The Voter’s Dilemma (3)

Let’s examine Noam Chomsky’s full argument. Here’s a short excerpt from an interview that he did with Mehdi Hasan on April 17. The journalist asked the question: “What do you make of the ‘Never Biden’ movement?” Chomsky responded as follows:

It brings up some memories. In the early 1930s, in Germany, the Communist Party, following the Stalinist line at the moment, took the position that everybody but us is a social fascist, and so there is no difference between the social democrats and the Nazis. So we are not going to join with the social democrats to stop the Nazi plague. We know where that led. There are many other cases like that. And I think we are seeing a rerun of that. So let’s take the position “Never Biden, I am not going to vote for Biden.” There is a thing called arithmetic. You can debate a lot of things, but not arithmetic. The failure to vote for Biden in this election in a swing state amounts to voting for Trump. It takes one vote away from the opposition is the same as adding one vote for Trump. So if you decide that you want to vote for the destruction of organized life on earth, for the sharp increase in the threat of nuclear war, for stuffing the judiciary with young lawyers who will make it impossible to do anything for a generation, then do it openly and [say] yeah, that is what I want. That’s the meaning of “Never Biden.”

Chomsky is logical and consistent to a fault. He has previously advised progressive and leftist voters to support Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton on the basis of what he calls the “lesser evil voting” strategy, or LEV. This strategy says that how you vote should depend on the state in which you live. If you happen to live in a Blue state, feel free to abstain from voting or vote for the Green Party; but if you live in a Swing state, then you must vote for the Democratic candidate, regardless of who that is. That’s the claim. The grounds are as follows: In our two-party political system, we know in advance that the next President will be either a Democrat or a Republican. They are both evil, but the former is less evil than the latter. The political system does not allow us to reject evil as such; it only allows us to choose between two types of evil. Since one of these options represents a greater evil while the other option represents a lesser evil, and since there is no realistic chance for a third party candidate to win a Presidential election, it follows that if you want to reduce evil you must vote for whoever happens to be the Democratic candidate—unless you live in a state that Democrats are guaranteed to win, such as California and Massachusetts.


Why should one’s approach to voting differ from one state to another? Chomsky believes that voting is not a matter of expressing one’s values but a matter of taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. On that basis, he suggests that not voting for Clinton in 2016 or Biden in 2020 is perfectly fine if you live in a Blue state, since your vote (or lack thereof) won’t prevent the Democratic candidate from taking that state; but if you were to do the same thing in a Swing state, you’d be helping the GOP candidate become President. In other words, using your vote to express your values is acceptable when it has no affect on the election results, but it is not acceptable when it does. Either way, it’s the consequences that matter. Chomsky believes that when it comes to choosing one’s actions—such as voting—the likely consequences of those actions should be the only relevant criterion; everything else follows from this fundamental commitment.

But the LEV strategy can be challenged from several directions. First, it can be challenged by people who believe that voting is, in fact, a matter of expressing one’s personal values. They would argue that what matters most is that one acts in a way that is consistent with one’s espoused beliefs, and that, in the words of Martin Luther, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Second, LEV can be challenged by people who don’t think of voting in terms of individual morality but see it entirely as an issue of collective strategy. They would agree with Chomsky that voting should be all about consequences, but disagree with him as to which set of consequences should be treated as most relevant or decisive. Third, LEV can be challenged by those who don’t agree with Chomsky’s fundamental dichotomy, i.e., the notion that voting can be either an expression of personal values or it is a strategy for social change. They would argue that LEV is based on a false choice, and that it is possible to vote in accordance with one’s conscience while also taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s vote. In fact, they may even argue that the only effective approach towards the desired social change is one that transcends the either/or logic underlying the LEV strategy.

Chomsky’s reasoning is flawless, but that doesn’t make it invincible. This is because his reasoning in defense of LEV is neither an equation nor a theorem; rather, it is a moral and political argument, which makes it susceptible to moral and political challenges.


  1. I am thinking that the LEV strategy can also be challenged by those who believe that regardless of who they vote for, there is a large demographic—specifically, white, Christian moderates—who by just sheer numbers, always manages to outvote votes from minoritized groups. And so, their votes just don’t ever matter or even factor into the arithmetic. This was made so much more clear in the last two primaries.

    If there is an election, and there are 100 voters, and 95 are white/rich while 5 are non-white/poor, it makes no difference how the 5 minoritized vote, if the other 95 are always going to vote together.

    Not sure if this makes sense…

    1. Not necessarily. When the majority is divided, a minority becomes more powerful than what its small numbers imply. This forces alliance building, but it can also lead to problems.

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