Sunday, October 25, 2020

Behind the politics of lesser evilism

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Swing states in the 2020 election

By Alex Steiner

Note: This is a continuation of the discussion that began in the previous essay by Frank Brenner, Backing Biden betrays socialist policies, See the comments in that essay for the context of this discussion.

I think Frank Brenner and Jim Creegan have provided an excellent response to Mitchel Cohen’s and Walter Daum’s support for a vote for the “lesser evil” candidate in the 2020 Presidential election, namely Joe Biden. I don’t think I can add too much to what they have already written.  What I would like to do is explore the general form of the “lesser evil” argument and expose its inner fallacies.

Those arguments change every four years in their outward expression, but their inner structure always remains the same. When you boil them down to their essence they go something like this:

“I would love to support a genuine alternative to the two-party duopoly that dominates politics in the United States. If this were an ordinary election, I would happily cast my vote for a third party socialist candidate running independent of the Democrats.  But this election is different. We are living in a special moment that requires that we vote for a Democrat while holding our nose.  (The holding our nose metaphor seems to be required in all these explanations.) We will go about doing our organizational work despite voting for a Democrat whom we loathe, knowing that this organizational work is what is really important.”

This is the basic template of the argument. Before getting to the details, I would like to put it into its philosophical and historical context.

The force of the argument is based on the premises of a utilitarian world outlook. What characterizes all utilitarian arguments is the engagement of a cold calculus of benefits versus risks. Moral and political imperatives beyond the immediate considerations of what action maximizes ones odds for survival in a Hobbesian world are considered irrelevant.  On the face of it, such arguments are quite compelling. It seems that the only way to challenge them is to dispute whether in fact a particular course of action does result in a greater benefit, or if not a benefit then at least a lesser evil, than another course of action. Those kind of details can be legitimately debated it seems, but there is no challenge to the basic premises of the debate, that one must always chose that course of action which results in the most benefit – or least evil – given the circumstances. [1]

What the cold calculus of a risk vs benefit assessment characteristic of utilitarianism misses is that human beings and human values are not quantifiable. It is not like projecting the value of an investment. A notorious example of what can go wrong when decisions are made purely on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis is the case of the Ford Pinto. Ford’s engineers discovered a design flaw in the Pinto of potentially lethal consequences. A cost-benefit analysis prepared by Ford concluded that it was not cost-efficient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaws. The upshot was that approximately 500 people died as a result of Ford’s failure to ameliorate the problem. While the consequences of the cost- benefit analysis were particularly horrendous in this case, cost-benefit type planning is not the exception but the norm in the business world. It’s “what comes naturally” in capitalist society where all considerations for how we should live are subordinated to the need for profit. And its applies to all manner of human behavior beyond the strictly economic.

The “lesser evil” argument in politics is not so different than any other kind of a cost-benefit analysis. One justifies a course of action that is undesirable because the alternatives are considered worse. When we trace this argument back to its philosophical and historical context, we are in a better position to understand the hidden premises that lay beneath the surface. When we do that the argument is no longer as compelling as it initially appeared to be. 

In the present instance, we can see that in addition to challenging the validity of the judgment itself, that in fact a vote for Biden really is a “lesser evil”, as if that is obvious, it is also possible to challenge the basic premises of the risks vs. benefits logic of the argument. In the case of the 2020 elections, we are not dealing with ethical considerations that try to quantify the value of a human life, but with social and political considerations that hold vast implications for those on the left wishing to see a fundamental transformation of society.  How do you quantify class consciousness? And what price is paid in the coin of your political credibility when you advocate a vote for a candidate you admit is terrible?

In the argument justifying a vote for the “lesser evil” candidate, what changes every four years is the identification of what is “special” or “exceptional” in the current election that requires that the left “hold their noses” and get behind the current anti-socialist Democratic candidate. Often one finds references to Hitler or Nazism thrown into the discussion as a way to stop any further consideration of the issues and drum up a panic reaction. That is certainly the case in Mitchel Cohen’s argument. Daum on the other hand provides a somewhat more nuanced take and admits that a Trump victory would not be “game over”.  But then he goes on to say,

“…it would be a huge setback and, yes, it would embolden the fascists. So why not do everything we can to prevent that, including holding our noses and voting for the rotten Biden?”

Daum’s criteria then for caving into the pressure to vote for a Democrat is not quite the absolute evil of Cohen’s vision of a fascist America the day after the election, but a regime that would be a “huge setback”.  

Cohen seeks to discredit Brenner’s argument by claiming, falsely, that Brenner sees no difference between a Trump regime and a Biden regime.  This is in fact a common accusation of those defending “lesser evilism”.  Daum on the other hand agrees that Brenner sees a difference but claims therefore that Brenner contradicts himself by opposing a vote for Biden while acknowledging that a Trump Administration poses a huge danger of increasing authoritarianism.

The mistake both Cohen and Daum make is to think that once one acknowledges a different outcome between a Trump or a Biden Administration, that there are no grounds for opposing a vote for a “lesser evil” candidate.  But one cay say that in every single election since the American Republic was founded there is always the possibility of a different outcome. It has never been the case and never will be the case that the outcome of an election “makes no difference”.  If one follows this logic then one has to conclude that in past elections, when Daum and his organization, the League for a Revolutionary Party, (LRP) opposed voting for a Democrat, that they must have been working under the illusion that whoever won the election “made no difference.”  I have no doubt that some of the LRP’s political opponents who favored a vote for Al Gore, or John Kerry, or Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton in past elections must have levelled the accusation against the LRP that they were “blind to the differences” between a right wing Republican Administration and a centrist Democratic one.  So why is the LRP now supporting a vote for Biden in 2020 when they opposed a vote for Kerry in 2004? Was not the election of George Bush in 2004 a “setback” when compared to the possibility of a Kerry victory? One can anticipate the answer: A second Trump election victory in 2020 would be “a lot more” of a setback than the Bush victory in 2004.  I have no doubt that is true. One can expect a very sharp turn to authoritarian forms of rule in a second Trump Administration, as a recent article in Jacobin makes clear. [2]  Trump’s open encouragement of fascist plots to assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginia and the state murder of an anti-fascist activist in Oregon indicate a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy. But does that fact automatically lead to the conclusion that we must – for the 2020 election – abandon our socialist principles and vote for Biden?

There are higher political principles involved in the 2020 election just as there were higher ethical principles involved in the Ford Pinto case.  Some of those higher political principles were spelled out in Brenner’s article:

“The position of revolutionary socialists should be that the Democrats are not the saviours of democracy but the enablers of the would-be dictator. A call to vote for Biden would obscure this critical point. In the fight to save democracy, we need to insist that only mass working class action can make this happen. That fight doesn't stop on Nov. 3, it only enters a new phase. But if socialists have already come out for a vote for Biden, then we bear responsibility for having promoted illusions we would now be trying to resist.”

The struggle over those principles does not mean that we are oblivious to the consequences of our actions and are instead captives of some Platonic ideal that has no relation to the class struggle in the real world.  No, it simply signifies that we are thinking of consequences in the long term as well as the immediate situation. And the long term political consequences of socialists calling for a vote for Biden would be disastrous.

Finally, even if one restricts judgment to just the immediate situation , it is not at all clear who is the lesser evil in the 2020 election. Chris Hedges has convincingly argued that if the measure of who is worse were the number of bodies buried by the state, Biden has a lot to answer for. He was largely responsible for the 1994 crime bill which resulted in the mass incarceration of millions, largely people of color.  He voted in favor of the Iraq War. And when he was Vice-President during the Obama Administration, he supported the use of drone strikes to assassinate American citizens. It is true that a second Trump Administration would give more power to extra-judicial forces spreading terror against American citizens, but a Biden Administration would strengthen the national security state who would unleash its own forms of terror against perceived enemies both at home and abroad.  Supporting either camp, no matter the caveats, should be considered beyond the pale if one takes ones socialist principles seriously.

Daum tries to justify his position by citing precedents in the Marxist tradition for supporting bourgeois parties under certain conditions. His argument here is not very convincing. Let’s just say that the examples Daum cites, supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany against Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws or supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia against the Tsarist Black Hundreds have little  relevance today. The corporate Democrats represented by Biden in no way constitute a wing of the liberal bourgeoisie opposed to authoritarianism.  They are simply a wing of the bourgeoisie, in fact the predominant section of the bourgeoisie, who have tactical differences with Trump and the Republicans.  They stand for a more aggressive military policy against Russia while Trump is on a trajectory for a confrontation with Iran and China.

There have been in recent years attempts to build a progressive faction in the Democratic Party, most notably the movement inspired by Bernie Sanders candidacy. Now that those progressive, left-leaning forces have been abandoned by Sanders, doesn’t it make sense for revolutionary socialists to encourage a break from the Democratic Party and begin the process of building a socialist party independent of and opposed to the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats? That cannot be done if one supports a vote for Biden.

Does this mean that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition, to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party?  It is not necessary to delve into such hypotheticals. Suffice it to say that this is a general principle that is more relevant than ever in the period of the  decline of capitalism on the world stage, not an abstract moral imperative. Nor is a discussion of this general principle a justification for supporting this bourgeois candidate in this election. All the attempts to do that claim that we are in an exceptional situation that impel us to set aside this principle. But why is this “exceptional situation” so much more “exceptional” than other “exceptional” situations? If we extend that argument to its logical conclusion, we can say that every election of the past few decades presented an “exceptional” situation. It seems that the time is never right to openly campaign for a socialist candidate against the Republicans and the Democrats.

Perhaps we need to examine the dynamics of mass psychology behind the rationalizations of a vote for Biden. Unquestionably there is an element of fear of the consequences of a second Trump  Administration. I don’t discount the material basis of that fear, but fear is hardly a sufficient basis for making political decisions. There is also the pressure felt by many rank and file activists to participate in the Sanders movement despite Sanders’ personal betrayal of this movement. Paying attention to these currents in mass psychology help us make sense of the sudden political turn we see among diverse groups of radicals and Marxists who had previously held out against the pressure to accommodate to the Democrats. The about-face of long time radicals is not unrelated to the 180 degree turn of the LRP, which in 2016 denounced a vote for Clinton while in 2020 calls for a vote for Biden.  This about-face on the part of long-standing opponents of the status quo was anticipated in the most dramatic fashion by the sudden dissolution of the International Socialist Organization last year. These are all related symptoms of the same phenomenon.

Finally I want to comment on one aspect of this election that I find particularly troubling. There has been a public campaign orchestrated by some of the advocates of “lesser evil” politics in the 2020 election to pressure the Green Party candidate for President, Howie Hawkins, to stand down lest he damage Biden’s chances of winning in the swing states.  This campaign has gone so far as to bombard Mr. Hawkins with letters from his former teachers asking him to reconsider his candidacy for President. I find this campaign thoroughly reprehensible. While I have political differences with Mr. Hawkins and the Green Party, I would have thought his teachers would be proud of him for taking such a courageous stand in the face of near universal condemnation from others on the left, even if they disagree with it.  Instead they berate him and urge him to stand down. They should be ashamed of themselves!


[1] The prototype of this argument is the tale of the survivors in a lifeboat facing death by starvation.  They debate what must be done in order to survive and come to the realization the only possibility of survival is to murder the weakest member of the crew and eat his remains. In jurisprudence the this is called the argument of necessity.  This tale is often discussed in the abstract in a class on Ethics, but in fact it is based on a real event that was tried in the British courts in 1884, The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens. ( ). In that case the judges ruled that necessity did not justify murder. 


Walter Daum said...

WD, October 31, 2020
Reply to Alex Steiner on Voting Part I

In notifying me of his post “Behind the politics of lesser evilism,” Alex Steiner commented, “I think this is an important discussion that should be taking place within the revolutionary left as a whole. It goes beyond the positions taken by various people and groups.” I agree and would add that the debate should continue beyond the 2020 election, since it is as much methodological as practical.

To summarize my position, there are basically two questions at issue. 1) Is there a Marxist or socialist principle that rejects voting for bourgeois parties or candidates under all circumstances? 2) Since I think there is no such absolute principle, is it tactically correct to vote for Biden in this election in order to defeat Trump? I and my comrades in the LRP say yes; we recently issued a statement explaining our reasons at

On the first of these questions, Alex re-states the principle: “that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party.” In the post that began this debate, Frank Brenner invoked ths Marxist tradition, and in my reply I claimed that there was no such principle; I challenged anyone who thinks there is “to find any statement by our Marxist teachers that it is unprincipled to vote for bourgeois candidates under any circumstance.”

As it happens, I and others in the LRP have made such a challenge in other venues during this election season, and we have received no response with actual evidence. We have, however, been told more than once that there is a Marxist principle that the working class should organize independently of all representatives of the ruling class for political action – and we agree. But that principle, regularly invoked by our Marxist teachers, did not prevent them from advocating tactical voting for specific bourgeois parties on specific occasions, namely when the working class had no viable candidate of its own and when the democratic rights that enable our class to organize and struggle were at stake.

Alex dismisses the challenge as “delv(ing) into ... hypotheticals,” but adds that “this is a general principle that is more relevant than ever in the period of the decline of capitalism on the world stage, not an abstract moral imperative.” This is explained by his claim that the occasions when Marx, Engels and Lenin called for voting for liberal bourgeois parties have no parallel today: “The corporate Democrats represented by Biden in no way constitute a wing of the liberal bourgeoisie opposed to authoritarianism.” Of course the Democrats are not congenitally opposed to authoritarianism; they, like the Republicans, support all kinds of authoritarian regimes around the world when doing so fits U.S. imperial interests; and they have often enough acted in authoritarian fashion at home. (That was also true of the liberal bourgeois parties who our predecessors had backed.)

But that is not the point. I and my comrades are calling for voting for Biden not because he is more liberal in general but because he is less dangerous than Trump on a specific matter, the Republicans’ drive to entrench their minority-party rule by destroying democratic rights – the right of Black people to vote and be counted, and the right of workers to organize trade unions and their struggles. This drive precedes Trump, and he is serving as its useful tool. Indeed, his campaign itself rests on denying voting rights, since he is constantly threatening not to accept the result if he loses the vote and to invoke the powers of his presidency and his Supreme Court appointees to overturn it. In this concrete situation the Democrats are opposed to Trump’s authoritarianism for their own reasons; they want to get elected. So this is just the sort of situation when there is no viable working-class candidate and when the rights that enable our class to organize and struggle are at stake.

Walter Daum said...

Reply to Alex Steiner on Voting Part II

Returning for a moment to Brenner’s original post, he says that calling for a vote for Biden “would promote the dangerous illusion that the only credible resistance to Trump is from the Democratic Party.” That is a real concern, and more generally there is the danger that any kind of bloc with bourgeois forces helps strengthen illusions that they can be relied on to be on the side of the working class. That danger has to be weighed and countered, which means that socialists who electorally support Biden must forthrightly illuminate rather than obscure the true history and role of the Democratic Party.

It would certainly create illusions if all we said is that Trump is terrible and Biden is not so bad although not ideal. Many Biden supporters rely on such arguments. Revolutionary socialists, on the contrary, should make every effort to explain, even as we argue for voting for Democrats, that they are a party that promotes capitalism and imperialism, opposes working-class struggles and accommodates to racism (as various Democratic governors and mayors did in calling out their cops against the recent Black Lives Matter protests).

It is noteworthy that in the early voting period of recent days, millions of people have flocked to the polls, waiting patiently for hours to cast their votes, confounding the efforts in many states to make it as difficult as possible for people to vote, especially in minority communities. Surely the main reason for this amazing phenomenon is that people are so fed up with Trump that they are willing to take extraordinary steps to get rid of him. And, yes, many of them have illusions that Biden and the Democrats are dedicated not just to reversing Trump’s most sociopathic policies but also to carrying out the reforms that working-class people need.

How should we as revolutionary socialists counter such illusions? By telling people not to vote for Biden & Co. because of their rotten record and hostile class character? If we do that we will not get much of an audience. But if we say, yes, vote for Biden to oust Trump, we can then also help people understand that Biden too is an enemy of the working class and the oppressed, and that only mass action can wring vital reforms out of a Democratic Party government. We can also explain that the working class needs its own party, independent of the capitalist parties and dedicated to the overthrow of capitalist rule.

Alex claims that once you advocate for voting for a Democrat in this election you are on a slippery slope that means never building an independent socialist party. Even a tactical “lesser evil” vote, he says, leads to lesser evil-ism, the strategy of always voting for a lesser bourgeois evil:

“... once one acknowledges a different outcome between a Trump or a Biden Administration, that there are no grounds for opposing a vote for a ‘lesser evil’ candidate. But one cay say that in every single election since the American Republic was founded there is always the possibility of a different outcome. It has never been the case and never will be the case that the outcome of an election ‘makes no difference’.”

This assumes that rejecting the mythical “socialist principle” of never voting for a bourgeois party necessarily means always doing so. That is false both in history and in logic. Our Marxist predecessors who advocated choosing certain bourgeois parties when there was no alternative never stopped working for socialist working-class parties. Moreover, there is a lot of room between never and always, and that’s where this year’s election fits. According to polls, among the millions of early voters are many who chose not to vote in 2016. They are not lesser-evilists; they are coming out in droves because they see that in 2020, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, the greater evil is a qualitative threat that he must be defeated.

Walter Daum said...

Reply to Alex Steiner on Voting Part III

Finally, I’ll note that Brenner and Steiner are both aware of the danger of Trumpism:

Brenner: If Trump wins, “Polarization will spike, Bill Barr will have a green light for ever more police state measures, the fascist gangs will feel emboldened. Voter suppression, scapegoating of immigrants, lethal police violence, dismantling of Obamacare and probably Medicare too, maybe a Covid death toll of a million.”

Steiner: “One can expect a very sharp turn to authoritarian forms of rule in a second Trump Administration ... Trump’s open encouragement of fascist plots to assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginia and the state murder of an anti-fascist activist in Oregon indicate a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy.”

Those are strong and accurate forewarnings. The working class, the oppressed, and all those who defend democratic rights have to act. Mass mobilizations have to be prepared. A few trade union officials are even talking of a general strike if Trump tries to steal the election. Brenner agrees that “socialists would try to promote mass political resistance within the working class” – but he asks, “How would that goal be served by having called for a vote for Biden?” The answer is that no matter who wins, mass action by the working class and oppressed people will be necessary to defend their rights and promote their interests. And such action would take place under far more favorable conditions if Trump and the fascistic gangs he encourages were to suffer a massive rejection at the polls. Only voting for Biden, class enemy though he is, can accomplish that.

Why not do all we can to prevent Trump from wielding the authority that could be used to justify a coup? As Marx and Lenin pointed out, every few years the working class and the oppressed are asked to choose which leaders of the oppressing class will lead the repression against them. That is bourgeois democracy. When that choice is significant, when it indeed means “a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy,” why not take it? A Democratic Party government will be no loyal friend of the working class, but against it we will be in a better position to wage the class struggle, fight for democratic rights and organize for the socialist and revolutionary party our class needs.

Alex Steiner said...

See the continuation of this discussion in the post Behind the politics of lesser evilism