When You Say “Lesser Evil,” Do You Mean It?

Confronted with the cesspool of U.S. electoral politics, those who desire a more just world frequently debate whether we should vote for the “lesser of the two evils” or instead vote for a third party candidate. The debate has again raged throughout the toxic 2016 election cycle, especially once the major party choices narrowed down to a fascist demagogue and a more traditional neoliberal militarist. The most common opinion among progressives, it seems, is that those of us in “swing states,” where the outcome is uncertain, should vote for Hillary Clinton as the lesser evil.

I don’t take issue with that basic logic. In my view, lesser-evil voting sometimes makes strategic sense, if indeed the lesser-evil candidate is likely to be less destructive. Clinton, at least, will not give explicit encouragement to neo-Nazis and lynch mobs.

My problem is with the form of many lesser-evil arguments. While advocating a “lesser-evil” vote, many liberals and progressives sow illusions about candidates, fostering the belief that they will advance popular interests. They forget, or intentionally obscure, the fact that the lesser evil is still evil. That is, they don’t really believe their own label. By sowing illusions, they harm the prospects for independent movement-building.

Hillary Clinton’s past record is clear. It is one of service to big business and the wealthy, imperialist military intervention and support for repression overseas, tacit (and sometimes not tacit) reinforcement of white supremacy and patriarchy, and destruction of the planet. Once she’s elected, she will undoubtedly kill and otherwise harm millions of people, if perhaps fewer than a President Trump.

Liberal and “progressive” pundits often ignore or downplay these basic facts. Joan Walsh at The Nation characterizes her own support for Clinton as a courageous feminist stance, a bold rebuke to naysayers on the left. She recounts how she recently “came out of the closet as a full-fledged Hillary Clinton supporter. And this time, as opposed to 2008, I’m backing her without apology, as the right and even radical choice. More than without apology; after 40 years of voting for male presidents, I’m supporting Hillary with excitement, even joy.”

Walsh’s colleague at The Nation, Katha Pollitt, even argues that Hillary Clinton “is a feminist” and is “much more than just the ‘lesser evil.’” She lists over a dozen areas in which Clinton would allegedly usher in major progressive changes. Among Pollitt’s most misleading arguments is the claim that “Hillary, who is superbly knowledgeable on a wide range of issues, will nominate and appoint progressive, competent people.” Clinton’s cast of right-wing foreign policy advisers and early appointments of TPP and fracking advocates to top positions make that prediction misleading, to say the least.

The Nation’s editorial board was only slightly less effusive in its recent endorsement of Clinton, claiming that their candidate “has championed the rights of women and girls on the global stage for more than 20 years.” Presumably, the women and girls killed by U.S. bombs or by U.S.-backed dictatorships are irrelevant to such judgments. While the editors criticize Clinton’s “hawkish habits,” her record of death and destruction is mostly just a detail, a caveat reminding us that we’ll need to “push” her once she’s elected.

The magazine’s editors contend that “she seeks the presidency as a supporter of action to address climate change, criminal-justice reform, LGBTQ equality, respect for immigrants, debt-free public higher education, the expansion of Social Security, a public option to challenge health-care profiteering, and a great big hike in the minimum wage.” It’s true that Clinton has spoken about those things on the campaign trail, but in practice she has been a strong supporter of mass incarceration, immigrant deportations, and the parasitic interests that comprise the financial, fossil fuels, and healthcare industries. Perhaps she can be restrained if confronted with massive popular pressures, but there’s no justification for painting her as a sincere “supporter” of those progressive causes – particularly when her delegates actively fought to obstruct progressive changes to the Democratic Party platform this past summer. Labeling her a “supporter” whose “values are largely in keeping with ours” fosters the illusion that she will actively seek progressive reforms – we just need to nudge her a bit.

The Nation editors also assert that a Clinton presidency will “empower” progressive movements. This theme is common in liberal commentary: we’re told that putting a Democrat in office will open up opportunities for the left. In an article titled “Yes She Can,” Michael Eric Dyson foresees a mutually beneficial relationship between a President Clinton who “learn[s] from” the Black Lives Matter movement “and in turn teaches them a thing or two.” Yet eight years of a “hope and change,” “community organizer” president have hardly empowered progressive movements. From the outset, the Obama administration was uninterested in building genuine grassroots organizing efforts, and even actively derided and repressed such efforts. The impressive movements that have arisen since 2011 – Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, anti-pipeline organizing – owe nothing to the Democrats and have been directed in part against administration policies.

The Nation editors tack on some vacuous praise for Clinton’s personal qualities and experience: “Over the course of her public career, Clinton has more than demonstrated her intelligence, tenacity, ferocious work ethic, and seriousness of purpose.” Those characterizations are accurate, but meaningless. Like the exceptionally crude argument that being a woman will make her a good president (“you want a revolution, elect the first woman president”), those statements say nothing about whose interests – and which women – Clinton’s intelligence and tenacity will be deployed to serve.

Liberal Clinton supporters have been detrimental to progressive movement-building in many other ways. They have smeared progressive critics as naïve kids and conspiracy theorists, and have attributed all criticism of Clinton to sexism. They’ve implied that progressive critics of Clinton are racist because voters of color supported Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primaries. They’ve fumed that criticism will only empower Donald Trump, that “now is the time to be quiet.” They’ve invoked socialist feminism to justify support for Clinton, potentially delegitimizing – by association – a proud radical tradition in the eyes of many people. They’ve dismissed the white working class as uniformly ignorant and barbaric, wrongfully blaming it for Trump’s popularity; in so doing, they’ve cast white workers as uniquely racist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic, thus writing off a constituency that the left should be trying to organize.

The deception is often intentional. As Katha Pollitt explains, it’s hard to get people excited about voting for a “lesser evil.” One must avoid calling the lesser evil by its name because “excitement matters in a campaign. It means donations, volunteers, spreading the word, firing up your friends, and actually making the effort to register and get to the polls.” The logical extension of Pollitt’s argument is that people must be misled if they are to turn out and vote for the lesser evil. Deception is especially necessary given that the lesser-evil party can offer few meaningful reforms and is thus “intent on driving down expectations” (not on making “incremental reforms,” as apologists characterize the Democrats’ approach).

That implicit cost-benefit logic is morally and strategically unacceptable. Sowing illusions about a lesser evil entails a very high cost, since those illusions impede the growth of the independent, illusion-free mass movements that we desperately need. The latter task is more urgent and more potentially meaningful in the long run, but is compromised for the short-term “benefit” of electing someone who will inevitably disappoint.

The debate about how we should vote is far less important than the broader debate we should be having on the left: How do we maximize the potential for meaningful progressive reforms while building radical movements that will abolish the plutocratic, oppressive systems of rule in this country? In a political system where the public’s preferences have “little or no” statistical impact on policy, voting is one of the least important political acts in which we can partake. Even voting for a third party is quite trivial as compared with efforts to build mass movements, which will in any case need to be very large and powerful for any new third party to gain a following. In my own view, movements should pay far less attention to electoral and legislative politics and instead organize people to directly confront the institutions – banks, corporations, the military, law enforcement, and so on – that control government policy and so much of our lives.

But how we talk about electoral politics does matter. Sowing illusions about the lesser evil does great harm to the movement. Instead, we could be reaching out to the tens of millions of progressive people in this country – many newly politicized by the Bernie Sanders campaign – and constructing the independent organizations, political platforms, and alternative institutions that can empower and unite them, free of illusions.

Kevin A. Young teaches history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 


  1. Tyler Healey October 20, 2016 12:38 pm 

    “In my own view, movements should … confront the institutions … that control government policy and so much of our lives.”

    Why not just confront the government? The Occupy movement confronted Wall Street. It didn’t work.

    • avatar
      Kevin Young October 20, 2016 2:36 pm 

      Occupy was more successful than equivalent energies devoted to electoral/legislative politics by labor, NGOs, and the left during the Obama era. But its primary effects were expanding the visibility and coherence of anticorporate sentiment and contributing to popular politicization and movement participation, rather than directly achieving a change in Wall Street or government policy. Why not just confront the government? That’s been the dominant approach by liberals, progressives, and leftists for at least the past several generations, and it has yielded pretty poor results. For a fuller elaboration of the logic behind targeting corporations and government institutions see https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/social-movements-fight-for-15-occupy-civil-rights/, as well as the longer paper hyperlinked at that page.

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