On the False Instrumentalism of Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

Reading Adolph Reed, Jr.’s Common Dreams essay of August 18, Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important, in which he advocates for a Clinton presidency while going after Stein and the Greens, made me feel like I was reading an article in the People’s World Weekly (except the sort I occasionally write for them). Take a look at paragraph eleven:

Jill Stein and Greens typically proceed from a quite different view of electoral politics, one that has much more in common with bearing witness or taking a personal stand on principle than with seeing it as an essentially instrumental activity. The Greens’ approach generally, and Stein has shown that she is no exception, is that all that is necessary to make a substantial electoral impact is to have a strong and coherent progressive program and to lay it out in public. That view is fundamentally anti-political; it seeks to provide voters an opportunity to be righteous rather than to try to build deep alliances or even short-term coalitions. It’s naïve in the sense that its notion of organizing support reduces in effect to saying “It’s simple: if we all would just…” without stopping to consider why the simple solutions haven’t already been adopted. This is a politics that appeals to the technicistic inclinations of the professional-managerial strata, a politics, that is, in which class and other contradictions and their entailments disappear into what seems to be the universally smart program, and it has little prospect for reaching more broadly into the society. And Stein and her followers have demonstrated that this sort of politics is tone-deaf to what a Trump victory would mean, the many ways it could seriously deepen the hole we are already in. I get the point that Clinton and Trump are both evil, but voting isn’t about determining who goes to Heaven or choosing between good people and bad people. Indeed, that personalistic, ultimately soap-operatic take on electoral politics is what set so many people up to be suckered by Obama. (And does anyone really believe that a President Trump, who routinely spews multiple, contradictory lies in a single compound sentence, would actually block the Trans Pacific Partnership or retract the imperialist war machine?)

If one takes the time to learn about the actual impact a vote has on determining the outcome of an election, he will surely find it difficult to claim with any sincerity that a vote is an “instrumental activity” (essential or otherwise). I understand that my fear of flying is irrational. Believing that your vote can be used strategically is to wildly exaggerate its power and therefore to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of voting in an election in which literally tens of millions of votes will be cast out of habitual party loyalty.

Voting really is about personally expressing one’s politics – her principles, values, aspirations, and so forth. Voting is one of the actions a person makes that indicates her politics in a society that allows for such an action to occur. In that sense it is an expression of solidarity with everybody participating in democratic action. She is even allowed to keep her act secret so she can express her choice without fear. 

Stein and the Greens have not only considered why the simple solutions haven’t already been adopted, but lay out a detailed critique of the matter. One of the biggest reasons is the strategy Reed lays out, the prevailing logic of voting in America: lesser evilism. There are other reasons, such as corporate financing of major party politics. But Reed knows all those other reasons so why rehearse them here? The point is that his characterization of the Green Party is a straw man, which is reduced to spitting by the last paragraph. 

The notion that supporters of the Green Party are not social activists is also a straw man. What would Reed suggest that a strong and coherent progressive program is unimportant? Or that it should be kept secret from the public? Does he think we should or should not have a conversation about our future? Because the purpose of this sort of essay is really a call for the closing of minds. This bit about “the technicistic inclinations of the professional-managerial strata….” Because the professional-managerial strata is dominated by young indebted Americans and community activists? What is the evidence for that? 

As for Heaven and good and bad people – not people, but principles, ideas, and values. But what would a Trump victory mean over against what a Clinton victory would mean? If one is going to shill for the Clinton campaign, shouldn’t he spend some time laying out what a Clinton victory would mean? Anything that would make her look, crude rhetoric aside, significantly better than Trump?

Reed said in 2014 that we are left with a choice “between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.” Can Reed take some time to elaborate the gap so we can know how Clinton will benefit us? And, frankly, twenty percent is rather generous.

So Obama wasn’t the lesser evil I should have voted for instead of Stein in 2012? How did we go from a soap-operative vote for Stein to beliefs that Trump will block the TPP or retract the imperialist war machine? We know Clinton won’t. That’s what gets my attention. “Elections are much more likely to be effective as vehicles for consolidating victories won on the plane of social movement organizing than as shortcuts or catalysts to jumpstart movements.” Like the electoral history that followed the Civil Rights movement? You know, mass incarceration and police militarization and violence?

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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