In the summer of 2004, Michael Moore got down on his knees and begged his fellow guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, then-presidential candidate Ralph Nader, to drop out of the race. At that time, Bush and Kerry were in a dead heat in the polls—and just four years before that, Nader had led an energetic left-wing campaign that won almost three percent of the popular vote, resulting in a wave of accusations from liberals that the consumer advocate was directly responsible for Al Gore’s failure to carry Florida, and thus, the electoral college. Proponents of the “spoiler” argument pointed to Bush’s razor-thin margin of victory in the state as evidence that Gore would have won the election had Nader not been on the ballot.
In 2012, just as in ‘08 and ‘04, the spoiler argument is making its rounds on the Left to discourage discontented Democrats, liberals, and progressives from considering voting for a third party. This has become something of a modern election ritual for loyal Democrats: “Sure, [insert Obama or Kerry] isn’t perfect, but could you imagine four years of [insert Romney, McCain, or Bush]?”
The argument usually acknowledges some of the grievances of those flirting with a third-party—say, Obama’s horrific record on civil liberties or wars this time around—but then settles for a condescending appeal to the unsure voter to face the cold reality of politics, suck it up, and just vote for the Democrat. The politics of lesser-than-two-evilism, though, is ultimately based on myths and a large dose of historical amnesia.
A common myth is that the structure of the American electoral system doesn’t allow for third parties. This just isn’t true. The United Kingdom’s antiquated first-past-the-post system didn’t prevent four different parties from winning seats in Parliament in the last general election. In Canada’s House of Commons, five parties are currently represented. And in India’s lower house of Parliament, which also operates under a first-past-the-post system in the proud and archaic Anglo-Saxon tradition, more than 20 different parties are represented. Sure, it’s more difficult to elect third-party candidates this way than it is by plurality voting, but it’s by no means impossible.
Lesser-than-two-evilist liberals also tend to draw a false dichotomy about competing visions of social change from working “within the system” or “outside the system.” They contrast the radical, irresponsible moralizing of third-party voters on the left with the more serious, slow-moving way change is actually created by elected politicians. Progress is slow, they tell us, it requires patience and comes from electing sympathetic liberals who can do the nitty-gritty work of legislation and compromise.
The “inside” versus “outside” dichotomy is, of course, a false one—the act of voting for a left-wing third party is already working within the system, and as any good leftist knows, only a part of a broader mission of organizing and radicalizing using tools that both are and are not provided by the state.
Unlike many loyal Democrats, most third-party voters on the Left understand that politics isn’t just about voting every two years. But we recognize that voting is an effective and important tool for advancing an agenda, and that putting pressure on the main parties has historically achieved social change.
It was the Liberty Party that helped put abolition on the agenda in the 1830s, and the early campaigns of the Prohibition Party and the Socialists, working with the Suffragettes, that put women’s voting rights into the mainstream. And it was the Socialist and the Communist parties, in tandem with the mighty labor movement of the 1930s, that helped pressure President Roosevelt into supporting Social Security and sweeping reforms in labor law. Instead of obsessing over what might have happened had Nader not run in 2000, one should ask what might have happened had these old-school radicals embraced the self-defeating logic of lesser-than-two-evilism?
Amid the 40-year decline of the Left and increased corporate control of the political arena, the ideology of lesser-than-two-evilism is becoming more and more widespread. In cringe-worthy irony, it’s even preached by Georgetown’s own Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, a history of how left-wing social and electoral movements shifted political dialogue and won critical reforms.
But the stakes are simply too high to vote “pragmatically,” as Kazin’s current line of thought suggests. As young people facing a dreary future of war, austerity, climate change, and debt—no matter who triumphs on Tuesday—we’d do well to remember an old Parisian student slogan as we head to the polls, and for that matter, well after: Be realistic, demand the impossible.
Is leftism evil? Is Cole evil? Are we all evil? What’s the lesser of all the evils? Cole can answer all at firstname.lastname@example.org.