When ‘Lesser-Evil’ Misses the Point

The American Left is engaged in its quadrennial debate, whether to vote for “the lesser evil” Democrat or maintain political purity and either boycott the election or cast a ballot for a minor-party candidate. A similar argument in 1968 helped change the course of U.S. history, Ted Lieverman recalls.

By Ted Lieverman

I get uneasy when I see liberals and progressives complaining so vigorously about President Barack Obama’s lack of accomplishments. Sure, the last four years have seen many mistakes and disappointments by the White House. But when I think about the realistic choices in the 2012 election, I remember with embarrassment my own private scandal from many years ago.

Okay, it’s time to come clean. Remember the election of Richard Nixon in 1968? That was my fault.

President Barack Obama campaigns in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 9, 2012. (Photo credit: barackobama.com)

So there I am, a college sophomore, helping to run a local campaign office in Rockville Centre for Allard Lowenstein, an antiwar Democrat running for Congress in the Fifth District on Long Island. It’s the night before the election, and we are busy finalizing plans to contact voters, offer rides to the polls, respond to election irregularities, and flood our district with flyers.

Four nights before, President Lyndon Johnson had announced a partial halt in U.S. bombing of North Vietnam as a way of jump-starting the peace negotiations in Paris – and helping Vice President Hubert Humphrey win a close race against Republican Richard Nixon.

Lowenstein, who did more than anyone to dissuade Johnson from seeking reelection, who recruited Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy to run against him, has so far refused to endorse Humphrey. Now, he says in a large meeting of staff and volunteers, the bombing halt and Humphrey’s recent speech in Salt Lake City on the war have convinced him that endorsing Humphrey is necessary. Many of us are dismayed at his decision and, though we continue to work hard for Lowenstein, resolve not to help Humphrey.

As we work on election eve, a union rep comes in and, noting the lack of any campaign materials for Humphrey, starts loading up our front table with flyers, brochures and bumper stickers. We coolly inform him not to leave those materials there, as this office is not supporting Humphrey. Angry and incredulous, he storms out. We pat ourselves on the back for our moral conviction and work through the night to prepare for the big day.

Election Day is hectic, and we’re still at the campaign party at 3 a.m. the day after. Lowenstein has won by a narrow margin, and the vote for President is still too close to call, with Humphrey trailing slightly.

You know the end of the story. Nixon wins, keeps the war going, expands it to Cambodia and Laos, wiretaps his friends as well as his enemies, amasses huge amounts of illegal slush funds, assembles a secret spy team known as the Plumbers, obstructs justice, and ultimately goes down in flames, resigning from office in 1974 while facing near-certain impeachment by the House of Representatives.

And why did Nixon win in 1968? Plenty of reasons, but the most immediate, and the one we had some control over, was the lack of effort by antiwar Democrats and the New Left who saw no important distinction between the candidates.

Maybe that’s true if you take the 30,000-foot view of politics but almost no one lives their lives at 30,000 feet. They live on the ground, with their hopes and fears as they raise families, seek and keep employment, pay the mortgage, and cope with the outside world.  Here on the ground who becomes President means the difference between health and safety regulations being enforced or ignored, between the water becoming more drinkable or more dangerous, between corruption being attacked or encouraged, between quality health care becoming more accessible or further out of reach, between pointless wars being encouraged or avoided.

The 2012 election presents a pretty stark choice. Either you support President Obama and fight for a government responsive to the needs of living human beings, based on the principle of one person, one vote or you go with Mitt Romney and the Republican vision of one dollar, one vote, where corporations and fetuses are people but women and workers are second-class citizens.

If Romney wins, Wall Street will be invincible and Sesame Street will be toast. Oh and the Supreme Court? Kiss it goodbye for a generation.

Some lefties talk about the trap of electoral politics, and how voting distracts from the real world of organizing. I’m all in favor of organizing (quick which candidate used to be a community organizer?), but no one says organizers can’t take 30 minutes one day every two years to vote. Voting is not the denial of popular sovereignty but its affirmation.

This is not about the lesser of two evils. This is a choice between two roads, between moving however slowly and haltingly to protect citizens through democratically elected government; or moving further towards de facto government by corporate giants. Your vote, your choice.

But don’t make that stupid, naive decision that it doesn’t matter. Even though Humphrey took New York by over 350,000 votes, I still feel like I learned the hard way.

Ted Lieverman is a free-lance photographer and former lawyer in Philadelphia.

16 comments for “When ‘Lesser-Evil’ Misses the Point

  1. FoonTheElder
    October 17, 2012 at 10:50

    So I should choose the center-right corporatist Obama over the right wing super corporatist Romney.

    Obama showed his true stripes with Geithner, Bernanke and Emanuel as his main advisors. He completely ignored the people and issues which helped him get elected in the first place. When he had the votes to pass a program, Obama was more worried about passing big corporate welfare bills.

    Now that he has come back crying for left wing votes when his corporate buddies have abandoned him, you suggest we should all fall in line. Sorry, frankly Obama has done very little to warrant reelection. It’s just that his opponent in this corrupt political system is even worse.

    Neither deserve any support.

  2. 2random4chance
    October 17, 2012 at 07:00

    Being better than a Republician is a pretty low bar to get over one that most any snake can get over. So why do we have such a non-democratic system? Aren’t we entitled to have candidates that relect our views? Evidently we aren’t according to the author, we can only have Pepsi or Coke, no V-8.

  3. Vivek Jain
    October 17, 2012 at 01:26

    I live in a swing state and refuse to vote for either Obama or Romney. They agree on all the important issues–expanding executive power and authoritarianism, waging endless illegal imperialist wars, dismantling the welfare state, oppressing and exploiting workers, doing nothing to stop ecocide, extracting wealth from the 99% and burdening the public with enormous debt, etc–so why would anyone cast a vote in support of this agenda?

    It makes no sense to complain about the right-of-center politics of Washington and simultaneously endorse one of the corporate fascist warmongers.

    • elkern
      October 18, 2012 at 18:54

      No, they don’t agree on ALL the important issues. Do you REALY think that Gore would have been as bad as Cheney/Bush? Even if someone had shot Gore, making Senator Palpatine (Joe L) Emperor, we’d still be in a better place now.

      This week’s Rmoney loves Big Coal; what are the chances he’ll do anything but make Global Warming worse?

      Have you ever heard of the US Supreme Court?

      I, too am pissed at the “collateral damage” (dead people) from Obama’s continuation (expansion?) of Bush’s use of drone warfare. But you can’t seriously think there would be less carnage under a Republican president.

      The Democratic party is generally spineless & amoral, seeking power primarily to distribute rewards to it’s constituents. But the Republican party is overtly evil, and resolute in pursuing the destruction of our planet & our country.

      If you can’t see differences, you’re not looking.

  4. zzzz
    October 15, 2012 at 15:09

    Aww, lookit him trying so hard to make us give a crap about his make-believe democracy.

  5. elkern
    October 15, 2012 at 12:15

    I’m a Safe-State Green, so I’ll probably indulge in voting for Jill Stein. If I lived in a Swing State, I’d gladly vote for Obama.

    It’s not that complicated.

  6. C. Foerster
    October 15, 2012 at 07:32

    To follow Mr.Lieverman’s line of thinking is to fully embrace the sheeple philosophy, join the largest crowd of bleating animals you can find, never mind that all of them in the barnyard are going to the slaughterhouse.

    • October 15, 2012 at 17:31

      @C. Foerster, my sentiments exactly. When faced with death, I strongly believe I would prefer decapitation versus death by a thousand cuts. Two thoughts come to mind. First, why is there always the unchallenged assumption that Democratic senators and congressman can’t stop Republican Presidential madmen? Perhaps the answer lies in their fecklessness. I’ve yet to hear a coherent response to my question to Democratics: “How was George W. Bush able to do whatever the hell he wanted despite having historically low approval ratings, and near visceral hatred by the majority of Americans and Democratic control of the House and Senate? Still waiting for that answer. Second, were it not for Obama’s fecklessness, we would not be having this consersation. Obama rode to office with one of the strongest historical mandates of all time and proceeded to immediately squander it. He alone gave rise to the Tea Party because he refused to vanquish the GOP using the bully-pulpit, and the executive and administrative machinery at his disposal. No, he wanted to be “Lincolnesque” whatever that nonsense meant and so instead of sticking a knife in the GOP cut he reached out his hand like a lamb or dove, we see what good that has wrought?

      With Citizen’s United there is no electoral process or democracy. In fact there is an article at this site that now warns us that the corporations have their sights set on the statehouses. Really? If you live in Iowa this is old news, the Right Wing money came in and disrupted our judicial process by having some Supreme Court Justices removed who were in favor of gay marriage. Iowa prided itself on a stellar system devoid of money and politiking, where judicial officers were selected based on parity and qualifications. The judiciary in is not elected in Iowa.

      Both parties will continue the warmongering, will dispense with the social safety net, will coddle corporations and large banks, won’t reform the tax code to help small businesses and will allow cut-throat capitalism and wealth concentration to run rampant.

      Yes, everybody in the barnyard is going to the slaughter house. If the doctor told me I have 6 months to live do I accept it or pretend that I have 9 months to live, death is quick and inevitable either way.

      Mitt will only be able to do what we all supposedly fear BECAUSE THE DEMOCRATS WILL AIDE AND ABET HIM, just like they did Bush II>

      • October 15, 2012 at 19:46

        By the way, did I fail to mention that Obama has been an equal opportunity warmonger? Invading Libya under false pretenses and his incessant, destabilizing EXTRATERRITORIAL drone warfare. And what about his continued evisceration of our Civil Liberties by amping up Bush II Patriot Act nonsense, his prosecution of Whistle Blowers, his treatment of Assange and Bradley Manning, his operationalizing of Bush and the Neo-Cons Africom, his coddling of Middle East dictators and jihadists in the name of advancing the CIA concocted Arab Spring, his continuation of GITMO and domestic surveillance.

        I could go on and on, but critical thinkers should get the point. As Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report writes, Obama is not the lesser of evils, he’s the more effective evil.


        Obama has silenced the Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party and continued Bush policies in a stealthy way that no Republican could match.T This explains his “debate” performance. When Mitt morphed into a “centrist” and “moderate Republican” no one could distinguish the differences between him and Obama, especially Obama himself. Hence his “deer in the headlight” performance.

        Has Obama talked about cuts in defense spending? Of course not, but he has talked about cuts to social safety net programs, albeit in a stealthy manner. Mitt “outted” him in this respect during the “debates” hence his silence. He caught Obama off guard such that Obama could not go into detail or specifics regarding what Obama and the Dems will cut.

        As Glen Ford says, Democrats can “block” things too, but will they?
        Let’s go back to Bush II’s term for the answer.

  7. October 15, 2012 at 03:31

    Romney may represent a particularly odious specie of financial parasites, but Obama is equally in thrall of big business interests. Voting for either of these crass servants of the military-industrial complex is simply giving validation to an utterly corrupt system. Maybe voting is meaningful on a local or state level, but in the US national elections are a pathetic charade.

    • October 15, 2012 at 20:07

      Yes Obamascam is a tool of Wall Street, but Romoney is Wall Street in person and a vulture at that. Look at Ryan’s budget, which is the only concrete example of the substance of their platform, it means the total gutting of the middle class. The US will start to resemble a feudal state. There is a reason neither he nor Romoney can be pinned down to specifics on their platform; the reality is so awful for the rest of us they don’t dare admit it. And for women, listen to Ryan, kiss Roe vs. Wade goodbye.

      As far as validating a corrupt system, as long as we have winner take all elections we will have the two party duopoly. Third parties are knocked out or absorbed by winner take all elections. That and institutionalized bribery(private campaign contributions) are the core of the problem.

      Look at Ryan’s inspiration, Ayn Rand, the apostle of uber-selfishness, survival of the fittest, let the weak expire, social Darwinism; if you look deep into what was the core of Nazi ideology you will see the same thing. This guy is from another world.

  8. October 14, 2012 at 23:11

    This article fails to mention that Nixon sabotaged the 1968 peace talks(as was illustrated in this site) depriving Johnson of a chance to boost Hubert-for what little he was worth- and giving Tricky Dick a chance to claim he could do it better. So I don’t think the author should feel so guilty, or give “anti-war democrats” so much discredit; they really didn’t have that much influence.

    If you are going to compare today’s choices with yesterday’s however, most of the politicians back then were at least sane; yes many crooked as hell and/or chronic confabulators; but at least sane. After watching Ryan’s superb re-enactment of the behavior of a weasel(maybe I am insulting weasels) I have concluded that these guys are NUTS, they think in another continuum-maybe dis-continuum. Ryan is proud he is a fan of Ayn Rand and Romoney obviously is too, judging by his business activities-which El Clinton approves of- and disrespect for veracity, or might I go further and say reality. Ayn Rand was a classic sociopath though smart enough to stay legal. Gee if she had robbed banks instead of writing trashy novels she wouldn’t have done so much damage.

    Now our dear Obamascam told Romoney that their positions on Social Security were actually fairly similar, and it should be “tweaked” Reagan style. Translate that as snipping benefits here and there. The important point is that this is just a continuation of his emulation of the Neville(rhymes with servile) Chamberlain school of political negotiation. His choice of two conservatives, from both sides of the isle, who don’t care for SS, for the “Cat food commission” bodes evil for those who will live to their twilight years. His attempt to suspend habeas corpus; out of control assassination program-even La Clinton doesn’t like that one; abetting the biggest financial fraud in American history and numerous other fiascos render him one of the most destructive Presidents in history. OK Reagan still is in the lead in that respect with his tax re-write and budget bust, the gift that keeps on giving.

    But on the other hand, his opponents are INSANE and the next Pres may get to pick two Supremes. The election boils down to a good cop/bad cop routine; elect the Democrat or the Republican will kick your ass into dire poverty or even incite a multi-country Mideast war. Better take the plea bargain. My main metaphor now : A choice between an ongoing train wreck and armageddon.

  9. clarence swinney
    October 14, 2012 at 16:31

    Republicans 1980-2009 controlled Presidency for 20 years—Senate for 18 years-House for 12 years-6 years of total control
    In those 20 years our budget went to 3500 Billion from 600 Billion under Carter.
    Of course Clinton added a little of that 2900 increase.
    The Big 3 took Carter under 1000B debt to 10,000.
    Took Clinton surplus to a 1400B deficit. First time to exceed 1000B.
    Took Carter record job creation of 218,000 per month down to 99,000 per month.
    “Initiated” our involvement in 10 foreign conflicts. In 12, Carter + Clinton=0
    The Big 3 had recession in all or part of 7 years.
    The Big 3 destroyed our wonderful Savings and Loan Industry which was instrumental in the housing boom for Middle Class 1945-1980.
    The Big Three smashed our Housing Industry. !945-1980, it took 2.5 years of average income to buy an average size home to 5.4 years.
    The Big Three allowed Wall Street to Outsource entire Industries and in past decade close 58,000 plants. I can show plenty in my home town.
    The Big Three alienated 1500 Million Muslims by invading their destitute unarmed Iraq
    of only 15 million adults. What had those 15M done to us?
    The Big Three invaded a Muslim nation of 50% illiterates, third poorest nation and no arms.
    The Big Three allowed Wall Street Gamblers to turn into Casino Derivative Of America.
    The Big Three allowed Inequality of Wealth And making us #4 in OECD nations.
    The Big Three penchant for tax cuts for the richest made us #3 As least taxed in OECD just below Chile and Mexico.
    The Big Three allowed us to become #2 in OECD in least tax on corporations
    Want a BIG FOUR then elect Mitt Romney.
    Want to cut the minimum wage?
    Want to change Social Security and Medicare?
    Want to waste more on our overloaded wasteful killing machine empire?
    Want to invade Iran?
    A disgusted Independent

  10. F. G. Sanford
    October 14, 2012 at 12:40

    There is something inherently incestuous about this argument. “Let me see…should I have sex with my sister…or my wife’s sister…” On the one hand, I’d be a pervert…but on the other, I’d just me an immoral stud, and let’s face it, plenty of people would say I was just responding to the moral compunction of “lesser evil”. The idea that I should defer gratification wouldn’t enter into it. And, my sister-in-law is REALLY hot! If I don’t do it now, I might never get another chance!

  11. Morton Kurzweil
    October 14, 2012 at 12:32

    There is no lesser evil when the only good is the preservation of our secular democracy. The perversion of the first amendment by religious ideologues at home and abroad are the clear and present danger faced by every generation.
    The Arab spring is being subverted by sharia hypocrisy. The New Deal has been under attack by the same forces of greed and corruption that cause the great depression and the Bush depression. The blame is not our leadership. It lies in our naive trust of our leaders.
    Do not believe the wizard behind the curtain. Do not look to the others he blames for our insecurity. We are to blame for the loss of inalienable rights and liberties, The cost in our blood, our fortunes and our sacred honor, no matter who the enemy.

  12. Ernest Spoon
    October 14, 2012 at 10:34

    I have come to the conclusion, over the years, that the ideologically pure left is just fine with the greater-of-the-two-evils winning elections and further solidifying its control, since this gives the ideologically pure left the satisfaction of saying, “Told ya so,” when the dust settles and nothing improves.

    Currently smug leftest MickyZ is fomenting a “boycott the vote” movement among the “free thinkers” of the ideologically pure left. Since there are a great number of Z’s fellow citizens who do not nor ever voted, for reasons both legitimate and spurious, all so-called boycott accomplishes is awarding the dedicated ideologically pure leftest the excuse to stick his/her head in the toilet on November 7 and enjoy the wonderful aroma of rose peddles, orange blossoms and cinnamon wafting up from the remains of last night’s dinner.

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