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The Necessity of "Lesser-Evil" Voting

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The most famous advocate of 'lesser-evil' voting is Noam Chomsky, who argues that the most immediate moral imperative is to prevent the worst possible electoral outcome from occurring.
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It's election season again, that joyous time of the biennium, and you know what that means: a renewal of the perennial left-wing debate over "lesser-evil voting." Is it wrong to vote for a Democrat, rather than someone on the genuine left, in order to keep a reactionary or a fascist out of power? Or, on the contrary, is it wrong to vote for a leftist who has apparently no chance of victory, thereby denying a vote to the Democrat and so increasing the odds that the reactionary candidate will win? The most famous advocate of "lesser-evil" voting is Noam Chomsky, who argues that the most immediate moral imperative is to prevent the worst possible electoral outcome from occurring. Critics of lesser-evil voting are legion, as a simple Google search indicates.

The writer Nick Pemberton recently contributed to this debate in a Counterpunch article entitled "Reflections on Chomsky's Voting Strategy: Why the Democratic Party Can't Be Saved." It's a long and rambling article most of which isn't worth responding to. Nevertheless, since Pemberton has resurrected the issue, I'd like to weigh in on the side of reason and morality. Maybe a miracle will happen and I'll reach one or two people.It's to the credit of Pemberton and many of his allies in this debate--e.g., B. Sidney Smith and Andrew Smolski--that they acknowledge it's a risky proposition to disagree with Chomsky. The man has a preternatural ability to be rational and right about nearly everything. And on this issue too, I think, he's absolutely right, and his critics are wrong.

Now, if Chomsky can't convince the critics then I certainly can't, but hopefully I can at least provide a bit of food for thought. One way to approach the issue is to list policy differences between Democrats and Republicans that leftists should care about. The claim is often made that the two parties are effectively indistinguishable, but this is hardly the case. Consider net neutrality, an issue leftists care about. Where do the parties stand on it? Obama's FCC voted in favor of it on party lines, while Trump's FCC ended it. Not exactly indistinguishable.

On global warming: Obama was pathetically inadequate, but during his term the U.S. did at least join the Paris Agreement. Trump withdrew from it. Obama's EPA introduced rules to cut pollution from vehicle tailpipes, while Trump's is rolling those rules back. Trump is enamored of coal; Obama wasn't. Trump's EPA has proposed to dramatically weaken regulations concerning mercury, posing a threat to the nervous systems of children and fetuses. The differences go on and on.

On the Supreme Court: how likely is it that Hillary Clinton would have nominated judges as reactionary as Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch? Clinton cares about Roe v. Wade and would certainly have nominated people likely to protect its legacy. This is a major issue, not a trivial difference between the parties.

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In general, the liberals on the Court are hardly "indistinguishable" from the conservatives, as this list of some major decisions in 2018 shows. (The entire twentieth-century history of the Court indicates the same thing, most notably from the New Deal on.) What about workers' rights? The Democratic Party has little loyalty to organized labor - as evidenced by NAFTA and the TPP, among innumerable other betrayals - but Obama did at least sign the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (in addition to a number of pro-worker executive orders), to which McCain was opposed. And Obama's Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board were far friendlier to workers than Trump's administration has been.

The foreign policies of the parties are much more similar than their domestic policies, being in fact virtually identical on issue after issue. I'm not going to defend the Democratic Party's foreign policy. But it's worth noting that George W. Bush's Iraq War probably would not have occurred had Al Gore been president, since Gore had fewer ties to neoconservatives and the oil industry than Bush and Cheney did. That is, a world-historic catastrophe that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and the destruction of a country quite possibly could have been avoided had more people voted for Gore over Bush in swing states in 2000. Is such a cataclysmic war worth preventing? I think so.

Apparently critics of "lesser-evil" voting disagree. Speaking of the 2000 election, the frequent denials that Ralph Nader contributed to Bush's victory are nonsense. Bush defeated Gore in Florida by 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida. Had only 538 of the people who voted for Nader voted for Gore instead, there would have been no Bush administration and quite possibly no Iraq war. It's a matter of simple arithmetic and shouldn't be controversial. Of course there were thousands of additional reasons why Gore lost, including perhaps the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his blandly centrist political positions, decisions his campaign made, and so on. But it's mathematically provable that one of the reasons was Nader's campaign in Florida. The reason-defying power of ideological thinking is such that people are able to deny not only elementary morality (that you should prevent the worst possible outcome) but even elementary arithmetic.

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It's remarkable. I won't continue listing differences between the two main parties, though there are many more. Instead, let's consider some of the other arguments. A common formulation is that "the lesser evil is still evil." To which I'd reply: sure, you can phrase it that way if you want, and maybe you're right to do so. But the point is that there are degrees of evil. Indeed, that's all we're confronted with in politics: greater and lesser evils. You shouldn't look for moral and ideological purity in the messy realm of politics. Even far-left candidates will almost never be perfect reflections of your values: there will be political sins in their past, they'll take stands on issues that you won't agree with, and if elected they'll almost inevitably make compromises that will disappoint you.

The designation "lesser-evil voting" is misleading, because all voting is lesser-evil voting. Even if you vote for the most radical Green Party candidate you're still choosing (what you think is) the "lesser evil," because no candidate is absolutely perfect. You vote for the one who will do the least damage, or will serve your moral values most effectively. And, again, one of your values should be to prevent the worst possible outcome. You can pretend you're being "pure" somehow by voting against the Democrat (or not voting at all), but, depending on the political context, what your feel-good voting strategy is accomplishing might only be to empower the candidate who will, say, pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, step up the war on immigrants, end net neutrality, ratchet up the capitalist war on humanity and the environment, and give white supremacy a prominent platform.

I'm not saying you should necessarily actively campaign for a Democrat just to prevent the Republican from winning. (Although that's quite a reasonable thing to do if you don't want the fascist to win.) But surely it isn't too much to ask that on one day every two years you cast a vote against fascism and on every other day get back to the task of building a socialist movement.

The claim is often made that lesser-evil voting has enabled the rightward drift of U.S. politics since the 1980s. This claim would have more merit if there had existed a third party with even a remote chance of electoral success. But the fact is that the rightward drift of politics has overwhelmingly resulted from the business community's multidimensional mobilization against democracy, not merely from people's voting for a Democrat every two or four years.

Incomparably more important than voting, at least as long as viable third parties don't exist, is, on the one hand, the work of challenging and pressuring Democrats once they're in power, and on the other hand, the work of building a radical social movement outside the voting booth. The latter task takes decades. Not until it has been accomplished does it make much sense to embrace the sort of electoral strategy Nader has followed. One argument I haven't heard Chomsky make is that having Democrats in power is useful because it shows people the flaws of the Democratic Party, and thus the necessity of building a socialist movement.

If only Republicans were ever in power, people might think all problems could be solved just by electing Democrats, any Democrat. And that's the goal they would focus on. When Democrats in power show how corrupt and oligarchical they, too, are, then anti-capitalist movements like Occupy Wall Street and the current widespread activism for "democratic socialism" can emerge to push for systemic changes in the political economy. In this sense, Obama's presidency advanced the political education of millions of Americans, who realized that electing centrist Democrats wasn't enough.

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In the end, one's opponents or interlocutors will always have some stock answer to every argument, no matter how logical the argument is. Leftists who loathe the Democratic Party with apparently every fiber of their being will always have some rationale, however specious, to justify never voting for a Democrat. Even for a Democrat like, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is (or seems) manifestly better on most issues than nearly all Democrats. The very word "Democrat" is, for many leftists, little more than a term of abuse, a curse word, as it is for so many Republicans, a term so value-laden that the idea of voting for such a person is nauseating. But investing political labels with primarily emotional content is neither useful nor rational, and can lead to demonstrably stupid, even totalitarian thinking and acting.

We should try to step back from our visceral hatreds and aversions and consider dispassionately what course of action is likely to ameliorate the most human suffering. And that's really all that should matter. If you think letting the House or Senate remain in Republican hands is a price worth paying for voting for an ideologically "correct" candidate who has no chance of winning, so be it. But I'd bet a lot of immigrants who are finding it much harder to get a visa now than under Obama would disagree with you.

As would, perhaps, quite a few environmental activists who are now desperately working overtime to prevent Ryan Zinke's Department of the Interior from stripping yet another national park or monument of federal protection.

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The Necessity of "Lesser-Evil" Voting

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Lance Ciepiela

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"Yes, those Democrats pursued some evil policies. But the Democrats are much better than the Republicans: on women's rights, on the environment, on taxation, on gay rights, on unionism, on education, on the Supreme Court, on immigration, on civil rights, on voting rights, etc., etc.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is a right wing troll or is deluded".. Don Smith.

Submitted on Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018 at 11:58:07 PM

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George King

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Reply to Lance Ciepiela:   New Content

Lance, was there a point in this comment and if so it was not clear or flew right by me?

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018 at 1:30:05 AM

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Lance Ciepiela

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Yes, those voters who considered Trump "the lesser of two evils" may have been "sadly mistaken".

After two years in office ("Hillary or Trump") they may have "some misgivings" about Trump. Turns out for some that Clinton may have been "the lesser of two evils" after all - #Trump/ClintonTaxCuts.

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018 at 2:11:50 AM

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"Noam Chomsky talks about the major threats to the human race and other important issues of today".



Noam Chomsky - Best Speech In 2018 Noam Chomsky Lecture, May 2018 Noam Chomsky talks about the major threats to the human race and other important issues of today. Avram Noam Chomsky ...
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Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018 at 12:06:43 AM

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This brilliant woman speaks my mind, far better than I can, going to the heart of this matter: click here

As for Noam, a long-time hero of mine and a truly brilliant walking encyclopedia, he seems to often the miss the main boat click here

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018 at 6:27:41 PM

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I would simply add that lesser evil voting has got us where we are today. Having the balls to stand up for what we actually believe in is something that lesser evil voters don't seem to have. The blame is on them, not us who speak our minds and adhere to truth.

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 24, 2018 at 6:34:45 PM

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June Genis

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We could greatly ameriorate the lesser of two evils problem by switching to Ranked Choice Voting. Many people choose the old party candidate who they perceive as the lesser evil because they believe that a third party candidate can't win and that voting for such a person is therefore wasting their vote. WIth RCV voters can confidently award their first choice to the candidate they most prefer and reserve a lesser ranking for a lesser evil candidate. Since most candidates need lower choices from their opponents supporters to achieve a majority, RCV also makes for more civil elections with less mud slinging and name calling.

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 9:02:28 PM

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Absolutely agree!

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 10:25:35 PM

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Art Costa

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Chomsky still purports an 2-state solutiion for the Palestinians. Defying polity, geography and economy. A shared nation, one open to all, truly democratic (not theocratic) is the only solution for a just peace. But Chomsky pushes the two-state just like the cul-de-sac lesser evil.


The Internet has made Chomsky less relevant, though I too have admired his thoughts on may topics through the years.


We don't need plutocrats/gatekeepers running the left thought process. Democracy of the mind.

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 2:40:25 PM

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I, too, have appreciated and agreed with Jill Stein, and she was the only 'candidate' I spoke in favor of last go around.

I find it very interesting that practically every country that the U.S. gov. seems intent on destroying has open direct elections, often with as many as 30-40 candidates representing a wide diversity of viewpoints. Yep, THAT seems like something worthy of destruction.

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 6:50:21 PM

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Yes, "we're being robbed blind by the war profiteers" - Jill Stein.


Jill Stein, Women's March on Pentagon 2018 Green Party Presidential candidate is interviewed by Consortium News' Netra Halperin at the Women's March on the Pentagon, October 21, 2018.
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If you keep voting for the lesser of two evils things keep getting eviler and eviler. A wise man told me more than 60 years ago; ''Don't listen to what they say. Watch what they do.'' My first encounter with the lesser of two evils was 1964, LBJ vs Goldwater. The heated debate on the left was LBJ is the the lesser so we have to vote for him. He had already created the obvious false flag of Tonkin and escalated Vietnam. Goldwater was talking of paving over Vietnam. LBJ was doing it.

I voted Socialist Workers Party. For President, I knew it would not make a difference since I lived in CA and with the slave institution of Electoral College it would not matter. As long as the Ds know they have your vote they will not do anything to earn it. In presidential elections I have yet to vote Democratic though I did register R once to vote for John Anderson in the primary.

The .000001% have erased important minority party participation from history. Deb's platform in 1924 looked more like what FDR did than did the D's platform of 1932. Bothe parties absorbed Perot's ideas. The R's took over Wallace's constituency. All ''losers'' but very influential. From my perspective voting as far left as possible is important. Worked for Nader so I did more than vote.

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 7:49:24 PM

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Please note that when Chomsky speaks of "lesser evil" voting he has a more refined understanding of it than you have given him credit for. In the quotes below he specifies "in a swing state" because he realizes voting for the lesser evil in a non-swing state does not affect the outcome of the race in your state and instead gives the false impression that you support a candidate you don't really support. This hurts us all as many voters' true opinions get lost.

The following is from Alternet:
"There are differences in the parties," he responds, when asked if he'd even consider a Republican over Hillary Clinton. "Small differences [coupled with] great power can have enormous consequences." To Chomsky's point, enormous consequences also apply to not voting, especially in a swing state. "Abstaining from voting is a vote for the Republican candidate [should he win]. "My vote would be against the Republican candidate in a swing state [and] I said the same thing with Obama."

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 8:07:39 PM

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I hadn't noticed this article when I wrote the similar article On the Logic of Lesser-of-two-evils. Similar content. Thanks!


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Submitted on Thursday, Oct 25, 2018 at 10:42:58 PM

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