If you are actually for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the sense that you are delighted the GOP or the Democrats nominated him or her and you look forward to the next presidency as the dawning of a new day — or, in the case of Hillary’s supporters, the afternoon of a glorious one — this post is not for you. You will find no affirmation here. If, however, you support one of them only to prevent the election of the other, and you are filled with trepidation that you will then own a catastrophe or with the sickness of the soul that comes with any expedient cop out, we are here to lift your burden and show you the sunlit path to voting for a candidate that you might actually support, such as Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or the equally respectable abstention at the top of the ticket.
There is the widespread view that in the electing of our next president, failure to vote for one candidate is effectively a vote for the other. The argument is essentially this: If A and B are detestable or unqualified, and if under duress to choose between only A and B you would vote for A on the basis that A is in some regard a “lesser evil,” or lower risk, than B, then any decision to vote for C is equivalent to a vote for B. See, e.g., this essay (“There is no such thing as a protest vote”) or around a grillion comments on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook pages. In short, the “lesser evilists” claim that the collective action required to elect a third party candidate poses an insurmountable hurdle, and that therefore such a vote is “wasted.”
There are both philosophical and factual — essentially utilitarian — reasons why this “lesser evil” calculus is just wrong. We will start with the utilitarian reasons, since they seem most persuasive to the despairing voters to whom we write this modest note.
The utilitarian argument against “lesser evil” voting
The utilitarian reason not to vote for the lesser evil is simply this: Your individual vote cannot, under any circumstances, affect the outcome of the election, so there is no reason not to vote for a candidate you actually like. Since this seems contrary to everything we might have learned from, er, politicians (and every-vote-is-sacred activists) we will take the argument from the ground up.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. If you live in a decidedly “blue” or “red” state, your vote cannot make a difference because if your state is in any way in play the national election will be a landslide. We exercise the great boon of the franchise in Texas, and if Texas is close Clinton will win an Electoral College landslide. The same applies if you live in roughly 40 other states comprising approximately 80% of the population that have voted for one party and not the other in every presidential election since the Reagan landslides.
But what if you live in a “battleground” state? Sad to say, your individual vote still does not matter. There is no chance that a state, even the decisive marginal state, will be decided by one individual vote. And by no chance, we don’t mean a super-small highly improbable chance, we mean no chance.
But what about Florida 2000?
Florida 2000 is exactly the practical proof that the outcome of a presidential election cannot turn on a single vote cast, and not only or even because the margin of Bush’s putative victory in Florida was by some indeterminate number bigger than one. The lesson of Florida, if we needed to learn it, is that there is a margin of error embedded in voting, and that there is no absolutely perfect counting of the results. Once an election is so close that it is within the margin of error, which is definitely more than one vote, political and judicial mechanisms kick in to determine the victor, who may or may not have received a plurality of votes cast and counted as such. Those political and judicial mechanisms are creatures of law and politics, and they do not necessarily arrive at the same answer as a theoretically perfect tabulation of ballots. Any individual vote, therefore, would never get to the point of significance at the margin, which is what matters.
But what about all those people who voted for Nader?
Lesser evilists of the left love bringing up Ralph Nader, who picked up more than 97,000 votes in Florida, presumably mostly from would-be Gore voters. (There were in fact no fewer than eight third-party candidates who collected more votes than the margin between Gore and Bush, but Nader and the Greens had by far the biggest tally among the also-rans.) Were not those third-party voters in some sense “responsible” for Bush’s election? Well, not individually. No one of them would have helped Gore. They only would have had an impact if they had acted collectively. But wait. Isn’t the collective action problem the big reason why a vote for a third party is “wasted”? You cannot magically erase the collective action problem in the case of Nader voters in 2000 and at the same time claim that it is insurmountable for a third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states. So it remains the case that no individual voting for Ralph Nader tipped the election to George Bush.
There is, therefore, no circumstance under which your vote can change the outcome of a presidential election, even if you happen to live in a swing state in a year when the national Electoral College majority comes down to a single state. That should make you feel a lot better. But it does invite an interesting question…
Well, then, why bother to vote at all?
Philosophers, political scientists, and the League of Women Voters have written vast tracts on the question of voting, whether it is a right or a duty, that every vote is sacred (which nostrum, by now, you should have concluded is basically a crock), and so forth. Our purpose is not to argue them all here, but to assert that among the many reasons for voting there is a dominant one: Voting is the act that gives democracy its legitimacy, and legitimacy is pretty much the only advantage that democracy has over other forms of government (there being no evidence that it is by its design less corrupt or more effective or efficient than than other systems). We believe our government is legitimate because we vote, and there is tremendous value in that. When you vote you help your country no matter whom you vote for, because you increase the legitimacy of the government that is eventually convened. And, it should be said, you as a citizen ratify that legitimacy by voting for someone you actually want to occupy the office in question, whether a major party nominee or your brilliant Uncle Fred. Otherwise, you are letting vested players in the system neutralize your sovereignty as a citizen.
(We should not pass this point without saying that politicians and activists who challenge or dilute the legitimacy of votes or elections with no real basis, such as Donald Trump in the current moment or bitter partisans following the 2000 election, are hurting the country rather than helping it. Richard Nixon was in 1960 more concerned with American greatness any of these clowns.)
Now that you are fully persuaded that your vote, as a factual matter, cannot change the outcome of the presidential election but that your vote nonetheless matters, we should consider the philosophical or, rather, logical objection to lesser evilism.
The logical objection to lesser evil voting
There is a logical objection to lesser evilism, and we might well have written it up in our own fancy words, but it seems much better to quote Christopher Hitchens, who taught it to us in an essay written about the Clintons back in the fall of 1996, when progressives were to some degree in the position of Republicans today (insofar as they felt betrayed by Clinton’s center-right triangulations). Apologies for the long quotation, but it makes for better reading than our poor effort to summarize it would do:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to each other,” wrote George Orwell in 1945, in “Through a Glass, Rosily,” “anyone who attacks or criticizes A is accused of aiding and abetting B.” He added: “It is a tempting maneuver, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest.” Orwell lived and wrote in a period when the pressure on intellectuals to “take sides” was ostensibly much more palpable than it is now, and when with that pressure came a surreptitious invitation to moral blackmail: the element that tells thinking people that the less adventurous the use they make of their ratiocinative capacity, the better. When the big decision has already been taken, what need of paltry misgivings? Who desires to be called a wavering intellectual dilettante when grand enterprises are on foot, and when the engine of destiny has gone to all the trouble of revving itself up?
In our time, of course, the great question has become more banal. It is most commonly stated as the theory and practice of the “lesser evil.” And, as argued in its conventional form, it has become worn as smooth as a stone. Thus A will exhort B, how can you vote for Clinton when…(list of betrayals and depredations follows) and B replies, without the slightest rehearsal, do you suppose that the right wing (taxonomy of depredations and fell intentions ready to hand) would be preferable? And that’s the whole exchange. And not just in a nutshell either, since the amount of time and of mental effort expended is usually less than it has taken me to set it down. However, as Prince Hamlet once exclaimed, one may be confined in a nutshell and still count oneself a king of infinite space. Folded inside the “lesser evil” argument, there is a worthwhile confrontation waiting to be enacted. The smooth stone can become an effective projectile, to be employed with care by either antagonist.
If one divides the contending parties into the purists and rejectionists on the one hand, and the pragmatists and lesser-evilists on the other, one can discover at once that neither really means what they say. Out of respect for Orwell, and for the sake of sheer convenience, let us call these respective debaters A and B for now. A does not really maintain that it makes no difference which party wins the election. It must be agreed for one thing that no outcome is identical to any other. Nor does A usually like to argue that it would be better for “the other side” to win, because it is that “other side” that anchors the concept of “lesser evil” to begin with. (There used to be a subset of A, which said with contempt that the worse things were, the better. Tanto pio, tanto meglia, as the Italian Red Brigades once happily intoned. But this faction no longer exists for our purposes.) Thus, B starts with the advantage of being able to address A in pitying tones, as if A had a lesson still to learn from that great moral tutor, “the real world.” Yet B would never be caught arguing in favor of permanent one-party rule, in the real world or any other. One-party rule does not work in practice or in principle. Why, then, does B argue that it is always better for the Democratic party to win an election, whether congressional or presidential, and that it always has been better? If the “lesser evil” argument is not an axiom, it is nothing. It cannot be true only some of the time, without losing all or most of its force. Furthermore, surely B would generally scorn anyone whose vote was, so to speak, mortgaged in advance. How can you be an autonomous and free citizen if your franchise is pledged to one machine, without conditions, whatever happens in the course of the election or in the conduct of the argument? (bold emphasis added)
In other words, “lesser evilists” are peddling a logical fallacy and are actually just unreconstructed partisans, which makes them narrowly oriented toward a result that benefits their tribe, rather than in the legitimacy of the government to come. There is nothing wrong with that orientation, but it does mean that “autonomous and free citizens” need not, and ought not, pay them any attention.
Where lesser-evilism has taken us
While we cannot prove it, we believe that the legitimacy of American government is in sad shape. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but among them is the idea that certain culturally influential or economically powerful interests have increased their stranglehold on the two major parties and alienated huge numbers of people, and (further) that the two major parties are the only device by which we may form a government. This alienation led to the Sanders insurgency and the Trump revolution, and it will not go away when Hillary wins in November, as she will almost certainly do. We believe that lesser-evilism has played a major part in bringing us to this sad place, because it confers greater legitimacy on the winners of elections than is otherwise earned or warranted. If you deplore our state of affairs, ask yourself whether casting your vote for the “lesser evil,” which cannot affect the outcome of the election, will have the unintended but real effect of increasing the legitimacy of the winner (if by an individually small amount) and thereby strengthening the control of the elites over the parties and the parties over the citizens that confer legitimacy on our government. The answer is to vote your conscience, and confer your legitimacy as a citizen only on leaders who have earned it.