The progressive and dissident left in the US are again being deluged with arguments to vote for the lesser evil candidate… It has become such a standard left argument at election time that lesser evil voting even has its own acronym: LEV.
By Jonathan Cook
Published on the author’s own website, May 23, 2020
We are entering the final stages of the election to decide who will head the most powerful nation on Earth. That inevitably means the progressive and dissident left in the US are again being deluged with arguments to vote for the lesser evil candidate.
It has become such a standard left argument at election time that lesser evil voting even has its own acronym: LEV. Anyone who opposes Donald Trump’s re-election come November must set aside their concerns about – and if necessary their principles against – voting for the other main candidate on offer for US president.
According to LEV, it is profoundly irresponsible and unethical for anyone on the left either to refuse to vote in November or to vote for a third, no-hope candidate because it risks aiding a Trump victory. Instead the left must cast a ballot – however uncomfortably – for the lesser evil candidate, which means Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic challenger.
This column is not going to make an argument for or against lesser evil voting, either in general or in the coming election. Everyone on the left must dig deep into their conscience and make a decision based on their assessment of how relatively evil Biden and Trump are, and whether that evil will be minimised by voting for Biden.
What I want to do instead is address why lesser evil arguments are sounding increasingly shrill and hollow to many on the left who fought so hard to earn Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination rather than Biden, but were once again stymied by the fervent opposition of the Democratic party leadership. These are the people chiefly targeted in the current round of lesser evil arguments.
If the proponents of LEV are going to succeed in persuading the Bernie left to turn out for Biden, in order to stop Trump, they are going to need to address the concerns of the Sanders’ camp much more clearly and articulately than they have done so far.
Don’t wrestle with pigs
One thing that is clear already is that the appeal of lesser evil voting is becoming increasingly generational. Older leftists think it is self-evident that within an evil system you vote for the lesser evil candidate because small political differences can have big impacts, whether on domestic issues like social security, or on wars abroad, or on the future of the planet.
Their approach towards younger voters on the left who are not immediately impressed by this logic has often been to shame and insult them, labelling them as selfish, ideological purists or exemplars of white privilege. They have also indulged in what looks to many younger voters suspiciously like emotional blackmail, comparing Trump to Mussolini or Hitler.
This attitude is often, if not always, a clear expression of white privilege on the left, I’m sorry to say.
Who gives a shit about Yemenis separates from their families. Who cares about brown kids who’ll stay stuck in detention. Who gives a shit about the rise of neo-Nazis.
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) February 5, 2020
To the younger left, things look a little more complex and paradoxical. They tend to see lesser evil voting as an example of the chicken-and-egg problem. After all, given that the older left has been trotting out the lesser evil argument for decades, it looks suspiciously like LEV may have actually contributed to the entrenchment of an evil political system that made Trump’s election possible. Are the proponents of lesser evil voting not creating the very conditions for political alienation that they then tout as a way to address the product – Trump – of that very political alienation?
If the US has a cynical political system, deeply corrupted by money, younger voters wonder whether adding to that cynicism – with the left always voting for one of two evil candidates – can actually ever change the system or simply reinforces it. The older left has failed politically. But might one of the reasons be that for decades it has acted so cynically? Younger voters want to break with cynical politics. If the left is ever going to start looking more attractive, they argue, it needs to stop engaging cynically with a cynical system.
George Bernard Shaw’s maxim comes to mind: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
Walmart or Costco?
Very much related to this is the concern that decades of voting for evil Democratic candidates mean the progressive left has not just failed to hold the line politically, election by election, but has actively lost ground, especially relative to the biggest problem facing humanity – the imminent end of most life on the planet. The clock is ticking fast, and it is evident that neither candidate is actually going to do anything substantive to save us from ecological catastrophe. The system is entirely owned and controlled by a plutocratic class, addicted to the expansion of its own wealth, even at the cost of our species’ survival.
Lesser evilism focuses on the candidates’ relative merits and depravities. But younger voters increasingly see that as misdirection. The two evil candidates reflect the depravities of the same evil plutocratic system. On this view, the candidates’ marginal differences are nothing more than exercises in marketing. Debating their merits in relation to the fundamental, existential questions facing us at the moment makes as much sense to younger voters as arguing whether Walmart or Costco offer a more ethical model of consumption.
Meanwhile, the two candidates on offer in this election are probably the most deficient and incompetent in US history: one is a fire-breathing, posturing, delusional narcissist; the other the dried-out husk of a once smooth-talking, delusional narcissist. Each is proof that the evil system they are there to obscure has grown so sclerotic, so debased, that it can no longer produce credible salesmen.
Echoing the establishment
The candidates’ qualities aside, the system sinks into ever greater depravity for reasons that seem obvious to the younger left: because the power-establishment knows that, however evil the two candidates on offer are, as long as one is ever so slightly less evil than the other it will be able to adduce mock-ethical arguments to strong-arm the left into legitimising its evil system. To younger voters, when the left’s veterans make the lesser evil argument, they repeat precisely the arguments the evil system wants echoing. It is not a great look.
The power-establishment knows that it can drag the system towards greater evil – towards more corporate greed, towards more horrifying global wars, towards more planetary destruction – and still the left will be expected to consent to the system as long as one candidate is slightly less evil. All the system has to do is offer a candidate who can market him or herself as less evil than the other candidate.
What the lesser evil argument has achieved over the past 40 years – entirely predictably – is the gradual shift in the centre of political gravity ever further rightwards, towards unconcealed rule by the corporate class, towards Donald Trump.
The credibility of the older left’s lesser evil voting strategy is being severely tested right at this moment – and is being found disastrously wanting. With Biden the presumptive Democratic candidate, now is the time when the progressive left ought to be leveraging its electoral clout to get Sanders and his political allies positions inside a future Biden administration. This is the moment when the Sanders camp ought to be able to parlay their substantial voting bloc into influence over who is chosen as Biden’s vice-president and his senior cabinet ministers, as well as over the main planks of Biden’s platform.
But rather than seize this historic moment, the older left – including, tragically, Sanders himself – are using this period primarily to undermine the progressive left, by bullying them into submission to the Biden campaign whatever it decides to do.
This is a major reason the LEV strategy looks so discredited to the younger left. They know Biden has little chance of winning without their support. This should be the moment to play their hand with a poker-face, extracting as much as they can from Biden. But the older left is already throwing the left’s hand down, demanding at this critical juncture that the left get behind Biden, when Biden has offered nothing at all to the progressive left.
In these circumstances, lesser evil voting looks a lot like simple defeatism. It actually makes the older left, not the younger left, look like the selfish, privileged ones. They backed Sanders, and when he lost the nomination campaign they simply gave up mid-fight, as they have done decade after decade, putting the struggle off to another day. They behave as if there is all the time in the world (which may seem true to those who are in their twilight years). But the urgency of the deadline for radical change – maybe only a few years away – is hard for the younger left to ignore.
Is Trump the new Hitler?
Lesser evil proponents have traditionally made their case based on an assumption of modest differences between the two candidates – typically, one is marginally better on inequality and welfare issues. But with Trump, the stakes, it is said, have been raised considerably. Some supporters of LEV argue that Trump is a new Hitler. As a result, everything – including abandoning one’s political principles – must be done to stop him.
There is, as already noted, the problem that, if Trump really is Hitler, then it looks very much like decades of lesser evil voting may have contributed to the entrenchment of an evil system that produced this new Hitler. But there is a further difficulty.
If everything must be done to stop Trump, the progressive left finds itself vulnerable to exactly the same kind of bogus “resistance” politics that so discredited the liberal-left and has actually strengthened Trump rather than undermined him. If progressives and dissidents need to join the effort to do anything and everything to stop Trump, then why not also get on board with the next entirely evidence-free scandal against him, the next “Russiagate”?
In fact, if Trump is Hitler and must be stopped at all costs, how is the progressive left supposed to distinguish itself from the ridiculous, political energy-sapping, self-sabotaging posturing of the liberal-left? The danger is the progressive left gets subsumed within the phoney, Democratic-loyalist left rather than leading the left by example into a more effective politics of real resistance.
Refining the struggle
There is a final, consciousness-raising issue for younger leftists to consider when deciding whether to reject entirely the evil US system, even if it risks allowing Trump another four years. Many younger leftists wonder exactly what kind of evil system they live under and how they should best respond to it. Refusing to vote for one of the two evil candidates may be the only way they can decide for sure.
One possibility is that the US is a deeply flawed democratic system, but still accountable to voters. If that is right, then withholding their consent from an evil Democratic candidate may finally serve as a corrective to the endless rightward shift of the political system towards greater evil.
If Sanders’ supporters reject voting for Biden, Biden is unlikely to win the election. The deeply corrupt Democratic party leadership will then be forced into crisis. If it really wishes to win, it will have to accommodate the left meaningfully to win back its support.
Had the left chosen this course 30 years ago, rather than listening to calls to vote for the lesser evil candidate, they wonder, might the Democratic party have ever reached the nadir of foisting a cognitively challenged and morally compromised candidate like Biden on the party’s supporters?
If US democracy still functions, might the Democratic leadership faced with a real rebellion by the left be forced gradually to concede ground to a leftist political agenda, creating a genuine ideological contest between the two parties?
Labour threw an election
The other possibility is that the US system lost its democratic features in all but name some time ago, and is instead a straightforward plutocracy serving a wealth-elite. The two parties pretend to compete for votes only to make the electorate think it is still in charge.
If the US is a plutocracy, the political system will be largely indifferent as to whether the left is prepared to vote for Biden or not. Because in a two-party plutocracy, both parties represent the same interests – the corporate elite’s. They are simply branded differently to delude voters into thinking the system is democratic.
Younger voters have increasing reasons to suspect that the latter assessment is right. They can, for instance, look across the Atlantic to the recent experience of the UK, which has a similar two-party system.
My latest: The question for Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, is what is he going to do with revelations that party officials threw the 2017 election to destroy Corbyn? Will he use them to clean out Labour’s stables, or sweep the ordure under the carpet? https://t.co/1m7WfRobhn
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) April 17, 2020
An internal report leaked last month revealed that Labour party bosses – Britain’s version of the Democratic National Committee – intentionally threw the 2017 general election to stop the party’s then leader, Jeremy Corbyn, winning power against an increasingly far-right Conservative party. The party bureaucrats felt compelled to sabotage their own candidate after they had failed two years earlier to prevent Labour members electing Corbyn – the UK’s version of Sanders – as leader.
In other words, the permanent bureaucracy of the supposedly leftwing Labour party felt it had more in common with the ultra-rightwing Conservatives than with its own democratic socialist leader.
Is the Democratic party machine, which has now twice done everything in its power to stop Sanders, a democratic socialist, becoming the party’s presidential candidate, really so different from the UK Labour party machine?
Bogus political fights
If the US is really a two-party plutocracy, the Democratic party leadership will do everything it can to stop a candidate (Sanders) who might threaten plutocratic rule, even if that means installing a weak and incompetent candidate (Biden) who risks losing to an ostensible opponent (Trump). In this kind of system, voters’ attention must be channeled into bogus political fights over barely distinguishable candidates rather than a real struggle over ideology.
Does that not sum up rather precisely what we have watched unfold over the last six months in the US.
So for young leftists, not voting for Biden may help to resolve their own uncertainty about whether the US system is redeemable or not. It is the step they feel they need to take to educate themselves and their peers on whether their energies should be directed chiefly at fighting the Democratic establishment or abandoning the system entirely and taking to the streets.
The problem with lesser evil voting for them is that rather than clarify the next course of action it simply obfuscates. It leaves it unclear whether the political pendulum can be made to swing back towards the left or whether the system needs to be destroyed entirely.
As I was about to hit the send button, a friend forwarded me this very interesting hour-long interview of Paul Jay, the leftist journalist and broadcaster. Jay makes a good case for lesser evil voting, though inevitably he cannot resist indulging in a little gaslighting, suggesting that the only reason the progressive left would refuse to vote for Biden is to feel ideologically pure or superior. That, he argues, simply isn’t an option when faced with the apparently ultimate evil of Trump. Four more years of this incumbent president, he says, risks unleashing the very darkest forces of capital in the US, echoing the situation of Europe in the 1930s. He draws an analogy with Italy under Mussolini.
Jay rightly observes that the US is a plutocracy (though I don’t think he uses that word). The choice at election time is between two parties representing different sections of capital, both with fairly fascistic leanings and both capable of destroying the planet. But, he adds, the section of capital represented by Biden is more willing to make political compromises – if only in an attempt to win legitimacy a little longer for the system from the American middle and working classes – than the more authoritarian, more aggressive section of capital represented by Trump. That is an analysis I can readily agree with.
The most interesting section of the interview begins at around the 30-minute mark. The interviewer asks Jay how he envisions the exit strategy from lesser evil voting. In other words, at what point does Jay imagine progressives can stop colluding with a system he readily acknowledges is evil? It is the one time Jay is clearly flummoxed. He has no obvious exit strategy.
His eventual response is revealing. At about 35 mins he says this: “We are in a new situation now. We may see the coming together of progressive sections of society into a broader, more unifying popular front that’s independent of the Democratic party.”
Hold up a second. Why are we in a new situation where progressives can unify and may be ready to seek political solutions independent of the Democratic party? Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic is leading to the collapse of the US economy, as Jay notes. But is the galvanising of the left, of the working and middle classes, of the unions, not happening precisely because Trump patently has no ability to handle the health and economic crises caused by the virus, or even to create the illusion that he can handle these crises? Is it not his very oafishness, his arrogance, his narcissism, his authoritarian instincts, his misreading of the situation, his detachment from the concerns of ordinary Americans at this pivotal moment that is creating the forces necessary to unify the left?
And equally is it not Biden’s very clear deficiencies as an alternative, as well as the patent ideological and bureaucratic sclerosis of the Democratic party, that is reinforcing the first signs in the US of a trend towards organising politically outside of the formal party system?
At the very moment when the US two-party political system may be beginning to break down, when it has no answers to the first wave of major global crises to hit western “civilisation”, Jay and many others on the progressive left continue to argue that it is imperative to engage with the system, for gradualism, for assisting with those who try to make the system seem better, look more humane.
Jay looks uncomfortable making what sounds like a contradictory case for containing, rather than releasing or accentuating, the forces for revolutionary change he elsewhere concedes are urgently necessary.
No one – least of all me – is denying that any form of political struggle at the moment is going to be very high stakes indeed. Political revolutions always have victims. They can fail. And those who rise to the top can be as bad as, or worse than, those that preceded them.
But the lesser evil argument rests on the false assumption that we are not already in a time of revolution – if not a political revolution, certainly an ecological one. The planet is about to throw up our house of cards, our civilisation, and violently reorder it for us.
In these circumstances, the left faces a very difficult choice indeed: between risking a delayed response by putting a better face on humanity’s plight by installing the slightly less evil candidate, and facing the present and the future directly, in all its terrifying, enervating depravity, in an almost-certainly violent struggle to take back into our own hands our fate as a species.
Which is the better course? There are no easy answers. To argue otherwise, as too many proponents of lesser evil voting do, may ultimately prove to be the more foolish option.