This article also appeared in Counterpunch
Actions Express Priorities*
It is far easier to criticize the social order than to change it. And our actions express our true priorities. The Halle/Chomsky article advocating lesser of two evils voting demonstrate the poverty of radical strategy that does not seek alternatives to the two-party system and the existing order.
The authors do get two big things right: tactics are provisional and there are serious consequences to political choices. But they act as if only those that refuse to vote for Clinton face the consequences of their action. Every political act leads to consequences intended or not. No one is free of that. There have been plenty of negative consequences from four decades of lesser of two evil voting that the authors fail to reckon with. Tactics should be provisional but it is the lesser of two evils has been the in-grained routine tactic for decades.
At the core of the argument the authors damn dissenting voters as selfish moralists seeking only to feel good. Yet, the authors are every bit as involved with selling a morally correct argument that encourages people to feel good about voting for Clinton because it will, they seem sure, results in less oppression of already exploited people. But a truly political and strategic choice is not between voting for the lesser evil and feeling good. The choice is between continuing four decades of failed lesser of two evils voting or attempting to create a strategy and a movement to return the US government to the people.
It is vitally important that we protect historic gains made by the social movements, but that does not require us to sign on to the established order of endless war, mass incarceration and corporate power by voting for Clinton. Quite the opposite — it requires movement building and opposition. The failure of the lesser of two evils is a strategic failure.
One of the political problem with the lesser of two evils line is that it blunts criticism of the two-party system, a system the authors certainly claim to oppose. Not a word is said about the failings of the Democratic party machine. By insisting on a deeply flawed political boss instead of a reformer that would handily beat Trump, by all the evidence at hand, they are counting on compelling people to vote for candidates they despise. Sanders and a vigorous movement is the solution to Trump that we already have at the ready. The writers never mention that. Why? Only the opposition is criticized.
So the opposition is blamed for mass disgust with the two parties candidates not the disgusting candidates of the two parties. Instead we are taught to fear. But, the Clinton Democrats are not afraid of Trump, at least not afraid enough to give up their positions of real political power, control and immense privilege.
One basic fact undermines all the lesser of two evil arguments. There is no scarcity of voters. Why does the vote of a small percentage of activists and dissidents matter so much when 70-90 million people do not vote in America? Why doesn’t Clinton go get them? Why doesn’t Clintons supporters or Halle and Chomsky go and get them? Bernie did and many others helped.
The answer I am afraid is simple. Mobilizing the 70-90 million non-voters, as Sanders and Stein have started to do, demands a program directed at their interests. This the Clinton machine cannot do and serve the 1% at the same time. Instead the social control discourse of the lesser of two evils, the spoiler, and the horserace are deployed to attack dissent.
Despite the highly rational style of writing the authors use, Halle/Chomsky’s core arguments drag the discourse onto the ground of moral politics and psychology instead of the terrain of politics we so desperately need to understand better: evidence, history, strategy, conflicts of interest, community of interest, and questions of power. A more useful political version of the lesser of two evils argument would raise issues of representative democracy, not just feelings. Should people vote for candidates and parties that represent their interests and values? If not, then we are forgoing the basic assumption about how representative democracy is supposed to work in favor of some clever tactic that will, in some unspecified way, allow us to reclaim democracy in some unspecified future despite all evidence to the contrary.
The one attempt at a historical analogy offers a dubious and hotly contested interpretation of the Sixties. in 1968 the liberal democrat Hubert Humphrey gave no indication he was going to do anything but continue the war in Vietnam. Keep in mind it was a Democrat’s war for years under Kennedy and Johnson. Nixon actually ran to Humphrey’s “left” as a kind of peace candidate seeking an “honorable peace,” or what was refined into “peace with honor.” And it is likely that Trump will run to Clintons “left” on a number of issues. Writers like Halle and Chomsky attribute the decline of the left to anti-war opposition to the Democratic war managers.
It was the civil rights revolution and opposition to the Vietnam war that lead many to realize that the war was part of deeply rooted systemic problems: empire, racism and exploitation. The anti-war movement was the passage beyond the liberal consensus into revolutionary territory for millions of people. Martin Luther King and others spoke it aloud.
[T]he Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggest that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.
The radical movements the authors wrongly see as dying after 1968 never disappeared but were slowed and challenged for many reasons: the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation could not be overcome, to say nothing of government repression and the so-called war on drugs. Of course, if the authors recognized the powerful institutional obstacles to change then they would also have to reckon with the Clinton machine’s role in continuing and expanding the many forms of power and social control.
Lesser of two evils is an admission that we can never expect fundamental change and must stay forever on the road we are on. Except that road is increasingly unsustainable and crisis ridden. We cannot avoid serious consequences in any event.
Despite the authors moralizing, there is no moral clarity here. It’s just judgement. Some people think that voting for the Green Party will create more suffering. I think that given the history of the last half century that voting for the lesser of two evils has created plenty of suffering we can document in abundance. I blame you, you blame me and the machines are off the hook. Morally, we are all implicated in the existing order. Every one of us. Moral politics of this sort are a political dead-end.
Yet, its true that we cannot completely dispense with moral politics and feelings. So let’s give feelings their due. Its is not “feeling good” but feelings of fear and fatalism that are the psychological and emotional states that contribute most to social control. Halle and Chomsky rely on fear and fatalism and the promise of feeling good to corral people back into line.
If we overcome our fear of change and our fatalism, be that through political vision or sheer desperation, we have a chance of creating a winning strategy. Tactics and strategy are provisional as the authors claim. After four decades of failed lesser of two evils, it is time to create a workable strategy based on mobilizing our latent power.
The inside/outside strategy is a possible starting point. Some of the most productive organizing of this electoral cycle exerted leverage along the inside/outside borderline. Revolt Against Plutocracy and its Bernie or Bust strategy has urged people to vote Green Party as a counterweight to the Clinton machine. Thousands have already made that move and the Green Party is growing rapidly. “Bernie or Green in 2016” has already changed the face of this election.
We are, by the millions, overcoming the fear and fatalism of the lesser of two evils. We will make mistakes but we will, at long last, be the authors of our own history.
*”Actions express priorities.” Mahatma Gandhi.
1. Martin Luther King, A Testament of Hope.