Sorry Hillary, Voting for the Lesser of Two Evils is Textbook Blame-Shifting


Of all the redundant and generally loathesome reasons for continuing to support the two-party duopoly that constitutes the electoral oligarchy upon which the global corporate empire we know and love maintains the most threadbare pretenses of democratic legitimacy, surely none are relied on more heavily than the old lesser-of-two-evils argument: which is to say, we must support the candidate we find the least hateful to reason and basic decency. As it happens, this is not only a repulsive line of thinking, it is also textbook blame shifting.

Referring to the textbook, we find that blame shifting typically involve psychological strategies like playing the victim, victim blaming, demonizing our enemies, refusing to admit responsibility for wrongdoing, and articulating self-defenses in absolute terms, typically by refusing to acknowledge any difference between criticism of our behavior or policies and attacks on our person and rights. The latter most commonly manifests as the ‘with us or against us’ fallacy, which despite commonly being associated with former President George ‘Dubya’ Bush, is surprisingly common, as its repeated appearance in the Bible (eg. Matthew 12:30, Luke 9:50, Mark 9:40) seems to suggest.

Social psychology classes this particular group of behaviors as ‘moral disengagement,’ or the subjective mechanisms we use to neutralize our conscience and reconstruct actions as just and morally legitimate that might be interpreted as unethical, immoral, harmful, dangerous, irresponsible or even criminal. This approach recognizes that we rarely reject the idea of morality out of hand, merely apply it selectively. Through selective application of principle on the basis of moral disengagement we retain the idea of ourselves as moral actors while finding various pretexts upon which to make exceptions to our principles for the sake of momentary expediency.

One of the many forms that moral disengagement takes is what is known as ‘advantageous comparison.’ As Albert Bandura points out,

Advantageous comparison is another way of making harmful conduct look good. How behavior is viewed is colored by what it is compared against. By exploiting the contrast principle, reprehensible acts can be made righteous. Terrorists see their behavior as acts of selfless martyrdom by comparing them with widespread cruelties inflicted on the people with whom they identify. The more flagrant the contrasting inhumanities, the more likely it is that one’s own destructive conduct will appear benevolent.

As one example, Bandura cites ‘the massive destruction in Vietnam,’ which he notes ‘was minimized by portraying the American military intervention as saving the populous from Communist enslavement.’ What we are doing might be far from ideal, but what the Communists would do would be much, much worse; if we swap between Word documents and take a snippet from the PhD thesis, we can even find an good example from history, being that of Truman’s 1950 speech to Congress in laying down his doctrine of Containment. The advantageous comparison in this instance derived from his claim that ‘The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists, who defy the government’s authority at a number of points, particularly along the northern boundaries.’

If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East . . . Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East . . . We must take immediate and resolute action.

Therefore we must intervene in the affairs of other countries and organize their governments to protect the freedom of the world, the interests of privileged elites of the imperial home country and the freedom of the world being more or less the same thing. As Bandura notes further, expedient historical comparisons such as those made in support of Truman’s logic in retrospect also serve the purposes of self-exoneration insofar as, ‘for example, apologists for the lawlessness of political figures they support cite transgressions by past rival administrations as vindications.’ I oppose Truman’s lawlessness, therefore you should vote for me so I can carry out uniquely reckless violations of international law all of my own.

As the textbook also points out, since advantageous comparison is both the language of state terrorism and electioneering, it ‘relies heavily on moral justification by utilitarian standards’ which are necessarily subjective, although this fact also means that the ‘utilitarian cost-benefit calculus, however, can be quite slippery in specific applications.’

Thus we find the National Post arguing for one that ‘the appeal of a potential woman president is strong, with an unstated “even if it has to be Hillary” tagging along invisibly.’ And further: ‘She complained memorably of being the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and from the vantage point of 2016 I do not see how it can be denied . . . What is equally obvious in 2016 is that Barack Obama was opposed by the same sort of forces, all equally thirsty for his blood, and he handed them a lot less ammunition . . . She has, of course, had a long career since.’ This is textbook moral disengagement in the form of advantageous comparison insofar as;

The task of making violence morally acceptable from a utilitarian perspective is facilitated by two sets of judgments. First, nonviolent options are judged to be ineffective to achieve desired changes, thus removing them from consideration. Second, utilitarian analyses using advantageous comparisons with actual or anticipated threats by one’s adversaries affirm that one’ injurious actions will prevent more human suffering than they cause.

Specifically applied to the presidential candidacy on behalf of the Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton, the utilitarian cost-benefit calculus in this instance is particularly slippery. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why, despite explicitly insisting that he was not characterizing her that way, Bernie Sanders was reported by at least one news outlet as claiming that voters see Clinton as ‘the lesser of two evils.’ Given what Counterpunch amongst others has reported in recent days about leaked emails confirming that the DNC conspired against Bernie Sanders in an attempt to ensure the nomination for Hillary Clinton, this is perhaps not surprising.

They know as well as he does that behind the thin veneer of the ‘lesser of two evils logic’ and the slippery logic of advantageous comparison with its utilitarian cost-benefit calculus are the numerous strongly supported arguments pointing out the numerous reasons why Clinton is anything but lesser. In addition to these we now have another — that not only are she and the tangerine blowhard equal evils in terms of their general odiousness, malevolence and dangerousness to world peace, but that the ‘lesser evil’ logic she uses to try to get an edge on her opponent is part of the same group of traits that make her as detestable as he is. Anyone still not convinced at this point would do well to remember that the tangerine blowhard uses the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument in reverse against her as well.

cf. Douglas Adams:

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”

“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).