This week I opened the latest copy of my favorite magazine, The Nation, to find a revival of a classic leftist political argument—the question of the lesser of two evils. It appeared in several letters to the editor in response to an issue a month ago in which a series of contributors put forth their best arguments in favor of reelecting President Barack Obama. Some readers objected. Their letters were brief, largely restating the argument that the Obama administration has serious limitations and that the lesser of two evils is still evil.
Obviously, none of this is new stuff. Any good Progressive or Liberal, meaning anyone who has done an adequate amount of reading in the leftish press, knows that President Obama has disappointed his “base” on numerous occasions, on topics as diverse as national security, health care, stimulus spending, immigration, and on and on. We also are all familiar with the argument of evils. I have lived through two major presidential campaigns in which the left was divided for or against the lesser evil. More about that later. Right now, I will simply state the conclusion I came to more than 40 years ago: When you step aside and allow the greater of two evils to win, that is also an evil.
The year was 1968. In a very contentious primary, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination for president. Many believed that he stole the nomination from Eugene McCarthy with the back-room assistance of the party establishment. Humphrey, as LBJ’s vice president, was also tarred with complicity in the expansion and continuation of the War in Vietnam, and a large proportion of the Democratic party base was strongly anti-war. Hubert Humphrey was a decent man, a proven Liberal with an excellent record in the Senate. His Republican opponent was Richard Nixon, a reactionary pro-war candidate who after previous failures had been forced to publicly rebrand himself as “the new Nixon”. For Democrats, the choice should have been easy.
Activists on the left had two arguments against Humphrey. One was that he was the lesser of two evils, and therefore not to be supported. The other was that if we allowed Nixon to win, the war would continue and conditions in the United States would get worse and this would wake people up and cause the leftist/anti-war/civil rights/justice movement to grow. Things had to get worse before they would get better. Largely because of these two ideas, a large percentage of the Democratic coalition avoided voting for president. There were obvious complications; the candidacy of George Wallace also pulled off much of the southern Democratic vote, winning five states and millions of votes out of the then-Dixiecrat bloc. But Humphrey lost to Nixon by less than one percentage point of the popular vote, 43.4% to 42.7%.
So Nixon won and the war continued. In fact, the war lasted more than four additional years, at a cost of at least 50,000 Americans and countless more Vietnamese each year. And other things got worse, too, but hardly anyone noticed. With the addition of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell we got the early foundations of our current corporate-friendly activist Supreme Court. But Nixon also allowed concessions to some civil rights and environmental causes, and a divided left never coalesced into an effective political movement. Despite the GOP reversals associated with Watergate, the corporate right wing made steady progress through the Reagan years.
President Clinton, like President Obama, presented a mix of positives and disappointments for Liberals and Progressives. Notably, the Clinton administration pushed through welfare reform and supported a number of policies favorable to corporate interests, including the NAFTA free trade agreement and a series of rollbacks of business regulations. These actions spurred Ralph Nader to take an interest in a Green Party candidacy to provide a “non-corporate” alternative, and the existence of Nader’s hat in the ring inspired a large number of Progressives to once again take up the argument of the two evils.
There are still those who deny that the Nader candidacy caused Al Gore to lose to George W. Bush in 2000. But Ralph Nader himself has estimated that he pulled a net balance of more than 12,000 votes from Al Gore in Florida, a state Gore “lost” by only 435 votes. Without the Green Party’s “lesser of two evils” campaign, the Supreme Court would not have been able to step in to give Florida, and the national election, to George Bush.
The end result? Among other things, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo, officially sanctioned torture, increasingly regressive tax policies, a massive increase in the national debt, and Citizens United and the many other pernicious decisions of the Roberts Supreme Court. Of this list, only perhaps one, the war in Afghanistan, might have occurred under a Gore presidency. Before the election it was clear that Al Gore was clearly a lesser evil than the GOP alternative. In hindsight, we all seem to have significantly underestimated how massive the difference was between the two candidates, even as we still recognize that both had tendencies to be “corporate shills”.
So we have 1968 and 2000, two examples of recent presidential elections in which the powers of reaction and plutocracy have been aggrandized in momentous and long-standing ways because of division on the left. And the division on the left, in both cases, was fueled by the uncompromising argument against the lesser of two evils.
I will repeat again what I said earlier. Standing aside and allowing the greater of two evils to prevail is itself an evil. Fortunately, we now know that that did not happen in the 2012 election. President Obama may not be the Progressive politician we would all want, but I can only imagine what Republican tax and regulatory policies and a Romney-enhanced Supreme Court would have created in the next four years. The lesser of two evils may not be all that we want, but it can be significantly, significantly better than the alternative.