The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting

It’s election season again, that joyous time of the biennium, and you know what that means: a renewal of the perennial left-wing debate over “lesser-evil voting.” Is it wrong to vote for a Democrat, rather than someone on the genuine left, in order to keep a reactionary or a fascist out of power? Or, on the contrary, is it wrong to vote for a leftist who has apparently no chance of victory, thereby denying a vote to the Democrat and so increasing the odds that the reactionary candidate will win? The most famous advocate of “lesser-evil” voting is Noam Chomsky, who argues that the most immediate moral imperative is to prevent the worst possible electoral outcome from occurring. Critics of lesser-evil voting are legion, as a simple Google search indicates.

The writer Nick Pemberton recently contributed to this debate in a Counterpunch article entitled “Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why the Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved.” It’s a long and rambling article most of which isn’t worth responding to. Nevertheless, since Pemberton has resurrected the issue, I’d like to weigh in on the side of reason and morality. Maybe a miracle will happen and I’ll reach one or two people.

It’s to the credit of Pemberton and many of his allies in this debate—e.g., B. Sidney Smith and Andrew Smolski—that they acknowledge it’s a risky proposition to disagree with Chomsky. The man has a preternatural ability to be rational and right about nearly everything. And on this issue too, I think, he’s absolutely right, and his critics are wrong. Now, if Chomsky can’t convince the critics then I certainly can’t, but hopefully I can at least provide a bit of food for thought.

One way to approach the issue is to list policy differences between Democrats and Republicans that leftists should care about. The claim is often made that the two parties are effectively indistinguishable, but this is hardly the case. Consider net neutrality, an issue leftists care about. Where do the parties stand on it? Obama’s FCC voted in favor of it on party lines, while Trump’s FCC ended it. Not exactly indistinguishable.

On global warming: Obama was pathetically inadequate, but during his term the U.S. did at least join the Paris Agreement. Trump withdrew from it. Obama’s EPA introduced rules to cut pollution from vehicle tailpipes, while Trump’s is rolling those rules back. Trump is enamored of coal; Obama wasn’t. Trump’s EPA has proposed to dramatically weaken regulations concerning mercury, posing a threat to the nervous systems of children and fetuses. The differences go on and on.

On the Supreme Court: how likely is it that Hillary Clinton would have nominated judges as reactionary as Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch? Clinton cares about Roe v. Wadeand would certainly have nominated people likely to protect its legacy. This is a major issue, not a trivial difference between the parties. In general, the liberals on the Court are hardly “indistinguishable” from the conservatives, as this list of some major decisions in 2018 shows. (The entire twentieth-century history of the Court indicates the same thing, most notably from the New Deal on.)

What about workers’ rights? The Democratic Party has little loyalty to organized labor—as evidenced by NAFTA and the TPP, among innumerable other betrayals—but Obama did at least sign the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (in addition to a number of pro-worker executive orders), to which McCain was opposed. And Obama’s Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board were far friendlier to workers than Trump’s administration has been.

The foreign policies of the parties are much more similar than their domestic policies, being in fact virtually identical on issue after issue. I’m not going to defend the Democratic Party’s foreign policy. But it’s worth noting that George W. Bush’s Iraq War probably would not have occurred had Al Gore been president, since Gore had fewer ties to neoconservatives and the oil industry than Bush and Cheney did. That is, a world-historic catastrophe that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and the destruction of a country quite possibly could have been avoided had more people voted for Gore over Bush in swing states in 2000. Is such a cataclysmic war worth preventing? I think so. Apparently critics of “lesser-evil” voting disagree.

Speaking of the 2000 election, the frequent denials that Ralph Nader contributed to Bush’s victory are nonsense. Bush defeated Gore in Florida by 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida. Had only 538 of the people who voted for Nader voted for Gore instead, there would have been no Bush administration and quite possibly no Iraq war. It’s a matter of simple arithmetic and shouldn’t be controversial. Of course there were thousands of additional reasons why Gore lost, including perhaps the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his blandly centrist political positions, decisions his campaign made, and so on. But it’s mathematically provable that one of the reasons was Nader’s campaign in Florida.

The reason-defying power of ideological thinking is such that people are able to deny not only elementary morality (that you should prevent the worst possible outcome) but even elementary arithmetic. It’s remarkable.

I won’t continue listing differences between the two main parties, though there are many more. Instead, let’s consider some of the other arguments. A common formulation is that “the lesser evil is still evil.” To which I’d reply: sure, you can phrase it that way if you want, and maybe you’re right to do so. But the point is that there are degrees of evil. Indeed, that’s all we’re confronted with in politics: greater and lesser evils. You shouldn’t look for moral and ideological purity in the messy realm of politics. Even far-left candidates will almost never be perfect reflections of your values: there will be political sins in their past, they’ll take stands on issues that you won’t agree with, and if elected they’ll almost inevitably make compromises that will disappoint you. The designation “lesser-evil voting” is misleading, because allvoting is lesser-evil voting. Even if you vote for the most radical Green Party candidate you’re still choosing (what you think is) the “lesser evil,” because no candidate is absolutely perfect. You vote for the one who will do the least damage, or will serve your moral values most effectively.

And, again, one of your values should be to prevent the worst possible outcome. You can pretend you’re being “pure” somehow by voting against the Democrat (or not voting at all), but, depending on the political context, what your feel-good voting strategy is accomplishing might only be to empower the candidate who will, say, pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, step up the war on immigrants, end net neutrality, ratchet up the capitalist war on humanity and the environment, and give white supremacy a prominent platform.

I’m not saying you should necessarily actively campaign for a Democrat just to prevent the Republican from winning. (Although that’s quite a reasonable thing to do if you don’t want the fascist to win.) But surely it isn’t too much to ask that on one day every two years you cast a vote against fascism and on every other day get back to the task of building a socialist movement.

The claim is often made that lesser-evil voting has enabled the rightward drift of U.S. politics since the 1980s. This claim would have more merit if there had existed a third party with even a remote chance of electoral success. But the fact is that the rightward drift of politics has overwhelmingly resulted from the business community’s multidimensional mobilization against democracy, not merely from people’s voting for a Democrat every two or four years. Incomparably more important than voting, at least as long as viable third parties don’t exist, is, on the one hand, the work of challenging and pressuring Democrats once they’re in power, and on the other hand, the work of building a radical social movement outside the voting booth. The latter task takes decades. Not until it has been accomplished does it make much sense to embrace the sort of electoral strategy Nader has followed.

One argument I haven’t heard Chomsky make is that having Democrats in power is useful because it shows people the flaws of the Democratic Party, and thus the necessity of building a socialist movement. If only Republicans were ever in power, people might think all problems could be solved just by electing Democrats, any Democrat. And that’s the goal they would focus on. When Democrats in power show how corrupt and oligarchical they, too, are, then anti-capitalist movements like Occupy Wall Street and the current widespread activism for “democratic socialism” can emerge to push for systemic changes in the political economy.

In this sense, Obama’s presidency advanced the political education of millions of Americans, who realized that electing centrist Democrats wasn’t enough.

In the end, one’s opponents or interlocutors will always have some stock answer to every argument, no matter how logical the argument is. Leftists who loathe the Democratic Party with apparently every fiber of their being will always have some rationale, however specious, to justify never voting for a Democrat. Even for a Democrat like, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is (or seems) manifestly better on most issues than nearly all Democrats. The very word “Democrat” is, for many leftists, little more than a term of abuse, a curse word, as it is for so many Republicans, a term so value-laden that the idea of voting for such a person is nauseating. But investing political labels with primarily emotional content is neither useful nor rational, and can lead to demonstrably stupid, even totalitarian thinking and acting. We should try to step back from our visceral hatreds and aversions and consider dispassionately what course of action is likely to ameliorate the most human suffering. And that’s really all that should matter.

If you think letting the House or Senate remain in Republican hands is a price worth paying for voting for an ideologically “correct” candidate who has no chance of winning, so be it. But I’d bet a lot of immigrants who are finding it much harder to get a visa now than under Obama would disagree with you. As would, perhaps, quite a few environmental activists who are now desperately working overtime to prevent Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior from stripping yet another national park or monument of federal protection.

When (semi-)fascism is appearing on the horizon or is already in power, the imperative is to build a united front against fascism. The Communist Party in the period of the Popular Front was right about this. It’s time to apply the hard-won lessons of the past.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

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