The Predictable Consequence of Lesser Evilism

On Wasting Your Vote

by M. G. PIETY

“A disturbing number of Americans are going to end up wasting their votes in this next election. They’re unhappy with the status quo, but instead of changing it, they’re only going to reinforce it. I’m not talking about democrats who are so unhappy with Obama that they’re planning to vote third-party. I’m talking about democrats who are unhappy with Obama, but who are so afraid of Romney that they’re going to vote for Obama anyway and justify that vote by invoking “the lesser of the two evils” argument. It’s about time someone pointed out that it’s the invocation of that argument to defend otherwise indefensible political choices that has driven us relentlessly into our current position between a rock and a hard place.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that the greatest invention in human history was compound interest. I beg to differ. I think it’s the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s brilliant. Give people two options, neither of which they find appealing, convince them that a third option, a genuinely attractive one, is just not practicable and that they must thus choose between the bad and the worse, and you’ll be able to get them to choose something they would never otherwise choose.

You can get people to do anything that way. You start by offering them a choice between something that is just marginally unpleasant and something that is really repellent. Once you’ve gotten them to choose the marginally unpleasant, you raise the bar (just a little mind you, you don’t want them to catch on to what you’re doing). Now you offer them a choice between something to which they have really strong objections and something that is deeply offensive. Most people, of course, will choose the former, if they think it’s either that or the latter. Now you offer people who’ve become inured to living under objectionable conditions a choice between even worse conditions and something that is truly unthinkable. It’s not mystery what they will choose.

There’s been a lot of angry posturing from Americans who think of themselves as progressive about how the purported political center in this country has been moving inexorably to the right, yet it’s these very people who are directly responsible for the shift. If you vote for a candidate whose farther right than you would prefer, well, then you’re shifting the political “center” to the right. Republicans aren’t responsible for the increasingly conservative face of the democratic party. Democrats are responsible for it. Democrats keep racing to the polls like lemmings being chased by the boogeyman.

“This is not the election to vote for real change” runs the democratic refrain. We’re in a crisis! We must do whatever it takes to ensure that the republicans don’t get in office even if that means voting for a democrat whose policies we don’t really like and which are only marginally distinguishable from those of the republican candidate. That “margin” is important, we’re reminded again and again. That little difference is going to make all the difference.”


“If you vote for a democrat because you think of yourself as progressive you are wasting your vote because what you are actually saying is that you are willing to support a candidate who is not really progressive, that the democrats can continue their relentless march to the right and that you will back them all the way. That is, if you vote for a democrat because you say you are progressive, you are saying one thing and doing another. But actions, as everyone knows, speak louder than words. You can go on posturing about how progressive you are, but if you vote for a democrat that posturing is empty.”


“Progressive political change will never be a fact unless we have faith in its coming, unless we have faith that others will back us up when we refuse to be forced to vote yet again for a candidate we do not like.

I, for one, abhor cowardice. I’m not going to be intimidated into voting for a candidate I don’t like by threats of the “greater evil.” I do not expect that my candidate will win the election. I expect, however, that my vote will count for something and not merely in the sense that it will allow me to preserve my self respect. I’m not afraid of being condemned as naively optimistic. Without such optimism we’d never have had democracy in the first place. Democracy, one of the crowning achievements of human history, is precisely the product of the courage to act on one’s conscience and that faith that others will do so as well. If we’ve lost those things, then we will get the president we deserve.”

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu

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19 Responses to EVILISM

  1. fallenmonk says:

    I don’t agree with this thesis. The reality is that we are faced with a two party system in this country and as such only actually have one of two parties to choose from. Yes, you can get on your philosophical high horse and vote for some third party candidate with no chance of winning. You can take your vote wherever you want but the reality is that voting for someone other than the lesser of two evils and depriving that lesser of your vote guarantees that the the greater wins. I’m voting against Rmoney not for the President while wishing that I had some other choice. The idea that voting for other than the lesser is somehow making your vote count for something is just plain stupid in the face of the way things currently work.

  2. Karmanot says:

    I too think that philosophical high horses are a luxury, but firm moral foundations are essential for true and healthy democracy. Views such as the above are essential to be heard and remind us that incremental degeneration of the social and political contract is not a matter of lesser, but evil itself. I have faced this challenge by voting and promoting local and state progressive positions.

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