The “Lesser-Evil” Syndrome: Noam Chomsky’s Fall Into Self-Contradiction

In a recent interview Noam Chomsky declared that there “was a big difference” between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential elections, a difference “you could count in several million corpses in Indochina.” But, Chomsky added, “a lot of the young people on the left said, “I’m not going to vote for Humphrey. He’s a corporate Democrat. I can’t sully my hands on that. So I won’t vote.” In effect, said Chomsky, this meant that they “help[ed] Nixon win,” and more specifically, they “help[ed] kill a couple million people in Indochina, plus a lot of other (bad) things.” ((WowFEST: Lockdown Presents Noam Chomsky “A Letter From America,” You Tube, July 14, 2020.))

In other words, Humphrey was the lesser evil in 1968.

Twenty years ago, speaking with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio about the very same elections, Chomsky said the opposite:

I could not bring myself to vote for Humphrey. I did not vote for Nixon. But my feeling at the time, and in retrospect I think it’s probably correct, was that a Nixon victory was probably marginally beneficial in winding down the Indochina wars, probably faster than the Democrats would have. It was horrendous, but maybe less horrible than it would have been. ((Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Propaganda and the Public Mind, (South End, 2001) p. 136.))

In short, Nixon was the lesser evil in 1968.

Houston, we’ve got a problem.

In the 1960s Chomsky occasionally voted for Republican candidates if they opposed the Vietnam War, but as the GOP turned increasingly reactionary he voted more and more for Democrats, which habit he considers morally obligatory for anyone on the political left. This has proven to be a tough sell, however, since the Democrats are not so much the lesser evil as they are the more effective evil. ((This term is borrowed from Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report. See his debate with Michael Eric Dyson on Democracy Now, September 7, 2012.)) Precisely because of their (false) reputation for being more humane than Republicans, they can act more viciously than the GOP (Clinton ending welfare “as we know it,” for example) at times, and this is, in fact, their assigned role. Furthermore, as an opposition party the GOP is formidable, while the Democrats are pussycats, rolling over for everything a Republican president wants, often conceding even more than is asked for (Pentagon spending, for example). The focus of “opposition” since 2017 (laughably referred to as “the resistance”) has been Trump’s insulting tweets and boundless vulgarity, not his right-wing policies, which are allowed to advance unimpeded.

In short, no matter whether or how we cast our ballots, policy is insulated from voter preferences and keeps moving to the right. Nevertheless, Chomsky takes leftists who abstain or vote third party (in swing states) to task for failing to carry out what he considers to be a straightforward exercise in damage mitigation.

“It’s very frustrating,” he says, that “this is constantly happening.” ((WowFEST: Lockdown Presents Noam Chomsky “A Letter From America,” You Tube, July 14, 2020.)) I.e., that some on the left refuse to vote according to a simple lesser evil formula. Unfortunately, Chomsky doesn’t even recognize that he has been unable to keep his story straight as to which side actually is the lesser evil, in spite of the allegedly “big difference” between the two corporate parties. In fact, this year he goes even further and says – try not to laugh – the difference (between Biden and Trump) is not merely big, but colossal.

Though he’s mentally absent much of the time, even Biden has more sense of political reality than that, promising rich donors just last year that “nothing would fundamentally change” in a Biden administration. But Chomsky wants us to be impressed by a slate of disingenuous Sanders-Biden position papers crafted for vote-harvesting purposes, rather than Biden’s devastating dedication to “more effective evil” politics extending back over forty years.

Chomsky well knows the emptiness of electoral politics under capitalism. Through the years he 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 can’t be said to be 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 that 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 important work, such as popular education, union organizing, and cultural resistance/transformation.

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 2020 elections are the “most important in human history.” This represents an escalation of election year hype, which in previous cycles has modestly urged us to “vote or die” in “the most important elections in our lifetimes.” By 2024, we may have to resort to the “most important elections in the history of the universe.” In any case, what’s noteworthy is Chomsky’s juxtaposition: voting is both trivial and urgent, likely to determine the fate of the earth and not worth more than a few minutes of our attention. Are these assumptions really reconcilable?

Probably not. If it is really true that we are at a “tipping point” vis-à-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 circus campaign to elect Biden now, in order to insure ourselves the time to deal with longer term matters later. But many Bernie Sanders voters will not do this, to say nothing of those farther left, and even Chomsky is not recommending it (though a Chomsky lesser-evil editorial IS being used as a campaign ad for Biden). ((A Message to the Swing States from Noam Chomsky: “VoteTrumpOut“.))

Chomsky favors an independent political party in principle. “I think it is important the building of a political party which could enter the political arena and represent the population, and not just business interests.” ((Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, (New Press, 2002) p. 194. For fuller discussion, see pps. 333-7.))  However, he favors a “safe states” strategy in determining how to cast ballots whenever an independent left candidate faces off against the capitalist duopoly, which virtually guarantees failure. The reasons why are captured well by journalist Matt Taibbi, who offered an evaluation of the safe states approach back in 2004 when David Cobb of the Greens ran “against” George W. Bush and John Kerry:

For those of you who didn’t follow this story Cobb snatched the Green Party nomination away from (Ralph) Nader last week largely through his embrace of the so-called safe states strategy, known affectionately in political circles as the ‘crack suicide squad’ approach to campaigning. In this scenario Mr. Cobb agrees in advance to refrain from campaigning in any state where the Greens might have a chance to affect the outcome of the Bush-Kerry race. Bravely, however, he condescends to campaign balls-out in any state where a vote for the Greens doesn’t matter.  ((Matt Taibbi, Spanking the Elephant – Dispatches from the Dumb Season, (Three Rivers Press, 2005) p. 202.))

In other words, all the left’s energy was directed towards not influencing the outcome. Though he hardly needed to, Taibbi explained the absurdity:

…This is the kind of politics you get when you raise a generation of people who don’t understand the difference between brand identification and ideological conviction. Much the same way that Burger King and McDonald’s are scrambling to figure out a way that you can be on the Atkins diet and still spend your money at their vile, ass-inflating restaurants, Cobb and his party basically figured out a way that Nation subscribers can wear Green this fall and still keep their friends. They have turned politics into a shoe and a handbag, a conquered market demographic. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 202.))

The last part is key to all the rest. In a fake democracy voting means lining up with your assigned market demographic, not electing leaders, much less determining policies. As Taibbi jokes:

Vote Green – elect Kerry! Lose weight – drink Low-Carb Coca Cola! It’s the same thing, on many different levels. Because both decisions really boil down to the same compromise: trying to fit an instinct to reject corporate consumer culture into the ruling paradigm of corporate consumer culture.” ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 202.))

Rejection by affirmation – touché. Taibbi rubbed the point in for effect:

Logic dictates: if you want to lose weight, the way to do that is not to drink the right kind of Coca Cola. The way to do it is to not drink Coca Cola. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, but it is apparently beyond the grasp of most Greens. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 202.))

And, as always, there was a lot more to reject:

Similarly, if you don’t believe in things like corporate personhood, if you are against the war in Iraq, if you are against the scourge of corporate money in politics, if you are in favor of a reduction in military spending, if you want to abolish the WTO and NAFTA, if you want to end the export of arms, if you want to break up media monopolies, if you want to get Channel 1 out of public schools, if you want to end the targeting of children by corporate advertisers – if you believe any of these things, or more to the point, if they are embedded in your party platform, then you can’t vote for either the Republicans or the Democrats, because they’re united against you all the way down the line. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 203.))

Updating to 2020, we can say that if you are against funneling trillions of dollars to banks and other mega-corporations, while tens of millions of Americans face homelessness and coronavirus with little or no income and no health insurance, then you can’t vote for either Republicans or Democrats, because they are united behind such policies all the way down the line. (For the record, the GOP was initially less stingy on direct cash payments than the Democrats, and the lone vote against the CARES Act, a multi-trillion dollar give-away to the rich, was Republican Thomas Massie’s. But the differences are slight).

Nonetheless, Taibbi concedes there is a logic to the “anybody but ________” idea (Bush, Trump, etc.):

I understand the logic …. it is a rationally defensible position, one that makes sense on some primitive level. What does not make sense here is why the burden of ‘anybody but _________’ should fall on the Green Party. The burden really rests with the Democrats. If they want to end the Green Party problem, then those votes are there for the taking. All the Democrats have to do is renounce the WTO and NAFTA, create a universal health care system, and slash the defense budget, putting the proceeds into education and health care. Among other things. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 203.))

Sixteen years later, the Democrats have still done none of those things, and Taibbi’s main point is more valid than ever: the burden of anybody but Trump (i.e., any blue will do) should not fall on the Green Party or Bernie Sanders supporters, to say nothing of those farther left. (Or, more accurately, those farther down the wealth pyramid.) Over forty percent of the electorate – the poorest part of the wealth pyramid – never vote for president, because it’s a foregone conclusion that they will continue to be brutally exploited no matter which wing of the duopoly wins a given election. What possible sense does it make to tell them that they should care more about electing Biden than the Democratic Party itself does? The Democrats know perfectly well they are widely detested by the working class, but they get to share power even when they lose; the poor get nothing either way. That’s why they don’t turn out. The job of the rest of us is to define and deliver on a politics that alleviates their plight and makes it worth their while to vote, not tell them they have a moral duty to kiss the boot crushing their neck.

Why do the Democrats refuse to adopt policies that induce their base to vote? Taibbi stresses the obvious:

They’re too addicted to corporate money. They’re money junkies. And as anyone who’s had any experience with junkies will tell you, junkies cannot be trusted. They’ll say anything you want them to say about going straight, but at the critical moment, they’ll still steal your television and shoot it right into their arms. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 203.))

Obviously, offering to help a junkie desperate for a fix is sheer folly:

The only way to deal with a junkie is to change your phone number or, if you ever find him in your house, chain him to a radiator…. the one thing you can’t do is keep giving him that one last chance. That only guarantees that he will come back again very soon, covered with mysterious bruises and needing 200 bucks to pay for – tchya, right – a hepatitis shot. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 203-4.))

The political version of this story is even uglier, notes Taibbi:

Shit, just look at what’s happened since the last election. The junkies got kicked out of office, which ought to have been a wake-up call, and what did they do? They went out and almost unanimously voted for the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and two wars. . . .  And now here they come four years later, and they say: ‘We need all your votes right now or we’re fucked.’ Am I the only one laughing? ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 204.))

Two economic collapses, five more wars, and a pandemic later, and everyone’s well beyond laughing, but there’s still a lot of puking over what the Obama/HRC junkies have been up to since they left office: establishing an entire propaganda industry blaming the village idiot for everything from bad breath to jock itch, relentlessly pushing slimy, red-baiting charges about (imaginary) Russian collusion with Trump, squandering impeachment on an equally worthless Ukrainegate diversion, and preventing desperately needed change by successfully rigging elections against their own democratic base, which is what produced president Trump in the first place.

In short: we can vote for Trump, or for what produced Trump, guaranteeing a president worse than Trump in short order.

Taibbi concedes there’s a method to this Democratic madness:

I also understand the Democrats’ point of view. I used to take a lot of drugs, too. And when you take a lot of drugs, absolutely nothing matters except getting off. In the quest for drugs, any kind of behavior is excusable…. That’s junkie morality. That’s why from the Democrats’ point of view it makes perfect sense to nominate a gazillionaire, missile-humping aristocrat who’ll have more corporate logos pasted on him than a NASCAR driver when he gets into office (John Kerry). What’s the difference? We got off! Why is everybody complaining? ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 204.))

Right, and in 2020 it makes perfect sense for the Democrats to nominate a senile, prison-humping pimp for billionaires, who tortures the poor with fees and penalties while exporting the job base and railroading a generation of desperate black and brown people into jail on petty or trumped-up charges, not to mention drowns the Middle East in an ocean of blood on ludicrous WMD pretexts. And that’s just for starters.

But the any-blue-will-do rationale makes no sense for the Green Party (or any independent workers party), says Taibbi, because “If you’re going to suck a cock in a train-station lavatory, you ought to at least get something for it.” True, but the logic of “safe states” doesn’t allow for this, so in 2004 “the Greens [were] going to roll over for John Kerry, and in the best-case-scenario all they [were] going to get for it [was] another insane trade agreement, more troops in Iraq, more corporate handouts, and another my-dog-ate-my-homework health care fiasco.” ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 204.))

As it turned out, they actually got a worst-case scenario: the Greens rolled over for Kerry, Kerry bent over for Bush, and the American people were left bleeding badly from the anus, the usual outcome of “democratic” elections administered by capital. At the moment, everyone seems certain that Dementia Joe has the 2020 race locked up, but whether he does or not is far less important than our will to fight the crackpot logic that says we have “no choice” but to keep submitting to this abuse.

It simply doesn’t matter that lesser evil logic makes a crude kind of sense, because it just aggravates the damage it is intended to mitigate. Taibbi reminds us that it’s the system that requires bad candidates that should be our real concern:

Yes, ________ is a moron and a monster (Bush, Trump, etc.) and it would be better if he were not around. But America’s political problems are bigger than ________. The real problem in American politics is the rule of calculation and money over principle, and until this problem is fixed, the _________s of the world will always be with us. The Greens used to offer a solution. They’ve now become part of the problem. ((Taibbi, Ibid, p. 204-5.))

Exactly. In a fake democracy voting for corporate candidates just legitimizes our servitude. That’s the problem. Of course, Chomsky has always advocated committing our major political energy outside electoral politics, forming and expanding social movements that can bring pressure to bear on the elite political system to make democratic concessions. And on this basis he rates the two Bernie Sanders runs for the presidency a success, because the Sanders-Biden task forces have now, Chomsky says, crafted the most democratic policy positions since FDR (not coincidentally, the last president before the creation of the National Security State). In other words, Sanders is moving Biden to the left.

This is nonsense, of course, as there is nothing binding in position papers, and the Sanders campaign has already surrendered whatever leverage it had by giving unqualified endorsement to Biden in advance.  Obviously, the DNC loathes the New Deal policy positions favored by Sanders, which is why they torpedoed his campaign – twice. And now we’re to believe they’re going to make concessions to the agenda they just defeated? Why would they do that? In the midst of a pandemic, they refuse even to concede on Medicare For All, much to the amazement of the rest of the developed world, which implemented one or another version of single payer national health insurance decades ago.

As Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC (former senior advisor to Senator Daniel Moynihan) points out, pressure from the left is irrelevant to Democrats:

If you want to pull the major party that is closest to the way you’re thinking to what you’re thinking, you must, you must show them that you’re capable of not voting for them. If you don’t show them you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen, or have to listen, to anything on the left while I was working with the Democratic Party, because the left had nowhere to go.” ((O’Donnell video clip, Jimmy Dore Show, August, 8, 2020.))

That’s the voice of experience, not advocacy.

Unfortunately, the advocates of so-called damage mitigation voting show a marked tendency to insult those who recognize that reflexively voting Democrat just aggravates the “nowhere to go” problem. For example, Chomsky dismisses the efforts of Bernie Sanders supporters who refuse to vote for Biden as “go[ing] off and sulk[ing] somewhere,” ((WowFEST: Lockdown Presents Noam Chomsky “A Letter From America,” You Tube, July 14, 2020.)) when, in fact, they have formed the Movement For a People’s Party, and are currently engaged in a host of popular actions to extend the $600 a week federal subsidy to the unemployed and help tens of millions of working people avoid being thrown into the street in the middle of a pandemic. That would seem to qualify as an example of popular grassroots organizing for positive change, which Chomsky ordinarily favors, but apparently not in this case.

In any event, those who feel moved to support “Lunchbox Joe” and the Biden/J. P. Morgan/Bain Capital/Noam Chomsky National Liberation Front should certainly feel free to do so. Our corporate-administered electoral choices are truly awful, and voting is a deeply personal matter.

As for Joe Biden, what can one say? Following the highly rational strategy of keeping his mental disintegration out of public view, he emerges only rarely from his basement, usually to take his Corvette for a spin, or confirm that he hasn’t the faintest clue as to his own whereabouts or what day of the week it might be.

But on the burning issue of coronavirus, at least, which has sent Donald Trump’s poll numbers plummeting into the dirt, he has the best thought out plan his keen presidential mind is capable of:

“Get things into place where there are shortages of.” ((Saagar Enjeti, Rising, April 10, 2020.))

Truer words were never spoken: any blue will do.

Michael Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire." He co-blogs with Frank Scott at He co-blogs with Frank Scott at Read other articles by Michael.