Third Party & Independents Archives

Voting for the lesser evil, is still evil

To save America, Green Party members and Independents are again called upon to sacrifice our own voice to support the Democrats’ nominee for president. As the “anyone but Bush” crowd likes to point out, the only real option in 2004 is to vote for Kerry—given that Nader (or any other progressive) is not going to win—and that Kerry, however undesirable, is preferable to Bush. Progressive Democrats in particular point out that anyone who does not understand this “basic principle” is strategically unsophisticated, irresponsible, and even destructive.

This type of thinking, however, illustrates one of the fundamental flaws of the left; i.e. our inability to articulate a vision of the future and what steps we need to take to get there. Instead, our political orientation is heavily geared toward the short term, with our highest goal set on throwing out the latest despot in the Oval Office. More often than not, we find ourselves in a defensive holding pattern, devoting little thought to the long-term implications of our actions.

Part of the problem is that we have inherited a highly undemocratic winner-takes-all election system, which insures the hegemony of the two major political parties. However, rarely is there discussion among progressive voters, anti-war activist, etc. about the effect of our electoral system on democratic participation and how it thwarts the rise of a diverse multi-party system. Instead most of our energy is devoted to reaction; i.e. opposing or trying to limit the worst effects of things we don’t want rather than working proactively to construct a new political reality.

The defensive posture of progressives is understandable given that we inhabit a world where our enemies are strong and are determined to implement very undesirable initiatives. The irony of focusing so much attention on containing our enemies rather than conceptualizing and working towards our vision of the future is that we end up hastening the very things we opposed. This is because the more our agenda focuses on opposition the more likely we are to loss sight of our goals and to compromise our values. This phenomenon is exemplified by the progressive obsession of voting for the lesser of two evils (VLTE).

In fact, many of us have so internalized the VLTE mantra that it might be better described as a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” voting strategy. Such thinking has caused progressives to steadily lose ground to the right-wing of this county to the point where we are now supporting Democrats who are more conservative than Richard Nixon (who at least created the Environmental Protection Agency as a cabinet level department). In reality, the VLTE strategy has allowed the Democratic Party to pull the country even more rightward because the Republicans (who are often aided by the Democrats in enacting their policies) are always a little worse.

As Green Party nominee for president Peter Camejo states in the Avocado Declaration ( “the call to vote for the lesser evil is what makes the greater evil possible. In other words, by always fearing the negative impacts of the Republican administration we allow the Democrats to usurp the political movement towards change. In general, VLTE has turned progressives into short-term political thinkers who have a hard time visualizing the long-term consequences of their actions.

In order to implement meaningful political change, we must begin to differentiate between short-term and long-term political costs (something the right-wing figured out a long time ago).

For instance, given that many people in our country believe in social, economic and environmental justice, we should be developing political strategies to create a state in which

* Inequalities of wealth and income are limited
* Poverty is almost non-existent
* Health Care is universal
* Taxation is progressive
* Minorities, women and gays are full members of our society
* Unions are powerful and democratic
* University populations vastly out number the prison population
* Foreign policy is humanitarian and democratic
* The defense budget is geared towards defense (and thus reduced)
* The environment is strongly protected
* Economic activities are based on sustaining the resource base
* Trade agreements between countries is fair and subordinate to sovereign laws
* Political campaigns are publicly financed
* The election system is based on proportional representation
* The media promotes open and wide ranging political debate

The current thinking about electoral politics by progressives hardly seems adequate to get us headed in this direction. In fact, the continuation of the VLTE strategy is generally moving us in the exact opposite direction.

In order to implement meaningful political change, progressives must begin to differentiate between short-term and long-term political costs (something the right-wing figured out a long time ago).

It bears noting that no significant social change has ever occurred anywhere in human society by focusing of short-term costs. Those who seek to democratize society must confront this basic dilemma head on.

Our fear that a rupture with the status quo may be too costly is understandable, but we must also understand that by exercising prudence we will contribute to the perpetuation of the current conditions. By definition, breaking free from any vicious circle has short-term costs. The longer we wait, however, the more costly (and hence unlikely) our vision of change becomes.


So given these circumstances, what are our best options for implementing our vision of the future? The first, and perhaps most important is to work to change our system of voting. Without a more democratic system that allows for the development of third, forth and fifth parties, we will remain a captured constituency with little chance to make real institutional changes.

We must remember that our electoral system was born in a time when the democratic ideas of the founders were still an experiment in people rule. Their approach was to “err” on the side of economic caution, by allowing only the male landowner gentry to have a voice in government. To ensure further safe guards, these men were only allowed to vote for electors, who in turn could vote for the candidate of their choice. Then--as today--money and influence were the primary factors in determining the outcome of an election.

History shows that under this system the Democrats and Republicans (who grew out of the Whigs) have not grown into two counterpoised forces, but rather complementary halves of a single two-party system: one animal with two heads that feed from the same corporate funded trough.

The Republican Party has historically acted as the open advocate for a platform which benefits the rule of wealth and corporate domination. They seek to convince the middle classes and labor to support the rule of the wealthy with the argument that "What's good for General Motors is good for the country".

On the other had, Democratic Party act as a "broker" negotiating and selling influence among broad sectors of society to support the objectives of corporate rule. By preventing a genuine mass opposition from developing, they maintain the stability that is essential for "business as usual", which is essential for the persistence of the Republican Party.

Together the two parties have made ballot access increasingly difficult for alternative parties, defended indirect elections such as the Electoral College, insisted on winner-take-all voting to block the appearance of alternative voices, opposed proportional representation to prevent representative democracy, and collaborate in district gerrymandering to create “safe” legislative seats.

Corporate backing shifts between the two parties depending on short-term social crises and other accidental factors. In the 1990s, more endorsements from CEOs went to the Democrats. At present the money has shifted to the Republican Party. Most corporations donate to both parties to maintain their system in place.

The result is a disenfranchised electorate that must either accept the choices given to us by our antiquated election system or try and minimize the policy impacts by voting for the "lesser of two evils." Unfortunately, this voting strategy has allowed the Democratic Party to co-opted populist movements (e.g. The Union movement in the 1930’s, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, the women’s movement), only to abandon these constituencies once they become a “captured” voting block.

In general, the immutable status we have given to our electoral system is actually quite mind-boggling. Somehow, many of us are capable of condemning the most deep-seated socio-economic problems, but when it comes to a destructive institutional feature of our political system, we accept it as permanent, almost as though it were part of the natural order of things. This attitude is all the more astounding given the enormous benefits electoral reforms such as proportional representation or even instant run-off voting would instantly produce (e.g., a widening of our political options, greatly expanded participation, and the elimination of the "spoiler" effect).

For more information on alternative democratic voting systems commonly used throughout the civilized world check out the Center for Voting and Democracy


Secondly, we must begin to support candidates who truly represent our value system, which generally means supporting third party candidates. While the historical success of third party efforts in the U.S. is terrible (owing to our electoral system), this is not a reason to abandon all future efforts.

Today the Green Party offers the best hope for implementing a progressive agenda on the local and (eventually) national level. To be honest, the Green Party is not particularly well organized or experienced, and in fact, suffers from some not insignificant divisions. But this is also not a sufficient reason to write it off. Arguing that we cannot opt for a third party until such a party is strong, well organized, and experienced is to create a "catch-22." If our involvement is essential to building such a party, waiting until it emerges before we lend it our support is to ensure its demise.

Any effort to establish a viable third party should involve a great deal of work at the local level. However, this does not preclude launching a national, presidential campaign. Rather than being mutually exclusive strategies, they can be mutually reinforcing. This is because most Americans, to the degree they are at all interested in politics, focus on national campaigns. In the case of the Green Party, it is highly unlikely that the tens of thousands of enthusiastic people who paid $10 each to attend Nader's "super rallies" in 2000 would have been similarly inspired and energized in the absence of the Nader campaign. Thus, rather than slowly building a local presence all across the country before launching a national campaign, it makes more sense to jump-start the whole process by advancing both efforts simultaneously.

None of this of course rules out the possibility of progressives taking control of the Democratic party. That possibility, however, is extremely small and would require surmounting the overwhelming and growing power that moneyed interests have in the party. It would also require a radical change in strategy on the part of progressive Democrats. Ironically, perhaps the one factor that could significantly strengthen their leverage vis-à-vis their internal party rivals is the emergence of a strong third political party.

Posted by Forrest Hill at March 24, 2004 11:18 AM