A disturbing number of Americans are going to end up wasting their votes in this next election. They’re unhappy with the status quo, but instead of changing it, they’re only going to reinforce it. I’m not talking about democrats who are planning to vote third-party. I’m talking about democrats who don’t really like Clinton’s pseudo-progressive platform, but who are so afraid Sanders can’t win that they’re going to vote for Clinton anyway and justify that vote by invoking “the lesser of the two evils” argument. That is, they’re going to defend their support of Clinton on the grounds that even though there’s a lot they don’t like about her, she’d be better than a Republican president.
It is not at all clear, however, that Sanders couldn’t win. A recent article in Counterpunch makes a devastatingly good argument that, in fact, Sanders is our only chance of getting a democrat in the White House this time around. But even if that weren’t true, it’s time someone pointed out that the invocation of the “lesser of two evils argument” to defend otherwise indefensible political choices is profoundly misguided. It is precisely such reasoning that has driven us relentlessly into our current position between a rock and a hard place.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that the greatest invention in human history was compound interest. I beg to differ. I think it’s the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s brilliant. Give people two options, neither of which they find appealing, convince them that a third option, a genuinely attractive one, is just not practicable and that they must thus choose between the bad and the worse, and you’ll be able to get them to choose something they would never otherwise choose.
You can get people to do anything that way. You start by offering them a choice between something that is just marginally unpleasant and something that is really repellent. Once you’ve gotten them to choose the marginally unpleasant, you raise the bar (just a little mind you, you don’t want them to catch on to what you’re doing). Now you offer them a choice between something to which they have really strong objections and something that is deeply offensive. Most people, of course, will choose the former, if they think it’s either that or the latter. Now you offer people who’ve become inured to living under objectionable conditions a choice between even worse conditions and something that is truly unthinkable. It’s not mystery what they will choose.
There’s been a lot of angry posturing from Americans who think of themselves as progressive about how the purported political center in this country has been moving inexorably to the right, yet it’s these very people who are directly responsible for the shift. If you vote for a candidate who’s farther right than you would prefer, well, then you’re shifting the political “center” to the right. Republicans aren’t responsible for the increasingly conservative face of the democratic party. Democrats are responsible for it. Democrats keep racing to the polls like lemmings being chased by the boogeyman.
“This is not the election to vote for real change” runs the Democratic refrain. We’re in a crisis! We must do whatever it takes to ensure that the republicans don’t get in office even if that means voting for a democrat whose policies we don’t really like and which are only marginally distinguishable from those of the Republican candidate. That “margin” is important, we’re reminded again and again. That little difference is going to make all the difference.
Even if that were true, which it ought to be clear by now it is not (see Bart Gruzalski’s “Jill Stein and the 99 Percent”), it would still offer a very poor justification for voting for a candidate one doesn’t really like. Why? Because it is an expression of short-term thinking. Thomas Hobbes argued that privileging short-term over long-term goals was irrational, and yet that’s what we’ve been doing in this country for as long as I can remember. Americans are notoriously short-term oriented. As Luc Sante noted in a piece in the New York Review of Books, America is “the country of the perpetual present tense.” Perhaps that’s part of the anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter wrote about. “Just keep the republicans out of office for this election!” we’re always commanded. “We can worry about real change later!”
Of course anyone who stopped to think about it ought to realize that that mythical “later” is never going to come. With the notable exception of Sanders, our choices have been getting worse not better, and if we keep invoking the “lesser of the two evils” to justify them, we are in effect, digging our own graves.
God is not going to deliver to us from the clouds the candidate of our dreams, the candidate who despite his or her wildly populist views somehow manages to win over the corporate powers we have allowed, through our own incorrigible stupidity, to control the political process in this country. If we are ever going to see real political change of the sort progressives purport to want, then we are going to have to be brave enough to risk losing an election. Which shouldn’t require all that much bravery when one thinks about it, because real progressives have been losing elections for as long as anyone can remember in that the democrats haven’t been genuinely progressive for as long as anyone can remember.
If you vote for Clinton in the primary because you think of yourself as progressive and you fear Sanders is un-electable, think again. You are wasting your vote because what you are actually saying is that you are willing to support a candidate who is not really progressive, that the Democrats can continue their relentless march to the right and that you will back them all the way. That is, if you vote for Clinton because you say you are progressive, you are saying one thing and doing another. But actions, as everyone knows, speak louder than words. You can go on posturing about how progressive you are, but if you vote for Clinton that posturing is empty.
If we are ever going to see real progressive political change in this country we have to brave enough to openly risk defeat, and we have to have faith that our fellow progressives will be similarly brave. William James makes this point very eloquently in his essay “The Will to Believe.” “A social organism,” he wrote,
of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.
Progressive political change will never be a fact unless we have faith in its coming, unless we have faith that others will back us up when we refuse to be forced to vote yet again for a candidate we do not like.
I, for one, abhor cowardice. I’m not going to be intimidated into voting for a candidate I don’t like by threats of the “greater evil.” I am going to vote for the candidate whose platform I actually endorse. Even if my candidate doesn’t win the election, my vote will count for something and not merely in the sense that it will allow me to preserve my self respect. I’m not afraid of being condemned as naively optimistic. Without such optimism we’d never have had democracy in the first place. Democracy, one of the crowning achievements of human history, is precisely the product of the courage to act on one’s conscience and that faith that others will do so as well. If we’ve lost those things, then we will get the president we deserve.
(An earlier version of this piece appear in the October 12, 2012 issue of Counterpunch.)