Does the lesser evil lead to less evil?

November 4, 2016

We urge our readers to vote against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton by voting for the independent left alternative to the two-party status quo: Jill Stein of the Green Party.

IF HILLARY Clinton is declared the next president on Tuesday, it won't be on the basis of the enthusiasm she generated during her years-long campaign. In the end, will be because so many millions of people feel revulsion toward Donald Trump.

Even some loyal Republican voters are ready to abandon Trump to vote grudgingly for Clinton. But the real tide of voting for the lesser of two evils will come on the other side of the partisan divide.

Millions of people who are part of the Democrats' voting base wish their party had a different presidential candidate. Many are much closer politically to the pro-labor, pro-environment, social justice campaign of the Green Party's Jill Stein. Yet the overwhelming majority will vote for Clinton in order to vote against Trump--casting a ballot for the "lesser evil" in order to defeat the "greater evil."

The disgust toward Trump--and the raw fear of what he would do if he somehow became president--is understandable. His campaign has been a horror show from start to finish. If he loses as expected, it will be a pleasure to see it end in humiliation on November 8.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on stage at the Democratic National Convention
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on stage at the Democratic National Convention

For millions of people, it seems like common sense that the world will be measurably better off if Hillary Clinton is president. Among those who see themselves on the left, whether more liberal or more radical, it's taken as a given that initiatives and struggles to make a better world will be more successful if the Democrats keep the White House.

But is this true? Does the election of the "lesser evil" lead to less evil in the coming four years?

It may seem like common sense, but history teaches us that the lesser evil has been responsible--in part or on its own--for some of the greatest evils inflicted on this country and the world: wars, occupations, racist violence, horrible oppression, crushed dissent. History also shows that social movements and struggles for change don't necessarily do better under the Democrats.

The problem with the logic of lesser evilism is that it distorts an understanding of what changes the world--because it forgets the most important lesson of the past, taught by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."

EVEN WHEN Clinton's lead in the opinion polls was wider last month, the chorus of voices preaching lesser evilism still rang out at top volume--and the loudest belonged not to Clinton's fellow mainstream Democrats, but to liberal and radical figures.

Some Democrats hope the tide of hatred for Trump will lift the party's chances of retaking the Senate and loosening the Republicans' grip on state governments--with the suggestion that Clinton and her party might be more likely to honor liberal promises if the election is a landslide. But the baseline appeal doesn't go much further than "Just not Trump."

Filmmaker Michael Moore--in an e-mail blast from asking for money, with the subject line "I never thought I'd vote for Clinton"--complained about the "progressive-leaning voters who aren't yet tuned in or fiercely committed to voting for Hillary Clinton."

Writing in the Nation, environmentalist Bill McKibben reeled off stinging critiques of Clinton, including her shameful silence as the courageous struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline faces repression--though, McKibben wrote, that shouldn't be surprising from a former secretary of state who "set up a whole wing of the State Department devoted to spreading fracking around the world."

"So why are many of us out there working to beat Trump and elect her?" McKibben continued. "Because Trump is truly a horror."

Okay, he truly is. But let's back up a minute.

IN 2008, liberal environmental advocates like McKibben were far more enthusiastic about the Democratic candidate in that presidential election. Barack Obama was clearly going to take energy policy in the opposite direction from the Bush White House and its cabal of Texas oilmen.

Eight years later, Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy has encouraged more drilling and exploration, to the extent that the U.S. caught up and surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer of hydrocarbons. His administration promoted the new and spectacularly destructive form of energy extraction known as hydraulic fracturing. The U.S. government's obstructionist behavior at international climate summits is essentially unchanged under a Democratic president.

In measurable ways, the "lesser evil" candidate from 2008 has presided over more actual evil done to the environment than his "greater evil" predecessor in the White House.

There have been some advances for climate justice activists to celebrate in the last eight years, including the blocking of the Keystone XL pipeline. But that victory was accomplished by people protesting in defiance of an Obama administration that was ready to let the project go ahead.

The same dynamic has played out on other issues--like immigration, where a president who came to office promising to pass comprehensive reform in the first months of his administration has presided over more deportations than all of the U.S. presidents of the 20th century combined.

And this is a clear example of a social movement that has been set back by having a Democrat in the White House.

In 2008, the immigrant rights struggle was still brimming with energy and confidence after the mega-marches that two years earlier stopped right-wing Republican legislation to criminalize the undocumented. But the movement has been far quieter under Obama, with mainstream liberal organizations seeking to work with their supposed ally in the White House.

The consequence is that the promise of reform--as qualified as the Democrats' proposals were--went unfulfilled, while Barack Obama became the deporter-in-chief.

WHENEVER SOCIALISTS make this case about lesser and greater evils, we're criticized for saying that there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans--or even that we hope the right-wing Republicans win because that will be better for the struggle.

Sorry, but you weren't listening.

If you've read at all, you know we think Trump is a dangerous bigot and reactionary who should be confronted by protest in every way possible.

If he were somehow to become president, the left would face profound challenges. The hardened right wing that gravitated around his campaign would be emboldened. And people even vaguely left of center would be demoralized by a general election vote that seemed to confirm the myth that the U.S. is an unchangeably right-wing country.

But our point is that the election of a Democratic president would present the left with different but also profound challenges--including mobilizing people to participate in struggle, despite the persistent belief that they have friends, however imperfect, in the White House.

Unfortunately, in drumming up support for the lesser evil against the greater evil, many people on the left lose sight of the other set of challenges. Thus, left-wing writer Arun Gupta, a principled and perceptive critic of the Democrats, nevertheless concludes in an In These Times article:

While Clinton, like Obama, is no friend of social movements, Democratic presidents must pay them lip service because they are the party's base. To Trump and his supporters, especially the Alt Right he has embraced, the Left is public enemy number one. He would crush progressive movements and overturn many of the hard-fought and partial victories over the last eight years, while rampaging across the planet with no check.

To start with, Gupta has written passionately in other circumstances about the worthlessness of the Democrats' lip service for achieving any tangible results. On the contrary, one of the most important challenges for the left is to overcome the perception that liberal promises are a signal of action to come.

Then there's the other end of the lesser-evil equation: the fearsome warning that the election of Donald Trump would lead to progressive movements crushed under the weight of state repression.

It's probably true that the U.S. president is the most powerful single person in the world--but that doesn't make them the only people with power.

Leaving aside the question of how Trump would get anything done in a federal government filled with even fellow Republicans who seem to hate his guts, the more important point is that progressive movements, built on the support and active participation of large numbers of working people, have the power to resist being crushed.

In U.S. history, episodes of reactionary frenzy and repression haven't required the presence of a Republican in the White House. The McCarthy era of anti-communist witch hunts took its name from a GOP senator, but the president as the era unfolded was Democrat Harry Truman. The FBI's COINTELPRO war on left-wing organizations spread dramatically under the liberal Democrats of the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Republican Richard Nixon, whose political career was launched as an assistant witch hunter to the McCarthyites, was forced under pressure from mass social movements to enact some of the more liberal measures of the second half of the 20th century.

Moreover, the biggest checks on the power of the American state and its imperial presidency came after Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal--a political upheaval that was ultimately an expression of social ferment driven by the antiwar and other social movements of the era.

Many of the restrictions on the power of the national security state that Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has quietly rescinded were put in place after Nixon's fall by his Republican successor, Gerald Ford, and a Democratic Congress, under pressure from below.

THIS IS the problem with reducing the question of the political direction of society to the single individual at the top of the U.S. state--or, for that matter, reducing the question of voting for the lesser evil to the 10 or 20 or however many minutes it takes to cast a ballot.

The larger point is how that vote narrows and distorts the political outlook of people who need to be a part of changing the world.

And let's not forget: Lesser evilism doesn't always take just 10 or 20 minutes. Michael Moore's missive for began with tales from his speaking events in Ohio to rally voters against Trump. Bill McKibben's Nation commentary talks about registering voters on college campuses in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Meanwhile, what was Hillary Clinton up to--perhaps even as McKibben was swallowing his opposition to the Democrats' record in order to sign up young voters?

CNN's Jeff Zeleny reported in late October that Clinton was "talking to Republican senators, old allies and new, saying that she is willing to work with them and govern. On the campaign trail she clings very closely to President Obama. She needs him to win the election. But she also is signaling she will be a different kind of president. She will work with [Republicans]."

To paraphrase Malcolm X from half a century ago, if you put the Democrats first, even for 20 minutes on Election Day, they'll put you last--and start talking with Republicans about how to work together. When the Democrats know they can count on their liberal base to vote for them against the greater evil, they move in the direction that inevitably feels more comfortable: to the right.

For these reasons, we urge our readers to take the time on Election Day to vote against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton by casting a ballot for an independent left alternative: the Green Party's Jill Stein.

The size of Stein's vote is important in registering left-wing opposition to a political system rigged to favor two pro-corporate parties. And it can advance the long-term effort to build an enduring political alternative that represents working people.

After that, we'll be a part of ongoing and future struggles--hopefully alongside Clinton supporters like McKibben. After all, he also promised in the Nation that "[t]he honeymoon won't last 10 minutes; on November 9, we'll be organizing for science and human rights and against the timid incrementalism that marks her approach."

That organizing will face new challenges, including the post-election extension of the logic of lesser evilism--that Clinton and the Democrats shouldn't be protested because they need to be given time to make good on their promises.

We should respond with the words of Frederick Douglass: "The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle."

Further Reading

From the archives