On the Fatal Synergy of ‘lesser of two evils’ Voting

A common refrain from liberals and some leftists during a Presidential election cycle is that even if we don’t like the Democratic candidate for President we should vote for that candidate because he (or in the present case, she) is the lesser of two evils when compared to the Republican candidate. What I’m not sure has occurred to liberals and leftists who think this is that conservatives make precisely the same argument to their peers. In 2012 I listened in on a conversation where a co-worker of mine was arguing vehemently in favor of voting for Mitt Romney, in spite of the fact that no one listening, including the person making the argument, liked Romney. My co-worker asserted that Romney was the lesser of two evils when compared to President Obama.

That last statement will undoubtedly sound preposterous to any liberal. This represents a failure on the part of liberals and leftists to imagine that the arguments we use to support voting for a Democratic candidate are often identical (excepting ideological components) to the arguments conservatives make to support a Republican candidate.

As the Republican party has shifted further right over the past few decades, the Democratic party has always been able to make this lesser of two evils claim even while the Democratic party itself shifts to the right.

By the same token, the Republican party can always represent the Democratic party to their constituents as being too left-leaning even when the Republicans abandon ideological space which is subsequently occupied by the Democrats. How else does one explain Republicans attacking Democrats as ‘socialist’ when the Democratic party’s current platform may be reasonably described as Reagan-era Republican…

This is the fatal synergy of lesser of two evils voting. Regardless of one’s party affiliation, the strategy of painting the other party’s candidate as worse that your own party’s poor candidate keeps everyone trapped in a two-party system that effectively functions as two sides of a single party, trading power across a narrowing ideological space that consistently moves to the right.

I’m neither a statistician nor a psychologist, but something I find consistently troubling about the lesser of two evils mindset in voting is that it both seems to greatly overemphasize the value of a single person’s vote while at the same time reinforcing the perceived necessity of playing on the winning team.

It seems to me that, statistically-speaking, one individual vote is entirely inconsequential on any scale much larger than that of a town. Votes are meaningful only in aggregate. The lesser of two evils mindset will always propose that votes should go to one of the two major parties, but consider, as Dr. Jill Stein has, what could be achieved if an alternative voting bloc could be formed.

Dr. Stein has just described one possible version of the winning team. Pity so few can imagine playing on it.

Perhaps the most fundamental thing to recognize in our current election cycle is that Donald Trump’s candidacy didn’t not rise out of a vacuum. Decades worth of conditions which have been contributed to, in part, by lesser of two evils voting, have brought us to a point in time where a classic Republican disguised as a Democrat (Hillary Clinton) is going to run for President against a fascist disguised as a Republican (Trump) who will be able to run to the left of the Democratic candidate on specific issues (like favorability toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership) while simultaneously proposing some of the most openly racist policies presently imaginable. Most think a Trump win will be horrific, as it’s likely to be. It’s not, however, unreasonable to be concerned about the different set of horrors we will likely experience should a) Clinton become President, and b) another more brazen fascist come along to challenge Clinton in 2020. The thread starting with the tweet below proposes a dire scenario.

If we’re really going to change the direction of politics in the US, and assuming the ballot box is the place to do it, we need to drop the lesser of two evils voting method, abandon the two-party duopoly and find the alternatives that best speak to our principles and beliefs, whatever they may be.

Related links:

Feeling Like You Have a Choice: the 2016 Democratic Primary in South Carolina


I lean strongly Bernie, but I don’t #FeelTheBern as others do. There are reasons for this which don’t qualify as content for this post since I’m not going to talk about why I support Senator Sanders. Whatever my rationale may be for favoring Sanders, (in spite of some misgivings) the point of what I’m about to type isn’t to say that because the issues are some such way, you should vote this way or that. The point is to not say that, especially when I don’t know, and cannot know, the minds of people whose experiences differ from my own.

Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary by a wide margin, and most of the credit for that margin goes to Black voters. The result was expected and Sanders’ concession speech was given not from a location in South Carolina, but in southeast Minnesota, where he’s warming up for Super Tuesday. According to the article linked above, Sanders said, “There’s no way we are going to lose Minnesota. I can see that. You are just too smart.”

While I have no reason to believe Sanders has any ill will toward voters in South Carolina, that statement reads poorly in its presumably unintended implication that voters in South Carolina are, shall we say, not smart.

As I read through my Twitter timeline I found Sana Saeed had asked a most pertinent question, (though not phrased as such) the source for this post.

I was able to respond to this tweet with something useful, having read moments before an editorial in the New York Times written by Charles M. Blow. Though the editorial predates last night’s primary by two-and-a-half weeks, it contains good insight into why Black voters might choose Clinton over Sanders. Blow makes a reference to condescension which, were such directed at me, I would want to resist too:

I cannot tell you the number of people who have commented to me on social media that they don’t understand this support. “Don’t black folks understand that Bernie best represents their interests?” the argument generally goes. But from there, it can lead to a comparison between Sanders and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to an assertion that Sanders is the Barack Obama that we really wanted and needed; to an exasperated “black people are voting against their interests” stance.

If only black people knew more, understood better, where the candidates stood — now and over their lifetimes — they would make a better choice, the right choice. The level of condescension in these comments is staggering.

The remark by Sanders about how smart he thinks the voters in Minnesota are strikes me as a more positively spun version of the same condescension.

The rest of the editorial by Blow is excellent, but I found in another respondent to Saeed’s tweet a more direct and concise explanation (paralleling Blow’s) for why Black voters in South Carolina were so overwhelmingly pro-Clinton. From Glen Ford and the Black Agenda Report:

Blacks are drawn into the jaws of the Democratic Party, not by ideological affinity, but in search of protection from the Republicans. This is an entirely different dynamic than an alignment based on thoughtful examination of political platforms. It’s not about picking a candidate or party that sees the world as most Black people do, from the left side of the spectrum, on matters of social justice and peace. Rather, the overarching objective is to choose a candidate from the Democratic wing of the Rich Man’s duopoly who is best equipped to defeat his or her Republican counterpart. Under these stilted circumstances, the Democratic candidate’s actual political positions become near-irrelevant to the Black primary voter, compared to the candidate’s perceived ability to win a national election. The question becomes, is the Democrat strong enough to beat back the latest offensive from the GOP? – which Black people perceive as an existential threat. In the grip of that mindset, the contestant that is richer, better connected to the party apparatus and more acceptable to masses of white voters is the better Black choice.

I have it easy. I’m a white guy with a decent job living in the Pacific Northwest. Who the next President is will have very little effect on me as a personal matter. My life will go on much as it has, and the fact I can have some confidence in that speaks to a characteristic of privilege I suspect may not be well understood. I’m not going to vote for Clinton in the Democratic primary when it happens in Oregon. I’m damn sure not going to vote for any Republican Presidential nominee when the general election finally arrives. But the fact I can choose among a variety of candidates—in either of the two major parties or from other parties—without much sense of having been backed into a corner where only one possibility may be conceived of, is surely a luxury which, if Blow and Ford are to be believed, many feel they cannot afford.

There’s an ideal world existing only in my head where people vote their conscience and principles. We don’t live in that world, but if we did it might look, from the perspective of a Sanders supporter, like this.

An Adventure In Twitter Debate: Totally Biased Edition Featuring W. Kamau Bell

Earlier today W. Kamau Bell posted the following to his Facebook page, sharing it on Twitter as a screenshot soon after.

Donald Trump isn’t a Republican issue or a rich people issue or a human issue. Donald Trump is a white people issue. Whenever Ben Carson says batshit crazy nonsense, Black people rise up, and let him know that he needs to STFU. Whenever Raven-Symone pops off, we put her cap back on. We even handled Rachel Dolezal for you. Yes, we also make jokes and come up with clever memes and hashtags, but at the core of all that is that we are letting these people know that they are embarrassing us as Black people. It is time, white people, for you to finally step up and recognize that you also (even more so) have a responsibility to your race. It is up to you to silence Donald Trump. Don’t just insult him and make fun of him. You have to connect it to your race, Recognize that he is embarrassing you as a white person. Simple snark won’t win here. You have to feel it. You have to use words like “as a white person” and “he is an embarrassment to my race.” Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else. Simply put, white people, come get your boy.

I wanted very badly to agree with all of the above because I do think Donald Trump is a problem, and a symptom (and symbol) of a much larger and ultimately more dangerous problem. I cannot, however, fully agree with Kamau on this, and when I tweeted my disagreement, hijinks ensued.

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