The Lesser Evil: Enemy of the Greater Good

The doctrine of lesser-evilism is an integral component of duopoly ideology, and it is therefore no surprise that it figures prominently in the political indoctrination of youth. The ASU State Press reports on a meeting of the institution's Young Democrats:
U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell joined state Reps. Ed Ableser and David Schapira in the meeting at the Tempe campus’ Discovery Hall Friday to talk to about 150 students concerning the elections, the economy, health care reform and the state budget. Each lawmaker stressed the importance of participation and called on the students to encourage their peers to take an active interest in politics. Mitchell said too many young people become cynical about politics at a young age, choosing not to participate because they are distrustful of both sides of the political spectrum. Many elections, he said, are a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils. [Emphasis added.]
According to the congressman then, youthful skepticism of entrenched authority is cynicism, but goading the young into accepting the hypocrisy of the powers that be in the interests of short term electoral gains is mature, practical politics. In their advocacy of lesser-of-two-evils voting, partisans of the two-party state and the duopoly system of government cynically cloak the negative and reactionary character of Democratic-Republican politics in the mantle of pragmatism. One wonders how much longer the American public will tolerate a system in which the only "viable" candidates for office are admittedly evil. There are, however, signs of resistance to lesser-evilism. At The Examiner, William Powell asks:
Why do we have a lesser of two evils mentality when it comes to many decisions in our lives? This defensive decision making mindset sets us up to be victims of life, and, for many of us, our destiny rests solely on the lesser evil. Does this sound like living life or merely surviving it?


AnarchyJack said...


While I'm against duopoly thinking, I'm not sure that in the short run the people aren't better off to pick the lesser of the evils, particularly since the greater evil will always do more damage.

In 2000, Rage Against the Machine had a video in which George W. Bush and Al Gore were sent by aliens to confuse people: they looked and sounded exactly alike. It was a popular sentiment that they merely gave voice to. I voted for the Libertarian candidate that year, not that it mattered; I was in a Republican state at the time (and it wasn't Florida).

The Bush era brought us to a constitutional crisis: warrantless wiretaps and invasion of private electronic media (fourth amendment crisis). A kid from Utah was threatened with prison for selling T-shirts online that said, "King George: off with his head!" (first amendment crisis); guns were seized after Hurricane Katrina (second amendment crisis) Finally, there was torture (sixth thru tenth amendments crisis). For all of this, the Republicans have been disturbingly unapologetic, some going so far as to call for Democrats to be investigated for being "un-American."

What were those of us who knew we had to bring a stop to this to do? Were we supposed to quietly hope for a non-duopoly party to emerge to wrest power from the Republicans, or should we have voted--as most of us apparently did--for the lesser evil?

The corporate bailouts that started under Bush have continued. Extreme rendition continues. It looks like the health care push is about to be derailed. Obama is ramping up the Afghan theater without clearly articulating a goal.

But we're on our way out of Iraq. Torture has stopped. An investigation is going on into alleged abuses and torture. People bear arms and openly threaten his life without having to fear arrest--clear evidence that even people who despise him know he'll respect their first and second amendment rights (in fact, they're counting on it).

That being the case, when things get as bad as they were after 9-11, I'll pick the lesser evil any day.

d.eris said...

You make a good point, but I would note that most of what was accomplished in the Bush era was done with a significant amount of Democratic support or at least with their tacit consent: the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the creation of the DHS, "enhanced interrogation," etc. To this list one could also add long-standing bipartisan support for things like the war on drugs, or for the interests of corporations over those of the public etc. From that perspective, I don't see how the Democrats are "the lesser evil."

On the other hand, it should be noted that Bush era Republicans were themselves elected as the "lesser evil" by many on the right, who, one would hope, don't think the radical expansion of government powers we witnessed under the Bush administration is the solution to the problem of "big government."

I don't see overcoming lesser-evilism as a partisan issue. Everyone would be better served if we ceased supporting one evil over another across the board. But it takes time to break such bad habits.

Sam Wilson has some interesting thoughts on this issue, maybe he'll chime in.

Samuel Wilson said...

In the particular context, I warn people not to assume that President Gore would not have invaded Iraq or taken other constitutionally questionable steps following the 9/11/01 attacks. Hindsight tends to discredit anyone who didn't vote for Gore in 2000, but unless Anarchy Jack can show how he could know what Bush would do after the attacks before they happened he shouldn't regret the principle behind his vote, however much he now regrets the result. That's the chance you take in every election.

Lesser-evilism is a politics of fear. Anarchy Jack may argue that his is now an educated fear, but if it results in unconditional support for the Democratic Party it has little long-term value if it does not result in the destruction of the Republican Party -- which it won't. Lesser-evilism in a bipolarchy should work as a perpetual check on excesses by either major party. We can all see how well that's worked. There's also a kind of fallacy at the heart of lesser-evil thinking: the idea that only one outcome is so bad that it's intolerable. That thinking often compels us to tolerate more than we should.

AnarchyJack said...

You are correct that there was tacit support among Democrats. However, there is a pattern of employing the "Goering" tactic in the Republican Party, dating back to Joseph McCarthy, when he used the "red scare" in the same way that Bush used the fear of terrorism.

Hermann Goering observed that it was easy to get the people to do what their leaders wanted: all you had to do was convince them of a threat from without and denounce the pacifists for a lack of patriotism, leaving the country vulnerable to attack. "It works the same in every country," he said. Those who favored reason over the disastrous Iraq invasion included (but were not limited to) like Russ Feingold, Dennis Kucinich and Barney Frank, but no Republicans or conservative leaning independents, though Ron Paul chided them for it during the Republican Primary Presidential debates.

Sam, I'd hardly call what brought me to the ballot box fear, educated or otherwise. I was pissed. They never caught bin Laden. They said there were WMD and none were ever found. It has since come out that intel existed at the time that proved speculation of WMD false. Even a Republican Poli-Sci professor that I know admits that what little Al Qaeda activity that there was in Iraq--the evidence for which is all anecdotal--had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Finally, I don't want people being tortured our country's name. It has perhaps cost us more in diplomatic capital than Powell holding up that vial of anthrax at the U.N. and Bush summarily telling the U.N. to screw itself, combined.

In an ideal world, all three of us could sit back with a bag of popcorn until both sides punch themselves out. In reality, we're going to have to use them against each other if third party ideology is ever to move beyond discourse. The Republicans are a fractured party, represented only by their most extreme elements. The Democrats are about to exhaust all their political capital on health care. It's the perfect time for third parties to rise, and frankly, this couldn't have happened if independents had sat on their hands and let John McCain win the election.

d.eris said...

I think the focus on the presidency can be a distraction for third party activists. Duopolists are fond of arguing that because a third party candidate will not likely win a presidential election any time soon, all third party activism is a waste of time.
We are in a really bad way when the strong argument for the Democrats is that they don't explicitly endorse torture.
I would agree with Sam though that there is an element of fear in the lesser-of-two-evils mentality, isn't that exactly the point? i.e. unless everyone chooses the lesser of two evils, the greater evil will win. Ironically, this logic motivates people on both sides of the duopoly divide.
I like the point that, "we're going to have to use them against each other if third party ideology is ever to move beyond discourse." I've been thinking about this off and on for a couple months. What possibilities do you see in this regard?

AnarchyJack said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you on this Damon, but I think one of your recent posts illuminate what I would have suggested. In your post, Toward a Green-Libertarian Alliance, we see signs that two poles (virtual opposites)have realized their third party alliance can be used to draw independents, both right and left, away from the duopoly.

This required a fracturing of the Republican party. The talk of Joe Scarbourough, a moderate, as a presidential hopeful, suggests the Republican party hopes to move away from the Christian right as a dominating force in their national politics. Furthermore, the Democrats (typical) refusal to seize the moment on health care (they won the elections, afterall; what was to debate?) has left the progressives unwilling to lend any support to a health care bill that doesn't have a public option. Hence, both parties are now weakened.

The Greens and the Libertarians have seen this. A broader, third party coalition will be necessary to make it competitive with the duopoly; not just Greens and Libertarians, but any and all third parties that these rising political groups can get to join them.

We stand a very good chance at "buying" our government back from the corporations and the special interests, but it will take our dollars as well as our activism. The Obama campaign model for citizen activism can be engineered to work for a third party coalition, assuming a firm commitment by all parties to end duopoly and corporate control. It will also require media (radio and television as well as web sources) to advance the third party

Looks like the iron is hot Damon. It's time to strike!