Greater Good Versus Lesser Evil

Stephen H. Unger
September 13, 2016

Once again the major parties offer a choice between two terrible presidential candidates. The only novelty is that there is real controversy over which candidate is worse. Usually, the Republican candidate endorses the positions of big business interests with respect to financial matters, advocates more aggressive positions with respect to foreign policy and the military, and shows little, if any concern about the environment. The Democrat usually takes somewhat less extreme positions on these matters, and often has liberal positions on matters of little interest to the wealthy elite, e.g., on abortions.

But today, the Republican, Donald Trump, while following the conventional Republican line with respect to most financial matters, such as taxation, is deviating substantially in two important areas. He has vowed to sharply reduce immigration, which he claims (rightly) is adversely affecting American workers, and he says he would reduce our military involvement in the Middle East, and perhaps elsewhere. Of course, this may be only rhetoric--Trump has never held a government position, so we can only speculate as to how he would behave in office. In general, he appears to be an erratic, intemperate person, often contradicting himself. (Sadly, the other 3 candidates, in effect, all favor unlimited immigration [1][2][3]). I think this is a very bad idea [4].

What would Hillary Clinton do as president?

Hillary Clinton, after 8 years as an active First Lady, served as a senator, and then as Secretary of State. So she has a real track record in government. We need not pay much attention to her speeches and statements; her performance in office is a far better basis for estimating how she would behave as president.

Clinton has clearly established herself as a strong ally of Wall Street. While Secretary of State, Clinton strongly supported several trade agreements along the lines of The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), referring to it as "the gold standard in trade agreements". (But, more recently, as a presidential candidate, prodded by Bernie Sanders, she reversed herself and said she now opposes the TPP [5].)

Clinton has always been an enthusiastic supporter of aggressive military actions. For example, as a senator, she voted for the Iraq attack [6], and fully backed legislation aimed at beefing up the military. As Secretary of State, she played a major role in instigating the assaults on Libya [7], and on Syria [8], that devastated the people of those countries. She has always fully supported the use of drones [9].

(As a footnote: I was sickened by a brief video [10] showing Clinton laughing about the brutal killing of Moammar Gaddafi.)

Hillary Clinton, certainly in comparison with Trump, is a smooth politician, often mouthing lofty sentiments. Because her rhetoric is more carefully crafted, and delivered than Trump's, many rank and file Democrats would strongly tend to go along with whatever she did as president, while most Republicans would not oppose some of her worst actions. Trump is not a politician, does not have the full support of Republicans, does not have any organization backing him, and would face significant opposition from Democrats. As president, he would not be able to do much--good or bad. Clinton would be able to do a lot more damage than Trump, even if we give no credence to his positive positions regarding avoiding military clashes with the Russians and Chinese, and his declared intent to cut down on immigration [11]. (Note that Trump is the only presidential candidate who has stated strong opposition to immigration, which is an important factor in the employment problems of a great many Americans. This probably accounts for Trump's popularity among working people.)


Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have received large sums of money from big corporations, and from wealthy people, via at least 3 different mechanisms: fees for speeches, donations to the Clinton family foundation, and campaign contributions. From 2001 thru last spring the Clintons received more than $153 million for speeches, mostly to audiences of executives of financial giants such as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank. Fees averaged well over $200,000 per speech [12].

Why are the Clintons on such warm, friendly terms with the rulers of Saudi Arabia? [13][14]. The Saudis, surely one of the most brutal dictatorships, have donated millions of dollars to the Clinton family foundation, and the Clintons have facilitated the sales of powerful weapons systems that the Saudis are now using to devastate Yemen.

How to become politically powerless

A common reaction to arguments for voting for a third party presidential candidate is that such "throwing away of one's vote" is a quixotic gesture--an irresponsible act--since it amounts to shirking an important responsibility as a citizen. For decades, people generally characterized as "liberals", or "progressives", have routinely voted for candidates they disagreed with on many, if not most, important issues, in order to help prevent the election of another candidate that they felt was worse. This is a powerful argument. Many thoughtful, moral people have been swayed by it. But, experience has shown that it is shortsighted. Let's look at what has happened in terms of presidential elections since WWII.

In a typical election, the Republican candidate takes positions clearly favoring environmental abuse, wealthy interests, and militarism. The Democrat, while verbally expressing beautiful liberal sentiments, in effect, usually takes similar, but somewhat less extreme, positions on these topics, and takes liberal positions on some social issues of little concern to the wealthy. Liberal voters invariably vote for the Democrats in efforts to keep the Republicans in check. Since the Democrats, in effect, own the liberal vote, they can afford to, and do, ignore the wishes of liberals and adjust their political positions and actions to attract the votes of people inclined to support more right wing candidates. Republicans, of course, ignore liberals altogether (except perhaps to mock them.)

So liberals have virtually no influence on governmental behavior. One result is that, over the years, the government has been more and more controlled by the rich, which is why the rich have been getting richer, and most of the rest of us poorer. (A measure of the extent of this process is that the total wealth of the 20 richest Americans now exceeds the total wealth of half of the US population [15].) At the same time, the environment is deteriorating, and we are virtually in a permanent state of war.

The need to look ahead

What can be done about this? The key is to look beyond the next election. Since it is hard to imagine turning things around in one election cycle, it is necessary to accept the possible election of the worst candidate at the start of the transition process. Rather than foreclosing the prospect for a better set of options next time around, a more forward looking strategy is to vote for a really good candidate in the current election, even if that candidate has little chance to win. I.e., vote for a third party candidate. If enough people do this, then, the next time around, there would likely be a much better set of viable candidates on the ballot. (An unusual aspect of the current situation is that there is real room for disagreement as to which major party candidate is worse. As suggested above, a good case can be made that Clinton would likely do more damage than Trump.) If you think the idea of voting for a candidate very unlikely to win sounds far out, consider the following.

Susan Collins, serving her fourth term as a Republican Senator from Maine, is generally regarded as a moderate politician. So it very interesting that she recently said that she will not vote for Republican candidate Donald Trump, and also that she will not vote for Hillary Clinton [16]. Her reasons for this position are different from mine--we disagree on a number of important issues--but the fact that an experienced, middle-of-the-road politician such as Collins is rejecting the idea of voting for a lesser evil, even if it means she will vote for a candidate who will almost certainly lose, suggests that this is not such a wild idea.

It is clear that both major party candidates are widely disliked, and that many Americans, far more than in any recent election, will vote for one of the third party candidates. In 2012, thinking along the lines outlined above, I voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein [17], and I plan to do so again this year.


[1] Dan Moffett, "Clinton Supports Path to Citizenship for 11 Million",, June 15, 2015

[2] Tom Kludt, "Libertarian Gary Johnson: 'We should embrace immigration'", CNN, August 24, 2016

[3] Jill Stein, "Power to the People Plan", Platform

[4] Stephen H. Unger, "The Immigration Issue: Good Folks on the Wrong Side", Ends and Means, October 18, 2011

[5] Eric Bradner, "Clinton's TPP controversy: What you need to know", CNN, July 27, 2016

[6] Miles Mogulescu, "Hillary's Pro-Iraq War Vote Is Still a Really Big Deal", The Huffington Post, 1/29/2016

[7] Joby Warrick, "Hillary's war: How conviction replaced skepticism in Libya intervention", The Washington Post, October 30, 2011

[8] Jessica Schulberg, "Hillary Clinton Promises A More Muscular Foreign Policy As President. From Iran to Syria to Ukraine, Clinton wants the U.S. to be more aggressive", Huffington Post , Sep 9, 2015

[9] Lauren Carroll, "Hillary Clinton says by 2009, U.S. drones had killed 'dozens' of senior terrorists", Politifact, June 11th, 2014

[10] , "Flashback 2011: Hillary Clinton Laughs About Killing Moammar Gaddafi: 'We Came, We Saw, He Died!'", Real Clear, 6/19/2015

[11] Stephen Collinson, Jeremy Diamond, "Trump on immigration: No amnesty, no pivot", CNN Politics, September 1, 2016

[12] Robert Yoon, "$153 million in Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking fees", CNN, February 6, 2016

[13] Glenn Greenwald, "Why Did the Saudi Regime and Other Gulf Tyrannies Donate Millions to the Clinton Foundation?", The Intercept, Aug. 25 2016

[14] Medea Benjamin, "Hillary Clinton, The Podesta Group and the Saudi Regime: a Fatal Menage a Trois", The Huffington Post, 8/31/2016

[15] Joshua Holland, "20 People Now Own As Much Wealth as Half of All Americans", The Nation, December 3, 2015

[16] Sandy Fitzgerald, "Susan Collins: If I Wanted Hillary to Win I'd Endorse Her", CBS News, 14 Aug 2016

[17] Wikipedia, "Jill Stein"

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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