Ahmed Afzaal

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.

The Voter’s Dilemma (5)

When Chomsky was asked about the “Never Biden” position by Mahdi Hasan, he began by saying that the question brought back memories from the early 1930s. At the time, the German communists refused to form an alliance with the social democrats, which—eventually— allowed the Nazis to take power. Chomsky’s purpose in recounting that episode was to support the claim that sometimes it is necessary to join hands with your rivals in order to stop a greater catastrophe from happening. If that’s the main lesson we’re supposed to learn from the story, then no one can disagree with Chomsky. It’s a valuable lesson, and the underlying principle is solid.

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The Voter’s Dilemma (4)

In the previous post, I suggested that Chomsky’s answer to the voter’s dilemma, otherwise known as “Lesser Evil Voting” or LEV, can be challenged from at least three directions. Here, I want to consider the first of these challenges.

The LEV strategy is based on the moral significance of personal responsibility. If my action produces a foreseeable outcome, then I am not only responsible for the action but also for causing that outcome. Whether or not I intended that outcome is irrelevant; I am responsible either way. As applied to the voter’s dilemma, this viewpoint says that not voting for Biden makes me responsible not only for Trump’s victory but also for all the evil that he will unleash in his second term, and the fact that I do not intend either of these outcomes is irrelevant. That, in a nutshell, is Chomsky’s defense of LEV.

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