Lesser of Two Evils
by Ellen Finnigan
by Ellen Finnigan: A
Catholic’s Case for Ron Paul
always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites.
~ C.S. Lewis
In the South
Park episode "Douche
and Turd," South Park Elementary holds an election for
a new school mascot, and the students are given a "choice"
between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. The episode has been
for encapsulating the libertarian attitude toward voting. It certainly
encapsulates the libertarian attitude toward politicians, but the
episode has always bothered me as a libertarian and a Christian.
Despite its seemingly subversive message, it supports America’s
civic religion and promotes the idea of voting for "the lesser
of two evils." Christians who take their beliefs seriously
should do neither.
a "religion" in every sense of the word: It deals with
an unseen, mystical force (the popular will); it has a priestly
class that discerns the popular will (politicians and the media);
it has martyrs (soldiers), rituals (voting) and dogmas ("every
vote counts"); it aims to fulfill the spiritual need of human
beings to be a part of something larger than themselves; and it
treats non-believers (non-voters) as heretics to be shamed and ostracized.
Park, Stanley says he not going to participate in the election:
"I think voting is great, but if I have to choose between a
douche and a turd, I just don’t see the point." His attitude
gets him banished from town. Puff Daddy even tries to kill him as
part of his "Vote or Die" campaign. When Stanley eventually
comes to terms with the imperfections of democracy, he returns to
town to do his civic duty, and his candidate loses in a landslide.
Nonetheless, Stanley is once again part of the tribe, and he is
assured that his participation had meaning:
You can't judge the merits of voting on whether or not your candidate
Your vote still mattered.
lampoons America’s civic religion but ultimately endorses it. In
that way, "Douche and Turd" is no more "libertarian"
than the political satire in The Daily Show, Saturday
Night Live, or The Simpsons. These shows ridicule the
state of politics in America, but they never go so far as to question
the system itself. George
Carlin was the only entertainer that I know of who dared to
commit the heresy of saying that people should stay home on Election
To quote James
Bovard: "Voting is a process that consecrates the government’s
control of the people." If the choice is between a douche and
a turd, (moreover if you do not consent to ever-increasing levels
of government control, regardless of whether the person wielding
that control would be a douche or a turd or Steve Jobs or Mother
Teresa), then not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate,
is the best way for libertarians to make their voices heard.
Here’s my problem
with the much lauded South Park episode from a Christian
perspective: Note that Stanley’s opinion that "voting is pointless"
fails to take into account the question of evil, or what man should
do in the face of it. The episode portrays elections as absurd (fair
enough), but the question of evil never enters the equation, and
the potential consequences of the election are understood to be
negligible. Hence, Stanley’s attitude of blithe indifference can
only be considered understandable, rational and appropriate.
When it comes
to modern day American politics, though, there are serious stakes
involved. Given the destructive potential of America’s military
might and the clear desire in Washington to make use of it at every
turn, and given the State’s unique ability to destroy prosperity,
trample civil rights, and generally make life a living hell for
people, any Christian who believes in the Fall must concern oneself
with Presidential elections, if for no other reason than this: Systematic
evil is practically guaranteed when power is so concentrated. Even
if you don’t believe that the "douche" and "turd"
are evil human beings, per se, (even if you can listen to
Hillary Clinton’s giddy laughter here
at the mention of "taking out" Iran and not be bothered
by what is either her blithe indifference toward the horrors of
war or her brazen bloodlust), one would be hard pressed to argue
that there is not some kind of evil, pervasive and persistent, lurking
in the corridors of power in Washington. How else could one explain
of aggression based on lies,
the mass killing of
innocents, the surveillance
economic policies, propaganda,
of the dollar, the unfettered accumulation of debt,
of violence, the culture
of fear, the militarization
of the police, the control
of the press, the suppression
of free speech? If you believe that we, as a country, continue
to go in the same horrific direction regardless of whether the Republicans
or Democrats are in power, and that supporting either one would
be akin to supporting these evil endeavors, what do you do?
of Two Evils
insist that, even when both options are reprehensible, a voter still
cannot afford to sit out an election. To fail to vote or to "throw
away" your vote by voting for someone other than a Democrat
or Republican would be taking a defeatist or quietist stance. Man
has a responsibility to squelch evil (they might say), to prevent
it, combat it, but man must also be practical. So the question becomes:
How to combat evil? For this group the answer is a simple: Vote
for the lesser of two evils. (This is also known as the "Anyone
but _______" argument.)
is essentially pragmatic, and I recently came across an essay called
"No, Not One" written by George Orwell in 1941 that articulates
it perfectly. Mind you, in this essay, Orwell is not writing about
voting. He is writing about war. The impetus for the essay was book
called No Such Liberty, which had a message of pacifism,
an ideology which Orwell opposed and repeatedly denounced. Though
he is not writing about elections, I believe Orwell’s words here
effectively convey the logic behind the "lesser of two evils"
argument. Moreover, those who promote this logic with regard to
voting are often, to my mind, chauvinists and demagogues. They inflate
the evil of the "other guy" and exaggerate his vices,
while disregarding or excusing the infractions of "their guy"
and playing up his virtues, in order to create the illusion of contrast.
So while I’m writing here about voting, and Orwell is writing about
war, I think the parallel works: Orwell is talking about evil that
presented an immediate threat to the world in 1941, and as for the
"lesser of two evils" crowd, they always turn into alarmists
as the election draws near, painting a cartoonish picture of the
evil inherent in the other party and likening the election
to an apocalyptic showdown akin to a war against the forces
Orwell had to say:
this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face,
that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before
human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between
two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil;
or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is
no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will
not come out with clean hands. It seems to me that the text for
our time is not "Woe to him through whom the evil cometh"
but the one from which I took the title of this article, "There
is not one that is righteous, no, not one." We have all touched
pitch, we are all perishing by the sword…There is no such thing
as neutrality in this war.
Orwell is saying
that while war is evil, it is not as evil as the Nazis; therefore
it should be employed to conquer them. In terms of logical reasoning,
it seems one could just as easily write:
before Americans is not, as a rule, between good and evil but
between two evils. You can let the Democrats rule the world; that
is evil; or you can overthrow them by voting in the Republicans,
which is also evil. There is no other choice before you.
crowd admits that both options are evil, but maintain, like Orwell
did, that one is less evil than the other. Orwell was a clever chap,
and it is my suspicion that the majority of readers would agree
with his logic, which could readily be applied to voting; they might
say something about the "real world" and the impracticalities
or hypocrisies of pacifism and anarchism and personalism and all
other forms of "utopian" thinking that promote the conquering
of evil with something other than evil, and I can forgive
Orwell his pragmatism and compromise with the world because he was
certainly an ambiguous and lukewarm Christian, if he was a Christian
at all, and while he may have considered himself a member of the
Church of England and believed in a certain Judeo-Christian moral
code, he did not, it has been suggested by scholars, believe in
an afterlife or in the eternity of the soul.
to my mind, is: Can a Christian stop here? Can a Christian join
the lesser-of-two-evils crowd? Do we believe what Orwell says, that
"there is no other choice" before us?
I read something
years ago by a writer who was a contemporary of Orwell and no lukewarm
Christian: C.S. Lewis. It was a passage in Mere Christianity
only a few lines long that got lodged in my head, and I think it
has an eerie relevance to this whole issue of voting and the lesser
of two evils. In the passage, which follows, Lewis is writing about
the idea that that we are all one, as in "one body," yet
we are all different parts. He says that people usually have a tendency
to go too far in one direction: Either they overemphasize the point
of "oneness" and become "totalitarians," or
they forget that we are all connected and become "individualists."
But that’s not the idea that struck me. He was using this example
to make a larger, more important point about the way the devil works,
and if you’ve ever read his book The Screwtape Letters, you
know that Lewis had incredible insight into the psychological dimension
of evil. The larger, more important point he was trying to illustrate
I feel a
strong desire to tell you – and I expect you feel a strong desire
to tell me – which of these two errors is the worse [becoming an
individualist or becoming a totalitarian]. That is the devil getting
at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of
opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking
which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra
dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite
one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the
goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other
concern that that with either of them.
perfectly explains our habits of mind with regard to American politics
and perhaps the sinister nature of a two-party system. Is it merely
the "devil getting at us," by presenting two errors that
we begin to concern ourselves with, and no matter which way we go,
it is still error, and he has won? Think about it: Christians’ "extra
dislike" of Democrats draws them into the camp of the Republicans
(or vice versa). If only Christians could make a psychological break
with the "two errors" we are presented with! If only Christians
would try harder to think seriously and honestly about good and
evil, and keep our eyes on the goal, instead of concerning ourselves
with the lesser of two evils.
one do to combat evil? For starters, I would say stop endorsing
it, supporting it, approving it and condoning it with your vote.
Woe to him
through whom the evil cometh.
If you are
choosing the lesser evil, it is still evil, and you are registering
your consent to that evil. If you refuse to
vote, you are at least depriving them of that: your consent. Flannery
O’Connor once wrote: "Does one’s integrity ever lie in what
one is not able to do? I think that usually it does." So stay
home. Bake a cake. Say a prayer. Mow your lawn. Smoke a joint. Do
anything except vote. After all, the whole point of a Christian
life is to try your best to "come out with clean hands,"
At this point
I expect the "lesser of two evils" Christians to object
with: "But evil prevails when good people do nothing!"
But of course that argument rests on assumptions about what qualifies
as "doing something." Contrary to the methods of politics,
which seek to affect external change through the use of force, this
kind of "doing something" starts from within, in the individual’s
heart and soul. First off, a refusal to vote is a kind of resistance.
To a Christian who believes in temptation and sin and the reality
of evil in the world, the act of resisting qualifies as a very important
kind of "doing something," even if it appears to be a
negative act. But beyond that, a refusal to participate in the civic
religion can represent the positive act of giving-up of false idols.
If done mindfully, it entails an effort to ground yourself in a
deeper truth. It can mean a conscious commitment to a new way of
thinking about your choices, and a whole new way of orientating
yourself towards the world. It can act as a concrete expression
of your trust in a different kind of power. If you are a
Christian, you believe that all of this is not insignificant. The
work of faith is often quiet, and all change starts from within.
Any effort to water the mustard seed counts for something. It has
"real world" power, even if we can’t foresee or predict
what it will eventually result in or lead to.
If you must
vote, then don’t vote for the evil that you think is better. Vote
for that which you believe is good, for that which you believe is
best of all. In any case, voting, like everything else in life,
should be seen as a spiritual exercise, a psychological test. This
November would be a great time to practice what Lewis preaches.
Do not let
yourself be fooled. Find a way of going straight through.
Finnigan [send her mail]
graduated from the University of Montana with an M.F.A.
in Creative Writing. She recently published her first book, The
Me Years, and currently teaches
writing online to homeschooled kids.
her at ellenfinnigan.com.
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