Lesser of two evils principle
The lesser of two evils principle, also known simply as the lesser evil, is the idea that of two bad choices, one isn't as bad as the other, and should be chosen over the one that is a greater threat. Some people consider the lesser of two evils principle to be an instance of the
false dichotomyfallacy, and its enemies include both revolutionarieswho oppose the system as a whole, and political moderatesadvocating that third parties be given equal weight in that system.
The lesser of two evils principle is today most commonly used in reference to electoral politics, particularly in Western
nations, and perhaps in the United Statesmore than anywhere else. When popular opinion in the United States is confronted with what is often seen as two main candidates — normally Democrat and Republican in the modern era — that are substantially similar ideologically, politically, and/or in their economicprogrammes, a voteris often advised to choose the "lesser of two evils" to avoid having the supposedly "greater evil" get into office and wreak havoc on society.
For a particular voter in an election with more than two candidates, if the voter believes the most preferred candidate cannot win, the voter may be tempted to vote for the most favored viable candidate as the lesser of two evils. Proponents often cite
United Statespolitician Ralph Nader's presidential campaign as an example of what can happen when the third-party candidate is still voted for. In 2000 as the United States Green Partycandidate, he garnered 2.7% of the popular vote and, as a result, is considered by many U.S. Democrats to have tipped the election to George W. Bush. One counterargument is that Nader's candidacy likely increased turnout among liberals and that Al Goretook four of the five states - and thirty of the fifty-five electoral college votes - in which the outcome was decided by less than one percent of the vote.
Originally, "lesser evil" was a
Cold War-era pragmatic foreign policyprinciple used by the United Statesand, to a lesser extent, several other countries. The principle dealt with the United States's attitude regarding how third-world dictatorsshould be handled, and was closely related to the Kirkpatrick Doctrineof Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Government of the United Stateshad long stated that democracywas one of the cornerstones of U.S. society, and therefore also that support for democracy should be reflected in U.S foreign policy. But following the Second World War, dictatorships of various types continued to hold power over many of the world's most strategically and economically important regions. Many of these dictatorships were pro- capitalist, consistent with at least some US ideological goals; thus the United States would thus form alliances with certain dictators, believing them to be the closest thing their respective nations had to a legitimate government—and in any case much better than the alternative of a communist revolutionin those nations. This struggle posed a question: if the end result was, in any realistic case, destined to be a dictatorship, should the US not try to align itself with the dictator who will best serve American interests and oppose the Soviets? This is what became known as the "lesser of two evils" principle.
Conflicts over dictatorships began to occur when the
Soviet Union, Cuba, and the People's Republic of Chinabegan to support communist revolutions and populist guerrilla warfareagainst established dictatorial regimes in the 1960sand 1970s, particularly in Latin America. In many cases these movements succeeded (see Vietnam War) and replaced an American-allied dictator with a pro-Soviet one; to counter the trend, the United States would often use its intelligence services to help orchestrate bloody coups d'etat that would overthrow shaky Marxistregimes (see Chilean coup of 1973).
One example is Iraq. In the mid-1970s, the
United Statessupervised Saddam Hussein's rise to power, to counter the threatening growth and influence of the Iraqi Communist Party, which was on the verge of taking state power. Though many in the government at that time recognized Saddam as a dictatoror a potential dictator, they viewed him as the "lesser evil" when compared with the damage the ICP might do with its planned nationalizationmeasures and other reform programs that would probably have run counter to U.S. interests. Similarly, in 1991, when Shi'aacross Iraq revolted against Hussein's regime, the U.S. justification for staying out of the revolt and allowing his security forces to suppress the rebels was that Hussein's rule was better than the risk of a jihadistor Iranian Revolution-style takeover.
Probably the best example of this principle in action was the political struggle behind the
Vietnam War. Ngo Dinh Diemwas the ruler of South Vietnamduring the initial stages of the war, and though his regime was brutal, he was also an anti-communistwho was determined to fight the expansions of the North. Ho Chi Minhwas meanwhile the ruler of North Vietnam, backed by the Soviets, and a Marxistwho wanted to see a united, communist Vietnam. The United States thus supported the regime of Diem and his successors during the war, believing that he was the "lesser of two evils."
Other applications of the term
Many other countries, including the
Soviet Union, also had their own "lesser of two evils" policy. Earlier, during World War II, the Western Alliesjustified their support for Stalinunder a lesser-of-two-evils principle. Justifying the act, Winston Churchillsaid: "If Hitlerwere to invade Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." Meanwhile, the Sovietsand other leading communists justified their anti-fascist united frontunder an essentially "lesser of two evils" policy, arguing that allying with capitalistpowers to overthrow fascismwould be better than having the latter successfully occupy the world and permanently consolidate power.
The decision of the leadership of the
People's Republic of Chinato seek rapprochement with the United States in the 1970swas an especially interesting application of the "lesser of two evils doctrine," since the United Statesended up being deemed a lesser threat than the Soviet Union. Mao Zedongargued at that time that it would be impossible to continue to deal with the tumult of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the after-effects of the Sino-Soviet Split, and a hostile stance towards the United States and its "imperialist aggression" all at the same time. These measures of reproach later expanded into full-blown cooperation between the United States and China, and the introduction of Chinese economic reformand Socialism with Chinese characteristicsin the latter. But at its origin, the act was meant as an ostensibly temporary tactic by which China hoped to gain a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, with the United States thus being viewed as the "lesser of two evils."
Some American Science Fiction fans have adopted the slogan "Cthulhu for President: Why Choose the Lesser Evil?" Readers of
H. P. Lovecraftwill agree that in most cases, Cthulhuis the "greater" evil. T-shirts with the slogan are generally available at S-F conventions and on the Internet.
In Douglas Adams’
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the human inhabitants of Xaxis consistently elect lizards to rule them despite hating the lizards. In the story, not voting for any lizard risks having the "wrong" lizard be elected. In the “Citizen Kang” vignette of the Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror VII, America ignores third-party candidate Ross Perotand votes for enslavement under alien monster Kang rather than enslavement under alien monster Kodos. In each case, the humor derives from the electorate's depicted willingness to accept the idea that options beyond the two evils are irrelevant.
In "," the ship's officers are dining and discover
weevils in the hardtack. Captain Jack Aubreydeclares that in the Navy, one is expected to choose the "lesser of the two weevils."
Again, many musical artists release their music, in hopes of acceptance and the reward of a fan base, via Creative Commons, hoping that someone will find it useful and enjoyable, such that, while the choices are: not paid vs. completely unknown, one must take the route of the lesser of two evils.
In "Lesser of Two Evils, Musical Themes for the 2008 Elections, Part 1," the author, cannot find that he cares for either group of candidates, so instead writes music to mock each group. His choices are limited not to follow great plans, but in looking at the lives of the candidates, and trying to pick the "lesser of two evils." He also finds that if [Cthulhu] gets voted in, his music will still not get the attention he'd like, and so Part II, will be an album dedicated to the Socialist, Green, and Communist Parties...
Damned if you do, damned if you don't
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