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Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and lesser-evilism: the liberals who cried wolf?

USA Politics

Photo by Ted Eytan/Flickr

Over the past week, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have officially accepted nominations from the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. Whatever one thinks of either Trump or Clinton, the realities of the American Electoral College and party system means that one of these two will be the next President.

But over the past weeks and months, people have been debating whether or not Clinton should be supported. From the ‘Bernie or Bust’ camp, the argument is that Clinton is part of the same elite culture as Trump, and that the two-party system is rigged against progressives. These calls have only intensified with revelations that the Democratic Party targeted Sanders in order to boost Clinton. Many in this camp are supporting the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

The counterargument from many—including Sanders himself—is that Trump has to be defeated at all costs, which means that Hillary Clinton must become President. Those who vote otherwise are simply pushing Trump into power. A frequent suggestion from her reluctant supporters is that she is the ‘lesser evil’ in a contest versus Trump. In this way, responsible progressives must plug their noses and support her.

I think the latter camp has reasoning more attuned to contemporary political realities. There will be no third party president. Even former president Theodore Roosevelt, when running as a third party candidate in 1912, failed to win. A largely unknown Stein will fare much worse.

Nevertheless, the former contingent is right to be skeptical of the lesser evil argument, even if this is the epitome of its applicability. This is largely because—in both Canada and the US since the 1970s—Liberals and Democrats have scared progressive voters with the threat that should they vote their conscience, they would elect Republicans or Conservatives.

But given that that Liberal and Democratic governments have often been on the forefront of regressive policy, it all strikes me as the old tale of the ‘boy who cried wolf.’ If Trump is the wolf that has to be stopped at all costs, those cries may have been rendered ineffective due to overuse.

If we go back to the 1970s, elections were run by the Liberals and Democrats on the idea that conservatives had to be defeated to prevent anti-labour legislation. While in 1974 Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield supported wage and price controls, Pierre Trudeau said they would be unfair to unionized workers. Trudeau thus suggested that, unless NDPers strategically vote for him, Stanfield would implement controls. The result was a majority for Trudeau, who then went on to implement those very same anti-worker controls one year later. Trudeau would also jail labour leaders like Jean Claude Parrot who dared to oppose his government.

Moving into the early 1990s, both Canada and the US were emerging out of a decade of conservative rule. In this context, Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien came to power in optimistic terms. But neither the Clinton nor Chrétien administrations defended workers or social programs. Both made stark cuts to public spending, downloaded costs to states and provinces, and demonized the poor. They thus served, not as a departure from Reagan and Mulroney, but a continuation—and in some cases intensification—of their governments. Indeed, the Chrétien and Martin attacks on public services and public servants dwarfed in some ways those of Stephen Harper. And despite Hilary Clinton’s popularity with African Americans, she and her husband attacked poor blacks through welfare cuts and the characterization of young black men as ‘super predators.’

Even recently in 2014, Ontario progressives were sold the message—by both the Liberal Party and Ontario Federation of Labour—that the goal was to stop Tim Hudak from becoming Premier. The argument was that his attacks on workers and public services would be so harsh that no other option was possible but a Liberal government. The results of the Liberal majority have yet to fully emerge, but it has included the privatization of Hydro Ontario and continued hostilities to teachers, nurses, and other public servants.

Stopping Donald Trump might well be the time and place to put forward a genuine argument for supporting a lesser evil, but given the above examples and many more, I won’t be too harsh on leftists who don’t believe the rhetoric. Because when l/Liberals did finally see a genuine wolf in Trump, their generations of false alarms may have done them in.

People have every right to vote for Hillary Clinton, be it for positive reasons or as a strategic choice. I won’t tell anyone how to arrive at their rationalization for exercising their franchise. But there needs to be recognition that a Clinton presidency is likely going to be bad for working people, poor people, and American unions. The latter is especially likely given her running mate’s support of right-to-work initiatives. Vote for Clinton as a lesser evil, but acknowledge the evil she’s upheld for her entire professional life. This includes her defence of Wal-Mart as a good employer and her support of the Iraq War, among other things.

The American people don’t deserve Trump, the world doesn’t deserve Trump, and even the average Democratic voter doesn’t deserve Trump. But liberal elites across the developed world do. It was their cuts to social programs, their imbalanced trade deals, and their attacks on the organized working class that set into motion such a potential catastrophe.

Christo Aivalis is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is under review with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV, and CBC.


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