Responses to Lerner on Lesser Evil Politics

By Frank, Barney; Benjamin, Medea et al. | Tikkun, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview

Responses to Lerner on Lesser Evil Politics


Frank, Barney, Benjamin, Medea, Kaplan, Rebecca, Roth, Robert, et al., Tikkun


The Candidates, Abortion & the Court, the People

THE CANDIDATES: AL GORE

Rep. Barney Frank

U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts

Michael Lerner blends two arguments. He begins by arguing that one should vote for the candidate with whom one agrees the most without regard to the consequences. He criticizes those who fail to vote for their ideal candidate "because they are scared of what will happen if some other candidate does win."

But what if the "other candidate" will oppress minorities, or worsen the situation in life of the most vulnerable, whereas the "lesser evil" candidate would try to help these two groups, albeit less completely than you prefer? To say that this is irrelevant is a very stark statement of your right to ignore the consequences of your own actions. Given the perennially imperfect state of democratic politics, it is a license for moral irrelevance.

How can people who are committed to improving the world insist on their right to ignore the results of their actions? Lerner's main defense of this position betrays its logical and factual weakness. He asserts, "To the extent that we come to believe that we have no alternative but to accept the lesser evil, we lose the inner quality of soul that makes it possible to fight for anything against the odds. In short, we become idolaters, bound to reality rather than asking how we can change reality. And that inevitably leads us to accommodate evil everywhere."

No, it doesn't. There is nothing at all inconsistent between deciding to choose the lesser evil at a given point in time, and simultaneously continuing to work so that the next time a choice has to be made, one may be able to choose an even lesser evil, or a greater good. This is in fact the essence of thoughtful, principled participation in politics.

Lerner is simply wrong to suggest that the committed liberals who are working hard to elect Al Gore are somehow deficient in our commitment also to changing American political reality. It is precisely those of us who work hardest at "changing reality" who disagree most vehemently with the argument that we should ignore it when election time comes. Take the example of Jesse Jackson, who, unlike Ralph Nader, has chosen to work with great force to improve the Democratic Party. Does Lerner seriously argue that by working hard for Al Gore, Jesse Jackson is "losing the inner quality of soul that makes it possible to fight for anything against the odds."

It is not simply liberal Democratic politicians who are making this fight. The leading advocates for gay and lesbian rights, the right of women to have abortions without governmental permission, and the right of society to regulate gun ownership in the interest of public safety all strongly support Al Gore over George W. Bush. None of us think Al Gore perfect. All of us have been working before this year to improve our society and will continue to work very hard for that afterwards. Neither empirically nor logically does it make sense to argue that those of us who will be supporting Al Gore in part because we are "scared of what will happen if ... [George Bush] does win" have in any way been corrupted or lost our willingness or ability to fight for a reality that will mean better choices the next time around.

As a morally serious man committed to fighting for social justice, Lerner does not seem comfortable with his assertion that we should vote for the ideal candidate without regard to the consequences, so he spends most of his essay in an effort to show that liberal values will not be worse off if George Bush wins. It is to his credit that he realizes that he cannot convincingly make the case for helping Ralph Nader unless he shows that a resulting win for Bush will not damage liberal values. But the case cannot be made and Mr. Lerner's effort is an example of polemical necessity being the mother of intellectual invention.

Among the consequences of a Bush win are those that have convinced the Human Rights Campaign, the National Abortion Rights Action League, Sarah Brady, and others to be passionately committed to a Gore victory.

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