The Lesser of Two Evils

Recently by Ellen Finnigan: A Catholic's Case for Ron Paul

The devil 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 praised 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.

Civic Religion

Democracy is 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.

In South 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:

Sharon: You can’t judge the merits of voting on whether or not your candidate won.

Randy: Your vote still mattered.

South Park 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 Day.

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 wars of aggression based on lies, the mass killing of innocents, the surveillance state, rigged elections, fascist economic policies, propaganda, the destruction of the dollar, the unfettered accumulation of debt, the glorification 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?

The Lesser of Two Evils

Some people 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.)

This position 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 of evil.

Here's what Orwell had to say:

Underneath 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:

The choice 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.

The lesser-of-two-evils 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.

No Other Choice?

The question, 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 is this:

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.

This passage 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.

What should 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," right?

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.