The Harm Reduction Model of Politics

I’ve talked before about the harm reduction model of life.

Today, I want to talk about the harm reduction model of politics.

I want to talk about why you often need to vote for people who you aren’t 100% in agreement with, and even have serious doubts about.

And I want to talk about why we don’t need to see this as “choosing the lesser of two evils.” I want to look at it in a more optimistic, positive way — as harm reduction.


A very quick summary about harm reduction first: In public health, harm reduction is the idea that you don’t have to completely eliminate a problem to usefully address it. In fact, trying to eliminate it can be counterproductive. It sometimes makes more sense instead to try to reduce the degree of the problem, and reduce the harm done by the problem. (That’s an oversimplification, but it’ll do for now.)

Greta’s Harm Reduction Model of Life takes this principle and applies it more broadly, to life in general. Even if you can’t completely solve a problem or make it go away, it is still worthwhile to work on making it better. If you can’t fit a perfect exercise program into your life, some exercise is still better than none; if you can’t single- handedly solve global warming, it’s still a good idea to reduce your own carbon footprint. Harm reduction isn’t always the appropriate approach to life, but it does offer a way to be both an optimist and a realist: a way to be hopeful about the future and positive about your own power to affect it, without being deluded or willfully ignorant about limitations and harsh realities.

Today, I want to apply this principle to electoral politics. And specifically, to the 2008 Presidential election.

Elections — especially elections where there are only two candidates who stand any real chance of winning — are often seen as choosing “between the lesser of two evils.” Sometimes this phrase sincerely means, “two people who are both appalling and who have very little difference between them.” But often, it gets used to mean, “two people, neither of whom I agree with 100% about everything.”

And I don’t think we need to look at that as a choice between the lesser of two evils.

I think we can look at it as harm reduction.

Case in point:


Do I think Barack Obama will be a perfect President? No.

Do I think he will always act as I want him to, without ever disappointing me or pissing me off? No.

But do I think he will significantly reduce the harm that has been caused by the W. Bush Presidency — and that would continue to be caused by a McCain Presidency?

Yes. Absolutely. By a tremendous amount.

This isn’t a “There’s no difference between the two candidates” situation. There is a massive difference between the candidates. On the war. On the regulation of the financial industry. On abortion. On gay rights. On health care. On the environment. On virtually every issue that matters to most progressives.

And if you think there’s no discernible difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, I suggest you remember what life was like when Clinton was Pres… and ponder what life has been like under W.

Clinton obama debate

I’ve heard progressives and liberals threaten to sit out this election or vote third party because Obama is not a perfect candidate. I’ve heard people threaten to sit out this election or vote third party because they think Obama was mean to Hillary Clinton in the primary; because he’s trying to finesse the same-sex marriage question in a way that’s kind of weaselly; because he has a fairly strong religious faith and dammit, they want a rational atheist in the White House; because he disagrees with them on some particular issue or other that they feel strongly about. Even if he agrees with them on 90% of everything else.

And I’m sorry if this sounds harsh — but I don’t think that’s very grown-up.

Tom tomorrow

There’s a wonderful cartoon by by Tom Tomorrow — I’m sorry that I can’t find it right now — that addresses this “lesser of two evils” question. In it, an assortment of people are pondering unpleasant choices, and saying things like, “I wonder if I should put up with this toothache — or go to the dentist?” “I wonder if I should pay this high tax bill — or go to prison?” And he points out that adult life is full of difficult decisions. Adult life is full of gray areas; situations where you have to decide which of two conflicting values you value most; choices where none of your options are what you ideally would want.

I don’t think we have to see this as a choice between the lesser of two evils. I think we can see it as harm reduction.


And as gray areas and hard choices go… I don’t know about you, but this one actually seems pretty damn easy. Obama is smart, thoughtful, capable, diplomatic, incredibly well-informed, something that vaguely resembles sane, and more or less in agreement with me on most of what I care about. I am not going to cut off my nose — and the noses of everyone else who has to live in this increasingly fucked-up country — to take a hard-core principled stand on spiting my face.

Look, I get it. I get the need to send signals to — oh, say, just for instance — the Democratic Party, that if they keep taking the left for granted they’re going to lose them. And I get that sometimes, you just can’t stomach it. (Many years back, there was an election for San Francisco City Attorney in which both candidates were so utterly vile, I couldn’t bear to vote for either one… so I wound up writing in Perry Mason.)

But I would argue — strongly and passionately — that this is not that election.

This isn’t a city attorney’s race, or even a race for mayor or governor. And this isn’t 1996, when we could vote for Nader because Clinton was in the bag.

It’s too close an election to take a risk on.

And there is way, way the hell too much at stake.

Global warming

Our country — and our planet — is not just in crisis. It’s in about sixteen different crises, all of which are severe. We’re in a severe financial crisis; a disastrous war; an ecological crisis that’s already destabilizing our planet and could make it unfit for human life. Civil liberties are in a shambles. The infrastructure is in a shambles. Government accountability is in a shambles. I could go on, and on, and on.

This is not the time to be a single- issue voter. And it is not the time to be sending a message to the Democratic Party.

This is not the time to be taking a principled stand about, say, Obama’s position on national health care… and taking a chance of sending someone to the White House who is an ardent hawk in a disastrous war; an ardent deregulator in a financial crisis largely caused by deregulation; an ardent wuss about global warming in a time when the need for action on global warming is urgent verging on desperate. And who, what’s more, is elderly, likely to die in office, and has a running mate who is both flagrantly incompetent and batshit insane.

This is the time to be doing whatever you possibly can to reduce the massive harm that has been done to our country.


Will President Barack Obama solve all these crises? Will he single- handedly usher in a new era of peace, prosperity, and harmony with nature?


Will he always be principled and firm on the issues that matter most to us? Will he only ever compromise in the ways we would want him to compromise, or on issues that we don’t really care about all that much?

Probably not.

But will his Presidency make things better? Will it increase the quality of our lives? Will it be a far, far better Presidency — and a far, far better life for most non- stinking- rich Americans — than the one we’d get under John McCain?

Yes. Without a doubt.

If you disagree with Obama about one or more issues, then — once he’s elected — by all means, make your voice heard. Scream and shout. Hold his feet to the fire. As a citizen, that’s more than just your right — that’s your job. And if you think we should have a strong third party, then by all means, work to build it from a local level up.

But this election is way too important to screw around with.

Please don’t fail to act because you can’t act perfectly.

The Harm Reduction Model of Politics

12 thoughts on “The Harm Reduction Model of Politics

  1. 1

    Does Greta Christina summarize this entire issue eloquently and, somehow, optimistically?
    Yes. Without a doubt.
    Will anyone “Digg” this article?
    We shall see.
    Will I vote for Obama?
    Sorry, Canadian.

  2. 2

    Hey, I’m Canadian too, and I’m voting Obama. Granted, I happen to also be American, so that may have something to do with it… But in my defense, I only became American so I could vote in elections like this.

  3. 3

    Thank you, Greta, for making this argument clearly and powerfully.
    This raises the question, though, of what we *should* do to solve the underlying problem here. How can we change the system so we get a chance to make our real preferences known?
    If I may get on my soapbox for a moment, the real problem here is that the election system we use is itself broken, and in fact was in large part designed by the major parties for their own benefit. How is it broken?
    Well, the thing is, your argument works for almost every single election. With a few rare exceptions, it implies you should never, ever, vote third party, or select a candidate in a primary who isn’t a “centrist.” Because by doing so, you’re always implicitly promoting the person you least want to win.
    This is clearly an insane way to run a democracy, but man is it nice if you’re in the ruling parties. We can’t work locally to grow a better third party, or even effectively control the democrats much. By doing so, we’re always acting against our interests.
    The solution has to start with election reform. There are a lot of proposals, such as instant runoff, condorcet, approval voting, proportional representation, and so on. And the one thing they have in common is that they’re fantastically better than what we have now.
    Or we can just suck it up and hope sending letters to the democrat will work, and be disgusted every year that there’s nothing we can do by voting.

  4. 4

    As I believe Senator Obama said himself when discussing an energy bill he voted for, “The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.” My boyfriend (who on his moderate days is a raging socialist) is going to vote for Obama, but he feels like he’s getting the lesser of two evils, and it’s not much less. I’m going to show him this post– hopefully it’ll make him feel a little better about things. I, for one, am honest-to-goodness excited to be able to vote for Barack Obama. I know he won’t be perfect, but he’s going to do a world of good for this country. So much better than McPalin.

  5. 5

    This raises the question, though, of what we *should* do to solve the underlying problem here. How can we change the system so we get a chance to make our real preferences known?

    Justin, you make a fair point. And the solutions you suggest are ones I either agree with or think are worth considering. To add to them, I would also repeat something I wrote in this piece:
    “if you think we should have a strong third party, then by all means, work to build it from a local level up.”
    If you think the Democratic party is broken and needs a strong third party to shake it up, I don’t think the thing to do is to vote Green in the Presidential election. I think the thing to do is support Green candidates in elections for school board. And then city council. And then mayor. And then state house of representatives. And then… you get the idea.
    I’d also support doing whatever we have to do to end the @#$%&! electoral college. The electoral college means the Presidential candidates don’t just run to the center — they run to what’s considered the center in a handful of states.
    Any other thoughts on that? How do we get the attention of the Democratic Party if they know they can count on our vote in every Presidential election?

  6. 6

    As someone who plans on doing a write-in, I’m not doing so because I disagree with Obama on one teeny issue. I’m doing so because I’ve never found him at all attractive. His policy proposals have a please-everyone-ism about them that seems like a recipe for disaster: cut almost everyone’s taxes, raise spending, get out of Iraq, but stay in Iraq to fight al-Queda. He freely engages in anti-free-market rhetoric, and sees the government (and implicitly, himself) as our savior. And I just can’t stomach the thought that he’s anywhere close to being the best the Democrats can do. I don’t demand a perfect candidate, but we’d be better off as a country if every voter had a threshold below which there’s no way a presidential candidate is getting your vote.

  7. 7

    And I just can’t stomach the thought that he’s anywhere close to being the best the Democrats can do.
    Please, for the good of humanity, take an anti-nausea pill and vote. The American government affects lots of people like us – citizens of other countries who have to live with American fall-out but can’t vote in American elections. Watching people stand by and not use their votes is horrifying.
    We’re all on the griddle here, but only some of us have fire extinguishers. If you don’t use yours, even in an imperfect way, you’re letting us all burn.

  8. 8

    This is brilliant! Thank you for expressing it. I found it mirrored on LiveJournal at joreth’s page, and I plan to forward this around a bit, if it’s ok with you.

  9. 9

    As I’ve said onstage on many occasions, what’s wrong with the lesser of two evils? It’s LESS EVIL, for crying out loud, which is always, and I mean ALWAYS, better than MORE EVIL. Nothing wrong with that. Being a glass half empty type, I even tend to think of GOOD things as just A BUNCH LESS EVIL things. But maybe that’s just me.
    –Nosmo King

  10. 10

    Watching people stand by and not use their votes is horrifying.
    I feel like Greta in her posts on cheating: I am using my vote, not just in the way you want me too. There may be good arguments why you are right, the fact that voting third-party is the same as not voting isn’t among them. I can’t believe we’re still hearing that nonsense line.

  11. 11

    *standing ovation*
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I am so grateful. I’ve been trying to argue this on my very liberal blogs (blogs that make the Daily Kos look like a bunch of Republicans) but I’m nowhere near as eloquent as you. I hope you don’t mind but I will probably be linking to this post 🙂 Thank you!

  12. 12

    I am using my vote, not just in the way you want me too. There may be good arguments why you are right, the fact that voting third-party is the same as not voting isn’t among them.
    The fact is that voting third party is one less opposing vote for McCain, so it IS the same as not voting, for these purposes. Your third party candidate will not win, and in an election that is this close, you are effectively throwing your vote away where it could be doing some good by opposing McCain.

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