Eight Times Wrong: the Logic of Lesser Evil Voting

Professor Noam Chomsky, in a widely published June article co-authored with John Halle, presents an eight-point argument for lesser-evil voting, i.e., for voting for Clinton rather than Stein in any state where the outcome for that state’s Electoral College votes is in doubt. (Chomsky does not refer to the Greens or Stein directly, but instead to “the left.” However, there is no other “left” party or candidate on the ballot nationwide.)

One cannot undertake to contradict Chomsky on matters affecting political realities without trepidation. It is notably difficult for me; I consider him not just one of the best and most original thinkers of our time (or of any time) but the guiding light of my own political journey.

Nevertheless, in his June essay, the master stumbled. His political prescription is poorly founded and facilely argued, and it is a disaster for progressives and for anyone determined to provide genuinely democratic political leadership in a country where that has become so rare that many now mistake it for a grotesquery when it appears.

As Chomsky himself asserts, there is a fierce storm on the horizon. This may well be the last presidential election cycle before that storm breaks, in the form of economic, social, and ecological disasters. The time to breach the walls of our political prison is now.

Without further apology, here are Chomsky’s eight points, and for each a response.

1) Voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement directed in retaliation towards major party candidates who fail to reflect our values, or of a corrupt system designed to limit choices to those acceptable to corporate elites.

Response to 1) Why not? Voting is inherently an act of self-expression; moreover it is the means of self-government in a complex society. To tell people they shouldn’t use the ballot-box to support the leadership and policies they want is to demand that they silence their political voice at the precise moment it can best be heard.

2) The exclusive consequence of the act of voting in 2016 will be (if in a contested “swing state”) to marginally increase or decrease the chance of one of the major party candidates winning.

Response to 2) This is a fallacy of limited choice, and unworthy of Professor Chomsky. If a significant percentage of the vote (“significant” meaning “enough to affect the outcome”) ends up going to the Green Party, this will have a dramatic effect on politics, particularly among the center-left, who will see that—regardless of who wins—the continued viability of the Democratic Party will require that either (1) it complete its long regression toward becoming the dominant center-right party, making room for the rise of a new political left, or (2) it undertake to actually accommodate the left in governance, and not merely in pre-election rhetoric.

Professor Chomsky has also argued that the left will marginalize itself, if it costs HRC the election, as occurred (he claims) with Nader in 2000. This analysis fails to account for the fact that Nader’s candidacy gave great energy to the Green Party and established in the minds of many the legitimacy of challenging the Democrats’ claim to be the party of social or economic justice. It is disappointing to have to note that Chomsky also relies on the demonstrably spurious claim that Nader cost Gore the election.

3) One of these candidates, Trump, denies the existence of global warming, calls for increasing use of fossil fuels, dismantling of environmental regulations and refuses assistance to India and other developing nations as called for in the Paris agreement, the combination of which could, in four years, take us to a catastrophic tipping point. Trump has also pledged to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants, offered to provide for the defense of supporters who have assaulted African American protestors at his rallies, stated his “openness to using nuclear weapons”, supports a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and regards “the police in this country as absolutely mistreated and misunderstood” while having “done an unbelievable job of keeping law and order.” Trump has also pledged to increase military spending while cutting taxes on the rich, hence shredding what remains of the social welfare “safety net” despite pretenses.

Response to 3) The other of these candidates, Clinton, promises to continue the neoliberal policies that make the rise of leaders like Trump inevitable. She has forsworn even the relatively mild progressive proposals that Sanders brought to the table, such as single-payer health insurance and re-regulation of the banking industry. Historically she supported the “shredding of the social safety net,” the demonization and mass incarceration of black Americans, the privatization of public institutions like schools and prisons, and the imposition of wage slavery (e.g., Haiti). In her career she has overseen the destruction of Libya and supported covert warfare wherever it serves elite interests. She has promised to visit “regime change” on Syria, threatened to “obliterate” Iran, and is frank about her eagerness to promote a wider, even more aggressive American military posture across the globe, with unspeakable consequences for millions of southwest Asians, and possibly for all of us. She has promoted exploiting marginal or highly polluting fossil fuel resources, including fracked gas and tar sands. Recently leaked emails and speeches reveal that she is contemptuous of the progressive wing of her own party, and unashamed that her nomination was secured by a conspiracy to perpetrate a fraud on her own voters. She can be counted on to continue the Obama legacy of increasing war, accommodation of financial elites, abandonment of the working class, accelerating production of greenhouse gases, and a politics so shamelessly propagandistic and self-serving as to ensure an ever deepening polarization of the electorate.

Like her supporters, Professor Chomsky paints a picture of Trump based almost entirely on his public statements, forgetting that playing the bad guy on “reality TV” is the man’s métier. Contrary to widely publicized hyperbole, a president Trump would not be in a position to have his way with Congress, the people, or the world, or to impose his will by fiat. Moreover, he is apparently incompetent even to run a business, much less the executive branch. Could he do great damage to the country and the world? Undoubtedly, indeed he is likely to do so given the opportunity. But to suggest that Trump’s outrageous boasts should weigh more heavily in our consideration than what Hillary Clinton, perhaps the country’s most seasoned political operative, has done, is quite capable of doing, and is almost certain actually to do, is insupportable. And unlike HRC, who is a disciple of Henry Kissinger, Trump has shown little taste for indiscriminate bombing of the helpless.

Professor Chomsky evidently (and quite correctly) views climate change as among the most compelling issues, but here again we cannot reasonably be asked to treat Trump’s incoherent public dog-whistling to the reactionary right on equal footing with Clinton’s actual record. Like Obama, she nods to climate change while acting as if it didn’t exist. In this matter above all others it is deeds not words that count, and if anything Clinton represents the greater danger, because she, like Obama, will make a political pretense of supporting the mitigation of climate change, and thereby obscure at a critical moment the urgency of the threat. We are in a climate emergency. Even if the release of additional fossil carbon into the natural carbon cycle is stopped completely and immediately, we still face consequences that put the viability of human civilization very much in doubt. As a friend of mine put it, if Trump is elected and the Maldives is covered by four feet of water, or Clinton is elected and the Maldives is covered by only two feet of water, it won’t make much difference to the Maldives. Nor will it make much difference to the rest of us. We need a national mobilization to confront the problem, and that is least likely to happen if Clinton is elected.

4) The suffering which these and other similarly extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalized and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency.

Response to 4) This claim is demonstrably false unless one accepts two caveats.

First, we must assume that Trump’s messaging is a good guide to his probable actions in office (not entirely unreasonable given that he has never governed, so there is little else to go by), but likewise we must also assume that Hillary’s messaging is a good guide to her probable actions in office, and this is insupportable in light of her long record in public service. If her past actions are any guide to her future ones, marginalized and oppressed populations can expect more of the same. The working class can expect to sink deeper into hopelessness, minorities can expect to be treated just as they were in the W.J. Clinton years (as superpredators, welfare queens, and cannon-fodder), refugees (e.g., from the Clinton-supported coup in Honduras) can expect detentions and deportations, and indigenous peoples can expect neglect, except for the oil pipelines crisscrossing what’s left of their nation.

Second, this claim is nonsense unless, with respect to the likely results of a Clinton presidency, we restrict our attention to domestic populations. Populations in the global south can count on political destabilization, extreme violence, environmental destruction, and economic exploitation. There will be more CIA-engineered coups, more bombings, and more neoliberal appropriations of their natural, cultural, and economic resources. Climate change will destroy their agriculture while transnational trade deals like the TPP destroy their self-sufficiency, and U.S. political and military hegemony destroys their public institutions.

There is little reason for voters to concede either of these caveats.

5) 4) should constitute sufficient basis to voting for Clinton where a vote is potentially consequential-namely, in a contested, “swing” state.

Response to 5) Response to 4) should constitute sufficient basis to reject Chomsky’s argument for voting for Clinton, even in a “swing” state.

6) However, the left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.

Response to 6) It is because of the left’s concern for those sure to be most victimized by either candidate that it cannot countenance support for either one. Nor should anyone.

7) Often this charge will emanate from establishment operatives who will use it as a bad faith justification for defeating challenges to corporate hegemony either in the Democratic Party or outside of it. They will ensure that it will be widely circulated in mainstream media channels with the result that many of those who would otherwise be sympathetic to a left challenge will find it a convincing reason to maintain their ties with the political establishment rather than breaking with it, as they must.

Response to 7) Servile submission to false charges of being a “spoiler” cannot on any analysis be expected to strengthen the position of “the left” relative to the establishment. Nor should our political campaign to challenge the oligarchy be conditioned on how we’ll be represented by the propagandists. One thing this election cycle has taught us is that no charge is too mendacious, coercive, or manipulative to be employed against electoral challengers to the duopoly system. That fact is not conditioned by any strategic calculus of “safe voting”; the attacks on Greens are more fierce, not less, in those coastal, urban areas of the country where our presence on the ballot constitutes little threat to Clinton’s electoral victory.

8) Conclusion: by dismissing a “lesser evil” electoral logic and thereby increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat the left will undermine what should be at the core of what it claims to be attempting to achieve.

Response to 8) By consenting to limit their efforts and self-censure their political voice in deference to the faux-liberal wing of the oligarchy, Greens could only undermine their own legitimacy as an alternative to the closed political ecosystem presented as “real American politics” by what Chomsky himself has termed the “manufacturers of consent.” Under the actual political rules we live by, Greens can only build a legitimate alternative by claiming a signifant percentage of the national vote. To abandon that aim because Clinton’s family friend is good at playing the bad guy on reality TV would be craven. It would be dishonest. It would be a betrayal of the countless victims of our rapacious and militaristic oligarchy here and abroad. And it would be to abandon, at a critical moment, the principle of self-government.