Current Magazine

The Moderate's Manifesto: The Lesser of Two Evils

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

The late great Jerry Garcia once said, “constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” For a moderate independent such as myself, the frustration of having the limited choice to vote for either the Democrat or the Republican candidate can sometimes feels like a choice between two malevolent overlords. Hardly a choice at all. A poll taken by Rasmussen in July found that only 45% of voters were actually enthusiastic about either re-electing President Barack Obama or voting for the challenger Governor Mitt Romney. Unfortunately for democracy in America 46% of voters said they would be voting for the lesser of two evils (“46% Will Be…”). The irritation of wanting to cast a democratic vote while also feeling that there aren’t any decent options to choose between is palpable in America today.

I do not like the less of two evils characterization of elections, finding it a trick of rhetorical political framing rather than a true insight into morality. The statement is devoid of nuance and is similar to such erroneous generalization as, all politicians are evil, that government is best which governs the least, or that shopping at Target is the lesser of two evils. Superlative is not appreciated much by this moderate independent. I prefer practicality and prudence, principles that find meaning in contexts and contingencies. For example, I see the role of government as one that requires evolution over time in coordination with emergent and expected changes in the world, however not in the progressive sense but in the prudential sense. From this perspective I appreciate both liberal and conservative arguments about the role of government. I do not vote for the lesser of two evils, rather I maximize my influence on the best chance for the best potential outcome.

Weighing Evils?

How do we define evil? We must make a brief attempt to answer this question if we are to decide how to choose between two evil options. If you study theology or the philosophy of religion you are bound to come across the problem of evil, the argument that an omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect God is inconsistent with the existence of evil in the world. With murder, war, disasters, disease, and other tragedies happening all the time, why wouldn’t an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God do something to end humanity’s endless suffering on Earth? Many ways out of the problem have been proposed. The powerful influence of the Devil in the world, offering temptations that lead the flock astray, is a good enough explanation for most believers. Evil is incarnated and personified.

Saint Augustine thought that just as light cannot exist without darkness, evil needs to exist for the good to be seen, a figure and ground construction to morality reminiscent of eastern religions, such as the Yin and Yang of Taoism. Freewill, as well as broad political liberty, could not exist unless we can also elect the option to use this lack of constraint to commit sin (see my article Mardi Gras and the Liberty to Sin), and we what capable sinners humans make. Still, our salvation could not come without our inherent need for saving, born as we are into an imperfect carnal circumstance. Those less theosophical find evil rooted in the human condition, greed, anger, jealousy, and malice need not be questions of the divine, but related simply to drives and deprivations. Whatever the source of evil in the world, to steal a line from Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. I suspect that you know evil when you see it too, even if we may not always see the same things as evil. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that we should leave notions of good and evil behind, because these are really only points of view. What one considers good or evil depends on one’s perspective, such that morality is relative to the culture, socioeconomic class, and the historical era one belongs to. It is not my purpose here to agree with Nietzsche in any deep moral sense about good and evil, because I don’t, but I do think that his formulation is helpful for understanding the lesser of two evils dilemma in democratic voting. If 46% of American voters believe that they are casting a vote for the lesser of two evils this means that a similar number of people don’t see their choice as a vote for wickedness. In addition, the 46% must believe that they are able to weight relative evils, and decide which one represents the greater malevolence, and likely this group splits fairly evenly between the two major candidates as well. This highlights the relativism in moral perspective for political preferences. In this light evil might be too strong a word for voting choices, a colloquial exaggeration. Or perhaps third party rhetorical strategy.

The Third Party Argument

The frustration with having to vote for the lesser of two evils naturally leads to a sentiment for third party alternatives. However, there is a conundrum here. Why do so many people still vote for evil of any kind, when there are alternative third party candidates? Likely it is from a worry that to do otherwise might result in a win for the greater of two evils. Combined with a belief that voting for a third party candidate would be a wasted vote and result in only a spoiler, the fear of greater evils keeps citizens voting for mainstream candidates. Even when they are not excited about them. I think this is very frustrating to the enthusiastic supporters of alternative candidates, who view the major parties as fairly equal in their vileness and think a vote should be based on principle before utility. Jerry Garcia’s sentiment that you are voting for evil either way is most resonant with this mindset. My perspective on this is that a third party choice does not necessarily represent a vote for goodness over evil, but at best a vote for the lesser of three evils. The yearning for something more in understandable, but I strongly suspect the reality would fail to live up to expectations.

The largest impact that third party candidates have had on presidential elections in America is the spoiler effect. If the third candidate leans to the right they pull votes from the Republican and if they lean left they pull votes from the Democrat. In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party pulled votes from the Republican incumbent President Howard Taft and this likely led to a win for the challenging Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Most recently, in the year 2000, the upset was in favor of Republican George W. Bush. He beat Democrat Al Gore when the populist third party candidate Ralph Nader pulled votes from the left. It’s possible that some of these third party voters would have abstained absent these extra options, but I doubt that would have been enough to make the spoilers immaterial to the actual outcomes. The spoiler examples illustrate a persistent problem that arises in some circumstances of plurality voting. When a third candidate garners a fair share of the votes, and this results in a majority of voters ending up with the outcome which they favor the least, this demonstrates an irrational outcome from perspective of the democracy.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow showed that there is no voting scheme in a democracy that can completely avoid the possibility of irrational suboptimal outcomes. Plurality voting, pair-wise voting, top-two count voting, run-off voting, and Borda count voting–in which weighted averages are used to indicate preferences–are all susceptible to irrational outcomes. Every voting system, except a dictatorship, has the flaw that it cannot meet the criteria of either transitivity of cardinal vote preferences, unanimity and Pareto efficiency, or the independence of irrelevant alternatives. It is this last rule that was violated in the cases of Teddy in 1912 and Nader in 2000, irrelevant candidates in terms of their possibility of winning. However, had they been absent from the voting options the result would have been a different ultimate winner between the other two options. A paradox. It is unsettling that the removal of an irrelevant candidate from the running can result in a reversal of outcomes, and hardly an argument for a third party panacea to our electoral woes.

The solution to the third party problem is simple. Two major parties. I know this is not what everyone wants to hear, but this is the best setup for the true will of a majority to be carried out. At least in terms of electing a President. If a third party rose to such prominence that their candidates were equally viable when pitted against a Democrat and a Republican for the presidency, then this would mean that they commanded about 33% of the vote. Say that this hypothetical party is the Moderate Centrist Party (MCP) and they capture the voters that reside in the middle between the left and right wings. And suppose that the MCP wins an election with 34% of the vote, and the other two campaigns come close to winning at 33% each. Does this result in a happy majority? Perhaps, but likely only if the MCP leans to one side of the political spectrum for purposes of coalition building and policy preferences. Optimally the centrists could create temporary coalitions on both sides of the aisle to implement the most sensible ideas from the liberal and conservative viewpoints, with a balance. This scenario sounds like centrist utopia to me, an idealism that hardly appears forthcoming, but one I would love to see as a moderate independent. Unfortunately the most likely outcome of an America with three major parties is the same as with two, discontent and frustration with the regime from those who favored another option, except with three parties the number of discontented could actually rise.

It often seems to me that the most prominent argument I hear for third parties is that they are an alternative to the corrupt two party system. This is a valid argument as far as it goes, but wouldn’t a better place to start federally be the House of Representatives? I usually hear third parties focus on criticism of being underrepresented and their protests about not being included in the mainstream debates, but I think this overshadows the actual platforms and policy prescriptions of third parties. It would be good to get more airtime around the third party principles. However, I have looked into the principles of the Libertarians and the Green Party and I am not impressed, either finding disagreement or being skeptical of their idealism. This is just me, so I recommend others research the differences if you think it’s worth your time. Even though I am not a Democrat or a Republican party member I find little reason to vote third party. My hypothetical exception would be in the case of an emergent centrist party.

Minimizing Losses

In the world of business and finance operations the agenda is to maximize profits. This prerogative of private equity, and by implication corporate America more generally, has been the focus of attacks by the Obama campaign and the Democrats against GOP contender Romney and his tenure as CEO of Bain Capital. Profit maximization is the primary goal of private enterprise, and it makes no rational sense for it not to be, so these attacks are tricky and require nuance on the fine point of job creation. It is not my intention to get into the debate over private equity and jobs, I just want to emphasize the point that rational and economical decision makers seek to maximize profits, because the alternative of intentionally seeking lower profits, or losses, is irrational within the context of business. I think this same logic can be applied to Presidential choices. In terms of the lesser of two evils arguments, its better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

If you are a loyal party member on the left or the right then the profit maximizing choice should be apparent, voting for your party’s nominee is the obvious and rational decision. It would be either irrational or a betrayal to do otherwise. However, the rational option is less obvious when you were never one of the party loyalists to begin with, or when the candidate alternatives are all so subpar that it feels like an abandonment of principles to cast a vote for any one of them, or at least the viable choices. As a moderate independent I have voted for both Democratic and Republican candidates, oftentimes mixing the ticket during election season, sometimes without a clear sentiment in favor of who I am voting for. So it is difficult to think about the choices I made as optimal or profitable, more like practical. However, if your options are constrained to those in which no profit is obtainable, the optimal strategy in business is to minimize your losses. So goes politics, so goes my vote.

An alternative characterization to the choice between the lesser of two evils is the choice between minimizing or maximizing your losses. In some sense losses are an evil, but they are not immeasurable. You can calculate the difference between two losing scenarios, making the analogy a helpful one for moving past the problem of moral weights when left with a decision between wickedness on one side and malevolence on the other. It feels dirty to vote for any kind of evil, even the lesser kind. With the alternatives framed this way the focus is not necessarily one of rationality but of emotion, since my choices are between two things which are both evil. Perhaps the most moral action in this situation would be to abstain from voting all together, or to cast for a third party who has little chance of winning. On the other hand, if my choices are framed as a decision of calculable and comparable losses between viable alternatives in a semblance of personal influence, then picking the viable candidate who is most likely to result in less of a loss for me is the option most optimal.


Some, mostly economists, might argue that voting itself is technically irrational at the level of the individual. A single vote is extremely unlikely to make the difference in any given election count, and this tiny contribution may even be less than the chances that one is killed on the way to the polls. Not to mention the time and energy it takes to research candidates, platforms, policies, and issues, such that the cost of becoming informed hardly seems worth it. Even when you know what you want, vote, and get the candidate you desire elected, the promises and pretenses which you voted for may still not materialize. Nevertheless, for some reason a large amount of voters irrationally cast their ballots every election season and democratic group decisions are made.

My answer to this dilemma is that sometimes the group acting collectively acts rationally even when the actions seem irrational in the hedonic calculus at the level of the individual, because we are not all islands unto ourselves. Voting is not individual. A voting population of only one person is an incoherent concept. Solitude makes voting a non sequitur. An election is an emergent process involving multiple agents, with individuals affecting the outcome through bottom-up causes based on individual preferences, but also with culture, media, and social interactions phase-locking the population into voting blocks that excerpt a top-down cause on individual decisions. Each specific set of policy preferences could be unique, but we would nonetheless have to clump together into voting blocs with platforms selected by group effort. We pick the policy set which most closely resembles our personal sentiments. From the election emerges a leader. The drive to vote is not based on rationality, it is the force of idea and motivation of spirit. The duty to vote is about principle before outcome, but the desired outcome drives the selection.

I am planning to vote for the re-election of President Barack Obama. To me this is not a vote for the lesser of two evils, but the best choice available. I have preferred Obama to all of his Republican challengers for a long time, and after watching his leadership in action during the response to Hurricane Sandy I feel highly confident in my choice. When President Obama was elected I had no strong expectations of the great hope and change he campaigned on, because my education and engagement with politics made me understand that this was a change-candidate strategy and the reality of American government is checks and balances. Although it seems to be more division and discord these days. Still, in my estimation President Obama has the better vision for our times. He is not the lesser of two evils. I believe that President Obama is the right and best choice for America.

Jared Roy Endicott

Works Cited

46% Will Be Voting For Lesser of Two Evils This Presidential Election”. Rasmussen Reports. 31 Jul 2012. Web. 31 Oct 2012.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog