Some thoughts on “lesser of two evils” voting

Published online 24 March 2010.

Of all of the voting strategies commonly circulating in public discourse, the “lesser of two evils” voting strategy is best adapted to the two-party, majoritarian democracy which prevails in almost all electoral contests in the United States.  This is a very brief look at the rationality of the “lesser of two evils” voting rationale.

(conversation continued at Docudharma)

The issue of “lesser of two evils” voting comes up for me as an issue about the 2004 election more than anything else.  In 2008, as I recall, the candidates all promised us something, whatever it was that they promised us, but 2004 was a different case.  2004 featured a lot of discussion about what it would take to beat Bush — and so, somehow, the candidate of choice for the Democratic Party was John Kerry.

It may not have been John Kerry’s fault in this regard — but the popular discussion as regards the Presidential election of 2004 was about the “lesser of two evils” — how to avoid re-electing the catastrophe that George W. Bush had become.

“Lesser of two evils” voting offers a rational model: you vote for the lesser of two evils to avoid the greater catastrophe.  One can see from the catastrophe currently being experienced as the “global economy,” moreover, that we did not avoid the greater catastrophe.  Whether we could have done so under a President Kerry is perhaps a moot point.  It was obvious by the time of printing (2002) of Robert Brenner’s The Boom and the Bubble that the supposed economic boom of the 2000s was hanging by the thread of rising housing values — and then the housing values collapsed.  So there was an evil to be avoided — and we didn’t avoid it.

As we slog through 2010, moreover, it should be obvious that we are on the cusp of another collapse, and so at some point we can expect the subject of “lesser of two evils” voting to arise.  This logic seems to surface with the “health insurance reform,” too.  See Matt Taibbi:

It doesn’t matter, though. Should I decide to change my politics and become a conservative now that I’m exactly the middle-aged bourgeois/suburban tool I used to rail against, I can always vote Republican by voting Democratic. The new Democratic Party is an excellent substitute for the old Nixon/Ford Republican Party. They even passed Nixon’s vision of a health care plan. That there’s no Democratic Party left is a shame, but I guess one choice is better than none.

So Matt Taibbi thinks of the Democrats as the lesser of two evils now.  The Democrats are less evil than the Republicans, so vote for the Democrats.

That’s the preface.  Here’s the main topic.  The logic behind “lesser of two evils” voting is obvious: you vote for the Democrat to avoid electing the Republican.  I suppose there are people out there who believe that it’s important to vote for Republicans to avoid electing Democrats, too, although I can’t really see why they woudl adopt such a position.

The problem with “lesser of two evils” voting is that it cedes the high ground that can be gained from having expectations of government.  All the “lesser of two evils” really has to do is to be less evil — actually doing good does not have to be a prerequisite for obtaining (or maintaining) political office.  If you vote “lesser of two evils,” then, your politicians are beholden to you for nothing.

Moreover, this problem compounds itself.  As evils accumulate in the world, voters are increasingly motivated to slow down the compounding rate of disaster by voting, yet again, for the lesser of two evils.

Now, there are a number of progressives over at who recommend voting for the Republican to teach the Democrat a lesson.  The idea behind this voting strategy is accountability — never mind that the Republican may in fact be the greater of the two evils, you tell the Democrat that “if you do not vote for X I will not vote for you,” and then you withdraw your vote if said Democrat did not vote for X.  The consequence of such a position, however, is that you are then stuck with the hope of more years of Republican office-holding.  X had better be a very very high priority for you, therefore, for you to pursue such a strategy.

Such a strategy looks to me like a “send a message” strategy.  “Send a message” strategies are deeply flawed in that they always send the wrong message.  There are currently a lot of messages being sent to politicians in Washington DC, and I’ve sent my share of them: phone calls, faxes, letters, emails, and so on.  Politicians don’t get your messaages — thus Noam Chomsky:

“There should be headlines explaining why, for decades, what’s been called politically impossible is what most of the public has wanted,” Chomsky said. “There should be headlines explaining what that means about the political system and the media.”

Politicians view you as a member of a “demographic segment,” and appeal to you through public relations efforts.  The public, then, has been “sending messages” for some time now telling the political class what it wants, then — to no avail, as neoliberalism still rules the roost and as the games played with lobbyists in Washington DC don’t change either.  Thus the “send a message” strategy isn’t likely to work.  I suppose the currently-in-operation “send a message’ strategies could be better co-ordinated.


Optimistic voters would contrast “lesser of two evils” voting with the idea of “voting your own interests.”  Their theory is as follows: you vote for whomever is the best candidate, regardless of her or his chances to win.  The only way you’re going to get what you want from government is if you continue to demand it in election after election regardless of the consequences.

This is often a strategy adopted by third-party candidates, most of whom have an extremely minimal chance of attaining public office in the individual elections in which they are running for public office.  The subject of third parties needs to be discussed in a short excursus here.  Majoritarian politics grants “winner” status to the candidate with the most votes, so in electoral campaigns attention quickly shifts to that candidate seen as most likely to win, and to her or his most likely-to-challenge opponent.  Additional challengers are seen as detractors from the campaign of the lead challenger — i.e. as candidates of no consequence.  American politics has been like this since the election of George Washington to the Presidency.  The result has been a stable two-party system, with a very few exceptions in extreme cases.  The one extreme case that comes to my mind was the Presidential election of 1856, when the second party (the Whigs) disintegrated and a new second party, the Republicans, took its place.  But the disintegration of major parties in a two-party system is not a likely occurrence, and it took the issue of slavery to cause the Whig Party’s downfall.

Perhaps this is a side issue.  The “voting your own interests” strategy is not the exclusive domain of third parties.  The Democratic Party could in fact adopt a “voting your own interests” stance, as could the Republican Party.  This was in fact the primary stance of the Democratic Party during the mid-20th century, in the era of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.  These were programs which instituted populist Keynesian economic prescriptions during an era of expanding US economy.

For RULING political parties, of which the Democratic Party (in the United States) is one such party right now, the question of a “voting your own interests” strategy is one of whether it benefits the elite leadership of the Democratic Party to rule in the public interest.  The social programs of the mid-20th century were concessions to the public interest meant to sustain the growth of the American economy.  The “health insurance reform” bill is meant to sustain the profit margins of the insurance industry, and the relevant question here is one of whether the insurance industry and the public as a whole have interests which overlap.  And that, like everything else in debate, has to be shown, and not merely stated.  To me the bill looks like an invitation to game the system with a lot of loopholes allowing the insurance companies to do whatever they want.

So there are really two methods one can adopt to try to get to politicians to do what you want.  1) is to find some overlap between elite interests and yours.  2) is actually to have people in government to look out for your interests, as part of an overall strategy of founding a new historic bloc.  One can see that in light of the failure of strategy 1) a strategy 2) will be necessary, although daunting in its difficulty.


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