Ahmed Afzaal

The Voter’s Dilemma (7)

Chomsky’s advice is that we should vote for Biden if we live in a “swing state.” The advice is based on the LEV strategy, which, in turn, is based on the ethic of responsibility. The problem, however, is that different individuals starting from the ethic of responsibility do not necessarily reach the same conclusion as Chomsky does. Similarly, different individuals can agree that voting is a matter of strategy and not an expression of personal values, and, furthermore, that the choice should be based entirely on its likely consequences; yet, they can still disagree as which set of consequences is most salient, and hence arrive at very different conclusions about how they should vote.

Consider the fact that that regardless of whether I vote for Biden or Trump, I am supporting and legitimizing what I consider to be a hopeless abomination, i.e., the two-party duopoly that drastically narrows the range of political possibilities. If I do not wish to be held responsible for that, I can choose to ditch both of them and vote for the Green Party candidate instead. But in this case, I become responsible for supporting and legitimizing a fundamentally unfair and corrupt electoral system as well as for indirectly helping Trump win. If I decide to abstain from voting altogether, I would free myself from the responsibility of supporting and legitimizing the capitalist order that is destroying the planet; yet, it would make me responsible, once again, for indirectly helping Trump. And, finally, if I vote for the Democratic candidate, I would be responsible for all of Biden’s neoliberal and militaristic policies if he becomes the President.

In the context of voting in a U.S. Presidential election, there is absolutely no way for me to remain free of the responsibility for something I consider evil, for every possible option is entangled with a variety of undesirable consequences. The only issue at stake, therefore, is finding out which of these options will cause the least amount of harm. That, of course, is the heart of the conundrum. If we can only have perfect foresight, and if we can only know in advance all the positive and negative consequences of each of our options, it would be easy to make the right decision. Needless to say, we do not have that knowledge, which is why we must rely upon our highly flawed and subjective judgments as we try to distinguish between options that are more evil and options that are less evil. Thus, the ethic of responsibility tells us that we are responsible for the consequences of our choices, but it does not give us a single, unambiguous answer to the voter’s dilemma.

Next, consider the matter of strategy. It so happens that, just like the ethic of responsibility, strategic thinking doesn’t guide different individuals to a single conclusion—unless we add various limits, conditions, and constraints on such thinking. For example, the only way to ensure that Biden turns out to be the unanimous strategic choice is to take an extremely narrow and short-term view of politics. To do so, we would have to look at each Presidential election as an isolated event, disconnected from the larger sweep of political history.

Consider the historical record of the LEV strategy, according to which the right choice for all non-Republican voters in 1992 and 1996 was Bill Clinton, in 1999 it was Al Gore, in 2004 it was John Kerry, in 2008 and 2012 it was Barak Obama, and in 2016 it was Hillary Clinton, just as the right choice in 2020 is Joe Biden. If we think about each Presidential election in isolation, we may be able to defend LEV in every single case. But what if we take a slightly longer view? What if we try to look at all of these elections together?

Do we notice a pattern?

The “strategy” we have been using is that whoever happens to win the Democratic Party’s nomination is the individual who will get our vote. In other words, we have decided a priori that we would vote for the nominee whose name is followed by the letter “D,” not because we agree with his/her policies but solely because the other candidate is horrendous. This approach—“Vote Blue No Matter Who”—is a poor and pathetic excuse for strategic thinking. Choosing the “lesser evil” is fine for a unique, one-time situation, but adopting it as a permanent approach that we use year after year, decade after decade, is not the smartest thing to do in politics. By unconditionally voting for the Democratic candidate in every election, we are essentially informing the Democrats that there will be no negative consequences for them if they ignore our demands. In effect, the message we are conveying is that we do not matter.

Imagine a first-time buyer telling a used-car salesman: I will take anything at any price, since there is no other dealer in town. Imagine a woman telling an abusive husband: I will never leave you, regardless of how many times you break my bones. Imagine an employee telling his boss: Use me however you wish, for no one else is going to hire me.

The LEV strategy amounts to American voters telling the Democratic Party: You will always have our support, for we have nowhere else to go.

The Voter’s Dilemma (6)

My last post on this topic—The Voter’s Dilemma (5)—was on May 30. While I wanted to continue this series over the summer and bring it to a conclusion, some of my other projects got in the way and prevented me from doing so. However, just because we are in the middle of October in an election year does not mean that the topic has become irrelevant or obsolete. Even though I am writing about a particular election, the problem itself is an abiding one. As long as there is electoral politics, the voter’s dilemma will remain.

The main point I have been trying to convey in my previous posts is the following: Contrary to what many liberals think, the right answer in this situation is neither obvious nor self-evident. There are good reasons why some folks are having a hard time voting for a candidate solely on the grounds that the alternative is worse. People who oppose “lesser evil voting” (LEV) should not be dismissed as irrational or immoral; unfortunately, that is exactly what many Biden supporters are doing.

It might come as a surprise that the most coherent defender of LEV is Noam Chomsky, who is not actually a liberal but identifies himself as an anarcho-syndicalist. Among other things, Chomsky argues that the refusal to vote for Biden means that “you want to vote for the destruction of organized life on earth.” This sounds a little extreme, doesn’t it? But let’s consider what he means.

Chomsky is referring to the threat that climate change poses, not just to human civilization but to the continuation of life itself. He is right in his assessment. It is indeed the case that Trump and the Republican establishment are committed to increasing fossil fuel use and therefore carbon emissions. In effect, they are trying their best to make the planet uninhabitable. While large number of Republicans still deny climate science, we know that Democrats tend to accept that science. You can make a solid case that when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, a Democratic administration would be better than a Republican one. We know that Trump is awful for the climate, but we also need to ask just how much better Biden is going to be?

We’ve had a Democrat in the White House for eight years who did believe in climate science. That was Barak Obama, Biden’s former boss. While Obama introduced a few executive measures to curb emissions, he was too timid to actually lead on this issue. He also lacked any positive vision for the future beyond the current neoliberal order. Instead of leading on climate, Obama actually expressed pride that his administration was able to increase the production of oil and gas in the United States. On what basis do we expect anything better from Biden?

Within the narrow range of what is possible in our political structure, the only program that even attempts to address the climate crisis is the so-called “Green New Deal.” But, as is well known, the Democratic establishment is completely against that program, and that includes Biden. More importantly, the climate crisis was not caused by one U.S. President, so it is silly to imagine that another U.S. President can resolve it. The climate crisis is the result of Capitalism’s unlimited appetite for growth, and no elected politician—let alone the U.S. President—is likely to do anything that would reduce the rate of economic growth. Such a thing would amount to a political suicide. That is because one of the primary duties of the U.S. President is to manage the country’s economy, which means maintaining a high rate of economic growth year after year. When growth slows down, the economy becomes sick, and the President has to take the blame for that. Yet, there is no way to make even a tiny progress toward resolving the climate crisis without embracing a policy of degrowth, which is currently beyond what any politician can imagine. Even the “Green New Deal” doesn’t go there.

So, I agree that voting for Trump is like voting for the destruction of life on earth, but I don’t see how voting for Biden would represent a vote for preventing or even slowing down that destruction.

Lecture II: Summary

The second lecture in Iqbal’s Reconstruction is titled “The Philosophical Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience.” The lecture is divided into two main section. In the first, shorter section, Iqbal looks at one of the most significant past efforts to apply the philosophical test—scholastic arguments for the existence of God—and declares that project to be unsatisfactory. The second section is Iqbal’s attempt to argue that the revelations of religious experience can pass the philosophical test. Iqbal’s overall task is two-fold: First, to describe the character of Reality through a philosophical criticism of scientific knowledge as well as the deeper levels of conscious experience; and second, to show that it is the same Reality that is revealed in and through religious experience.

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