Say Anything: Sanders and the Lesser Evil Mantra

Bogota, Colombia.

I don’t really feel betrayed by Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton. He said he would support the Democratic nominee, whoever it turned out to be, at the start of his campaign. That opened the doors to the Democratic debates and to the amount of media coverage he got. Even if the media clearly under-covered his campaign and over-covered Clinton`s, he got more visibility and his campaign came farther than if he had run as an independent or if he had not made the pact with the party.

Of course, with lesser-evilism so in vogue, he could have argued that breaking the pact with the Democrats is a lesser evil than disappointing millions of his supporters or helping get a candidate elected who opposes almost everything he claims to represent. And the dirty tricks revealed in the hacked DNC emails, while not surprising, were the smoking gun that he could have used to legitimately withdraw from the pact and support the Green Party, if not run as their candidate.

But as much as I don’t like it, I don’t really feel betrayed by Sanders’ decision to do what he always said he would do and support Hillary Clinton. What I feel betrayed by is how he is doing it.

Sanders has adopted the typical politician’s tactic of saying anything to get his candidate elected once he decided to support her, and shutting up about all the bad things he once said about her. It’s not just about supporting the lesser evil, but denying the evil and thus enabling it. Not “hold your nose, get the lesser evil elected but continue to speak the truth and oppose all the bad things she will do”, as some of his supporters are saying. Something about electoral politics seems to do that to people. Many (not all) of his supporters who join him in telling us we must vote for Clinton to stop Trump are taking the same approach. Some way to launch a “revolution” (meaning what used to be called a progressive reform movement).

An interesting example can be seen in the debate between Chris Hedges and Robert Reich on Democracy Now (July 26). Hedges is absolutely brilliant, cutting through the bullshit on personalities and turns of phrases to get at what is really at stake, and concluding that there is not much difference on the most vital questions affecting humanity (like the atrocities of war, gross economic injustice, and surviving ecological calamity) and that neither Trump nor Clinton are worth voting for.

But Reich, a Sanders supporter and often harsh left-liberal critic of the economic and social policies of mainstream Democrats like the Clintons and Obama, follows Sanders in suddenly not only calling for stopping Trump but extolling the virtues of Clinton: “I think she will make a great president.” When faced with his own criticisms of her practices and proposals, he hedges a bit and calls for getting her elected now because of the urgency of stopping Trump, and then spending the next four years organizing a progressive third party and launching a viable candidate in 2020 (so I guess she won´t really be a great president).

I´ve always kind of liked Reich, and respected him as person of intelligence and integrity who produces good analyses, as far as his liberalism will let him go. But the political exigencies of getting the lesser evil elected somehow make him throw that out the window. What an obviously absurd idea! In 2020, the presidential election will most likely be either between incumbent Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz or an equally repugnant far-right Republican, or incumbent Trump and another mainstream Democrat. In other words, a lot like this election. And we will be told that just one more time we should hold our noses and vote for the lesser evil Democrat, because a vote for the Greens or another left party is a vote for Trump or Cruz or whichever Republican greater evil gets the turn. Maybe in 2024….

Reading Facebook posts from all over the place has also been revealing. I was getting a lot of posts supporting Sanders and attacking Clinton, with a few saying they would vote for her if necessary only to stop Trump. Then suddenly more of them were getting to like Clinton, based in large part on her personal qualities. And of course she beats Trump hands down on personal qualities like intelligence, niceness, and “competence” (as Maxwell Smart used to say about his vanquished enemies on the 1960s TV spy comedy Get Smart, “If only she had used her genius for good instead of evil”). If the election were simply a question of rewards and punishments for the candidates for their personal qualities and speaking abilities, Clinton would be the clear choice. But the fact that she is the lesser evil is taken as given and obvious, based largely on mentioning one or two good things about her or one or two bad things about Trump. No real questioning of how, given so many bad things (though not always the same bad things) there are about both, we decide who the lesser evil really is.

An interesting juxtaposition of two Facebook postings I received illustrates well. First, there was a version of a pithy argument I´ve seen several times, always with an apparent sense of great originality and cleverness. Something like this: “I`m voting for Hillary because I´m a one-issue person, and that issue is not ending the world with a nuclear Armageddon”. The next one argued that we can´t let Trump win because he´s so friendly with the horrible Vladimir Putin, accompanied by one of the many articles appearing in the mainstream and liberal press with examples.

What´s going on here? Do we really have a lesser chance of World War III with Russia with a president who demonizes him (with the help of a compliant press), has done everything in her power to make him our enemy, and provokes him by surrounding Russia with NATO and supporting the coup by his neofascist enemies in neighboring Ukraine? On the possibility of nuclear Armageddon, if that´s your “issue”, Trump would seem to be the lesser evil. So too on foreign intervention, most of which Trump opposes. It´s not unlikely that he would appoint members of the Republican foreign policy establishment to his cabinet and leave foreign policy to them, but that only makes him the less-than-or-equal evil.

Clinton, on the other hand, has a long record based on the considerable experience she likes to tout, so we know what to expect from her. That record, through her votes as a Senator and especially through her more direct actions as Secretary of State, includes responsibility for hundreds of thousands of killings of innocent civilians in mostly Islamic countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, to name only the most blatant and direct examples – and the destruction of the lives and communities of millions of survivors. That pretty much qualifies as genocide. Add to that her total support for the worst atrocities of Israel against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and her crucial support for the brutal coup in Honduras, resulting in much more death, suffering, and injustice that still continues.

Trump is certainly the greater evil in terms of racist and xenophobic rhetoric and proposals. Discourse is important, as he is inciting the worst and most dangerous forms of racism and proposing horrible anti-immigrant policies. The Obama administration may have set records for deportations of undocumented immigrants with Hillary Clinton´s collaboration, but I´m willing to grant her lesser evil status on that one.

But is that a greater evil than genocidal mass murder? Is there any greater evil? Even when it´s done without a trace of racist language or a hint of hatred for the victims?

Trump would seem to be the lesser evil on foreign intervention if he means what he says (otherwise he´ll probably be an equal evil), and also on free trade agreements, which he opposes and Hillary loves, and much of economic and social policy where Hillary is the pure neoliberal and Trump more moderate. Clinton, on the other hand, is the lesser evil, and even sometimes good, on the parts of social policy that are not of great importance to large-scale capital in general or its most powerful sectors like finance and insurance. This includes some very important areas of civil rights, reproductive rights, protection from police abuse, among others. Many of these depend in great part on Supreme Court decisions, and those who argue that we must elect Clinton so that she rather than Trump names the new justices make an important point. It´s just that they tend to make only this point, as if the rest doesn´t matter.

The fact is that we are faced with two atrocious major-party candidates. Two seventh-circle-of-hell evils. It´s all too easy to argue for one by focusing on the evils of the other.   Both represent the 0.1 percent they are part of, both will be horrible for the interests of the poor, workers, and in general the vast majority, both will perpetuate structural racism while one is much worse on the open, explicit forms of racism. Both are sleazy and fraudulent opportunists in business and in politics. Clinton is worse on some things, Trump on others; all of them are extremely important.

Trump feels worse; he´s certainly the more detestable personality. But how do we measure the different evils and sum them up to find the lesser evil? I don´t think we can, but again, how can there be a greater evil than genocidal mass murder? In addition to the terrible destruction at home and abroad caused by “free trade” and other economic policies promoted by Hillary Clinton, as well as the welfare and crime policies passed by her husband with her advice and unqualified support. At the very least, the case for Clinton as the lesser evil should be made more strongly, rather than just taking it as obvious because of the obvious horrors of Trump. Trump wears his evils on his sleeve and celebrates them, while Clinton hides them behind a much friendlier manner and discourse. But if we really care about the oppressed of the world and the 99 percent of the United States, we have to look below the surface and take everything into account.

If I vote for Jill Stein, the hope is that she will get enough votes to have the Green Party enter the public debate and maybe start to be a viable electoral force at the local level. I don´t really expect that to happen, given all the lesser-evil voters going for Clinton as well as lesser-evil Democrats for Congress to stop the Republican majority. Third-party politics will also not get very far through the “strategic voting” game, where you vote for Clinton if you live in a swing state and Stein if not.

The system is rigged against any alternative party having a shot at power, so the best we can do is vote for the best alternative available. It´s not wasting a vote, it´s just recognizing that not much change will come about through voting unless the system is changed; and that unless there is clearly a much lesser evil, you may as well express something with your vote. I´ve oscillated between voting for third parties (since Barry Commoner of the People´s Party in 1980) and Democratic lesser evils. Nothing ever came of the People´s Party, nor the exciting new New Party in the 1990s, which didn´t last long enough for me to vote for them. Probably the Greens won´t advance too much either, but it´s the best shot we´ve got at party building within the very limited electoral system. I´m not very excited about voting for Stein, much as I like her, but it´s the best option available in our not-so-democratic exercise in democracy.

Without a doubt more emphasis should be placed on non-electoral movement building, and it should not be distracted or lulled into “say anything” mode every four years at election time. I have nothing but the deepest respect for the many movement activists who resist temptations and retain their integrity in electoral seasons.

If we want to seek some level of change (not the revolution, but something worthwhile for meanwhile) within the electoral system, leftists, whether lesser-evilists or not, could join forces with people at other parts of the political spectrum to try to eliminate the Electoral College system for presidential elections and pluralities for all elections. None other than Hillary Clinton, when she was elected to the Senate in 2000 at the same time as the Bush-Gore debacle, said we should eliminate the Electoral College in favor of direct election by popular vote. It would have a lot of support beyond the left and might be a realizable shorter-term goal. The same goes for the popular vote, at any level, being decided by pluralities instead of outright majorities, which goes against what we all learned about democracy – majority rules – since grade school. Since we’re not likely to get a parliamentary or proportional-representation system, we could at least fight for any of the various schemes for runoffs, instant or not, where you can vote for your first choice and then, if no one gets more than 50 percent, vote for your second choice if necessary in the next round. It´s not very radical – many countries use it – but it could open up some space for alternative parties. None of this will make the system unrigged – the powerful role of big capital and corporate media is not at stake in elections nor in these reforms – but it could make elections somewhat more meaningful and at least partially resolve the endlessly-recurring lesser-evil dilemma.

Meanwhile, I understand the people who remain critical of Hillary Clinton but say they will vote for her because of Supreme Court nominations, immigrant rights, neo-fascist rumblings, and fear of an unstable and unpredictable Donald Trump. I share their concerns and their fears.

But if that´s the motivation to vote for Clinton, just be clear about the harm she has done and will continue to do, especially as a genocidal murderer who has made it clear she will continue to kill and destroy, in the Middle East and probably elsewhere. Recognize that this is the price and say, along with Madeleine Albright, “we think it’s worth it”.

And please, don’t let electoral hopes dim your critical faculties. Don’t ignore the evil in the lesser evil, if that’s what you consider her, and no matter how hard you want to defeat Trump, don’t just say anything.