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A False Dilemma

In the spring of 1968, I had dinner with a person who became a hero of mine. I was a junior in college when Eugene McCarthy, the U.S. Senator from Minnesota, came to my campus to speak against the Vietnam War and to promote his candidacy to be President of the United States.  He was on a brave and lonely campaign to unseat Lyndon Johnson and stop the war. He was willing to go anywhere and talk to any group, large or small...even to a group of students at a small college in south Austin, Texas.

Since I was the managing editor of the college newspaper, The Hilltopper, I was invited to join him for dinner after his talk along with the president of the student council and a faculty advisor.  We ate at El Gallo's, the Tex-Mex restaurant across the street from campus. I had never met a senator much less sat elbow-to-elbow with one for two hours eating tacos and enchiladas. It was a heady experience for me.

McCarthy was gracious, open and thoughtful.  He answered our questions straightforwardly. He questioned the three of us and then listened. I recall that he admitted that he was on something of a quixotic journey, as the Democratic outsider trying to end the reign of a reckless administration behind the great tragedy that was the Vietnam War.  But he felt that he had no other choice but to try. I would be voting in my first presidential election the following November and was deeply troubled.  

For me, in 1968, nothing mattered more than stopping the war.  It was the single, powerful, emotional issue in determining my vote. Lyndon Johnson was the embodiment of that war.  Despite what he did to promote civil rights and social justice, I could not then and to this day cannot forgive him for the tragedy of Vietnam. To show you how singularly dominating this issue was to me at the time, I need to tell you what happened on the evening of March 31, 1968.  That night, Lyndon Johnson, whom I had come to hate, gave an address on national television. A group of us students watched it in one of the dorm rooms. At the end of his address, Johnson told the nation that he would not seek and would not accept the nomination of his party to run for a second term. He was stepping down. The room broke out in uproarious cheering.  We really felt that we had helped to finally bring him down, and we were euphoric!

Afterward, it looked like Richard Nixon, whom I thought was completely untrustworthy and a danger to our democracy, would be the Republican candidate.  I could not vote for him. And it appeared that Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's vice president, would be the democratic candidate. If that were the case (which it turned out to be), how could I vote for a cheerleader of the war?

I see a parallel to my quandary in 1968 to many of the still undecided voters in the election between Biden and Trump. Sometimes, a single, powerful, emotional issue overrides all other considerations. I understand how important a single issue can be. We come to believe that our only choice is a selection between two evils, and we have to choose the lesser of those evils.  To be clear, I have voted gladly for Joe Biden because I believe Donald Trump is a terrible person and a dangerous and divisive demagogue.

I know there are Trump supporters who passionately adore him. Candidly, I don't understand their adoration. But I also suspect that among the undecided voters are people who hold on to a single, emotional and powerful issue for them.  Perhaps it is the economy, or conservative judges on benches, or an anti-abortion viewpoint.  While they may find Trump a despicable individual, they have less confidence in Biden on their dominant issue and thus feel they must vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils.

In talking with Eugene McCarthy that fascinating night long ago, I came to recognize another alternative. McCarthy argued that choosing between two evils is a false dilemma.  In our democracy, voters have choices.  If one is uncomfortable in voting in good conscience for either major candidate, then one can vote for a third party candidate, or write in a name, or even not vote at all.  Each of these options is honorable. I think this happened in 2016 when people of good conscience could not vote for Trump or Hillary. Both were so unacceptable that many Americans opted not to cast a vote, which is still a legitimate form of making one's voice known.

McCarthy posed to me a hypothetical scenario in 1968. He asked how I might vote if the two major candidates happened to be Hitler and Stalin. Of course, I could not in good conscience vote for either murderous thug. That was the point he said. Each of us has our boiling point--that decision point at which we realize that we really cannot and should not vote for either candidate. To put this in a current context, suppose one's choice today was between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un? One could not vote for either one. This is not to say that Biden and Trump are Putin and Jong-un.  It is to ask what one's boiling point is.  

One does not have to make a selection between two perceived evils. Voting is not an either-or choice. In our democracy, we have a range of voting choices, depending on when each of us reaches our own boiling point.

In that 1968 election, I could not vote for Nixon or Humphrey. I wrote in Eugene McCarthy. I have never regretted my vote. I knew that McCarthy did not have a ghost of a chance of winning. But I refused to pick between two candidates, both of whom I believed to be unacceptable. I made my vote mean something, at least to me.

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