Given the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a majority of voters must see this election as a choice between two evils.
There is a principled argument in favor of lesser-evil voting: act to bring about the best possible outcome. But there are several cases in which one can reasonably refuse to vote for the lesser evil: when there are no substantial differences between the evils; when both candidates are absolutely evil; or when the better of the two will clearly win, so you can show support for an alternative without contributing to the victory of the greater evil. The third of these does not apply in the current race — at least not in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District or any swing state. Whatever one thinks of Trump — quite a few Republicans consider him absolutely unfit for office and unworthy of a vote regardless of his opponent — one should concede that a Clinton administration would not be absolutely evil and that there are substantial differences between the candidates.
For moderate voters, average Democrats and Bernie Sanders supporters, a Clinton administration will offer further steps toward universal health care, some modest increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans, reductions in the cost of higher education, pay equity, minimum wage increases, job-creating investment in alternative energy and continued action on climate change, while solidly defending reproductive rights. For those who think she is no different than conservative Republicans, note that Clinton’s voting record and public statements, according to the website FiveThirtyEight, are “ more liberal than 70 percent of Democrats in her final term in the Senate.” She has also taken more progressive positions, in step with her party on marriage equality, immigration and criminal justice. So there are many positives, particularly in comparison with a Trump administration. Those who enable a Trump victory by not voting or voting for a nonviable candidate will move us in the opposite direction on all of these issues, with minorities and the poor feeling most of the pain.
Some consider Clinton untrustworthy. But she is as honest as most politicians and much more honest than Trump. Politifact rates Trump’s statements false or “pants-on-fire” 54 percent of the time, compared with 14 percent for Clinton. Clinton has been faulted for secrecy, often fueling suspicion and the Clintons’ coziness with wealthy donors is unseemly, but the relentless attacks over many years on Clinton’s alleged corruption, contributing to her unpopularity, have produced little of substance. Trump’s history of dishonorable business dealings, corporate welfare and misuse of charitable donations for his own personal use should alert us to the corruption we can expect in a Trump administration.
Clinton’s support for the Iraq War, which she now regrets, and her service as U.S. secretary of state suggest she would be more hawkish than President Barack Obama. Trump, with no record of public service, is harder to evaluate. He has made reckless statements about using nuclear weapons, wants to reinstate torture and has proposed deliberately targeting the families of terrorists — a war crime. His disdain for our treaties, our allies, and international law suggest that he would be a reckless and dangerous commander in chief, and innocents in other countries would pay the price. One’s vote can facilitate the greater harms, or help to prevent them.
Trump has stigmatized Mexicans and Muslims indiscriminately, appealed to uninformed prejudice and fear, and as president would exacerbate ethnic and racial tensions and violence. Anyone concerned about racism, bigotry and their consequences, should try to stop Trump by the only means available, voting for Clinton.
Despite these considerations, some people, in order to challenge a broken political system dominated by money, want to send an urgent message that they are not to be taken for granted or to give momentum to alternatives to the dominant parties. However, opportunities for reform will be better under a Clinton administration, whereas a Trump victory will divert energy toward fighting the forces of reaction emboldened by his victory. Also, third-party voters will be blamed for a Trump victory and will find it much more difficult to build alliances inside and outside the Democratic Party. Beyond presidential politics, you can support progressive candidates in winnable races and participate in social movements, such as the campaign for ranked-choice voting.
So vote as you must to minimize evil, then work for a better world.
Michael Howard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.