Freedom ain't free

Against voting for the “lesser evil”

August 10, 2016

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.

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5 Comments

  • Reply cmac August 10, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Well spoken. If on the the other hand, none are qualified, then what. Sell the bubble gun as an AK all you want, GJ is no leader of men… nor is the green candidate. I vote for bureau of sabotage forthwith.

  • Reply Adrienne August 11, 2016 at 2:14 am

    In a recent local election in my area encompassing about 100,000 voters, the decision to fund or completely remove the local police department was decided (after a confirmed recount). by one single vote. Seriously.

    • Reply Editor August 11, 2016 at 6:13 am

      I grant that in a sufficiently small election one vote can decide the difference. That cannot be said in a statewide election for president especially, because the political mechanisms (the secretary of state, litigation, the legislature, and so forth) will take over within the margin for error.

  • Reply E Hines August 13, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I’ll be voting for Trump, not to be voting against Clinton but to be voting against the Progressivism for which she and those who will come with her into Government so enthusiastically stand.

    A Clinton election victory will bring with her a Democrat-owned Senate. We’ve already seen much of the destruction to which that will lead with Obamacare (with the help of a Democrat-owned House, to be sure) and the destruction of the filibuster–carried out in violation of the Senate’s own rules, because that’s the regard the rapidly leftward-moving Democratic Party has for inconvenient regulations.

    What will follow from this will be an activist Supreme Court with its avowed belief that the Constitution means what judges say it means as conveniently reinterpreted by them for modern times, rather than meaning what the plain meaning of the words say. This also will mean that Congress-passed and President-signed laws mean what judges say they mean, even if those judges must rewrite those laws to get to that judge-preferred meaning.

    A Clinton victory will mean an explicit attack on free speech: she brags about her litmus test for Justice nominations being their willingness, not to uphold the Constitution, but explicitly to overturn Citizens United. A Clinton victory will mean explicit attacks on the individual’s right to bear arms–even to have them at all. She wants much tighter regulation of firearms, not just more effective background checks (however implemented and data stored), and she wants outright bans on possession of “assault rifles”–whatever those are. Such a ban can be taken as only a first step. A Clinton victory will bring further assaults on religious freedom–because those with religious beliefs “will just have to change their beliefs” to fit the new reality.

    A Clinton victory will bring even further regulation of business–of free enterprise–under the guise of man-made global warming threats, unequal economic outcome “unfairness,” and–pick an excuse for extending government. As one of the founders of her precious Progressive movement has said

    To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of constructive national democracy. …the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.

    Aside from the obvious contempt in which a Clinton Government would hold its employers, this is the stuff of socialism. Great Britain and Sweden, to name just two, still have not dug themselves out of their generations of socialism.

    These things will be especially dangerous in light of the fact that she and her fellow Progressives refuse to say what their limiting principle is in any of this or for any of their other plans and goals.

    A Clinton term or two will have generations’ worth of damaging outcome, damage from which we may not be able to recover, either.

    Trump is no saint, and damage he may well inflict, also. But his damage, by the sort of damage likely, and from the politics of the thing, are unlikely to last much beyond a Trump term, or two.

    And, yes, that is the lesser evil.

    Eric Hines

  • Reply B A August 13, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    A very thoughtful and, on the whole, quite astute analysis, I think. (Admittedly, I came into reading this agreeing with the overall idea that, at least where one believes that the candidates who might plausibly win a presidential election are both grossly unfit for the job, discerning & voting for the lesser of two evils in not required. And possibly not even justifiable.) I think I might someone disagree with you on one signifigant sub-point, however: I’d argue that legitimacy of a elected* officeholder is conferred not by the fact that people actually cast votes for him or her (or even that lots of people voted in the election race that he or she won in general), but from the *ability and opportunity* of people to vote for him or her. If a town holds a free and fair election for city council in a year where there are no federal or statewide elections, and only, say, 6% of eligible voters turn out (sadly, in many places that’s not an unreasonable hypothetical scenario at all) , do the members of the council then have less legitimacy than they would if a much higher number of eligible voters cast votes for them? Does a freshman newly elected to Congress in an off-year election have less legitimacy in occupying that seat than if he or she were elected in a presidential election year that saw much higher turnout? Obviously, the answer I come to on questions like those is a solid no.

    But, as I said, for the most part I find your arguments here pretty compelling.

    *I also think that, under the right governmental setup, members of an entirely unelected body, like the Supreme Court, can still be legitimate in holding roles that exercise some important governmental powers. but that starts to get us on to a related-but-still-different topic. And I did not take your point about legitimacy as intended to necessarily get into the rightness or wrongness of the existence of some non-elected elements in important roles in some governmental systems.

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