The lesser evil doesn’t stop the evil

November 1, 2018

Colin Patrick and James Zeigler respond with their arguments against another reader who made the case for voting to support the Democratic Party as the lesser evil.

Questions About What’s Evil and What’s Not

Colin Patrick | I have some questions for Chris Wright, who writes in his Readers’ View (“Time to vote against the greater evil?”):

It’s worth noting that George W. Bush’s Iraq War probably would not have occurred had Al Gore been president, since Gore had fewer ties to neoconservatives and the oil industry than Bush and Cheney did. That is, a world-historic catastrophe that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and the destruction of a country quite possibly could have been avoided had more people voted for Gore over Bush in swing states in 2000. Is such a cataclysmic war worth preventing? I think so. Apparently critics of “lesser-evil” voting disagree.

How does the fact that congressional Democrats signed off on this war — supporting authorization of the use of force in both in Afghanistan and Iraq and the USA PATRIOT Act — factor into this statement? In fact, if the 82 Democratic U.S. representatives and the 29 Democratic senators who voted for the authorization of use of military force in Iraq had voted against it, the resolution wouldn’t have passed.

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Is the idea that the Democrats wouldn’t have signed off on the war if Gore were president and called for a strong military response to 9/11? That they would have opposed him more than they opposed Bush?

Or that Gore wouldn’t have taken a heavy-handed military response in the first place? If that’s the idea, then what do we make of the 2006 midterm elections, when a whole raft of “antiwar” Democrats swept into congressional office, only to end up signing off on Bush’s so-called “war on terror” again.

Or the fact that Bush’s wars became Obama’s without Obama even bothering to switch out Bush’s defense secretary. Or the fact that Obama expanded the Iraq war after running — and winning — in large part because of his stated position of opposition?

What about the Democrats over the last 17 years is supposed to give us confidence that they would have prevented a war they, in fact, supported and lent bipartisan legitimacy to at every opportunity?

Chris also writes:

Speaking of the 2000 election, the frequent denials that Ralph Nader contributed to Bush’s victory are nonsense. Bush defeated Gore in Florida by 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida. Had only 538 of the people who voted for Nader voted for Gore instead, there would have been no Bush administration and quite possibly no Iraq War. It’s a matter of simple arithmetic and shouldn’t be controversial.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

And yet it is controversial, because as this passage itself shows, it isn’t a matter of “simple arithmetic,” but a lot of very hypothetical reasoning.

For one thing, Gore lost Florida most immediately because he refused to contest the U.S. Supreme Court’s pre-emptive ending of the recount. And while 97,421 people voted for Nader in Florida, fully 191,000 self-described liberals in that state voted for Bush. That’s almost twice Nader’s total!

Why don’t we ever hear about that? Is it because this kind of voter-shaming should only be used against the left? And if so, isn’t that an example of the very same “ideological thinking” Wright decries elsewhere in his article?

And in any case, are we sure where those 97,421 people votes for Nader would have gone if he didn’t run? Being steadfastly against both parties was the whole appeal of Nader’s campaign. I doubt if even 50 Nader voters in Florida would have voted Gore in an exclusively Gore-Bush contest, instead of just staying home.

But again, this is just my own hypothetical reasoning against Wright’s. It might help if this was decidable by arithmetic, but it isn’t.

Chris also writes:

Of course, there were thousands of additional reasons why Gore lost, including perhaps the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his blandly centrist political positions, decisions his campaign made, and so on. But it’s mathematically provable that one of the reasons was Nader’s campaign in Florida.

I would argue that among the “thousands of reasons” why Gore lost, a central one must be the fact that despite being on all state ballots (which Nader wasn’t), being included in all the presidential debates (which Nader wasn’t), having served as vice president for eight years under a popular president during a period of (corporate) prosperity (which Nader didn’t), Gore somehow wasn’t up to the task of defeating a widely ridiculed Republican with only four years of experience as governor on his political resume.

If there’s an argument blaming Nader voters for all that, not to mention the cravenness of congressional Democrats during all eight years of Bush’s presidency, I’d love to hear it.

Lastly, there is this passage:

I’m not saying you should necessarily actively campaign for a Democrat just to prevent the Republican from winning (although that’s quite a reasonable thing to do if you don’t want the fascist to win). But surely it isn’t too much to ask that, on one day every two years, you cast a vote against fascism, and on every other day you get back to the task of building a socialist movement.

Suppose we do this. One day every two years, we vote Democratic in order to block the “fascist,” and every other day, we continue building the socialist movement. Suppose, also, that we’re so successful on all those other days that in five years, we manage to create an independent socialist party that polls, say, 10 to 15 percent nationally.

What will Wright’s advice to us be then? Because regardless of what we want to say about Florida in 2000, an independent party that has attained that level of traction will undoubtedly threaten to tilt any election in which it runs toward the Republican.

(I say “threaten” because, again, it’s not so simple; it’s not a guarantee, for example, that an independent socialist party would only take votes away from Democrats, instead of pulling them more copiously from the over 100 million eligible voters who sat out the 2016 election.)

Will Wright and others be happy about what we’ve been doing on all those other days of the year? Will they say, even more loudly and angrily than they do now, that we absolutely should not support our own party? That, indeed, our party is a menace that enables the right and shouldn’t exist?

The two things Wright proposes we do cannot be done together indefinitely.

I myself am in favor of building a genuinely independent, membership-based party of the left that is solidly rooted in workplaces and movements, knowing full well that this means passing through a phase where it is very likely to act as a “spoiler.” — because I recognize that, however much I or anyone else might not like it, there’s no other way out from the current situation.

Doing everything to avoid ever being a spoiler in any election means giving up the project of building socialism. Or maybe Wright doesn’t actually want us to continue to build socialism on all those other days of the year?

Exposing the Democrats Doesn’t Lead to a Break

James Zeigler | The running debate on the Democratic Party and this election cycle is certainly exposing some of the difficult issues that face not only the left, but society as a whole when it is forced to operate within the confines of the capitalist controlled two-party system.

What candidate or party should get electoral support to ensure the progression of our society/nation/economy/environment/etc.? The argument presented by Chris Wright (“Time to vote against the greater evil?”) is that we should vote to ensure the greater evil doesn’t take control — that the left has an obligation to defeat the current Republican establishment, even if that means making concessions on certain progressive positions for the “greater good.”

I wholeheartedly disagree with this position, but I fully understand it. The current political crisis is pushing us closer to catastrophic environmental collapse, catastrophic war, catastrophic refugee migration, economic collapse and increasing divisions among the working class, among a myriad of other calamities. It makes sense to take the position that we need to ensure that more liberal platforms (typically meaning just to the left of the right) see the light of day, and thus far, the only way to do that is to vote Democrat.

But this only illustrates, firstly, that no alternative party in the U.S. has been provided any space to build a base, other than a very brief period, and secondly that the Democratic Party’s role in this capitalist democracy is to ensure that the left stays with the party.

In his article, Chris writes: “If only Republicans were ever in power, people might think all problems could be solved just by electing Democrats, any Democrat. And that’s the goal they would focus on. When Democrats in power show how corrupt and oligarchical they, too, are, then anti-capitalist movements like Occupy Wall Street and the current widespread activism for ‘democratic socialism’ can emerge to push for systemic changes in the political economy.

“In this sense, Obama’s presidency advanced the political education of millions of Americans, who realized that electing centrist Democrats wasn’t enough.”

While I agree that when Democrats are in power, it can expose the oligarchy and hypocrisy of the party, but this will not, and has not, led the electorate to move towards or form an alternative party.

What we see are various forces that form to reign in bases that would otherwise potentially form another party, in order to ultimately direct their vote right back into the two powerhouse parties.

I think we need to begin building the alternative now, outside of the capitalist party system. That means building on issues — immigration, war, climate, housing, racism, LGBTQ equality, police violence, education, etc. — with real political depth, which are incessantly co-opted by Democratic candidates while running for office to ensure that the left stays at home with the Democrats, but which they later backtrack on or completely abandon.

While there has been much debate about topics such as if the left is too weak, I also believe that, no matter what the political climate is, an independent third party representing power from below is the only way toward a socialist society.

Class consciousness has not historically come from “exposing the hypocrisy” of either party — which has only served to reduce the number of voters participating and facilitated the alteration of the two parties in power.

People became increasingly upset with the “liberal” Obama administration, but this did not strengthen any movement toward the left or a break from the two-party system in the 2016 election. In fact, it helped swing states that had gone for Obama into Republican control!

I think it’s a mistake to assume that the general population is adverse to a socialist platform. I think it’s a mistake to assume that the only way to organize for a workers’ party is to grab the coattails of the Democratic Party, regardless of how “left” its campaign rhetoric might be.

I think our position should be of engaging with the base that is attracted to the Democrats because of that rhetoric. We can do more work engaging with that base on the issues, without any push for electing Democratic candidates.

I think the position of “voting against greater evil” is just the other side of the “lesser evil” argument, neither of which are enough for what we are facing in the U.S. and around the world politically.

Further Reading

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