For most of my political life–which means since high school, before I could vote–I’ve been pushing the idea of alternatives to the “two” major parties. Often, this advocacy and activism has meant promoting the idea of a third (or, some of us would say, a second) party. At various times, this has meant the endorsement of candidates run by existing parties, like one of the socialist organizations. Sometimes it has meant forming and getting a party onto the ballot, with variously named efforts. Whatever the circumstances and the name of the vehicle, the intention always was to encourage a break with the “toxic twins” that have brought us to where we are today: at the visible edge of generalized social breakdown. Our failure to create and sustain a party with resources and appeal great enough to withstand the multiply stacked laws governing America’s electoral system, is the single greatest defeat for progressives in this country. Instead of having our own vehicle and voice, we are left with the choice of not voting, joining the glum crowd who consistently vote for things to get worse–more slowly, or so it is alleged–or to cast our unorganized vote for anyone but the corporate Two.
There have been several standard arguments that have constituted the demurral I and others encountered over the decades, when promoting third-party efforts. The most prominent of these has been the assertion of “realism” in voting for “the lesser evil”–either because that’s all that can ever be hoped for (realistically), or because “the time isn’t ripe just now,” and it is necessary (again) to wait for “conditions to be more favorable”…so that we “don’t end up electing the worse candidate.” I dub this “the lesser realism of the longer evil,” and I’d like to explain why.
‘Realism’ should be based on and relate to facts, as distinct from speculation or simple hope. The fact that a given candidate has supported, is funded by, and offers no plan to depart from corporate funding of business as usual, should support a realistic stance of non-support and indeed opposition. Speculating that what this or that candidate “really” (meaning, secretly) would like to do or intends, is a departure from realism. Some good road signs for political realism are “follow the money” and to judge according to what a political figure does, not what s/he says (or at least, give precedence to the former over the latter). When these navigational tools are consistent in pointing to the corporate character and function of a candidate, then any kind of realism worthy of the name must lead a person with a progressive, anti-corporate political perspective to oppose such a politician. That’s being realistic.
What we have been given, however, is the realism of defeat: you have to choose from what’s on offer, because one of the two major [corporate] candidates is going to be elected. Note that this is not factual but is instead speculative. We do not know what will transpire or how events will unfold, prior to their occurrence. What we can say with confidence, is that it is up to people to “make it so,” through their efforts. Any realism that factors out people as agents in the creation of their own futures, is a faux realism that discounts the most important aspect of human events, which of course is human beings themselves. There is no Invisible Hand or Iron Law that dictates what must occur, and it is the self-talk of those who implicitly accept such fatalism that produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that only corporate actors can be elected and accordingly vote for them…then such belief, when generalized, will produce the very outcome that you see as “inevitable.” It’s simple logic.
Moving on from the question of realism, there is the matter of “the lesser evil.” Evil, let us keep in mind, is not a neutral matter; it means worsening, decline, and injury. It’s important to be clear about this because the expression “the lesser evil” has become sanitized over long use, to the point where it seems to be heard as “not so bad” or even “preventing things from getting worse.” This is, of course, a complete departure from the core recognition that evil is neither “not so bad” nor does it act as any preventive against “things getting worse.” In fact, evil is nothing other than things get worse, and the longer evil holds its sway, the worse things get. As an example, what seems like a little bombing now or a “restrained effort” turns into free-fire zones and indiscriminate slaughter on a mass scale later. We can think of quite real precedents that illustrate just this example.
So the lesser of evils is no protection against worsening circumstances, any more than it can entail improvement. It is what it is rightly called: a wrong that will give injury, causing human affairs to be further degraded. Conditions always vary, but it is the logic underlying the rhetoric of this argument that we are examining, so the specifics of a given electoral year need not be put under a microscope. Accordingly, let’s move to the final element in the realism-lesser evil-worse candidate formula, that of the “worse candidate” who must be prevented from achieving office by supporting and voting in the other, lesser-evil candidate.
What establishes a candidate as being less-evil than the other? A long list of specifics could be made, but at the core they must, according to progressive commitments and hopes, serve the people of this country. By “people of this country” is not meant “the shareholders” or “informed opinion,” nor any of the other code words for powerful groups of wealth and resources of ownership. Thus, for a candidate to be “less evil” than the one other deemed realistically in the race, there must be facts that demonstrate such a difference. Rhetoric is not fact: only fools fall for “soaring rhetoric,” the all-day confection of all-election suckers. What a candidate has done–either in office, or in arenas where s/he can be observed and documented in action–must constitute a realistic assessment of that person’s political worth. Also significant, it is worth remembering, is the relevance of how such a candidate is funded. Even with a promising record based on fact, a candidate beholden to corporate largesse promises something other than a progressive record, once elected. We know this not as speculation, but as something learned over a long time of painful experience. It is factual and realistic.
Apply this “less evil” test to any of the candidates for the White House, and see how this or that politician performs. Keep in mind that the comparison is not between candidates, but between a candidate and the progressive standard for being in politics. This is a key point, as the failure to keep the standard of why we entered into politics in the first place, results in a mere “shopping standard” of whether model A has a higher sticker price than model B. It’s just this sort of bogus comparison that has produced losers who win versus losers who lose, where we get to compare the features of which car drives us better over the cliff. Any “less evil” test that abandons the test of progressive political values and issues, is an evaluation that has effectively abandoned politics for the emptiness of brand-name shopping.
What has the realism of the lesser evil brought us, over a span of decades? Now, today, we have perpetual war, both major parties visibly collaborating to destroy every major social protection that has historically been won in this country, and a Republican president who is to the right of Dwight David Eisenhower. What has happened is predictable, because voting for evil in election after election–coupled with failure to create a good and viable alternative–has meant the triumph of evil. Evil makes things worse, and matters have steadily grown worse since the all-too-brief upsurge of the Sixties and early Seventies. It is not necessary here to remind which party held sway during this or that period of years and which of their members occupied the White House, because what we need to recognize is that it is the faulty realism of supporting this process which has brought us evil consequences over a long and sustained period of time. This corrosive process is now dissolving all human social relations of mutual support, along with their institutional expression. It is the lesser realism of the longer evil that has brought us to this pass, and it is an open question whether matters are so far gone down the spiral that there is still time to rescue and redress what has been destroyed and lost.
Regardless, progressives can only choose to continue advocating that people finally stand up on their own behalf and shed the with-friends-like-these political parties doing damage to our country. Any temptation to masochistic schadenfreude must be rejected; the attitude that “all is lost, so bring it on,” serves the same segment of society as does the empty two-party charade. It is up to us to discard false logic and its rhetoric, and call things by their right names–and most important, to carry this understanding into ongoing struggles where the decisions will be made that shape our lives.