Long Read Opinion US Politics

“Vote blue no matter who”: the ethics of ‘Lesser-of-two-evils voting’

Written by James Ramsay

With Joe Biden on the verge of victory in the Democratic primary, supporters of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders are left with a dilemma when the general comes: do they hold their nose and vote for a man who they have serious qualms with as a candidate, or do they sit the election out and risk letting Trump back into power?  The pressure from the moderates of the party is strong: slogans such as ‘vote blue no matter who’ are doing their rounds on social media, with many suggesting that anyone who does not vote for Biden over Trump is morally accountable for any of the Trump administration’s future harms. The issue of voting for the lesser of two evils, however, goes far deeper than can be expressed in a catchy slogan, and in many ways goes right to the heart of moral philosophy.

For many hard-core Democrats, voting for Biden is a non-issue. While a democratic candidate such as Biden may not be their first choice, they have no problem getting behind him. This stems from the rather naïve worldview in which all democratic politicians are fundamentally good people and, while they may have their faults, they are fundamentally doing their best. This is an oft-repeated narrative, used to deflect from the catastrophic decisions of corporate Democrats. The same defence is often used of Obama (whose coat-tails the Biden campaign seems to be running almost exclusively on): Obama’s refusal to tackle the status quo of American politics led to him presiding over extrajudicial drone assassinations and civilian deaths, and an expansion of NSA’s powers to spy on US citizens; interesting credentials for a Nobel peace prize winner. For those that believe civilian deaths to be a misdemeanour, it is not hard to overlook a democratic candidate’s flaws in the name of pragmatic voting; for progressives who view these flaws as damning, it is far harder to ignore.

There is, however, an argument that a lack of naivety regarding democratic politicians does nothing to undermine the fundamental argument behind voting to keep out Trump. The fundamental reasoning behind ‘vote blue no matter who’ has its basis in Utilitarianism. The fact that Trump would be worse for America is, for the most part, accepted by both progressives and moderates alike. While it may be the case that Biden would only be slightly better for the country, surely any slight benefit is enough to justify taking the time to vote? All politics is a compromise: even Sanders was a compromise to an extent. Candidates exist on a spectrum.

For those with only a nodding acquaintance to political thought, on one end are the Democrats; and the other the Republicans. To those with a slightly more nuanced view, many Democrats’ favourites exist far closer to Republican favourites than either party would like to admit and, while good candidates such as Sanders certainly have distance between between them and establishment candidates, they are still far from perfect. By supporting Sanders, we are still supporting a compromise on our core values. While it is nevertheless the case that candidates such as Biden represent a tenfold compromise, the general principle is the same: if we support electoralism as a way of reducing the harm in our political system, then we must engage in lesser of two evils voting.

The alternative to Utilitarianism is, of course, deontological ethics. When applied to voting, an argument could be made that to vote for a lesser of two evils, whilst knowing the disastrous foreign policy decisions a Biden administration could enact, is immoral. The fact that the alternative is worse is irrelevant – to actively endorse and enable harm is categorically wrong. In a sense, it is comparable to the trolley problem: while voting for Biden may reduce harm, actively voting for a candidate you know will cause harm is categorically wrong, accordingly to deontological ethicists.

There is another, more controversial aspect to this debate: the idea that while we should enact the principle of lesser-of-two-evils vote, this vote should be to Trump, not Biden. While someone from a right-wing perspective would obviously endorse this, there is a small, but definite group of leftists who feel the same way. This is not due to any delusion that Trump is a good president, but instead based on the idea that a Trump presidency would be so bad that the Democratic party and the American people would be forced to change and reorganise. The leftist philosopher Slavoj Zizeck caused controversy by suggesting he would vote for Trump in 2016. In a BBC interview, he explained his reasoning: that, while Trump is horrible, a Trump election might cause people to be so horrified that real change can occur. Zizeck uses medicine as an analogy, saying that fighting Trump is equivalent to easing the pain of a symptom: it does nothing to tackle the underlying disease. A Trump election, Zizeck hoped, would cause so much disgust that the democratic party would be forced to reform in a more leftist manner.

Whether or not hindsight has vindicated Zizeck’s view is questionable. While it is true that the Democratic field has been far more progressive than in previous years, and that Biden may be leveraged to make some progressive concessions, it is an indisputable fact that the Democrats have rallied around yet another establishment candidate. While it may be true that Trump is merely a symptom of the wider political disease in US politics, instead of recognising this, many US liberals have mistakenly identified Trump as the disease in and of himself. This leads to the idea that anyone, no matter how bad a candidate, should be supported if they are deemed ‘able to beat Trump’.

And thus heroes are made out of the most unlikely people. Even Mitt Romney, hardly a liberal favourite, is now celebrated by Democrats purely because he voted for Trump’s impeachment. Indeed, in an ironic twist of fate, the threat of Trump is now being used as an excuse as to why the Democrats should not put forward a candidate supporting progressive polices such as medicare for all: the narrative is that defeating Trump is the most important thing, and nominating a candidate with such ‘radical’ views would be an electoral risk. Of course, this is just another in a long line of excuses from the democratic establishment to block much needed reform, rather than being an actual reason holding the Democrats back, but it still interesting to note if just for the irony.

One thinker who has supported lesser-of-two-evils voting is left-wing academic and linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky. Chomsky (who has been described as the world’s greatest public intellectual) perhaps knows better than anyone the harms of the political establishment: he has pointed out that all post-war US presidents (Democrats and Republicans alike) should be indicted for war crimes. And yet Chomsky says he believes that it was wrong to refuse to vote Clinton in a swing state in 2016 to stop Trump. This is fundamentally due to the reasons already outlined; if we accept that Trump would be worse on important policy issues such as climate change, immigration and many others, then we have a duty to those affected by such issues to minimise the harm.

Since the defence of not voting for the lesser of two evils on practical grounds (i.e. by electing a politician as bad as Trump we may create real change, and thus better outcome) appears to fail. It appears the only defence is that of principle, and our issue of whether we grit our teeth and vote for a candidate such as Clinton or Biden does appear to come down to whether or not we subscribe to a utilitarian or deontological viewpoint.  We have already attempted to show a utilitarian defence of not voting Biden – can we do the inverse and attempt to create a deontological argument for lesser of two evils voting, or at the very least suggest that a deontological ethics system would not necessarily condemn it?

To examine whether voting for a Clinton or Biden presidency violates this principle, we must detach the action from its consequences, and therefore ignore that there is a worse alternative. Is voting for a candidate you know will cause harm immoral in and of itself? While it is hard to see voting in the same category as actively harming someone, the fact that your hands are not the ones getting dirty should make no moral difference. If you press a button that you know will result in someone’s death, we would have no problem condemning such an action, so why would the same rule not apply to checking a box on ballot paper that you know will make someone’s life worse? Of course, your individual vote does relatively little, but the consideration of any argument regarding voting has to rely on the assumption that use of a vote actually makes a difference. It is a well-noted paradox that while each individual vote makes very little difference, the democratic process only works if everyone acts as though it did, and thus any moral discussion of voting must rely on the assumption that a vote can be directly tied to its consequences (i.e makes a difference).

Perhaps to view these decisions purely in terms of theory is a mistake. No person in existence has, or ever will, live their life completely in accordance with, and without contradiction of, any particular moral theory. Taken to extremes, any moral theory results in positions that none of us feel as though we could morally hold. All of us would lie to save a friend from a mass murderer; none of us would feed people to a utility monster. While voting for a candidate that we believe may be damaging is a harm, it is limited as harms go, and if it is necessary to keep out a greater harm, then it is surely the correct course of action.

About the author

James Ramsay

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