Why LEV is not a Strategy-and Why it Matters

It is a matter of elementary logic that a political system under the control of predatory capital will produce highly unsatisfactory candidates at best and utterly odious ones at worst. It also logically follows that those seeking to prevent the worst from materializing will advocate a lesser evil vote (LEV). To state the obvious, this constitutes a lesser evil VOTE not a lesser evil STRATEGY. While this distinction should be apparent, certain elements of the activist left have routinely suggested that those advocating for the former are simultaneously advocating for the latter.

Among those unable or unwilling to make the distinction was Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein who, in a National Press Club appearance, characterized Noam Chomsky’s “lesser evil strategy” as having “failed”. Another was NYU Professor Nikhil Singh who, in a widely circulated response to a recent piece by Adolph Reed, implies Reed is sympathetic to neoliberalism for having endorsed a “politico-strategic recommendation . . . to unite the vote around Hillary Clinton.”

Stein’s and Singh’s accusations have no merit for a simple reason: neither Reed nor Chomsky regards voting as any kind of “strategy”. In fact, Chomsky and Reed regard presidential elections as “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas”, a largely meaningless exercise designed not to build but to weaken and inhibit challenges to elite dominance. Since a vote does not advance the main objective of building class power, it is not a strategy at all but rather the exact opposite.

That said, there is, according to Reed and Chomsky, one reason to participate in presidential elections: to head off the worst possible result, one which, in addition to inflicting huge damage on vulnerable populations will make subsequent attempts to mobilize a left opposition more difficult.

But by exercising this option where it is necessary (in swing states) one is not in any way advancing a strategy. Rather one is acting according to basic common sense equivalent to, for example, driving on the right side of the road. One does so to avoid getting into a head on collision, whether one is going in the right or wrong direction or nowhere at all.

Exactly the same logic applies to voting. It has nothing to do with attaining a positive objective but is a purely defensive act to achieve the least worst results under corrupted and anti-democratic mechanisms.


This truth is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, rather than dealing with it, leftists imagine that a vote in November will achieve gains, telling themselves fairy tales which prevent them from confronting reality.

Probably the most common of this election holds that a vote against Clinton for Stein will “punish” the Democratic Party for their continual drift to the neoliberal right forcing them to nominate a presidential candidate from the populist left wing of the party. Believing this requires ignoring all recent electoral cycles in which the Democrats in every instance responded to defeat by nominating neoliberal centrists. There is no indication that 2020 will be any different. A Clinton defeat will do nothing to alter this dynamic other than increase calls for suppression of Sanders supporters who will be viewed as having fatally wounded Clinton through their primary attacks on her.

Another variant claims that voting for Stein will help the Greens achieve legitimacy as a national party. Again, obvious facts expose this as a chimera: every Green run since Nader 2000 has coincided with a decline in Green local organization and Green office holders. These are now down to pitiful numbers with not a single Green having been elected to state level office and with their local office holders accounting for around 100 of the 900,000 positions-less than .02%. These could be available to them if they were a serious party. But they are not, and it has become apparent that the national Greens have little interest in it becoming one, devoting their resources to failed national races rather than in developing a local base which is required for them to begin to build a foundation.

Finally, a third claim actively celebrates “consternation, confusion, dissension, disorder, chaos— and crisis, with possible resolution” regard “a Trump presidency (as) the best chance for this true progress.” At this point, left delusion metastasizes into full blown psychosis providing ammunition for neoliberals to smear the left as bizarre and irresponsible, needing to kept as far away from positions of power and influence as possible. The less said, and the less attention provided to crazed performative politics of this sort, the better.


While ranging from unrealistic to insane, what the three scenarios have in common is in regarding national elections as a crucial component of a left strategy. This recognition returns us to Chomsky and Reed’s critics. That their predictions have virtually no chance of materializing demonstrates Chomsky and Reed’s essential point: voting in presidential elections has no place in a viable left strategy to achieve power.

Rather, what appears to be operative is that LEV critics are engaged in what psychologists call projection: Chomsky and Reed are, they insist, supporting a lesser evil strategy because voting, must be, critics assume, a significant expression of one’s political beliefs and commitments.

But it is nothing of the kind, and to view voting as anything more than an empty spectacle is to play a role in what has proven to be a highly effective technique for maintaining elite dominance of the political system.

As Chomsky and Reed’s century of combined political experience and engagement has shown, rejecting fairy tales of the right or the left is a necessary precondition for serious politics.

It is time that we begin to understand and take seriously what they have to say.

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9 thoughts on “Why LEV is not a Strategy-and Why it Matters”

  1. To be honest I had other problems with Reed’s most recent essay. I don’t care who he votes for (and I wish socialists would stop telling people who to vote for at this point — everyone’s made up their mind) but he makes very sweeping generalizations about what he calls “antiracist politics.” Of course there’s a bourgeois version of anti-racism. But to say that Black Lives Matter is nothing more than a branding exercise is pretty insulting to those fighting against racist police violence.

    Of course white supremacy and capitalism are intertwined in the US. We can’t overcome one without overcoming the other. But lumping people like Alicia Garza and DeRey McKesson together is just ignorant. Read this Garza speech:


    …and then tell me that she represents the black face of neoliberalism. I mean really. She explicitly attacks “pos­tra­cial­ism and the neolib­eral assault on black com­mu­ni­ties.”

    I must wonder if Reed thinks there’s such a thing as “structural racism” anymore in the US. Because it isn’t clear from the Nonsite essay even though he claims he recognizes the persistence of racism. It really does come off as coming from a “stop talking about racism and start talking ONLY about cross-racial class issues” perspective. That may not be his intent but that’s how it reads.

    1. There’s definitely a neoliberal contingent within BLM-McKesson (as you note) and Brittany Packnet having had positions within Teach for America being one indication.

      I wrote about BLM a short piece about Garza’s transition to supporting Sanders here.

      I stand by it.

      One thing that struck me about Singh’s response was that it circulated the canard that Reed’s endorsement of “voting for the neoliberal war criminal” can be construed as support for Clinton and her neoliberal program. It is nothing of the kind of course.

  2. Can you expand/substantiate this claim?
    every Green run since Nader 2000 has coincided with a decline in Green local organization and Green office holders.
    I can’t find support for it. thanks.

    1. After Nader’s run, Greens had representation in the following cities: San Francisco, Hartford CT, Santa Monica, New Haven CT, Minneapolis (3 members), Madison, and others. With the exception of Minneapolis where they have held on to 1 seat, they have lost all of their seats in the others. They formerly would claim the figure of 500 local office holders, as I recall. Now 100 is the figure they use. You’re right this needs to be researched more carefully, but I’m pretty confident that the outlines of the above are correct.

  3. I think this is the definitive comment on the way we should think about electoral engagement at this point as a left. We can have no impact on setting the agenda, and all we can do is try to create breathing space for organizing. Sometimes the differences between Dem and Republican candidates can be so minuscule that sitting out an election or voting for a third-party candidate can seem plausible. This should clearly be not such a time.

    I especially like the comparison of voting for the lesser evil in these presidential elections to driving on the right side of the road! That’s inspired.

    By the way, since I’m writing already, I’ll satisfy Jason Schulman’s curiosity. I think structural racism is tossed around as an alternative to an explanation of the dynamics and mechanisms through which even those patterned inequalities that appear statistically as racial disparities are reproduced. Invoking it makes people feel righteous but doesn’t tell us anything concrete. It’s an incantation, not an explanation.

  4. @Jason Schulman

    C’mon, the opening of Garza’s speech that you linked begins with a quasi-religious invocation of “indige­nous nations whose land we’re on right now.” It perfectly captures Reed’s point about the left-identitarian tendency toward incantation over explanation. For one, the idea that land rightly belongs to the indigenous is a Lockean one, not a Marxian or a Rousseauian one.

    But yeah, you’re right: it’s unfair to lump Garza with neoliberalism. Activists like Garza aren’t so much neoliberal, as much as they are “Alt-Left” –a mirror image of the Alt-Right. Both the Alt-Left and the Alt-Right advance identitarian critiques of neoliberalism. Both are obsessed with heritage and are disillusioned with traditional politics, seeking “culture change” instead. In fact, the Alt-Right seems to almost welcome the BLM movement because it draws attention to the failure of liberal multiculturalism.

  5. @Phocion — I didn’t say that Garza was a model Marxist. I said she wasn’t the “left” wing of neoliberalism. And you’ve conceded the point.

    I’d have to read the speech again to see if she’s saying that all American land rightly belongs to the First Nations. I suspect not. I’m more concerned with #NoDAPL and other indigenous struggles being successful than I am with whether or not Garza makes perfectly formulated speeches. A speech isn’t a written article anyway.

  6. In response to Adolph.

    “I think structural racism is tossed around as an alternative to an explanation of the dynamics and mechanisms through which even those patterned inequalities that appear statistically as racial disparities are reproduced. Invoking it makes people feel righteous but doesn’t tell us anything concrete. It’s an incantation, not an explanation.”

    So then using structural racism as a term in, say, an article like the following is misconceived?


    Isn’t what William Barber II describes here “structural racism”? What else would one call it?


    Adolph says the term is “an incantation, not an explanation.” Well, one could say that about any number of phrases, including “class struggle,” which always exists even when most people don’t see it.

    It’s not about making oneself feel good. It’s about recognizing a very unpleasant reality.

  7. Wells Fargo shows how the war on the poor works in areas that are disproportionately black. But if you want to prove it’s structural racism, you have to show how white people in targeted neighborhoods get a special deal. When white, black, and Hispanic poor people are treated the same, the problem is not racism.

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