In “Explaining the Problem with Lesser Evilism,” David Swanson proposes a way for people to enlighten voters like myself. First, he says, “get your lesser evilist friend to believe you understand what they are saying,” “that you grasp their way of thinking.”
Okay, but isn’t our way of thinking the same as Swanson’s way? Doesn’t everyone consider options and choose what seems to have better overall implications?
Swanson adds, “Explain to them that you would much rather have a world of lesser evilists who care passionately about making the world evil at as slow a pace as possible, than a world of people who just don’t care at what speed the world becomes more evil.”
Someone advocating strategic voting says in contested states we should vote Clinton, despite her being horrendous, to help stop the still worse Trump. Elsewhere, we should vote Green or whatever we prefer. He or she says, Trump winning and all that he would bring with him would be so much worse than Clinton winning and all that she would bring with her that it is worth voting Clinton in contested states for the ten minutes it takes away from preparing to organize against her administration. Nothing about “lesser evilism” says we are resigned merely to slowing the pace of evilness.
Swanson says about “50% of advocates” of lesser evil voting do “not actually believe in lesser evilism.” I would be curious who that is. In contrast, I would guess that virtually everyone believes in lesser evil voting in some situations. More, does anyone actually say Clinton is less evil but mean Clinton is pretty good? David, do you think I do that? Do you think Chomsky does that? Do you think any serious leftist who says vote strategically does that? Who do you have in mind, because I agree that that would be a poor position to take.
Swanson continues, “Only after you’ve convinced your lesser evilist friend that you are aware of differences between the two candidates, then you should begin to suggest the possibility that a less evil candidate might still be too evil.”
There then follows a string of extreme hypotheticals that have zero to do with this election. It is like me asking Swanson, if Clinton was running against David Duke, would you vote for the lesser evil? What about Clinton versus Hitler? Presumably Swanson would vote Clinton, so we would have determined that he sometimes favors lesser evil voting just as I of course sometimes think lesser evil voting is overruled by a minimal gap in evilness or by a better alternative to pursue.
So, after some fine writing which, however, to my perceptions didn’t bear on the case, Swanson says, “we’ve arrived at the heart of the matter. You must now try to explain to your friend the real damage that lesser evilism does.”
And, Swanson tries to do so. He says, “There is a reason that many lesser evilists turn out to actually think their candidate is good, and that many others resist acknowledging the full extent of their candidate’s evil.”
I agree that psychological pressure, peer pressure, and the like can cause that type devolution of awareness. Swanson says, “If you volunteer for a candidate, you encounter nothing but praise for them and denunciations of their opponent. Even if you never leave your house, your web searches gradually begin finding only news sources that slant everything in favor of your candidate. Millions of people put up yard signs and bumper stickers promoting their candidate, and virtually nobody puts a second sign beside the first one protesting some of that candidate’s evil agenda. You can claim that lesser evilism leaves you independent and uncompromised, but you can’t actually protest your evil candidate’s evil in their local office – you’ll be off the team instantly.”
The argument would apply except that strategic voting for a lesser evil candidate doesn’t urge anyone to volunteer for that candidate, display her sign, extoll her non existent virtues, become her supporter, or become her team member. It instead says, don’t do any of that. Just spend ten minutes voting for the candidate, and, if you have energy for it, it would be good to also tell others to do likewise even as you spend most time explaining why the candidate is horribly flawed and why you and your friends will need to continue seeking social justice by gearing up to fight her new administration. Go to the voting booth wearing a Bernie button or get a shirt that says “I can’t stand Hilary but Trump is so much worse I have to vote for her,” or whatever more clever formulation you might prefer. Better yet, organize everyone you know to do likewise.
Swanson says, “many lesser evilists claim to flip a switch within themselves after a particular period of time.” Really? Who claims that? Indeed, why would a “lesser evilist” have to “flip a switch”? There is no call to be an advocate and thus no need to flip to become a critic. A “lesser evilist” should be a critic all the time.
I have no problem railing against the ills of Clinton and the Democratic Party when I vote to stop Trump, just like I have no problem railing against Pharmaceutical companies when I take a pill that keeps me alive, or railing against banks when I make a withdrawal. We are all capable of that much subtlety, aren’t we?
Swanson summarizes his main argument, “It’s not that lesser evilism isn’t logical in a voting booth. It’s that it never ever stays within a voting booth. It poisons political activity every day of every year.”
Does it? I don’t feel poisoned. Nor does anyone I know. I think Swanson is blaming strategic lesser evil voting for the left lacking coherent vision, effective organization, mutual aid, and so on – despite that there is no correlation whatsoever between those problems and whether someone strategically voted lesser evil in some election.
When all is said and done, unless I am missing something, Swanson’s claim is that voting for Clinton in a contested state will inexorably degrade the future of that voter away from radical activism and toward liberal passivity, and that the cost of that transition for that voter will outweigh the gain of one more vote against Trump in a close race in a state on which the election may hinge.
Well, wait a minute. Why is degradation of future involvements considered inevitable? Can’t we can agree that a half a million more votes for Clinton in a contested state, where each of the half million voters actually favors Sanders or Stein, or whoever else, but votes for Clinton to help stop Trump despite despising what Clinton stands for, and who will also not lose a moment in continuing to fight for social justice after Clinton is elected, is better than the same half million not voting for Clinton, Trump thereby getting elected, and then the half million fighting on, but now in context of Trump in office?
If you don’t see the former possibility as vastly better than the latter, okay, I guess we should just agree to disagree. But if you agree about that, then shouldn’t we pursue the better dynamic rather than assume it is impossible?
Why should we believe that people who would like to vote Stein or Sanders because they understand how bad not only Trump but also Clinton is, and who would also fight on if they did so – would not be able to vote Clinton while excoriating her and then fight on just as hard? I can do that. I bet Swanson can do it. I agree that some pressures work against this marginally complex stance, but if the message of writers like Swanson and many many others was that we should vote strategically for Clinton in contested states and then fight on, couldn’t we all could do that with no loss in our subsequent radicalism?
The psychological pressures Swanson identifies can be resisted. Why claim they are all powerful? What’s more, they aren’t even the only pressures operating. How many people who feel a drive to avoid voting for Clinton start to argue that Trump isn’t all that bad, which is the flip side of Swanson’s feared slippery slope?
Of course Swanson’s list of criticisms of Clinton is true and greatly expandable. But even so the gap between her and what she says, which is more of the same, and Trump and what he says, which is off the rails of anything we have seen in a half century, is huge. More, I think beyond the individuals, Swanson may be glossing a central point. The coming election is not simply about two people. It is about the whole array of actors who will compose a new administration, the constituencies the new administration will serve, and also the various constituencies its rhetoric and policies will empower to seek more gains.
Swanson writes, “when you elect a less evil candidate and do little else to improve your politics, the result is another election with a worse pair of candidates, both of them more evil than was the less evil candidate before.”
Well, not always, but it certainly may happen, and more to the point, things certainly won’t get better if we do little aside from voting. But that just means if we assume a person will continue as a social activist due to not voting for Clinton, but that the same person will become silent about injustice due to voting for Clinton, then we assume a strong case against voting for Clinton. But why the assumption?
Swanson says if we don’t vote strategically “we actually can swing this or some future election to an actually good candidate, if we put our minds to it.” This election? Really? And as for the next election, a whole lot of people voted strategically for Obama, I daresay, and that was followed by almost getting a good candidate, Sanders. And during Obama’s term, despite the notion that all radicalism would disappear, didn’t Occupy, Black Lives Matter, LGBT movements, and many others emerge?
Swanson writes, “we don’t have a lot of time to play around with. While neither Clinton nor Trump has promised immediate nuclear war, both are eager to risk it and to exacerbate the crisis in the earth’s climate.”
I would say both are interested in pursuing U.S. global supremacy and neither has evidenced prioritizing global warming as much as needed. But would Swanson really prefer Trump’s fingers on a nuclear trigger? And as to climate, Trump says let’s end regulations. Let’s build more coal plants. Let’s use more fossil fuels. He and everyone he is likely to put in his administration are cheerleaders for a race to disaster. Clinton says we should go well beyond what Obama has proposed which at least offers room for hope and activism. And the people Clinton would populate her administration with may be quite a bit better than her on climate policy. In any case, the idea that either Trump or Clinton is running with the actual intent of blowing up or melting down the world seems to me a bit exaggerated, even for Trump.
Swanson continues, “If we elect one of them, followed by someone else worse, we’re pretty well doomed.”
Really? Come November if one of them is President will Swanson tell everyone we are doomed, rather than that we can win a better future, but to do so we must organize and struggle more effectively than we have until now?
Swanson continues: “If we elect someone actually good either now or next time, who knows?”
Does Swanson think we can elect someone other than Clinton or Trump to the Presidency this November? If so, I hope he will make that case. If it was true, of course it would be the thing to do. It was why people supported Sanders. I wish I thought electing someone good this time was actually an option.
Swanson writes, “But 60% of the public cannot stand either Clinton or Trump. If a significant portion of those people back Jill Stein, she could mount a serious challenge and even win.”
Does Sanders believe that that has any chance at all of happening? I wish I believed it, but I don’t. I wish I thought Stein could win even one state, even the most liberal or most Green state, but I don’t.
Swanson writes, “Just saying you support her now while planning to turn against her in November would put her into televised debates with Clinton and Trump, thereby requiring both of them to speak to all kinds of critical issues they’d rather avoid.”
First, an advocate of strategic voting says in all but a relatively few states one should support Stein now and right through the election. In contested states, there would be no problem answering pollsters by indicating support for Stein, and then voting later, if need be, for Clinton. What I tell a pollster about who I like and what I tell someone I am chatting with about who I will vote for need not be the same. I doubt this would yield Stein an invitation to the debates, but it might help Green organizing for the future, which is excellent to do. But if it did get Stein into debates and then gained her so much support that it became plausible she could win, fantastic. One could then assess one’s strategic vote in that new light. What isn’t strategic is to decide now that we simply should not vote lesser evil later regardless of conditions.
Swanson finished, “So we arrive at two basic questions for your friend the former lesser evilist.” Not so fast, David. Not former yet, though maybe your final questions will do the trick.
Swanson asks: “First, do you see that non-electoral activism can be more important than elections?” My answer is yes.
He continues, “If so, are you willing to put your energies there?” Yes, of course.
And he adds, “if you stay focused on this election, would you support Jill Stein if you cast the only vote and effectively selected the winner by yourself?” Well, ignoring that that would be dictatorship, I get the point, and yes, of course I would.
Swanson adds, “What about if she only needed a few more votes to win?” Then I would vote and help get those votes as best I could.
And he continues, “What about if she had a slim chance?” It would depend how slim, at least in contested states. In safe states, it doesn’t matter if she has a chance or not – there is no reason not to vote for Stein.
And finally Swanson asks, “What about if a decent showing might help elect a good candidate next time around?” Yes, in non contested states, of course, since that would be the best option always in such states. But the premise is mistaken, I think, for contested states.
Here is why, and here also are some questions for Swanson or anyone arguing against strategic voting.
Do you think Trump winning, and his appointments occupying the White House, and the impact his victory would have on the national culture and mood would make it more likely that movements would seek substantive structural change during his term in office, and that, for that matter, his successor would be a really good candidate?
Or do you think that during Trump’s term in office activism would face severe restraints and also be largely about getting back toward something sane, albeit in our eyes still horrible, so that his successor would be a mainstream Democrat, leaving us where we would be if Clinton was elected now – but four or eight years later?
Do you agree that with Clinton in office dissent will be about getting beyond corporate domination, political misrepresentation, sexism, racism, etc. – but with Trump in office, dissent will forget about pursuing new social relations, revolution, or even just radicalism, while trying, instead, to hold the line against a drift toward fascism so as to get back to having a liberal in office, to then move on from there?
And that is if Trump doesn’t usher in, instead, a long reign of racist, homophobic, corporatist, and authoritarian devolution, dwarfing the ills of the past.