Halle/Chomsky: An Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting)

John Halle/Noam Chomsky

(note: Comments and discussion can be posted below. Professor Chomsky requests that he not be contacted with responses to this piece.)


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.

Sanders’ Challenge to the Right–and Left

For a while, I’ve been making the case that the Sanders campaign should be supported based on its potential for destabilizing the Democratic Party thereby opening the field for independent, third party alternatives.

By this point it is apparent that it has done just that.

But there’s an even stronger argument to be made and that is that whatever its effects on the Democratic Party, Sanders’s run has already benefitted millions.  The way that it has done so is by making the establishment aware of a substantial, organized block to its left which has the ability to pose a real threat to its dominance. Recognizing that their hold on power depends on their ability to begin to address the massive suffering which is everywhere apparent, they are required to respond, albeit within limits imposed by the plutocratic class whose interests they serve.*

That something of the kind is now occurring on the national level is most conspicuous in shifts in Clinton’s stances on the minimum wage, trade agreements, campaign finance, a federally subsidized jobs program and banking reform. These, as minimally skeptical observers are aware, have little chance of materializing in a Clinton II administration, likely to offer, in a recapitulation of Clinton I, neoliberal austerity accompanied by “I feel your pain” rhetoric.

Much more consequential than Clinton’s rhetoric in response to Sanders are changes in substance which have already benefitted millions. One example is the significantly higher wages, benefits and working conditions achieved for tens of thousand of workers due to the favorable resolution of the Verizon strike. The settlement, as CWA director Bob Masters noted in a recent interview was crucially aided by “a credible national candidate for president on a nationally-televised debate calling out the CEO of a big corporation.”  In conversation with other union leaders, Masters deadpanned that unionists should “remind ourselves never to call a strike again unless it’s one week before a competitive New York state primary in which a socialist is running.”

It is not only Verizon employees who have benefitted from the Sanders campaign. As Zaid Jilani reported in The Intercept, Sanders having made expanding rather than cutting Social Security a “central theme” of his campaign has resulted in Obama now calling for an “increase (in) benefits ‘so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they’ve earned.’”  This as Jilani notes, is “a far cry from Obama’s position on the program in late 2012, when his administration argued for reducing Social Security benefits by recalculating the way cost of living adjustments are made” via the chained CPI.

The direct beneficiaries are retirees and the disabled who will now have a few extra hundred dollars in their pockets each month, making the difference for some between a decent life and destitution.

As has been frequently noted  these positive results were more or less predictable based on the previous history of serious left electoral challenges to the establishment center.  It comes as no surprise that they were bitterly opposed by elites who contributed billions to the Clinton campaign hoping to strangle the Sanders campaign in the crib, and heading off the shift in the center which it would necessarily presage.  As is now apparent, they did not succeed.


While despicable, the response of the corporate right makes perfect sense.  What is baffling is not their predictable hostility but that of a small but not insignificant portion of the left which committed itself to ensuring that, in their words, no one should “become a campaign volunteer, do phone banking, door knocking, get the vote (sic.), and certainly don’t send (Sanders) a dime of your money.”

Fortunately, for the significant fraction of the working class already benefitting from Sanders’s run, enough of us rejected their advice and did the exact opposite. Had more of us been more active, it is not impossible that we could now be celebrating a major party nominee who would be in a position to force still greater concessions from the system.

While that was not in the cards, we should be aware that some of the same forces on the left who were dismissing Sanders then are now advising the left not to bother opposing the nightmarish candidacy of Trump.

We should have long since learned to ignore the segment of the left who have become reconciled to defeat, dragging the rest of us down with them.  The job of the left is not to provide therapy for a few sociopaths**, it is to reach out to and help the countless millions who are the perpetual victims of a violent, exploitative and increasingly corrupt economic and political system.

The Sanders campaign has shown that we are capable of doing just that and we need to do it more.

*The electoral success of the New Haven Green Party which I participated in (detailed here) resulted in a leftward shift of the Democrats, as did victories by the San Francisco Green Party and, more recently, the Vermont Progressive Party.

** Noam Chomsky has recently weighed in along similar lines: “This is kind of ‘feel-good’ politics; I gotta do what makes me feel good, not [engage with] what happens to the victims. You see this all over the place, and it’s a real defect of the activist Left. You have to think about the consequences for the victims, not whether you feel good about it. It doesn’t matter if you feel good about it.”

How to Lose an Election (Clinton II edition)

In a few days, I’m going to post an endorsement of SSLEV (i.e. swing state lesser evil voting) roughly along the lines of the positions taken by Adolph Reed and Noam Chomsky among others.

Before I deal with the arguments against supporting Clinton (albeit on this highly limited basis), some of which I expect to be reasonable, I’ll need to deal with those in favor, specifically, a group of which are anything but: those made by Clinton loyalists attempting woo the Sanders bloc.  A nadir of infantilized absurdity was reached, one hopes, in Rebecca Traister’s recent piece advocating support for Clinton based on a comparison to “General Leia.” But even those in the Clinton camp most capable of skepticism seem unable to face up to Clinton’s long history of triangulatory cynicism, finding it necessary to gild some portion of the lily to sell their product to potential Bernie or Busters.

A good example of the genre is Jonathan Freedland taking to the Guardian to announce that Clinton’s “actual policy positions on, say, Wall Street and inequality,” have “shifted leftward – partly under pressure from Sanders” . That’s accurate as far as it goes, though Freedland never considers the possibility that in doing so, she is merely retracing the steps of the first Clinton administration which sold its rightist agenda to the left with ample “I feel your pain” rhetoric and vague promises to “put people first”, as I noted here.

Freedland’s sees none of this focussing only on what he claims to be “her decades-long record as a progressive and reformer.”  If by “reform” he means welfare and banking reform, both of which the then first lady cheered on- with the former resulting in now record levels of “deep” poverty while the latter helped to mint a new class of plutocratic overlords-Freedland’s position has some merit. Of course, that’s not what he has in mind,  presumably expecting his readers to defer to his expertise in with respect to Clinton’s supposedly “progressive” record, something which Sanders supporters well know to be far from the case. That also goes for the presumption of the authority of “most analysts” who Freedland endorses in their specious claim that Clinton’s policy proposals  “are the more serious and practical” than those of Sanders.  This merely parrots Clinton’s talking point praising her as “a progressive with results” and has just as little to recommend it.

Similar lapses are on display in Peter Dreier’s “Five-Point Plan for Sanders Going Forward” published on Alternet.  Here we find the claim that “a majority of (Clinton’s appointees) to the party’s platform committee” are ” stalwart progressives.”  These include,  according to him,  “former EMILY’s List head Wendy Sherman and Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress.”

EMILY’s List, of course, as most minimally critical observers are aware, is only “progressive” insofar as this exclusively equates to “pro-choice”. This   accounts for, for example, Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur, among the congress’s most left leaning members,  never receiving a dime from EMILY’s List while right wing Republicans routinely cashed their checks provided they held the line on “choice”.   One wonders whether Dreier’s invocation of Neera Tanden had occurred prior to the great blogger Matt Breuning having exposed her vile statements on Libya, apologetics for Benjamin Netanyahu and longstanding advocacy for to Clintonite neoliberal austerity and militarism.  As is now well known, Bruening was made to pay for speaking truth to this Washington powerbroker in losing his position at the liberal thinktank Demos.

Whether or not Dreier was aware of the scandal involving Breuning’s termination, he should know that the names Neera Tanden and Wendy Sherman set off alarm bells as they are precisely the sort of establishment insiders which Sanders’s political revolution is directly targeting.

If this is the best the Clinton side can do to enlist Sanders voters to their side, we should all begin to prepare ourselves for the anni horribilis a Trump administration is sure to usher in.