As we approach Yom Kippur, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin—author of Nextbook Press’s Hillel: If Not Now, When?—answers questions submitted by Tablet Magazine readers. Here, a special Primary Day-themed question.
During election seasons, we are often presented with a dilemma. We may have clear-cut choices or we may feel that none of the candidates are quite up to par. Are we morally obligated to abstain from voting if we don’t like either candidate enough, or is it a moral choice to pick the one we think is the proverbial “lesser of two evils”? And is it morally wrong to vote for someone we don’t know enough about because we haven’t done our homework—for example, sitting judges who only need to be reaffirmed?
As a young man in 1972, I remember my displeasure with the two presidential candidates, the incumbent Richard Nixon and the Democratic challenger George McGovern. I mistrusted Nixon on moral grounds—most significantly, I suspected from early on that he had knowledge, perhaps considerable knowledge, about the Republican cover-up of the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters. And I thought McGovern dangerously naïve, for example, when he spoke of negotiating a Middle East peace through the United Nations, or expressed his belief that J. William Fulbright, a highly intellectual but anti-Israel senator, was the sort of person he’d like to see as Secretary of State. In addition, McGovern had very naïve views about the dangers and evils of communism. I felt certain that, if elected, McGovern would be a disaster.
So whom did I vote for? I cast a write-in ballot for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, a man for whom I had deep admiration, and who I had long hoped would be the Democratic Party nominee. In any case, it was clear from the polls that Nixon was going to win. But what would I have done if I had felt my vote might really make a difference? I had decided that in such a case, I would vote for Nixon, on the grounds that the sort of immoral behavior in which he engaged was reprehensible but less dangerous to the country than McGovern’s ideological obtuseness (obviously, if I had believed Nixon’s immoral qualities to be of a greater dimension and McGovern’s naïveté to be less extreme, I would likely have decided differently). A year later, when the Yom Kippur War occurred, I realized that had McGovern been president and J. William Fulbright Secretary of State—and there had not been the aggressive resupply of arms to Israel undertaken by Nixon (which Golda Meir wrote of so appreciatively in her memoirs)—far more Israelis might well have died.
So, in general, I find the doctrine of the lesser of two evils to be both a reasonable and compelling one.
As a general observation, for democracy to continue, it is important that many citizens feel invested in the democratic process. Having said that, I have no good answer on questions regarding judges, given how little we generally know about the candidates. On the other hand, that people vote for a candidate about whom they have little knowledge simply because they identify with the candidate’s party is unfortunate but probably unavoidable. Where people lack sufficient knowledge about candidates, it makes sense that they are going to vote for the party in which they have greater trust. Then again, it is good for one’s soul to periodically cross party lines and accept that your party is not 100 percent right and the other party 100 percent wrong. But this will only come about if you do invest the time to follow at least certain political races carefully.