The Lesser-of-Two Evils
by Kim Petersen
April 19, 2004

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Of two evils, choose neither.


-- Charles Haddon Spurgeon


Michael Albert is a leading thinker in the progressive movement and as such his pronouncements on matters carry great weight. Back in February Albert came out opposed to the presidential ambition of previous Green Party banner-carrier Ralph Nader. Albert finds the independent run as undemocratic and unaccountable. Maintaining that a candidate’s run for office is undemocratic and simultaneously delimiting the spectrum of choices available to voters though is paradoxical.


Events now clearly indicate that the corporate political duopoly’s candidates will be President George Bush versus John Kerry.  A choice limited to two such candidates is a soul-crushing blow to progressives’ aspirations. For progressives buying into the conventional wisdom that a vote cast outside of the duopoly would be wasted, that left the unseemly choice of the lesser-of-two evils: Kerry.


The damage wreaked by the Bush presidency is great but a Kerry presidency will predictably do little to reverse this. Meanwhile there is a candidate who embraces many policies that progressives hold dear. But so clear and present a danger is Bush that many progressives advocate forming a massive and unified voting bloc to ensure his ouster. Such a tactic entails its own risks.


Albert accepts that there may be many possible aims for a leftist candidate. He focuses on three: the possibility of winning which he rules out in Nader’s case, diverting the politics leftward, and promotion and dissemination of the leftist agenda. (1)


One might also add the unstated reason four: to give the voters a progressive option other than choosing the lesser-of-two evils. Reason five might be to keep Kerry honest. If Kerry falls in the polls because of progressive voters flocking to Nader, then Kerry has the option of co-opting the Nader voters by reaching an accommodation with Nader, something that Gore, to his detriment, failed to do.


Yet Albert finds fault with several aspects of Nader’s candidacy.


First, why would anyone on the left think it is remotely appropriate for someone to run on their own say so for President in a campaign representing the left? It was one thing for Nader to run as a Green with the explicit support of all kinds of progressive organizations all over the country, including myself. That was a reasonably democratic process at work. It is another thing for Nader to anoint himself to run.


The manner in which questions are framed can affect the conclusions a reader will arrive at. However, a more discerning reader might scrutinize the question itself and the process that led to its formulation. First, the question is disingenuous; nobody who is serious runs for the presidency “on their [sic] own.” A run for the presidency requires a substantial organization behind the candidate. If there were no one to go out and stir up voter interest then such a candidature would be dead-in-the-water. Nader, for whatever reason(s), has seen fit to stay outside of any formal party apparatus for this, presumably, final run at the presidency. Nonetheless, Ross Perot demonstrated in 1992 that an independent candidate could garner significant interest without a party. Second, why should voters who are on the left be denied a candidate who represents their politics? Third, it appears quite contradictory to argue that someone putting himself on the ballot without party backing is undemocratic. It seems far more democratic to allow the voters to pronounce on this for themselves at the ballot box.


Albert continues:


We care about democracy, participation, and accountability. How can it make sense for a left candidate to pick himself? How can it make sense for a left candidate to ever do this, much less to do it when virtually all the organizational support which he extolled as wise and responsible in the past, tells him not to run?


The mere act of tossing one’s name into the political arena requires not just, in the best of cases, a willingness or belief that one can do good, but a certain hubris that he or she is better qualified than another person to lead. This is embodied in today’s so-called democracy. Furthermore the present democratic system requires a candidate with access to the media and large coffers. To look for sense in this process is futile.


Albert states that Nader’s “stances are rather good regarding economics, ecology, and international relations, his stances are much weaker regarding gender, sexuality, and race.”


If indeed this is so then why should someone throw his or her vote to Kerry when he has no claim to being a progressive? In fact Kerry disavows the “liberal” label. (2) Are Americans to be restricted to a vote between Bush and “Bush-lite”?


Because Nader is running on an independent platform, Albert sees this as unsupportive to building the movement. This begs the question if having no progressive alternative is movement building? It would have been better if Nader had secured the backing of a progressive party first; but he didn’t and still stacked up against the other establishment candidates he comes out far ahead on progressive values.


Also, according to Albert, since Nader is without an institutionalized political base his candidature is a “rootless, unaccountable one.” Surely, at least theoretically, an elected candidate is always accountable to the electorate. Whether such candidates hold themselves accountable is another matter though. Nowadays passing the buck is politically in vogue. Nevertheless Albert is unmistakable on who Kerry is accountable to: “Kerry is an agent of ruling interests.”


Whether Nader is the ideal candidate is moot. Arguably he is an egoist and too detached from the grass roots.


In the discussed article, Albert addressed solely the candidature of Nader. Certainly the ideology espoused by the other candidates must be considered before weeding out progressive candidates. Since Albert is opposed to the candidacy of Nader, it can only be assumed that he supports Kerry. He is then in good league with his friend Noam Chomsky who has, with nose held, endorsed Kerry. While sympathetic to the causes espoused by Nader, Chomsky cautions against such a vote since it would undermine the mass mobilization needed to defeat Bush.


Those who prefer to ignore the real world are also undermining any hope of reaching any popular constituency. Few are likely to pay attention to someone who approaches them by saying, loud and clear: “I don’t care whether you have a slightly better chance to receive health care or to support your elderly mother; or whether there will be a physical environment in which your children might have a decent life; or a world in which children may escape destruction as a result of the violence that is inspired by the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Cheney-etc. crowd, which could become extreme; and on, and on. Repeat: “slightly better.” That matters to sensible people, surely the great mass of people who are the potential victims. So those who prefer to ignore the real world are also saying: “please ignore me.” And they will achieve that result. (3)


Yes, the social system and the environment in the US matter for Americans. It is unclear what Chomsky is referring to when he talks of a “world in which children may escape destruction as a result of the violence that is inspired by the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Cheney-etc. crowd.” Children are not going to escape violence under Kerry. As for militarism, Kerry will neither end it nor the occupation of Iraq. The Democratic Party is unlikely to push the political agenda away from the right. They might slow it down somewhat but corporate interests will dominate.


How are Arabs and Muslim Americans supposed to feel about a Zionist Kerry presidency? According to the US State Department, Muslims account for at least 6 million Americans. While Muslims are not monolithic, they provide a solid base upon which to increase mass support for a progressive candidate.


Within the corporate-dominated system there is a lever of control through which the public can express its will: elections. The electoral system is manipulated by a minority -- simply by preying upon voter pessimism, fear, and apathy. One group of people is aware of this manipulation and has given up on voting. Abstention from voting is a person’s right, especially when no candidate appears on the ballot representing a political ideology amenable to the voter. It is an opting out from the system and expresses, to a degree, dissatisfaction in the system. It is also a capitulation to the manipulative minority intent on furthering its own agenda without the interference of the masses. Equally dangerous are those voters who despite having a candidate who epitomizes their political ideals nevertheless do not vote for their candidate because they fear frittering away their vote. This fearful mindset represents a kind of egoism that only they and too few select others can recognize the superior platform of a non-establishment alternative and therefore decide to choose between the slightly better of two inferior candidates. The self-fulfilling prophecy exists because people buy into it. When people feel free to think for themselves -- and not rely upon the establishment figures -- and then behave accordingly, the self-fulfilling prophecy will be relegated to obscurity. To break the mindset that voting is only a choice between the corporate-backed candidates is to overcome the manipulation by the institutional elites. Only then can the masses begin to reclaim control over a large part of their lives. People are responsible to exercise their own self-empowerment through the electoral system, flawed as it is. Popular expression of electoral self-empowerment can mend the flaws in the system.


And what about the rest of the world? How indeed are the Palestinians, Iraqis, Haitians, and Afghanis supposed to feel about four years of a Kerry presidency? Will their lot change? This is highly unlikely. How should Venezuelans, Cubans, North Koreans, Syrians, and Iranians, among others, greet a continuation of the belligerent US foreign policy? Is it fair to consider what a change in the Empire’s leadership means in a domestic vacuum? There are important moral calculations here that affect people outside the US. A Kerry presidency means the Grim Reaper’s scythe will continue to hang over other weaker nations.


What in essence Kerry-supporting progressives are asking others is to unite in the rejection of the only progressive candidate approaching any kind of viability (apologies to Leonard Peltier) for the lesser evil who is beholden to corporate America.


In his ZNet Sustainer Forum Albert averred:


To vote for a lesser evil or not is not a difference in principle except among a very few people. Nearly everyone should be able to easily admit that there are times when electing a lesser evil is far more important than casting a vote for someone who cannot win while the greater evil does. And nearly everyone should be able to easily admit that there are times when voting for a much better candidate, or even not voting at all, is better than trying to adjudicate minuscule and perhaps unknowable differences between agents of elite rule.

Once folks admit these truths, they should also be able to see that the difference between any two antagonists in this debate could easily be over reads of quite contingent conditions, not over principles. More, for almost all those concerned what is personally (in practice as compared to theory) at stake is not that much -- pulling a lever for a few minutes -- and the only time that isn't true is if one is saying it is essential to work hard for kerry, arguing he is a great and wonderful candidate, and the other is saying we should be blasting him, arguing he must be defeated. But, in fact, very few leftists feel that it makes sense for them to campaign for or against kerry.

Here is my question, are both those saying vote kerry and those saying don’t vote kerry going to spend more time hammering at one another than doing useful things, while they are or are not voting. When you consider that the condition of voting or not voting will involve the antagonists for all but about ten minutes, on one day, it casts an interesting light on the situation, I think. Perhaps the discussion would be better spent assessing what to do the rest of the time.


Hammering each other over an expression of democratic choice is fruitless and disrespectful of diversity. If progressives do not respect the diversity within the movement then solidarity is endangered.


To the extent that Nader’s candidacy is a fringe or vanity candidacy, it would seem that Kerry is the only other option to a continuation of Bush-led extremism. Those progressives whose perception of reality sees no chance for Nader may then somewhat reasonably choose to vote for the lesser evil of Kerry. While solidarity among progressives is important, tactically, progressives may differ in how to reach those goals. This Albert acknowledges. Maintaining and building solidarity so that a better society does come about is the greater priority.


Although Albert believes, “Nearly everyone should be able to easily admit that there are times when electing a lesser evil is far more important than casting a vote for someone who cannot win while the greater evil does,” the history of American democracy would seem to indicate contrariwise. After all Americans have always been choosing the lesser-of-two evils and the result today is the presidency of Bush. The influential 17th-century Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracián y Morales warned, “Never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it.”


Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk.




(1) Michael Albert, “The Nader Controversy,” Dissident Voice, 28 February 2004


(2) Elizabethe Schulte, “Why Does Kerry Sound like Bush?Dissident Voice, 15 April 2004


(3) Noam Chomsky, “Voting 2004,” Turning the Tide, 25 March 2004


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