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.