probably have bit the bullet, or held my nose, or whatever the prevailing metaphor is, and voted for Santos in the runoff, though most definitely not because I believe in voting for the lesser evil on principle. While recognizing it as a legitimate dilemma, three factors swayed me and many others facing the dilemma in this particular case:

1/ As a runoff election with only two candidates, there were no voting alternatives (there is no blank vote in the runoff) and abstention is always so high that it expresses nothing. Thus voting for the lesser evil was not detracting from some better alternative that would favor long-term movement or party building (though of course, electoral politics was as usual distracting many people from non-electoral movement politics and the deeper political issues of the country).

2/ The main point of difference – a negotiated end to the war – is a major one that, despite its many limitations and lack of structural economic and social change, could mean a significant reduction in loss of life, limbs and communities, and possibly (the big hope of the left, though it remains to be seen) open up more space for social movements without being tainted and repressed with the accusation of being guerilla collaborators.

3/ Because they are about equally evil on just about everything else, it is pretty clear who the lesser evil really is.

Which brings me to the current US election process.

While I have sometimes voted for Democratic Party lesser evils, not without doubts, I am convinced that it makes more sense to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party than for Hillary Clinton. If I were convinced that Clinton represented the lesser evil I might at least face the old dilemma of wanting to prevent some additional and very bad extremes of the even-farther-right Republican versus reinforcing the two-party system and business as usual. It´s not about protecting the purity of my vote – the idea that you should never vote for a lesser evil because that´s in itself an evil act smacks to me of, on the one hand, an individualist, save-your-own-soul attitude rather than an analysis of practical implications, and on the other an acceptance of the sacredness of the vote that buys into the mainstream idea that elections are the key to democracy and change in our society. I do think that elections often matter, not for producing profound and structural change but for the details that fall outside the mainstream consensus on foreign and domestic policy; not for changing the system but for certain rights within the system that don´t threaten major sectors of big capital but that still matter. It´s a practical matter, not a spiritual exercise and not the most important form of political action if we really want profound change.

So why not Hillary Clinton? More than anything, it´s because it’s not clear that she really is the lesser evil. In the Santos versus Zuluaga case, Santos was the lesser evil on one or two important things, and they were virtually identical on everything else. But while there are differences between Clinton and Trump, Clinton is not the lesser evil on all of them. Trump is clearly far worse in terms of overt racism and xenophobia and the policies that would follow from them if he were able to implement them (though not necessarily worse on structural racism), but not in his proposals for economic and social policy, where he is less neoliberal than Clinton. On foreign policy, he seems less likely to militarily intervene or invade other countries and more likely to mend relations with Russia, which is still the world´s second major nuclear power. The president of the United States is not only the leader of the nation, but the most powerful political official in the world. Those of us who want to protect Muslims in the US from Trump should also want to protect the Muslims of the world from Clinton, who is a far greater danger and is responsible for massive death and destruction mostly in the Islamic world. I don´t know of any way to measure different evils and take a balance of whether Clinton´s evils add up to more or less than Trump´s, but I do know that these are two horrible people who will do disastrous things as president, and it´s not clear that either is preferable to the other.

Of course, we don´t know what Trump would really do as president, when rhetoric turns to action – probably not all his horrible proposals, whether because he abandons them or can´t get them through Congress, and probably he would cede to domestic and foreign policy establishments in economic and foreign policies and be more mainstream than his rhetoric indicates. In other words, the differences would probably be smaller than they appear. On the other hand, Clinton is much more predictable; the horrors she would do domestically and in the world are very clear from the horrors she has actively supported or participated in during the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations. Not much of an argument to vote for her, even on practical or lesser-evil grounds.

To me, Bernie Sanders represents the lesser evil worth voting for, though not worth pinning too many hopes on. The evil part is his support for military interventions (though less than Clinton) and his project to save capitalism rather than undermine it (though a less harsh capitalism than Clinton´s). I´d prefer a mass murderer who kills less people to one who kills more, but he´d still be a mass murderer, and Sanders has supported most of the murderous military interventions of the Bush and Obama administrations as a voting member of Congress. It´s to his credit that he has vastly improved his positions on Israel and the Palestinian struggle (with plenty of room still for more improvement), though troublesome that he did so only in this campaign after a lifetime of unconditional support to Israel, including again as a voting member of Congress. The same could be said for his improvements, but only during the campaign, on questions of racism and the struggles of Black people. On all of this, he is the lesser evil, not our leftist savior, but much lesser and vastly preferable to any of the more mainstream alternatives.

It is on questions of economics and class that Sanders is furthest to the left of Clinton and the Democratic Party mainstream. His plans for a kinder, gentler capitalism through Keynesian-inspired policies, regulations on banks and other sectors of capitalism, and a return to a welfare state with a degree of downward redistribution and publicly-guaranteed social rights (notably to health care) would represent a vast improvement over the neoliberal status quo. It would not make capitalism fair, equitable, stable, sustainable, or otherwise desirable – not kind and gentle, but at least relatively kinder and gentler.

There are many reasons to doubt his economic program would have been successful if he had somehow miraculously ascended to the presidency, though I´d like to see him try. Besides all the pressures to make concessions to the Democratic Party establishment (and his demonstrated willingness to make concessions, as in his current support for Clinton) and obstacles in Congress, there is the little-mentioned problem of the looming economic crisis. The crisis that began in 2007 was “resolved” in the short term with bailouts that allowed banks and other sectors of capital to continue the practices that led to the crisis in the first place. Combine that with a deteriorating international situation, especially in key parts of the world system like the European Union and China, and it is all but inevitable that sooner or later, but not too many years later, the crisis will hit again and probably harder. Many left-liberal Keynesian economists have argued that the Sanders economic plan, were he able to implement it, would be more effective at either preventing a crisis or minimizing and resolving its effects. I agree with them on technical terms, if banks and other major capitalist actors behave like the “rational actors” of economic models. But if they were to feel threatened by Sanders and take the longer-term view of their interests, it is quite possible that early on, maybe even before inauguration day and the actual implementation of policies, there would be so much disinvestment through a combination of capital strike and capital flight that the crisis might come sooner. This is not an argument against voting for Sanders. He has been the much lesser evil in the primaries, and with or without a crisis I would rather he were in charge and at least trying to do something relatively decent. But, even if he had ever had a chance of actually winning (I won´t get into that debate here), I can´t get as excited as some of my leftist friends about the great new American society he would bring.

For me, the best solution to the unfortunate dilemma of lesser-evilism in this case is to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party rather than either of the twin evils. If she were able to gather enough votes to be taken into account by public opinion and the mainstream media, it would at least express something about public sentiment and could broaden the scope of public debate. That´s probably too optimistic, and I have no illusions about a leftist presidential campaign being a key step toward the left taking power through electoral means. Party-building, if it is to get anywhere in the face of a system rigged by corporate money, corporate media control and an electoral system that pressures people to vote for major-party lesser evils rather than their real interests and preferences, will have to be built up from a more modest local level and be more closely tied to the building and strengthening of grassroots, non-electoral social and political movements.

Still, a good showing for the Greens could play a positive, if modest, role in opening up public debate and encouraging other forms of organizing. Given the lack of a clear lesser-evil alternative, the extreme evil that either of the major-party candidates is likely to unleash on the country and the world, and the urgency of at least moving in the direction of creating a movement for broad, deep, systemic change, this time it´s really not much of a dilemma.

Stan Malinowitz teaches political economy at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia.