Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

I read from time to time about people who have decided not to vote because they are tired of making a choice between what feels like the lesser of two evils. Perhaps their candidate of choice got elected and compromised more than they “should have.” Or neither of the candidates truly reflects the person’s convictions. I’m hearing from some folks in Illinois that neither of the senate candidates is all that great.

I agree that holding one’s nose while voting doesn’t exactly inspire excitement. You think to yourself, “Out of the entire country (state, city), these two clowns are the best candidates we could come up with?” Doesn’t make you want to hop out of bed and stand in a long line at the polls before work.

And yet isn’t life often about choosing between two imperfect (sometimes highly imperfect) options? I know a woman whose mother was in a slow decline due to illness, and in the end, she had to choose between two different therapeutic options, one of which would lead to congestive heart failure and the other to kidney failure. In the former case, death can come more quickly, but it’s an anxious, uncomfortable process. In the latter case, the person just slips away, but it can take longer.

Talk about the lesser of two evils.

Recently while I was pondering a decision, some friends asked me, “What’s the worst that can happen if you choose X, or Y?” Now, in this case I was trying to decide between two good things. And with two good things, you really can’t go wrong, and it’s freeing just to do the best you can with the decision.

But really, at its heart, “What’s the worst that can happen” is a question about minimizing the negative outcomes. Kind of a “do the least harm” thing. And sometimes that’s the best we can do. So much is out of our control; even the outcome of our decisions is largely out of our control.

Back to voting. I’m always thrilled when there’s a candidate that aligns exactly with my values. Hardly ever happens though. So I go with the one that’s slightly closer to me than the other, and then I call and write letters and do all that stuff one does, including supporting a primary challenger who more accurately reflects my values, if it comes to that.

I hope that doesn’t make me complacent, or a pessimist. I just remember that ten years ago, a third-party candidate convinced a good number of people that there was no difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, I don’t know anyone credible today who thinks that an Al Gore presidency would have been “no different” than the George W. Bush one.

I learned in seminary that the book of Exodus gets its name from the Greek which means, “a way out.” I love this. It’s not THE way out, it’s A way out.

In one sense, this can speak of abundance (something I write a lot about)—God could have rescued the people in any infinite number of ways, but chose this one.

But you can also see it with a different slant, a sort of “eh, there might be other ways to do it, maybe even better ones, but this gets the job done.” Kind of a MacGyver God: the world’s an imperfect place; you don’t always have the tools you need, so you kinda do the best with what you’ve got. So if you’re MacGyver, you break yourself out of the bad guy’s lair with the chewing gum and the brillo pad, and if you’re the American voter, you try to make the world a better place with a candidate that you find the least offensive.

As I said, this doesn’t inspire a lot of excitement, and we should all work for change—does anyone NOT agree that our campaign finance system is broken?—but such is the world as it stands.

I don’t know. No pithy conclusion here. Just thinking.


8 thoughts on “Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

  1. lukeluke says:

    It’s strange how the idea of “not voting” or “not participating” is not in itself the lesser of 3 evils, but that is a whole ‘nother.

    I also love when people flip the cliche on it’s head and refer to it as the “Evil of 2 lessers”.

    I wonder if a problem people have in using the “lesser of 2 evils” approach is related to people’s tendency to see things in their dualistic, extreme form. This or that. Good or evil. I like or I hate it. Thumb up or thumb down!

    We are so used to seeing things that way, as existing in neat little categories that never meet, that it can be hard for us to see issues as a continuum, and solutions as numerous.

    I read a great book on Zen that talked about maintaining and cultivating a “beginner’s mind” and avoiding the tempting, yet shortsighted “expert view” of the world. Heads so full of opinions that new possibilities and truths have no room to grow.

  2. the local MD says:

    Please keep thinking. I use to keep my thoughts to myself. When “W” was elected to the office of Governor of Texas and his first offical act was to sign the concealed handgun bill, which Ann Richards had vetoed twice, I began talking to everyone who would listen, including patients. I am amazed at the excuses for not voting.

  3. sherry says:

    I am very sorry to say that I spoke with 3 people in the lunch room today that do not think the campaign finance system is broken.

    I can’t wait to move.

    In the last election I had a clean sweep: Nothing went the way I voted. Nothing.

    • MaryAnn says:


      Something like 87% of the public was opposed to the Citizens United ruling by the SCOTUS, which has had a profound impact on campaign financing this time around. It’s amazing to me that 87% of us can agree on ANYTHING.

      Looks like you live in the land of the 13 percenters.

  4. sherry says:

    And by “the last election”, I mean the most recent primary. The last presidential election did go the way of my vote.

  5. I was once the very vocal politico-type. I had my opinions and they were right. Whichever candidate best represented my core ideals won my vote and time.

    If they won, I’d write them and meet with them to advance my ideals. I voted because I wanted them to do for me. After all, that’s why I contributed time and money to their campaign; so they can do the work.

    Looking back, I don’t think they really cared what I wanted to see done; they just wanted my vote. In all honesty, I don’t think I really cared to much for anyone else’s ideals, unless, of course, they agreed with mine.

    Today, my view of political participation is much different. I don’t see politicians representing the people. If they can’t accomplish a campaign promise, it’s the other party’s fault, not theirs. Easy out.

    As a result, I choose not to vote. I feel that forced change isn’t real change. It’s temporal. The only thing I can really do is to be the change I want to see. I look for others doing and join them in that work.

    If America, generally speaking, continues to buy in to the idea that we don’t have to do, that’s why we elect people to represent us, nothing will really change.

  6. Jeremy says:

    This enthusiasm gap thing has been bugging me a lot lately. It’s not hard to vote. It’s really easy and getting easier all the time. 2008 was likely the highest voter turnout I’ll see in my lifetime. It took maybe an hour out of my day, tops. Voting in this mid-term will require probably 20 minutes of effort, if I don’t hit the traffic lights right. What excuse do people really have?

    As far as Citizens United, hate the decision, I think it’s one of the worst things that could have happened to our already broken campaign financing system. That said, once it’s been decided that money is speech, and corporations have similar rights to individuals, I can’t argue with their logic. The proper fix is probably a constitutional amendment to say money ISN’T speech and corporations AREN’T the same as individuals, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

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