The Evils of Lesser Evil Voting

Condemn progressives for voting enthusiastically for Democrats and the inevitable response is something like “just imagine how much worse voting for Republicans would be.” Similarly, many true conservatives and Libertarians see voting for Republicans as a necessary evil. With many progressives regretting giving Democrats a majority in Congress and many conservatives regretting putting George W. Bush in the White House, it is timely to refute lesser evil logic.

Inevitably, lesser evil voters face personal disappointment and some shame. Politicians that receive lesser evil votes do not perform according to the values and principles that the lesser evil voter holds dear. These voters must accept responsibility for putting ineffective, dishonest and corrupt politicians in office. Though they may be lesser evils, they remain evils.

All too often lesser evil voters avoid shame and regret and prevent painful cognitive dissonance by deluding themselves that the politician they helped put in office is really not so bad after all. Corrosive lesser evil voting erodes one’s principles as pragmatism replaces idealism. This makes the next cycle of lesser evil voting easier.

Lesser evil voting helps stabilize America’s two-party duopoly that greatly restricts true political competition. Third party and independent candidates – and minor Democratic and Republican candidates in primaries – are defeated by massive numbers of lesser evil voters. Despite authentically having the political goals that mesh with many voters on the left or right, these minor “best” candidates fall victim to lesser evil voting. Lesser evil voters are addicted to a self-fulfilling prophesy. They think “If I vote for a minor candidate they will lose anyway.” They ensure this outcome though their lesser evil voting. The truly wasted vote is the unprincipled lesser evil vote.

Effective representative democracy requires politically engaged citizens that vote. Lesser-evil voters support the current two-party system with its terribly low voter turnout and chronic dishonesty and corruption. Lesser evil voters help put into office disappointing politicians, not the best people that would restore American democracy and show more citizens that voting is valuable. Lesser evil voters demonstrate the validity of turned-off citizens’ view that it really does not matter which major party wins office.

Politicians knowingly market themselves to lesser evil voters by constructing phony sales pitches, especially to certain audiences outside of their more certain base constituents. Democrats make themselves look more progressive than they really are, and Republicans make themselves look more conservative than they really are. Lesser evil voters are phony, and they produce a phony political system. Lesser evil voters contribute mightily to the travesty of our political system that no sane person respects and has confidence in.

Lesser evil voting demonstrates the worst aspects of political compromise. This is the common cause of terrible laws. When citizens surrender so much of what they truly believe in, they enable compromise politicians to create bad public policy that, in the end, satisfies very few people and puts band-aids on severe problems. Lesser evil voters concede victory to the other side – the side they view as the worse alternative because the people they vote for will not stand up for what is right and necessary. Think Iraq war. Even when their lesser evil side wins, they do not have the principled positions that would prevent awful compromises, often in the name of bipartisanship that is a clever way to justify our corrupt two-party mafia.

Lesser evil voters deride the alternatives of not voting or voting for minor candidates. The outcome should the “other” side win is deemed unacceptable. There is worse and there is worst. The core problem with lesser evil voters is that they are short term thinkers. They fail to see the repeated long term consequence of their style of voting – a system over many election cycles that persists in delivering suboptimal results. The “good” outcome in the current election (from their perspective) is the enemy of the “better” solution in the longer term (from an objective perspective). The better solution is major reform that will never happen as long as lesser evil voting persists.

Understand this: Lesser evil voting is not courageous. It is cowardly surrender to the disappointing two-party status quo. Lesser evil voters should trade regret for pride by voting for candidates they really think are the best. Voters in this presidential primary season have some remarkable opportunities to transform fine minor candidates into competitive major candidates – more honest and trustworthy people like Ron Paul, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, for example.

Finally, the deadly decline of American democracy results in large measure from lesser evil voters electing lesser evil politicians. When virtually no elected public official is there because most voters have embraced his clear principled, trustworthy positions we get a government that is easily corrupted by corporate and other moneyed interests. We get what we have now. And if you are dissatisfied with that, then reconsider the wisdom of lesser evil voting. We will only get the best government by voting for the best candidates. Otherwise, we get what we deserve and what the power elites prefer.

Joel S. Hirschhorn was a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a senior official at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association; he has authored five nonfiction books, including Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government. Read other articles by Joel.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MC said on June 2nd, 2007 at 1:45pm #

    This kind of thinking is a dangerous delusion.
    Voters for Nader are responsible for the war in Iraq,
    global warming denial, the K Street Project, and the
    GOP kleptocracy. Certainly a greater evil than we’d
    have had with Al Gore!

  2. David Shove said on June 2nd, 2007 at 3:47pm #

    We should add to MC’s list: the heartbreak of psoriasis, ticks at picnics, rain on parades, the Johnstown Flood, and the crucifiction. No one I know ever heard of any of these awful awful things before Nader.

  3. Hue Longer said on June 2nd, 2007 at 3:52pm #

    Lol…do you work for The Nation, MC?

  4. Max Shields said on June 2nd, 2007 at 4:42pm #

    In response to MC, I strongly disagree with your premise. First, Nader did not lose the election for Gore (you do believe this is a democracy and that a two party system is not part of our constitution? Just checking). We know that Gore lost (even with the popular votes that had nothing whatsoever to do with Nader’s run).

    I don’t know if there’s much hope for the systems we have (that includes our insatiable and meaningless social, economic and polity systems) but I do believe that any semblance of representative gov’t is a cause worthy of pursuit. To achieve that I completely agree with Joel’s post. Go all out for Kucinich, et al, but I’d go further and support a progressive (Nader if he ran again), only this time – full bore. Get, as Michael Albert has stated, >10% of the popular vote (as many electorial votes as possible) and force who ever gets in to heed progressive values and solutions. In concert with this would be seeding candidates (Green?) in State and Fed. legistators; up and down the system. This is how you get representation. NOT by going along with the tired “lesser of evil” syndrom that’s gotten us in one war after another (even when we stay out of all out total war, our policies end up killing untold numbers, over a million died due to Clinton/Gore’s embargo/bombing raids).

    We can change the dynamics starting in 2009 by pursuing at the grass-roots and up to the presidency levels, true unequivocating progressives. This needn’t be a zero sum (ala Clinton) game. You can win by playing to win as many votes as you can by sticking to your progressive guns. Perot changed the dynamics – like him or not by getting 19%, Clinton’s legacy includes Perot’s one note campaign slogan – reign in debt/deficit.

  5. Joshua Frank said on June 2nd, 2007 at 5:32pm #

    I say run an all-out third party campaign ONLY in swing states. Put as much pressure on the Democrats as possible. Force them to address our issues, or lose.

    As for MC, give me a break man. Gore lost the election because he ran an awful campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Democrats voted for Bush. He lost because he had Lieberman as his fucking running mate. He lost because he didn’t talk about corporate responsibility or our environmental crisis. He lost because he didn’t retreat from the neoliberal agenda. He lost because Clinton Time was awful for workers, not to mention Iraqis under brutal UN sanctions, welfare mothers and the spotted owl.

    After Gore lost (he did win the popular vote, and even Florida), the Democrats did all they could to give Bush a blank check on everything. They supported the PATRIOT Act, the war, the Supreme Court appointments, the war, his enviro policies, the war, No Child Left Behind, did I mention the war? Nader didn’t do that, the Dems did. If anything, they proved Nader was right all along. They are a pitiful lot of corporate backed war-mongers, and we have every right to take them on.

  6. Sunil Sharma said on June 2nd, 2007 at 6:40pm #

    To MC:

    Putting aside the fact that it was the Supreme Court that gave us Bush in 2000, and that Gore couldn’t even win the vote of his home state Tennessee (which would’ve made the difference in the electoral college tally), I’m still wondering if I’ll ever, after all these years, get a serious response from the blame-Nader-for-Bush-in-2000 folks to a central fact regarding the vote in Florida in 2000. Namely, that over 300,000 registered Democrats in Florida voted for Bush, according to exit polls. Bush received about 11 times more votes from Florida Democrats than Nader. Two constituencies in Florida that, until then, traditionally favored the Democrats or split the vote evenly between the two parties — white women and seniors — favored Bush. Self-described liberals in Florida were five times more likely to vote for Bush than Nader (19% total). To sum it up, it was the Dems in Florida that brought us Bush, not Nader. Same story played out in Oregon, where Bush outpolled Nader among Dems by a margin of 3 to 1, and where Bush garnered 43% more votes from self-described liberals than Nader. Same story in the key state of New Hampshire as well. Nationwide, 20% of Democratic voted for Bush in 2000; 12% of self-identified libs gave Bush the nod.

    So, when — oh when! — are Democrats and liberals finally going to face reality and take responsibility for THEIR role in bringing us Bush and get over their silly and misinformed Nader blaming? Don’t hold your breath, folks!

    Grownups who are more interested in getting beyond the liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat fairy tale discourse and taking a more realistic look of the world and political terrain we face would do well to read the following articles:

  7. stephen said on June 3rd, 2007 at 2:53am #

    in all of this, we are supposed to believe that the magnanimously enlightened al gore couldn’t have been hoodwinked into a jihad for oil against iraq because he has stated again and again his complete opposition to the war in iraq. we are supposed to forget about all of his reneged campaign pledges, and how he’s a complete phony opportunist.

    it was really painful watching clips of michael moore practically begging gore to run in 2008 during his recent appearance on “real time with bill maher”.

    i am for an all-out voter uprising against the democrats in 2008. too bad i live in texas. i pleaded with people to just not vote in 2006 because the dems were going to backtrack on everything, and i was shouted down with “but they’re better than bush, c’mon!”

    i highly suspect that “MC” is actually eric alterman.

  8. Paul said on June 3rd, 2007 at 3:52am #

    “Voters for Nader are responsible for the war in Iraq”

    Yeah. And the cop two streets away is responsible for this guy’s breaking your window and stealing your TV-set, because the sight of a cop scared him off from doing the same in another block.

  9. Myles Hoenig said on June 3rd, 2007 at 10:08am #

    I previously had published in DV an article on leaving the DP. The Talibanic-type fanatics like MC above who look to blame everyone but themselves should be the only ones left to be registered as Democrats.

    Josh Frank was so dead on right on about running in swing states. Make the Democrats sweat like they’ve never have before. If they can’t win an all out war of ideas or policies than they should be relegated to the dump heap of history.

    One point only alluded to that needs to be put out front. It wasn’t just that the SC gave Bush the election, but that this was a judicial coup d’etat as well as a stolen election. Those who blame Nader are like high school students who never show for school and then look for make up work a week before final grades go in. Take responsibility for once in your life, my Democratic friends.
    As Josh said, Gore ran a lousy campaign (yet he still won). Guess Bush was that bad that even the 11% Democrats who voted for Bush (exit polls) just weren’t enough to help W.

    Also a reminder: the Democrats gave us a right wing Supreme Court.
    The Democrats voted for the war (and voted against debates when they were in the majority in 2002) and continued to vote for funding. This final capitulation should turn the most sensible Democrat into a screaming Green or Independent.

    MC, thanks for the laughs.

    Myles Hoenig

    PS. To those who look to Gore to ‘save’ the Democratic Party? He’s as much a part of the problem as anyone. Remember: He started the whole Willie Horton racist campaign against Dukakis in the Primary. Lee Atwater was just smart enough to go with it for #41.
    Gore would have taken us into war with Iraq with a coalition like #41, but the war still would have been a war of aggression. Gore strongly pushed the sanctions and the attacks in the No Fly Zone. So much more can be said about Gore.

  10. Joel S. Hirschhorn said on June 3rd, 2007 at 10:15am #

    Always glad to see my writing stimulate debate. Here is what one fan gave me: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” John Quincy Adams.
    When we get lousy politicians elected to high office, like George W. Bush, some want to blame the principled voters that did not vote for their preferred candidate (like Gore), but in reality the winner gets elected because of a large number of lesser evil voters choosing that awful person – in the case of Bush, lesser evil conservative voters are the blame, not principled Nader voters — and lets not forget that Gore ran a terrible campaign and became like all two-party losers UNPRINCIPLED because, like them all, he too was corrupted by special interests. The failure of American democracy is manifest by the sad fact that principled voters are never able to put a really first rate person in office; lesser evil voters always determine the winners AND it really does not matter whether that winner is a Dem or Repub – because they are both corrupt parties with corrupt candidates… If you want to help reform our political system come to and join us.

  11. Frank said on June 4th, 2007 at 11:26am #


    Who said that Al Gore was my number two choice in 2000? Maybe I would rather not vote than vote for Gore. Do I have an obligation to vote for people who don’t reflect my beliefs?

    I bet Nader didn’t steal a single vote from Al Gore, but I know that Al Gore stole thousands of votes from Nader. Find me one person who said “Well, Al Gore really seems like the best candidate; but he doesn’t have a chance so I’m voting for Nader.”

    Switch the names around and then you’ll see what actually happened. Al Gore took thousands of votes from people who would have rather voted for Nader, if they thought Nader had a chance. Now we see who stole votes from whom.

  12. Max Shields said on June 4th, 2007 at 3:29pm #

    If we really wanted representative government we’d push for Instant Runoff Voting. This would promote 3+ party candidates and has been shown would increase voter turn out since they’d vote for the candidate of choice rather than feeling they had no real choice. IRV would also provide a quick, clean way to resolve >2 party outcome and increase the number of 3rd party candidates who would now feel they could either win or play a major role in the outcome.

    In 2000, if Nader was your candidate – you’d vote for him as your number one choice (rather than going for the less of evils to “make your vote count”) and, say, check off Gore as your second vote. Given what we know – Gore would have gotten your vote thus eliminating this pointing of fingers. On the other hand, given – with IRV – the mitigation of the “less evil”, more people might have voted for Nader rather than Gore or Bush. This would completely change the dynamics, increasing voter participation, getting a variety of candidates and thus diffuse (not eliminate) some of the hold of big money

  13. Max Shields said on June 4th, 2007 at 3:40pm #

    For more on Instant Runoff Voting

  14. Tom J said on June 15th, 2007 at 5:50am #

    Bush was not elected, he was SELECTED by the Supreme Court. NOT ONE of the Supreme Court Justices voted for Nader, so Nader really had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

    The Republicans and Democrats who do get elected do so because people voted for Republicans or Democrats, not because people voted for third party candidates. To me, it would be more reasonable to expect the 2000 election to come out more like 50% Gore, 45% Nader, and 5% Bush, but there are way too many idiots in this country. That so many of those idiots voted for Bush is not my fault! I do not control their vote, only my own.

  15. alan johnstone said on June 20th, 2007 at 7:10pm #

    Joel S. Hirschhorn said:-
    Here is what one fan gave me:
    “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” John Quincy Adams.

    You probably also know of this one too:
    “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it. ”
    Eugene V. Debs

    And then of course this one from Karl Marx :
    “Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory.”
    (1850-Address to the Communist League)

  16. Random said on August 25th, 2007 at 7:20pm #

    I’d love to take all of those deluded Blame-Nader Lesser Evilist Dems and lock them in a football stadium with the 300,000 Dems who voted for Bush in FL.
    However, instead of the expected melee of harsh words and flying fists, I can almost guarantee that the only result would be a baby boom 9 mos. later.