More about lesser-evil voting


KBOO is open to the public! To visit the station, contact your staff person or call 503-231-8032.

Hosted by: 
Produced by: 
Air date: 
Mon, 08/15/2016 - 9:00am to 10:00am
repeated images of donald trump in different colors
What about social security? abortion? SCOTUS? Frann Michel considers

A couple of weeks ago here on the Old Mole Variety Hour  I offered a round-up of some left commentary arguing against the project of voting for the presidential candidate who seems to be the lesser evil. 

In reply, I've heard many good questions and comments from friends, listeners, and fellow moles.  I'd like to respond to some of those today—including questions about reproductive justice, social security, and the supreme court system—but also to say a bit more about the larger frame of this conversation.

For one thing, I don't know that it's entirely clear which of the two major party candidates is the lesser evil.  I don't mean they are indistinguishable.  The nature of their position statements and campaign promises and slogans are quite distinct.  Looking at their records, donors, and other alliances may complicate the picture somewhat, a point I'll come back to. 

But even if one candidate is clearly the worse evil, it does not necessarily or immediately follow that we should therefore vote for the other major party candidate. Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, explains in an interview that even though she is clear about whom she does not want to be president, that does not mean she endorses the other major party candidate. 

As Garza notes, it's worth recalling that presidents have limited powers.  Even if we take the candidates at their words,  and trust their sincere intentions, the individual executive is constrained by the legislative branch and by popular mobilization—again, points I'll come back to.

Asked about voting, Garza observes, first, that many are disenfranchised and do not have the choice about whether to vote or for whom. Second, she deplores the polarizing conversations that accuse people of being, for instance, selfish if you don't vote or a sell out if you do.  She says, "there is diversity in the movement about what tactics we use. If you're not participating in the electoral system, that doesn't mean that you're not doing something productive to make change happen."

She speaks to the importance of  "making sure that people are involved in a broad movement for social change" and that

the barriers that people have to participating in the democratic system are removed, which include protecting people's right to vote, and . . . expanding people's right to vote. Lots of our folks are undocumented [or]  because they're had contact with the criminal justice system, don't get to participate in this process. ... Finally, ... it's not just about elevating people's voices, but ... about transitioning that voice into some type of action that makes an impact. You can make an impact by voting in a large block, or you can also make an impact organizing in your community. ... There's lots of different ways for people to participate, even if they choose not to vote or endorse a candidate.

To that extent, Garza's position is like that of John Halle and Noam Chomsky in their 8-point brief for lesser evil voting.    A widely shared point of agreement among those discussing this anywhere to the left of center is that just voting for president is not going to move us toward the better world we want. 

As Halle and Chomsky's Brief puts it,

presidential elections perform [a role ] in diverting the left from actions which have the potential to be effective in advancing its agenda. These include developing organizations committed to extra-political means, most notably street protest, but also competing for office in potentially winnable races. The left should devote the minimum of time necessary to exercise the LEV choice then immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle.

But here I am, contributing to the potentially distracting discussion about voting for president. 

The urgency with which some people address these questions sometimes suggests an emotional investment in voting that risks giving too much weight to that election and ignoring the complexities of political landscapes. 

Perhaps I'm overly pacified by living in what appears to be a safe state.  The need to choose between evils gains weight only if it seems likely to be consequential.

Given the lead that Clinton has in polls in most states, only a few are really up for grabs. Moreover, if there's truth to the paper that found that Clinton did better in primary states that had no form of paper verification against which to check vote tallies, then perhaps they're all safe states.

But a number of people I've talked with recently, even here in blue Oregon,  seem concerned that Trump is an entirely new phenomenon, and this is no time to give up on lesser evil voting.   

So I return to the problem of varieties of evil represented by these choices and varieties of pressures that might be brought to bear upon the office of the president, whoever might be occupying it. 

It's not precisely a tangent to point out that the composition of that legislative branch may be shaped by Clinton's campaign strategy of painting Trump as unlike other republicans so that she can  bring those republicans into her camp, or her administration.

As Carl Beijer points out,  given Trump's extreme unpopularity, Clinton should be in a position to

press her advantage against her political opposition and make them pay as high a price as possible for nominating such an unpopular candidate. Broadly, this would mean, among other things, winning as many legislative seats as possible in order to advance the Democratic agenda....

Given the opportunity to win back the House and Senate, overcome Republican obstruction, and advance an agenda - not just a leftist or progressive agenda, but an agenda of any kind - Clinton has chosen instead of consolidate her power and maintain the political status quo. She is not only leaving down-ballot candidates to fend for themselves, but is actually placing them in a weaker position by refusing to nationalize this election and turn every Congressional race into a referendum on Trump.

As  Corey Robin puts it,

So long as down-ballot Republicans distance themselves from Trump, he says, Clinton is willing to give them an out, thereby hurting their Democratic opponents. (And as Carl points out, Clinton is keeping a lot of the money her organization raised for down-ballot Democrats, doubly hurting them.)

So, that’s what is at stake with the “Trump is like no Republican we’ve ever seen before.”

Among the Republican endorsements Clinton has rounded up is Hank Paulson. As Treasury Secretary under George W Bush, Paulson presided over both the meltdown of the U.S. economy and the subsequent transfer of taxpayer funds to bailout his close friends and associates.  And as a former CEO of  Goldman Sachs, which has paid Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars for confidential speeches, Paulson may have more information than most of us about Clinton's likely policy goals. 

Paulson supports Clinton not just because he favors her positions on globalization and trade, but also because he sees her as more likely to cut entitlements to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid than is Trump. That is, according to Hank Paulson, if you want to save social security, voting for Hillary Clinton would not be a helpful move. 
That view would be confirmed by  reports from former officials in the administration of Bill Clinton that he was planning for quick implementation of the privatization of social security, when his plans were derailed by impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair

But Bill will have another shot at turning more taxpayer money over to Wall Street after his wife becomes president—she's said that she plans to put him in charge of "economic revitalization."

So, on social security, Clinton might simply be the more efficient evil.

But what about abortion and reproductive justice? 

Much of the legislative battle over those issues has been taking place at the state level, so it would be helpful if Clinton were not undermining the down-ballot democrats and supporting Republicans.

As for the role of the Supreme Court, as  Rob Hunter puts it in Jacobin,

Durable abortion rights are more likely to be secured through a broad coalition demanding universal access to single-payer healthcare than through appeals to protect the legacy of Roe.

As legal observers from Derrick Bell to Samir Chopra have argued, the Supreme Court is a fundamentally conservative institution: As Chopra puts it,

Despite the expressive impact of the courts and their rulings, political change does not happen because courts direct the polity to change; rather, it occurs because citizens organize and exert pressure at and on the right places and the right actors–in a variety of political domains and institutions.

Further, Clinton has said that  she’d be willing to “compromise” reproductive rights as long as it took into consideration the life of the mother. So, in other words, the conservative view: no abortion unless the woman’s life is threatened.  As Liza Featherstone has said, Clinton "has said that abortion should be safe, legal, and “rare”—a qualifier that contributes to the stigma against the procedure."

So, not a lot of help there, either.

Finally, some folks have suggested to me that the danger is less from Trump than from his followers, who must not be empowered by the election of their candidate.  While it's true that Trump's sanctioning of racist and xenophobic violence is disturbing,   I suspect that a Clinton presidency would also rile up the Trumpists.  The election of the first Black president has hardly stopped the violence against Black lives, and the economic conditions driving the sense of grievance among the downwardly mobile and white working class seem to me, contrary to Paulson's suggestion, unlikely to be alleviated by a new round of Clinton austerity and "reform." 

So, however you vote, if you do, there is more to be done that pulling a lever, tapping a screen, filling a bubble, or punching a chad. 


image from



Download audio file
Topic tags: 

Audio by Topic: