The Rational and Practical Bankruptcy of Lesser Evil Voting

Does it ever occur to folks that Noam Chomsky’s vote-for-the-Democrat-in-states-that-matter-because-the-Republican-is-worse advice means that the professor is telling us to vote for Democrats who are worse than the Republicans that he told us we had to vote against in a previous election cycle? If one were to consistently follow Chomsky’s logic, then it’s conceivable that Trump would be a reasonable choice as long as a candidate could be found who can be portrayed as worse than Trump—a death spiral not inconceivable given the road we’re on.

Worried about the popular state of the lesser-of-two-evils rhetoric, John Halle (through an email conversation with Noam Chomsky, it seems) has enlisted the professor in an attempt on Halle’s blog to explain the lesser-of-two-evils argument to the ignorant masses who still don’t get it: An Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting) Because so much is at stake, and because Chomsky has enchanted so many people, I wade into this mess of an argument. (Note: “Professor Chomsky requests that he not be contacted with responses to this piece.”)

“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.”

Note the negative construction of the function of voting. It is constructed in this way because the authors are defending a position that is rapidly losing its currency. Let’s make voting a positive action: Voting is an expression of moral judgment and political action concerning policies and legislation that reflect our aspirations, interests, and values. That includes reforming the corrupt system designed to limit choices to those primarily beneficial to corporate elites. In order to reform the system, votes should be cast for politicians other than establishment figure who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. One-person-one-vote is by definition an act of personal self-expression, but it also an expression of solidarity with ideas and with people who share those ideas. Thus Halle and Chomsky’s first point fails as soon as the character and purpose of voting is clarified. 

“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.”

False dilemma. Halle and Chomsky are seeking a self-seal prophecy by attempting to convince voters that there are only two choices: vote for Clinton or vote for Trump by not voting for Clinton. There are other consequences to the act of voting in 2016. The act of withdrawing consent from the two-party corporate-run electoral system can have an effect if enough people choose that action. Failure to pursue alternative action means that you have participated in a way that you hope will result in a Clinton presidency. And while the character of a Trump presidency is uncertain—as of right now we have the bluster of a publicity-seeking entertainer with a history of support for liberal policies trying to appeal to conservatives (or trying to throw the election for Hillary)—the character of a Clinton presidency is much less uncertain. We’ve heard the rhetoric that this election is about life and death. Indeed. Ask the survivors in Libya and Syria.

“3) One of these candidates, Trump… [a bunch of stuff Trump has said that sounds scary to liberals and progressives].” 

I could write a paragraph that would make Hillary Clinton much more of a monster than Trump and all I would need to do is present the facts of her speech and her record. For example, we are told, on the basis of his current rhetoric, that Trump is a racist so we must vote for Hillary. But arguing that black youth are “super predators” with “no conscience, no empathy” who society needs to “bring to heel” is racist speech with no equal. Moreover, it is racist speech made in support of a draconian crime bill that expanded the circular state and damaged the lives of millions of people. Black men represent less than 6 percent of the US population. By the end of Clinton’s first term as president, more than 50 percent of prison inmates were black men. Now multiply that example several times and spread it around the world. Hillary Clinton is the choice of Wall Street, the carceral-surveillance state, and the military-industrial complex.

“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.”

What evidence is there that indicates even a marginal probability that suffering under Trump will be significantly greater than under Clinton? It’s not there. What is more, not only will suffering be great under Clinton, but she will have the support of liberals in the New Democrat project to entrench and expand the neoliberal agenda. Social Security and Medicare are at stake here. More war and surveillance will be the consequence of choosing Clinton. Mid-term elections under Clinton will likely increase conservative Republican presence in the House and Senate. If a President Trump were to attempt the things Clinton is almost certain to pursue if president, liberals will rebel. The mid-term elections would like not be kind to Republicans. It is possible that suffering under a Clinton presidency will not be as acute as it might be under a Trump presidency, but the harm done in a Clinton presidency will be deeper and longer lasting than that under a Trump presidency. Halle and Chomsky are pleading with people to add to the momentum of the evil spiral.

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

But, as we have seen, 4) is problematic. Therefore 5) is problematic. Moreover, 5), even if 4) were accepted, does not constitute a sufficient basis to vote for Clinton under these circumstances because of what I pointed on in my response to 1). 

“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.”

Who will repeatedly make this accusation? Halle and Chomsky, among others. These are the people who want to see Democrats remain in power. We’re being told that if Trump wins because we voted on the basis of my statement concerning the reason for voting, then it’s our fault if people suffer. But if a Trump presidency is as bad as Halle and Chomsky think it will be, then it will be Trump’s fault along all the people who voted for him. However, those who choose the right-wing Democratic candidate (Clinton) instead of the progressive Green Party nominee (Jill Stein) will have used their political agency to perpetuate the status quo.  The continuation of the right-wing populism that is plaguing our nation will be the consequence of voting for Clinton.

“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.”

This expectation is contradicted by recent history, where the attempt to saddle the candidacy of Ralph Nader with horrors of the Bush presidency was followed by the highly-successful campaign of an insurgent progressive candidate (Bernie Sanders) and millions of voters who are now vowing to vote against the establishment candidate of the Democratic Party.

“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.”

This does not follow. Not seeing Trump elected is not the core of what the left is attempting to achieve by refusing to vote for Clinton. That would constitute a miserable political core. At its core, the movement to withdraw consent from the New Democrat direction is about changing the character of the game the ruling class has been playing with mass action. In practical terms, increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat erodes confidence in the two-party system and thus represent an investment in the future of progressive politics. Failure to withdraw consent is an act continuing the neoliberal dismantling of democracy. 

The argument Halle and Chomsky are pushing is the type of rationalization generated within the narrow parameters of the rational choice model that their utilitarianism suggests. It is not an argument for a pragmatic political strategy of dismantling the two-party ideology that currently benefits the interests of the ruling class in order to build a mass-based political party representing the interests of working families. 

The majority of voters are neither Democrat or Republican. Tens of millions of voters stay home because neither of the major party candidates represent their aspirations, interests, and values, and they have been persuaded by the public education system and corporate media, buttressed by the LEV crowd, that there are only two parties to vote for. Until the left starts raising the profile of third party candidates, these tens of millions of people will continue to sit home on election day, and a minority of highly motivated voters will cast their votes to continue the status quo. 

“Although the logic behind lesser evilism is impeccable, the principle seldom applies directly in real world circumstances. In political contexts especially, there are too many complicating factors, and there is too much indeterminacy.” The Logic of Lesser Evilism

Moreover, however impeccable we regard the logic in abstract form, the lesser evils argument restricts the argument to one presidential cycle. It does not consider, as I did above, the long-term consequences of the vote. It is only concerned with making sure that Trump is not elected. And this is a concern for the Democratic Party, not for working class voters.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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