Many say, faced with Trump and Clinton we should vote for whoever will do less harm. Many others reply that lesser evil voting ”selling out,” ”shilling for Clinton,” or worse. The critics offer at least seven reasons.
1. Clinton is not the lesser evil.
Even if we consider just Trump and Clinton, not their full teams and campaigns, their differences are too glaring to justify this claim. But we should consider factors beyond the candidates, as these are just as important as the candidates themselves.
Elected President, Trump’s newly empowered voters would demand that Trump pursue what he promised – unrestrained military and police power, white resurgence, male dominance, immigration fascism, new judges in Scalia’s image, and an end to the Paris climate deal.
At the same time, Trump’s corporate sponsors and even his corporate opponents would no longer worry about Trump subverting their agendas by losing in a landslide. They would gleefully expect Oval Office Trump to pursue their most aggressive profit maximizing and power centralizing desires.
In contrast, Clinton would take office supported by a hopeful electorate expecting and perhaps even demanding serious gains for working people, women, minorities, and the ecology. Clinton’s financiers would favor corporate priorities, of course, but they would feel way less aggressive than if Trump was their Commander in Chief.
For those reasons, even if we ignore that Trump and his allies literally laugh at the prospect of frying the world, I find it hard to believe many leftists sincerely think that blacks, latinos/as, women, gays, lesbians, trans, and working people of all backgrounds, as well as repressed, colonized, uprooted, starving, and bombed folks world-wide would suffer less under Boss Trump than Boss Clinton.
2. The worse things get, the faster they will get better. If Trump wins, progressives will multiply and win big gains. If Clinton wins we will hibernate.
First, even those who proclaim “worse is better,” don’t seem to believe it. Do “worse is better” proponents ever suggest that unions should urge employers to pay less and cut vacation days because worse policies will help unions organize? Do “worse is better” proponents ever urge the Pentagon to bomb more countries, courts to imprison more innocents, police to kill more bystanders, and corporations to spew more pollution because oppressive outcomes will help us win faster? The only time anyone argues “worse is better” is election time. The claim is too tortured and callous to arise in other contexts.
Second, regardless how few people sincerely believe “worse is better,” does the view make sense for this election? A boorish thug like Trump will certainly generate considerable resistance. But a boorish thug like Trump will also use his office to generate debilitating conditions for organizing. In turn, more difficult organizing conditions sometimes reduce activism more than more extreme provocations enlarge it. Beyond that, even if repression fails to deter activism, when the right wreaks havoc, hating the havoc mostly leads to trying to stem the new bleeding and get a liberal back in the saddle. The worse those holding power are, the better the lesser evil looks as an antidote.
In contrast, when a liberal is in office, resistance will more likely seek positive gains. Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and Sanders arose during the Obama administration, not during Bush. When people rage at liberal hypocrisy, their plausible path toward improvement leads further left. When people rage at conservative vulgarity, their plausible path toward improvement leads to liberals.
For these reasons, electing the greater evil not only callously disregards those who will suffer the consequences, it also leaps backward, creating additional distance to travel before significant progress again becomes possible.
Trump winning would anger many and aggressively escalate repression, racism, sexism, ecological dissolution, interventionism, and neoliberalism, as well as make the top agenda task of most dissidents to get some Democrat into office. If some things get worse, like climate change, we may not come back from it. Clinton winning would anger many but at most continue current repression, racism, sexism, ecological dissolution, and neoliberalism. It would make the top agenda task of most dissidents to pursue the Sanders platform and go still further left.
3. Who you vote for defines who you are. Voting for Clinton makes you liberal which is a slippery slope to becoming part of society’s problems.
I understand fear of this scenario causing someone in a contested state to vote Green or to not vote at all, rather than to vote Clinton and risk losing their integrity. But this scenario is easily avoidable. We know in the past people have remained as radical as they were earlier despite their voting for a lesser evil. Becoming a liberal is indeed a slippery slope to becoming part of society’s problems. However, voting for Clinton in contested states need not make a progressive or radical into a liberal.
Another indicator that the diminishing integrity scenario of lesser evilism is avoidable is to realize we opt for lesser evils all the time. We do it when we take a low paying job for a capitalist owner, when we abide the authoritarian arrogance of managers, when we obey racist laws, and when we purchase medicine from profit sucking disease abetting pharmaceutical companies. We make such choices not because they express our optimal desires but because they are less harmful than being unemployed, getting fired for being too uppity, getting shot for disobeying police, or suffering for boycotting needed medicine. But we don’t thereby necessarily become system supporters. And the same holds for voting for a lesser evil. If we do it with our eyes open, if we proclaim our horror at having to settle for evil at all, and if we relentlessly oppose all the evil, then we won’t become evil’s ally.
Where the slippery slope becomes a serious danger is when someone decides to celebrate lesser evil as if it was greater good. Even if someone does this as a mere tactic, just to be more rhetorically effective when combatting the greater evil, its dishonesty greatly elevates the risk of slip sliding away. The antidote is honesty.
I think Clinton is a horrendous agent of corporate and imperial power. I should say so. I think Trump is much worse. I should say that too. When needed in contested states, I will oppose Trump by voting for Clinton, but before and after I vote I will seek progressive gains that steadily improve prospects for winning fundamental changes in society. I should say that too, and I should do it.
4. If who you vote for becomes President, it will weaken your resolve to battle that person’s administration.
People rightly say that elections are largely a side show yet the same people often say who we spend ten minutes voting for, regardless of our reasons and our understanding of ramifications, and even regardless of what we publicly say about our beliefs and commitments, will define our future actions. I see no reason why that should be true.
Perhaps if most progressives say that voting for Clinton will preclude later opposing Clinton and do nothing to prevent that tendency from emerging, the belief could become a self fulfilling prophecy for some people. But to think weakened opposition is inevitable, is, as noted above, unwarranted. It could happen for some, but it doesn’t have to happen for anyone. We should not proclaim that it must happen. We should instead determine what steps can prevent it from happening. Indeed, we should determine what steps can ensure, as well, that the strongest possible opposition emerges from this election season, unlike from so many in the past.
5. Not voting your true preference, your conscience, jettisons real democracy for realpolitik. It tells us to game the system, not engage with it.
This view implies that what makes our vote true is that it tells directly who we really like. Our vote’s implications for all people’s lives is secondary. Suppose you believe that taking account of effects on others is unworthy realpolitik whereas expressing inner preferences without reference to effects on others is worthy democracy. Even so, when deciding how to vote or even what to say to others about how to vote, why would saying “I am voting Green because the Green candidate has views I prefer,” or “I am not voting at all because I don’t like either main candidate,” be a truer expression of self than saying “I can’t stand Clinton or Trump, but I believe Trump is worse and to help ward off his winning I will vote for Clinton in places that are closely contested, but I will also organize against Clinton’s administration on behalf of the changes I believe in”?
People say we must “vote our conscience.” I tend to agree. They add that to vote my conscience, since I despise Clinton, I have to not vote or vote for a candidate I like who cannot win even if it may make possible a great evil. I don’t understand that. Why coouldn’t to vote your conscience mean voting to have the best possible effect on people’s current lives and future prospects? Why shouldn’t it mean that?
6. Voting Green, even in contested states, will contribute more to desirable post election outcomes than voting Clinton.
This possibility depends on many variables. One way it would be valid is if the Green candidate could win. Another way would be if a massive Green vote, though falling short of victory, would evolve into such effective and sustained new relations, otherwise absent, that Trump facing the new conditions would do less harm than Clinton would do not facing that opposition.
However, for the upcoming election we know the foundation for effective future opposition extends vastly further than Green support. Why should any part of that potential opposition dissipate due to fewer votes cast for Greens in contested states? And why should someone who prefers Greens be less committed and radical after the election due to having voted or not voted Green?
Movements confronting a Clinton administration would operate on better terrain and would not be restrained by the public wanting a liberal to take her place. Movements confronting a Trump administration would operate on worse terrain, and face a public wanting a liberal to take his place. Worse, if Greens reject lesser evil voting, movements confronting Trump would also face intense hostility for having aided Trump, which could cripple their credibility.
Why wouldn’t informed opposition exist regardless of lowered Green tallies in contested states? Large vote totals for dissident candidates in safe states, including even for Sanders running in those states should he decide to do that as a Green or as an Independent, could bolster radical momentum even while all voters who were needed for the purpose of fighting off Trump in contested states did just that in the overall election.
7. The threat of progressives not voting for Clinton may get her to take better stands during the campaign.
What matters most, of course, is not rescindable campaign rhetoric offered by Clinton to attract votes, but post campaign policy undertaken due to pressure from non elites. Clinton moderating her rhetoric in the campaign has little impact unless movements can later compel the duplicitously offered campaign rhetoric to be implemented. I agree that progressives and leftists need to compel much better outcomes from Clinton, from the Democrats, and from elites, than each would otherwise implement. But the way to do this is to amass effective organizational power and wide popular support, both during and more so after the campaign.
For that reason, I believe we now mainly need suggestions for ways Sanders and all progressives can together help defeat Trump while simultaneously continuing to build a powerful, informed opposition prepared to fight after the election. That is what Sanders has said he wants to achieve, and it is what activists convening and meeting nationally, as in Chicago these past few days, seek. Here are five suggestions for Sanders and all of us.
- Sanders and the campaign could develop their own comprehensive platform. They fight for it at the Democratic convention, after the convention, and then after the election and into the future. Optimally, the program is continually updated by local and national discussion and exploration.
- Sanders and the campaign could opt to create a shadow government. Sanders could be its President…and diverse activists could serve as Cabinet Secretaries, Senators, and so on, perhaps even growing to set up shadow state governments, as well. The shadow government could use assemblies, teach ins, demonstrations, grass roots organizing, and media to galvanize popular support while revealing by its proclamations what a government for the people would do about every important government policy and situation.
- Sanders and the campaign could shift the campaign’s fund raising from supporting his run, and then supporting the run of Sanders allies, to supporting a shadow government and then also supporting a political revolution. His post election calls could say please give $x to support the people’s shadow government and give $y for this or that worthy movement or activist organization, moving from one supported recipient organization to another over the ensuing months.
- Sanders and the campaign could broaden and enrich his heretofore weak internationalism by traveling abroad to meet with worthy allies in other countries and express solidarity with victims of U.S. supported imperial policies. Imagine Sanders joining demonstrations against U.S. Military bases and drones or addressing immigration issues or demands for peace at major international demonstrations. Imagine Sanders and other shadow government officials speaking about the needs of soldiers and of local communities near their military bases, and proposing that such bases begin to benefit rather than diminish social good. Imagine them demanding the bases turn their energies to building inexpensive housing and sources of renewable energy for their hosts and for ex soldiers, rather than squandering energy in corporation-serving military bloat much less murderous mayhem.
- Sanders, the campaign, and then the shadow government could not only spread analysis and vision, but also a detonate activism. Sanders tirelessly repeats that neither he nor any other president could enact the political revolution he favors without millions of people organizing in streets and workplaces nationwide. Consistent with that, Sanders and the shadow government could call for national and international campaigns for higher minimum wages, shorter workdays, more paid vacation, debt cancellation, new social infrastructure, free health care, free daycare, free higher education, desirable affordable housing, nuclear disarmament, military reduction and retooling, inequality reduction, a war on global warming, and on and on.
These progressive steps could could accompany lesser evil voting. In that case, each would strengthen the other. Indeed, imagine millions of people going to the polls on Election Day to vote against Trump in contested states, all wearing a shadow government shirt to exhibit their true desires even as they ward off the threat of Trump.
Neither the above types of organizing or lesser evil voting would in any way compromise the other. Both Trump and Clinton and certainly their financiers would dread this combination strategy.
Trump would lose. Goodbye.
Clinton would wake up in early November as a lesser evil President. She would face unrelenting opposition. Hello.
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