Noam Chomsky, lesser evilism, and democracy

Over the years Noam Chomsky has advanced a scathing indictment of U.S. elections, saying that they are really more “public relations extravaganzas” than ideological contests, that they therefore mean very little, especially at the national level; that he himself votes “less and less” at that level; that the system is not generating issues that resonate with the public; that there really aren’t any political parties, but only “candidate producing organizations” driven by marketing concerns; that the quadrennial farce that plays out at the presidential level is worth no more than “five minutes time,” and this, only to determine which candidate represents the greater threat, in order to vote against him; and that, in view of all this we should reserve our main political energy for vastly more meaningful work, such as popular education, union organizing, and cultural resistance.

Nevertheless, in recent years the significance of voting has loomed large in Chomsky’s mind: he warned that failure to vote for Hillary Clinton was a “big mistake,” that allowing Trump to win could be “the death knell of the species,” and that the nearly surreal 2020 electoral farce is the “most important in human history.”

Note the juxtaposition: voting is not worth more than a few minutes of our attention, and it’s likely to determine the fate of the earth. Are these assumptions really reconcilable?

Probably not. If it is really true that we are at a “tipping point” vis-a-vis global warming, then it does not make sense to spend the vast majority of our political energy working for the long-term goal of transforming the U.S. into a country where a decent person could live without shame. Far better to throw ourselves unreservedly into the campaign to elect Biden now, in order to insure ourselves the time to deal with longer term matters later. But most Bernie Sanders voters will not do this, to say nothing of those farther left, and even Chomsky is not recommending it.

Nevertheless, there is logic to the claim that those who abstain from voting actually are helping re-elect Trump. This is uncontroversial, mere “arithmetic,” Chomsky says, since only Biden or Trump can win in November. Therefore, subtracting a vote from Biden by staying home has the same impact as a positive vote for Trump. In short, for Chomsky, November’s ballot should be understood to read as follows:

a) retain Trump
b) remove Trump

The “b” vote is a vote for Joe Biden. Abstaining is a vote for Trump, since it represents a failure to vote against him, as is a vote for a third party candidate.

Chomsky’s logic is correct, but are his underlying assumptions equally so? Perhaps not. In the first place, the Democrat-Republican binary is not a law of nature, but a result of awarding corporations (legal fictions) the same constitutional status as biological people. This could and should be overturned, as corporations are nowhere mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and only a handful of dubious legal decisions give them their unwarranted power. This cannot happen in time for November, but could happen later if the energy currently wasted on lesser evil electioneering were dedicated to this outcome instead.

Incidentally, the triumph of popular fervor over duopoly has already been achieved once, as the Republican party itself was the product of a successful third party challenge to the Whig-Democrat “binary” around the issue of slavery. The issues today—climate change, a collapsing economy, global pandemic—are equally grave, and could destroy the two corporate parties altogether. In fact, Trump already destroyed the GOP that existed prior to 2016, famously calling out each of his numerous Republican rivals for their deficiencies during a televised national debate, then surging to victory in spite of total media hostility and constant RNC efforts to consolidate the Never Trump vote. Bernie Sanders, lacking Trump’s killer instinct and facing the stronger wing of the U.S. establishment, failed to duplicate this achievement on the Democratic side.

But back to the dismal matter at hand. Is it really true that Biden is the lesser evil? Chomsky nowhere takes note of the fact that Trump is the choice of the Republican base, not the elites, whereas Biden is the choice of the DNC, which openly defecated on the Democratic base, and not for the first time. Therefore, as detestable as Trump’s rule is, it is at least somewhat democratic (slightly more responsive to the concerns of working people than Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden), while the Democratic Party remains implacably hostile to granting its social democratic base the slightest representation, and this, eighty-seven years after the New Deal was enacted under a Democratic banner.

Incredible as it may seem, it is Trump, not any Democrat, that is experimenting with limited Medicare For All, covering all coronavirus-related expenses, while Biden promises to veto any Medicare For All bill that reaches his desk as president, and Pelosi advocates subsidizing COBRA benefits, which would keep parasitic HMOs at the forefront of health-care delivery during a global pandemic. And it is Trump and the Republicans that offered the larger direct cash payments to Americans, while Pelosi initially opposed them, then blathered about “means testing” token financial help.

So if there is any hope for achieving universal basic income and Medicare For All, it rests with Trump, not the Democrats, who are ideologically opposed to populist concessions. Lacking ideological convictions, the president can afford to indulge a little democracy, especially if it extends his political life.

Nor is it entirely clear that Trump is worse than the Democrats on foreign policy. As Matt Taibbi noted in a recent podcast, he lacks an infatuation with launching new wars, unlike Hillary Clinton, and he sensibly advocates that the U.S. “get along” with Russia, as opposed to the Democrats’ approach of aggressively promoting regime change via belligerent confrontation and a steady stream of insults directed at Vladimir Putin (HRC compares him to Hitler). Furthermore, Trump, much to the consternation of Democratic leaders, favors a diplomatic solution between North and South Korea, which he may yet achieve, while Democrats prefer issuing threats and ultimatums in hopes of forcing North Korea to unilaterally disarm. In short, with two nuclear adversaries Trump favors diplomacy, while the Democrats prefer adolescent bullying and an attendant risk of nuclear war. Who’s the dummy?

Finally, what is the point of keyboard revolutionaries like Chomsky lecturing the non-voting population about the meaning of its voting behavior? These people (44% of the electorate in 2016) are in the bottom half of the wealth pyramid, that is, the most exploited part of the population, and they will continue to be no matter who wins in November. As Biden himself told rich donors last year: “Nothing would fundamentally change” (in a Biden administration). So why should non-voters worry about the end of the world when their lives will remain a pitiless struggle to make it to the end of the month?

Of course, all this assumes that there are actually going to be elections in November. There may not be. With a deeply corrupt DNC constantly rigging and even canceling primary elections (New York), Trump has the perfect pretext to cancel the general elections. If he ends up ruling extra-constitutionally, thank a Democrat.

Postscript: Years ago, philosopher Alan Watts referred to a study on schizophrenia that may be an ideal illustration of our voting plight. An experiment forced dogs to discriminate between an oval and a circle. Failure to do so resulted in an electric shock. Gradually, the oval was widened until it became nearly indistinguishable from the circle. At that point the dogs suffered the equivalent of a nervous breakdown, as there was no way for them to avoid getting a shock. Chomsky’s “rational” solution to this dilemma is to teach the dogs to look through a microscope. Not very helpful.

Michael K. Smith is a political writer who co-blogs with Frank Scott at

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