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An Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting)


Preamble:

Among the elements of the weak form of democracy enshrined in the constitution, presidential elections continue to pose a dilemma for the left in that any form of participation or non participation appears to impose a significant cost on our capacity to develop a serious opposition to the corporate agenda served by establishment politicians. The position outlined below is that which many regard as the most effective response to this quadrennial Hobson’s choice, namely the so-called “lesser evil” voting strategy or LEV. Simply put, LEV involves, where you can, i.e. in safe states, voting for the losing third party candidate you prefer, or not voting at all. in competitive “swing” states, where you must, one votes for the “lesser evil” Democrat.

Before fielding objections, it will be useful to make certain background stipulations with respect to the points below. The first is to note that since changes in the relevant facts require changes in tactics, proposals having to do with our relationship to the “electoral extravaganza” should be regarded as provisional. This is most relevant with respect to point 3) which some will challenge by citing the claim that Clinton’s foreign policy could pose a more serious menace than that of Trump.

In any case, while conceding as an outside possibility that Trump’s foreign policy is preferable, most of us not already convinced that that is so will need more evidence than can be aired in a discussion involving this statement. Furthermore, insofar as this is the fact of the matter, following the logic through seems to require a vote for Trump, though it’s a bit hard to know whether those making this suggestion are intending it seriously.

Another point of disagreement is not factual but involves the ethical/moral principle addressed in 1), sometimes referred to as the “politics of moral witness.” Generally associated with the religious left, secular leftists implicitly invoke it when they reject LEV on the grounds that “a lesser of two evils is still evil.” Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that this is exactly the point of lesser evil voting-i.e. to do less evil, what needs to be challenged is the assumption that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences, specifically those outlined in 4). The basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.

While some would suggest extending the critique by noting that the politics of moral witness can become indistinguishable from narcissistic self-agrandizement, this is substantially more harsh than what was intended and harsher than what is merited. That said, those reflexively denouncing advocates of LEV on a supposed “moral” basis should consider that their footing on the high ground may not be as secure as they often take for granted to be the case.

A third criticism of LEV equates it with a passive acquiescence to the bipartisan status quo under the guise of pragmatism, usually deriving from those who have lost the appetite for radical change. It is surely the case that some of those endorsing LEV are doing so in bad faith-cynical functionaries whose objective is to promote capitulation to a system which they are invested in protecting. Others supporting LEV, however, can hardly be reasonably accused of having made their peace with the establishment. Their concern, as alluded to in 6) and 7) inheres in the awareness that frivolous and poorly considered electoral decisions impose a cost, their memories extending to the ultra-left faction of the peace movement having minimized the comparative dangers of the Nixon presidency during the 1968 elections. The result was six years of senseless death and destruction in Southeast Asia and also a predictable fracture of the left setting it up for its ultimate collapse during the backlash decades to follow.

The broader lesson to be drawn is not to shy away from confronting the dominance of the political system under the management of the two major parties. Rather, challenges to it need to be issued with a full awareness of their possible consequences. This includes the recognition that far right victories not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the “reasonable” alternative. A Trump presidency, should it materialize, will undermine the burgeoning movement centered around the Sanders campaign, particularly if it is perceived as having minimized the dangers posed by the far right.

A more general conclusion to be derived from this recognition is that this sort of cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing.

Finally, it should be understood that the reigning doctrinal system recognizes the role presidential elections perform in diverting the left from actions which have the potential to be effective in advancing its agenda. These include developing organizations committed to extra-political means, most notably street protest, but also competing for office in potentially winnable races. The left should devote the minimum of time necessary to exercise the LEV choice then immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle.

*****

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

22 Comments

  1. george patterson June 21, 2016 12:14 am 

    Noam, you’re right on the mark!!!! Shalom.

  2. John Vincent June 19, 2016 4:44 pm 

    Do those arguing against Clinton in favor of Trump really believe that a Trump presidency will lead to better outcomes? That having an authoritarian, misogynist, racist bombastic billionaire as Commander and Chief advocating for the expulsion of a million Mexicans, the building of a wall along the Mexican border, the banning of all Muslims entering the country and who will lead a reactionary Republican congress from the White House will be a preferable alternative to a known evil in the likes of HRC? Or will a “far right victor[y] not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the “reasonable” alternative” marginalizing the movements that have arisen around Sanders and Black Lives Matter among others.

    Will a Trump presidency really lead to a more radicalized country bringing about the eventual enactment of progressive legislation that will benefit the poor and working class? Or will his racism more likely stoke conflict between white people and people of color to deflect attention away from the continued machinations of the corporate elite?

    Will a Trump presidency lead to increased diplomacy and a lessening of US aggression abroad? Will he pull back NATO from Russia’s border and pivot away from China? Will he cut military spending and restructure our economy away from one based on war toward one centered on sustainable and the meeting of basic needs of all Americans by equitably distributing the country’s wealth? Or will he choose his advisors form the ranks of Republican neocons and continue the neoliberal agenda along with the modernization of our nuclear arsenal?

    Will he kill the TPP and, unlike Clinton, marginalize Wall Street’s CEOs? Will he push for meaningful climate change action and advocate that congress ratify the latest COP agreement? Or will he push for more financialization and an increased reliance on fossil fuel extraction at home as a way to stimulate the economy.

    It’s one thing to hate Clinton and want to vote against her for leading the neoliberal assault and advocating for military aggression abroad, as if somehow she alone developed such policies, but it’s another to think Trump is a more desirable alternative based on the little that is know about what he would really do once in the White House. His campaign so far has focused on winning the Republican nomination, and like Clinton, he will do and say whatever is necessary to arouse a compliant marginalized electoral base.

  3. avatar
    Paul D June 18, 2016 4:22 am 

    Dr. Chomsky,

    You points are spot on. Thanks.

  4. avatar
    Paul D June 18, 2016 3:49 am 

    Tom Johnson wrote:

    “And in this particular election, the LEV proponents equate Trump’s obscene fascist bloviations on the same level with Clinton’s long history of proven murderous actions. To use Chomsky’s example of climate warming: while Trump maintains it does not exist, Clinton has consistently worked on behalf the carbon industries throughout her career. ”

    Can you list some of this “long list of murderous actions” – and also compare it to the actions of the majority of politicians in the US and Europe?

    So was Hillary Clinton worse than Bush? Are you confusing hyperbole with fact?

    And I really wish that you would read more what is going on in government – becasue Clinton, via the Obama administration, has proposed and implemented, or attempted to implement (but held back by hostile courts and congress) numerous measures to address global warming. Ever heard of the Clean Power Plan which will end coal electric generation which is the single largest source of GHG’s? Ever heard of the numerous tax incentives for renewable energy development and electric vehicles – the only reason there is any development of these things at all.

    • Peter Warner June 18, 2016 4:53 pm 

      Paul, your words sound like they’re straight from the corporate-DNC strategic propaganda campaign.

      Bryan, Tom, and others have started to compile a very abbreviated list of the “murderous actions” of Clinton – I would add to this list the sanctions against Iraq and Iran that have contributed to the deaths of millions, support for the war and occupation in Iraq, the destabilization of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and other Latin nations, as well as the entire Middle East and North Africa, the support of the military coup that overthrew Aristide in Haiti, the support of the coup in the Ukraine, the support of NAFTA and other “trade” agreements that have devastated the lives of millions of working people around the world, including the U. S., and support for the increase in nuclear weapons production and deployment.

      Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State under Obama, carried out the latter’s authoritarian agenda: surveillance, suspension of habeas corpus (the victims at Guantanamo – remember that place?), prosecution of “whistle-blowers” and others who were practicing their constitutional rights in attempting to inform Americans about what how our government operates, the demonization of China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Syria — indeed, any nation that dares pursue its own agenda independent of U. S. military and corporate interference.

      About coal: your facts are wrong. Methane production (agriculture, fracking, coal tar sands among the primary sources) and its effect on climate change has been ignored by the Obama-Clinton syndicate, which supports shipping U. S. coal to other nations, as well as fracking and export of tar sands petroleum. How does that address global climate change (besides the clear fact that the current trends of unabated global capital and imperialism — of which HRC is a champion — spell doom for essential ecological processes and functions)?

      And the primary reason “renewable energy” (a ludicrous term) development has faltered is obstruction by Wall Street and the same corporations that support the likes of Obama and Clinton.

      Have you also conveniently ignored the devastating impact on American participatory politics and elections fostered by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act? Tell me that you believe that HRC didn’t support that! Carry on with your delusions and you can expect to be called out for being a shill for the corporate-military status quo.

      • avatar
        Paul D June 19, 2016 5:13 pm 

        Yes. Trump will be better for global warming. And Trump, like Bernie, is a man of peace – he has opposed all US military actions. And Trump supports the great leftist man-of-the-people Vladimir Putin.

        So per the above discussion, you should vote for Trump then.

        But more important is that – as written above, you should lose your notions of effecting change through electoral politics. The only role for electoral politics is to steer conditions of the existing syatem so as to improve the extra-electoral spaces in which we work. For the reason clearly stated above, it behooved the left to prevent a Trump/Republican-administered presidency by voting for Hillary in a swing state. Or do you think that Hillary is some kind of omniscient santa claus and will know the reason for your individual act of protest non-vote, rather than make the reasonable assumption that she lost becasue she needed to have moved even farther right.

  5. avatar
    Bryan Yamamoto June 18, 2016 2:01 am 

    For me, the lesser evil is Trump. Hillary’s foreign policy record has been one of murder and mayhem, with the killing of a state leader “we came, we saw, he died hahahahaha”, the destabilization of Libya and Syria, the funding of the Honduras coup, the weapons sold to dictators of the Middle East who were Clinton Foundation donors. Yes, Trump is not smart, not a good businessman, a racist and a fear monger, but what he blatantly states in his egoist speeches, Hillary practiced in her foreign policy. It is my opinion that we are more likely to enter World War III with Hillary in office than with Trump.

  6. avatar
    6079winstonsmith June 17, 2016 8:05 pm 

    This paper does make solid points, but it also ignores the possibility that while voting in Clinton instead of Trump may be a better SHORT TERM move, that it may also be a poorer LONG TERM move, strategically speaking. Yes, a Trump presidency is an immediate threat, but I think is is certainly arguable that continued support of the status quo poses a graver threat over a long timeline.

    • avatar
      Mark Evans June 17, 2016 8:23 pm 

      Where does it argue for the “continued support of the status quo” – either short or long term?

      • avatar
        6079winstonsmith June 17, 2016 8:46 pm 

        It advocates voting for Clinton. And while that may result in a better outcome on the timeline of, say, the next 5-10 years, I believe it represents a poorer outcome on a longer timeline. It is short-sighted. A trump presidency will likely either be impotent due to (continued) bipartisan resistance to him, or would be so chaotic as to destroy the GOP due to backlash of public opinion. Either way, it would set the stage for more progressive politicians during and after his presidency.

        Besides, I am far from convinced that Clinton would be better ON ANY count. You can completely ignore her rhetoric. Just like everyone should have ignored Obama’s. There’s every reason to expect Clinton to be just as much of a charlatan as he turned out to be.

        • avatar
          Mark Evans June 17, 2016 10:31 pm 

          How does spending “the minimum of time necessary to exercise the LEV choice then immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle” including “developing organizations committed to extra-political means, most notably street protest” constitute “continued support of the status quo”?

    • avatar
      Paul D June 18, 2016 4:36 am 

      Can you provide some historic evidence of long term-benefits of the “punish-vote” strategy you are proposing? Because the actual evidence does not support it. Except for Nixon being practically Eugene Debs compared to Trump, the election of 1968 is very similar to the current one – following the loss of Eugene McCarthy for the nomination, much of the left stayed home rather than vote for Humphrey. Did we see any long-term improvement? Sure, the Democrats ran the fairly left-leaning McGovern four years later. How did that work out? The Democrats then naturally decided to move hard-rightward from there in the following 40 years – Carter, Mondale, Dukakas, Clinton, Gore Obama… is that “long-term” enough for you?

  7. Kread June 17, 2016 4:28 pm 

    Oddly stated but I totally agree with Danforth. Chomsky doesn’t seem to understand that under his method, corrupt Clinton will simply tell her corporate sponsors “don’t worry, we don’t have to change anything, the progressive voters will hold their nose and fall in line”. And on and on it will go.

      • avatar
        David Danforth June 17, 2016 6:01 pm 

        “…immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle.”
        And precisely what might those be?
        Chris Hedges has been quoted as saying, “…the inability to articulate a viable socialism has been our gravest mistake.”
        Michael Albert and his cohort have risked pride and purse time and again, to develop theory, programs, and consensus, around the progressive agenda. It has been, and continues to be, a truly brave effort. But it has yet to find traction.
        From my personal perspective Noam just doesn’t know which candidate might precipitate a change to a progressive society.
        His essay, except perhaps the sentence you quote, is a screed for Hillary. Admonishments “to pursue goals” notwithstanding, he is calling for “four [at least] more years” of neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative foreign policy.”
        Where will it end?
        Honestly, this could have been written by a Clinton campaign staffer.

        • avatar
          Mark Evans June 17, 2016 8:21 pm 

          From what you write, David, it seems to me that you have misread the whole thing.

    • John Vincent June 17, 2016 5:25 pm 

      Since I expect Clinton to continue to promote the neoliberal interventionist agenda of her corporate sponsors I’m confident Chomsky does as well. The point is by doing so Clinton will continue to highlight the failures of the liberal agenda, that Obama has inadvertently done so well to highlight, and further embolden those who support the movement for Sanders, OWS, Black Lives Matter, etc. Putting one’s faith in a Republican plutocratic wild card with little historical political baggage will, as pointed out now several times, only strengthen the Democratic establishment in the long run.

  8. avatar
    David Danforth June 17, 2016 3:53 pm 

    In a contest between Foghorn Leghorn and the Devil in a Blue Pantsuit, the Noam says he has discerned the better of the two.
    As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!”
    And, oh, how these two make Sarah look good!
    For how long will the strategy of progressives be to kick the can down the road?

    • avatar
      Mark Evans June 17, 2016 4:48 pm 

      David, did you read the preamble, which concludes: “The left should devote the minimum of time necessary to exercise the LEV choice then immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle.”

      • Tom Johnson June 17, 2016 5:54 pm 

        The LEV tactic totally excludes exercising any presidential electoral activity outside of the Duopoly Duo.

        This assumes that exercising such actions by getting more alternative candidates on the ballot, actually voting FOR a worthwhile candidate/platform, using electoral periods as a time to engage folks in discussion and/or question their conditioned voting behavior, organizing people around electoral issues, considering morality, challenging the Repubs in the streets of Cleveland and the Dems at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly etc. are all irrelevant.

        More importantly, it assumes that the strategy does not increase the strength of the Duopoly by certifying their murderous behavior is the only electoral arena that matters.

        Also, it ignores the reality that (in the U.S. at least) a significant and probably overwhelming majority of the people equate electoral politics with politics — as wrong as that may be.

        And in this particular election, the LEV proponents equate Trump’s obscene fascist bloviations on the same level with Clinton’s long history of proven murderous actions. To use Chomsky’s example of climate warming: while Trump maintains it does not exist, Clinton has consistently worked on behalf the carbon industries throughout her career.

        The LEV tactic is going to further divide what little is left of a Left in the U.S. internally, but more importantly it is another clear demonstration of the profound irrelevance of the Left in relation to the rest of us. We hunger for something different — and soon.

        Especially the young who demonstrated during much of the Sanders campaign, the Black Lives Matter movements, the Occupy movements, et. al. that they may be alot more politically savvy than we old farts who assume political wisdom.

      • Tom Johnson June 17, 2016 6:06 pm 

        You keep repeating this quote as if it is all that matters. Of course on-going left organizing activities must continue; but they should also adapt to conditions.

        And this particular “national electoral cycle” is different than any that I remember. (I’m 65). The Sanders moment/movement has built on previous movements to challenge class inequality with a language that tens of millions of people have seized upon. We can now have practical discussions outside of left ghettos that we could not have before.

        Equally important, movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter are demonstrating how to take collective action on the ground that is shaking the shit out of the capitalist oligarchy that runs the Duopoly. We haven’t seen this in decades – and the forces of repression and co-optation are so much stronger than they were in the 60s.

        To render all that has been going on during the national electoral cycle as politically irrelevant is a huge error.

        • avatar
          Paul D June 19, 2016 4:34 am 

          Tens of millions? Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the majority of people I meet have hardly heard of Sanders, or consider him to be marginal and unimportant. In the urban areas, almost everyone will be voting for Hillary except for the cops, who will be voting for Trump. In the suburban and rural areas, especially in the areas economically dependent on coal mining and Marcellus shale fracking, most will be voting for Trump.

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