Noam Chomsky and political scientist John Halle have recently co-authored an influential short statement (available here) in favor of “lesser evil voting” (LEV): voting for who you want when there is no possibility of the greater evil candidate winning and, when there is a possibility of the greater evil candidate winning—that is, in swing states—voting for the lesser evil candidate. Although they are of course trying to establish that progressives ought to vote for Clinton, the logic applies equally well to a vote for Trump, depending on your views. I wish to examine their basic logic since their “brief” is apparently very influential in left circles.
The view is laid out in eight points. The first (1) is that we should not look at voting as an individual “act of personal self-expression or moral judgement,” an admonition that reflects the way many LEV adherents diagnose those of us who wish to vote for who we think ought to hold a particular office. Point (2) is more interesting: the only consequence of voting in the 2016 presidential election will be to marginally increase the chances of one of the two major candidates winning. Points (3) and (4) basically amount to saying that Trump wants to do all sorts of horrible things (which he does) while under Clinton things would be a bit better, relatively.
Significantly—and I don’t think anyone with a conscience could disagree with this—when we talk about things getting better or worse under one of the candidates, we mean better or worse for the most vulnerable in society. (Whether or not a member of the wealthy class takes home 10 million dollars under a certain candidate instead of 15 million dollars ought to be of no serious concern to anyone.) Another assumption is that no third-party candidate is going to win. The practical effect of any vote in a swing state will be to make it more likely that either Trump or Clinton wins. Under Trump, things would be worse, maybe even much worse, for the poor, working class, and other vulnerable sections of the population. Therefore, if you really care about them, as leftists (and of course religious people) ought to, you must vote for Clinton (5).
The second major component of the argument is that (6) if a Trump victory results from enough third-party voters voting their conscience, leftists will always be accused of not really caring about the victims of a Trump administration. Oddly, Chomsky and Halle make the parenthetical remark here that this accusation is “based in fact,” i.e., that those voting for a progressive candidate and not Clinton do not, in some unspecified way, actually care about those who will suffer from Trump’s policies. This is prima facie untrue, but since the authors say nothing more about it, I will pass over the point. Relatedly, (7) Democratic Party operatives will use a Trump victory to shame leftists into supporting Democratic establishment candidates—just as they have with the tired old argument about Ralph Nader. And so, (8) what you wind up with is not only an outcome where the very population leftists claim to represent is harmed, but also the legitimate objective of bringing a left government to power is undermined.
Now, in fairness to Chomsky and Halle, they undoubtedly want the same things other leftists want: a government that serves the interest of the people and not just narrow sectors of power. Certainly no one familiar with Chomsky’s work over the past sixty or so years can doubt his left credentials. Nonetheless, Chomsky and Halle’s argument is a recipe for making sure elite power remains entrenched. The LEV argument is a venerable one by this point. After following out its logic and voting for Obama, say, did the left go on to create a powerful mass movement outside the establishment? Has anything like that ever happened? The closest anything like that has ever come to actually happening was the Sanders movement, where millions of people supported a candidate who they really thought was a socialist (even though he straightforwardly is not). In successfully corralling the energies of the movement into the confines of the Democratic Party, however, the movement came—predictably—to a rather pathetic end. Following the logic of LEV, millions of workers and young people wound up disillusioned and disoriented, with a few of the most optimistic joining the Greens (who are polling at about 5 percent or so), more half-heartedly lining up behind Clinton, and many more probably lapsing into apathy. This isn’t much of a program for revolutionary social transformation. In our present form of government, if we keep voting for what we don’t want, will we ever get anything other than what we don’t want?
Consider next the probable outcomes of a Trump presidency, involving points (3) and (4). Yes, he is a semi-fascist. I blush for our country too. Yes, he has promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, deport 11 million illegal immigrants, wants to ban Muslims from entering the US, and all the rest. But all this is most likely bluster. As with any candidate, we won’t know what he’ll actually do until he does it. In 2000, I really thought Bush would be a “compassionate conservative” (remember that?) and a “uniter, not a divider” (was there ever a more divisive president?). Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign led all of us to believe that he would be a champion of peace, working people, and the environment. Instead, he not only continued the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but expanded US belligerence into Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He has aggressively pursued the mad policy of military encirclement of Russia and China, sharply ratcheting up tensions with these nuclear-armed powers. (Unlike Clinton, who voted enthusiastically for the 2003 Iraq War, Trump has actually stated that the Iraq War and current US foreign policy are folly.)
There has been no more faithful servant of Wall Street and corporate power than Barack Obama. He continued the Bush-era policy of bailing out the banks and corporations while allowing working people to twist in the wind. Since 2009 and by deliberate policy, 4 trillion dollars have been transferred from working people to the financial elite, which have correspondingly seen their wealth reach new heights of unreason while the position of working people has been dangerously eroded. Obama has consistently sided with Wall Street on every major issue that has involved a conflict with the good of the people. The centerpiece of his legacy, the ACA, was in fact a device for offloading rising medical costs onto ordinary people and bringing a profit bonanza to the private healthcare industry. When it comes to the environment, the world continues its plunge toward catastrophe on several major fronts, especially climate change.
And so we have the true record of the establishment “left” to help inform our choice about how to vote in this election. The Obama Administration has in fact been a rightwing administration in disguise. Clinton too makes use of left rhetoric while aggressively pursuing right-wing policies. A win for Clinton will do nothing but create the illusion of a progressive victory, which will only disarm the slowly reawakening workers’ movement.
With respect to points (6) and (7), Chomsky and Halle are unfortunately arguing from hypothesis contrary to fact: if the Democrat had been elected something much better than the catastrophes of the Nixon and Bush Administrations would have resulted. But we have absolutely no way of knowing about futures that didn’t happen; we do, however, have the records of Democratic administrations and as we’ve pointed out, it is very far from clear that they are preferable.
If we want peaceful transformation of the economy and the government to create a society oriented toward the common good, we will never get there by continually returning to power politicians diametrically opposed to that goal. What is needed is a decisive break with the two big capitalist parties and sustained support for a third party alternative that will work uncompromisingly in the interests of humanity as a whole. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that it is impossible to get the working class behind a party that represents working class interests.