In past election years, voting for the “lesser of two evils” meant choosing between two imperfect, somewhat corrupt candidates based on the individual appeal of their policies. Calling either candidate ‘evil’ was an exaggeration, a hyperbolic quip voiced during dinner party conversations. Evil describes acting with the immoral intent of harming others, especially those who are already vulnerable, and undermining the systems that protect the powerless. Nazis are evil; the KKK is evil; the damage done to indigenous communities in the past several centuries is evil. But political candidates are rarely flawed enough to be considered truly evil. “The lesser of two evils” more accurately describes the lesser of two disappointing options. This phrase, even as hyperbole, no longer holds merit in 2020.
In the months since former Vice President Joe Biden became the clear nominee, progressive Democrats have launched social media campaigns to urge hesitant voters to “Settle for Biden.” The core message of this campaign is that both Biden and President Trump are terrible choices, but at least Biden wouldn’t be as bad. Granted, the organizers of “Settle for Biden” acknowledge that a second Trump term would be significantly more dangerous for the nation than a Biden presidency, but their tone still expresses bitterness and disapproval. Essentially, they present Biden as the “lesser of two evils.” However, in the past four years, many Americans’ standards for ‘evil’ have changed dramatically. Begrudgingly awarding Biden the title of “less terrible” diminishes both Trump’s presidential record of truly evil policies as well as Biden’s potential to inspire national progress. Biden has flaws, and we should remember and acknowledge them when we vote in November, but he is far from evil. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and harmful policies will leave a tragic legacy, but his role in redefining ‘evil’ is particularly salient as we prepare for a charged general election season.
Using the phrase “the lesser of two evils” to describe the candidates from our major political parties indicates a moral dilemma at the heart of United States politics. Every four years, unhappy voters choose between supporting a candidate who does not exactly match their personal ideals or opting out of the two-party system. Some swallow their pride and pick “the lesser of the two evils,” while others stay home on election day or hand their vote to a third-party candidate. Third parties like the Green Party, for example, have capitalized on this “lesser evil” dilemma by encouraging hesitant voters to vote Green if they can’t reconcile their morals with the corrupt major party candidates. Although voting for the plucky Green Party candidate may feel like the morally correct choice, it often has an undesirable consequence considering the Electoral College favors a two-party system. Choosing the moral high ground and refusing to vote for any “evil” candidate instead tends to benefit the “greater of two evils.” We cannot afford this rhetoric in the 2020 election. The stakes are too high to risk another Trump term on the basis of political purity tests.
Political candidates are human; they are flawed, they make mistakes, and they occasionally pass unpopular policies. We should hold them to high standards because they serve as our representatives, but we should not expect them to be perfect. Appealing to a nation as politically diverse as the United States requires broad platforms that naturally will not please everyone. This makes politics difficult and politicians disappointing, but it does not make them evil. Biden has a problematic record on racial and civil rights issues, and his healthcare plan may not be as progressive as many young Democrats would like. However, he supports allocating funding for schools in low-income communities, taking action to combat the climate crisis, banning assault weapons, and implementing programs that would address the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite all of his poorly worded comments, he truly wants to improve standards of living for oppressed communities and the nation as a whole. He is not evil. His promises may not charm every American, but they represent a political campaign focused on harm reduction. Painting him as the “lesser” to Trump’s evil promotes a dangerous fallacy considering the threats posed by a second Trump presidential term.
Unlike the majority of past American presidents, Trump lacks political competence and respect for the United States governmental system. His fascist flirtations and blatant disregard for truth are unprecedented. In contrast to Obama and Biden, who implemented DACA to protect the children of undocumented immigrants, Trump instituted an inhumane, zero-tolerance policy of family separation at the Southern border that continues to have damaging psychological effects on children who were eventually reunited with their families.
While his treatment of undocumented immigrants is particularly shameful and damaging, even his own citizens are not spared from his cruelty and authoritarian intent. Since February, over 177,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Instead of focusing on controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus, Trump has spent the last few months attacking the Black Lives Matter protests on Twitter and intervening in state issues. In a manner that has been compared to a “secret police” in a fascist dictatorship, Trump has undermined the authority of Oregon officials and instructed federal police to detain Portland protesters in unmarked vans in order to quell civil unrest. Under previous administrations, the United States has issued public statements criticizing suppression of pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Cuba. However, with Trump in command, the rest of the world is losing trust in America’s leadership and role on the global stage.
As Trump’s poll numbers have fallen, he has turned his attention to delegitimizing mail-in voting. He is contesting an election that has yet to occur, as well as continuing his trend of harmful rhetoric designed to erode trust in United States institutions. Recently, Trump has even admitted to withholding funding from the USPS to limit the postal service’s ability to collect mail-in ballots that he worries could cost him the election. Further, he has inspired fervent paranoia among his supporters, frequently reminding them that they can’t trust immigrants or scientists or Democrats or the media or, apparently, elections with mail-in ballots. Presidents typically speak of unity, but Trump has actively exacerbated polarization in an already divided nation. His blatant disregard for empathy, caution, and truth makes him a strain of evil that we have not seen before in our government.
With this in mind, Biden is not the “lesser of two evils,” nor is he actually evil. He can be disappointing, he can be flawed, he can be human, but our standards for evil have changed so much in the past four years that Biden doesn’t even come close to earning that description. If Biden wins the presidential election in November, we will not have “settled.” We will have hopefully stalled our current downward spiral into fascism and raging hatred. Promoting this inaccurate “lesser of two evils” mentality could deter hesitant voters from casting a ballot, making it a profoundly dangerous message to share. We have heard evil speak from our TV screens, radios, and Twitter feeds for the past four years. We have confronted real, tangible evil and allowed it to guide the nation. Trump has redefined the idea of an evil politician with policies and rhetoric that we would, and have, condemned in other nations. Biden, with his promises to protect American citizens and extensive political career, is far from what evil has become.
Categories: Domestic Affairs