Some Americans view elections as a time to express their disappointment or even their anger at the shortcomings of the major party candidates closest to their own positions, a tendency particularly noticeable on the Left.
In recent decades, this behavior has contributed to a string of Democratic defeats at the presidential level -- Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Al Gore in 2000 -- as well as key setbacks in Congress in 1980, 1994 and 2010.And, with its disproportionate prevalence on the American Left, this voting pattern now threatens to cost Barack Obama a second term. Some on the Left feel no compunction about aiding in Obama's defeat even if it means installing Mitt Romney, an unabashed one-percenter in the White House.
Romney also would likely be accompanied by a Republican-controlled Congress with a mandate to complete the dismantling of the New Deal at home and, abroad, to extend the Afghan War and possibly start a new war with Iran. So the question is: should politics be an expression of your feelings or your expectation of consequences?
For the past 40-plus years, this "lesser-evil" debate has been fought primarily on the Left in America. By contrast, the Right tends to challenge Republican candidates in primaries but then lines up behind the party nominees whoever they are.
Progressives have shown less determination to fight for control of the Democratic Party, preferring instead to vote for third-party candidates or simply express their displeasure by sitting out November elections.
While brushing aside alarms about the dangers from the Republicans, many progressives instead focus on the failures and misdeeds of the Democrats. Humphrey was too slow in opposing the Vietnam War; Carter shifted too much to the center; Gore supported the NAFTA trade agreement and military intervention in Yugoslavia; and Obama continued prosecuting the "war on terror" (albeit by a different name and in a more targeted fashion) and didn't do enough to enact progressive priorities.
While there is surely merit in all these complaints, the other side of the debate would note -- from a progressive perspective -- that the Republican alternative is often worse, sometimes much worse.
Indeed, one way to view this question is to ask: What might the world look like if the "lesser-evil" Democrat had prevailed in those earlier elections? What if Richard Nixon had lost in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000? Would Americans and the people of the planet be better off?
We now know, for instance, that in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was serious about negotiating an end to the Vietnam War and was closing in on that objective. The evidence is also overwhelming that Nixon's campaign went behind Johnson's back to sabotage the peace talks, denying Vice President Humphrey a last-minute boost and enabling Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory.
Nixon then continued the Vietnam War for four more years, while infusing U.S. politics with his paranoid win-at-all-cost poison.
Though many progressives in 1968 may have felt justified in expressing their anger at Johnson and Humphrey by boycotting the Democratic campaign, the practical effect of that behavior was to turn the U.S. government over to a dangerous individual, Nixon, whose policies not only extended the unimaginable horror across Southeast Asia but helped overthrow Chile's democratic government in 1973 and unleashed a spasm of right-wing terror across Latin America.
For all his faults on the Vietnam War, Humphrey would have supported Johnson's efforts to bring the war to a close quickly and would have worked to refocus the U.S. government on domestic priorities, like poverty and racism. Humphrey had long been a stalwart for civil rights and economic fairness. The United States also would have been spared the Watergate scandal and the ugly way it changed American politics.
Anger at Carter
In 1980, many progressives were angry with President Carter for shifting the Democratic Party toward the center, a trend that prompted a primary challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy.
After defeating Kennedy, Carter had trouble rallying the Left behind him heading into the fall election against Ronald Reagan (whose campaign apparently had learned some of Nixon's old tricks and undercut Carter's efforts to negotiate freedom for 52 Americans held hostage in Iran).