Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chomsky: It's OK to Vote Lesser of Two Evils

Noam Chomsky has been one of the leading critics of American foreign policy since the 1970s. In this video, he challenges head-on Ralph Nader's claim that there is no difference between the two major parties in the U.S. and argues that it is OK to vote for the lesser of two evils. According to Chomsky, there is indeed a difference between the two parties and their candidates, if a narrow one. While they both serve elites, he says, the Democrats, over time, help people:

Any thoughts? Do you think Ralph Nader is going to head up to MIT to kick Chomsky's ass?


  1. First of all, I think its misleading to suggest that Nader doesn't acknowledge much in the same way the Chomsky does in this interview the mild differences between the two parties. His biggest criticism, however, is the dominance corporate power exercises in the policy practices of both parties and their candidates.

    Secondly, I'm not sure if Chomsky has made public this year who he will vote for, but in 2004 he made a clear choice for Nader, because he was voting in a "safe state." In this interview he is saying that if you are in a "swing state" it is more in your interests to vote for Obama as the lesser of two evils, but in safe states it makes no sense as a progressive to vote Democratic.

    This interview doesn't take Nader head on. Chomsky doesn't mention Nader as a third party candidate claiming no difference between Democrats and Republicans, probably because he knows what Nader's position is.

    Nader is going to pull for all the votes he can get. That is, after all, what candidates do. It is our responsibility as progressives to make decisions that reflect and will realistically bring us closer to our goals.

    "Activist movements, if at all serious, pay virtually no attention to which faction of the business party is in office, but continue with their daily work, from which elections are a diversion -- which we cannot ignore, any more than we can ignore the sun rising; they exist."
    -Noam Chomsky

  2. Hey Charles,

    As always, I appreciate your passion for Nader and building a progressive/left movement in the U.S. We stand on similar ground, no doubt.

    As for Nader v.08, a few points:

    - In 1996, Nader had real grassroots support, as well as the backing of an up and coming third party, The Greens. His run made some sense in that historical moment/context. In 2000, Nader had less popular support, but still the backing of the Greens. His run still made some sense, although it was much more controversial, given the closeness of the main event between Gore and Bush, leading many to blame Nader for Gore's loss. In 2004, Nader had little public support and ran as an Independent with no legitimate third party backing. His run made little sense in 2004, particularly after what happened under Bush between 2001-2004. Now, in 2008, Nader has incredibly little-to-no popular support for his quixotic run, and still has no backing from a legitimate third party. Many of his staunchest past supporters, people like me, who voted for him in previous elections, no longer support him. As such, you can understand how to many of us, Nader's presidential ambitions appear more and more like an exercise in ego, rather than a noble, patriotic cause to rally behind, or something that has much of any relation ship to building an alternative, progressive movement in the United States. There just is very little evidence to support that...

    - I agree about the importance of movement building. Wholeheartedly. The degree to which Obama will be a satisfactory president will be in large part determined by the degree to which he has a large working Democratic majority in Congress as well as the degree to which there is an organized and mobilized progressive presence across an array of issues pushing him and Congress to do the right thing. But, Charles, on this critical point of movement building, Nader cannot be considered a leader or a hero. Heck, I know several members of the Green Party leadership and most are pretty bitter at Nader for his failure to do ANY party-building/movement-building work in the 3-4 years in-between each presidential run. Now, in 2004 and 2008, he runs without the support of any significant or legitimate third party and does not appear to be using his campaign to create a new one. Again, this suggests it is not really about party building and movement building for Nader.

    - I think it really is a tactical mistake for Nader not to run as part of a legitimate third party or to not explicitly make his Independent campaign about building a legitimate third party. No movement should be built around an individual's personality. We need to build institutions! We need to organize around our core values and key progressive issues. So, if you or anyone else really wants to vote outside the two major parties, I think the clear choice in 2008 is NOT Nader, but IS Cynthia McKinney, of the Green Party. At least if she is able to get over the threshold in a couple states, the Greens would have ballot line status for the next cycle... With Nader, what are you building for the long run? Not much...

    - I would also point out that Nader himself has never adhered to the kind of strategic third party voting you reference. In fact, in 2000, Nader campaigned late in key battleground states, a fact that fuels the bitterness against him by many who supported Gore. I support and respect the strategic voting plan. Nader does not. I don't agree that Nader's only responsibility is to get as many votes as possible, particularly if he is trying to build a movement and particularly if he cares about the real live humans affected by whichever of the Dem or Repub actually win the election. I won't absolve him (or any other politician, for that matter) of responsibility for his campaign that easily...

    - I would also suggest that it is a little more complicated than Chomsky suggests in the quote you include at the end of your message. Of course, press onward with our grassroots work, building community, nurturing a progressive consciousness, supporting local institutions/leaders/issues... creating a movement. At the same time, we need to do what we can to affect formal institutions of power, including national elections. We need to seize opportunities as history presents them. Obama over McCain will probably not bring us a progressive nirvana, but it will matter for real people. After the last 8 years, that is clear. And, under Obama, there is at least some possibility of pushing him leftward on a few issues that, again, would really matter to millions of people. This is an opening the liberal/progressive/left has not had in a long time...

    - Charles, none of this is about Nader's right to run, or anything like that. I support that. I support third parties, for sure. I certainly believe our system needs major overhaul to open up elections and institutions to alternative voices. I most definitely agree that movement building is a critical dynamic of social change. But, all that written, my disagreement with you over Nader v.08 is about strategy and tactics on the liberal/progressive/left. This historical moment - 2008 - is not the same as other historical moments, like 1996, 2000 or 2004. I just don't see the strategic value of putting our energy behind Nader this year. I just don't see it...

    - Ultimately, lurking below our discussion, we are arguing a couple of bigger points that have plagued reformers and radicals alike for centuries: do you go for purity or do you go for what is possible? do you work inside established institutions of power when opportunities present themselves, or do you work outside established institutions of power, hoping to create alternatives and bring external pressure on established power? Which is the best route for sustained social change? That philosophical wheel will surely keep on turning. For me, it is situational, not dogmatic. I am constantly assessing the situation and making judgments about the best strategic way forward that balances all these different considerations... Sometimes, it makes sense to remain pure and stand tough, unbending. At other moments, it makes sense to compromise, take the baby step with the hope of bigger gains to come.

    Anyway, thanks for your deep thinking and your commitment to the cause!

    A luta continua!

  3. -Well, I think there's evidence of an extremely dedicated, decentralized grassroots movement behind Nader this election. He's on more state ballots than he ever has been, has run a 50 state wide campaign, had 1,500 come to the Wall Street Bailout Protest his campaign organized, and every two weeks raises around 200,000 dollars, without corporate contributions. Over 250 campus groups were created to promote his campaign's message and youtube is flooded with videos created by his supporters.

    -I don't buy the egoist analysis, it just doesn't add up. It seems to me that he was labeled that after he decided to run again in 2004 by people who put the blame on him for getting Bush "elected" in 2000. Especially considering his activities outside of presidential politics, there's so much evidence to go against this.

    -His campaign has plans for post-election to help organize citizen action groups in every congressional district. His ambitions are less "presidential" then they are promoting civic engagement to help fight corporate power and two-party dominance. I mean, those are the two elements which make it impossible in the first place for someone like Nader to actually get elected, in spite of his promotion of policies which reflect public opinion, some more and some less.

    -The Greens were split in 2004, from what I understand, as to whether they were going to support Nader or not. He had said he would except their nomination, but was going to focus on building a wider coalition and get on more ballots before they made their decision. I've talked to several Greens who think the decision in 2004 to nominate Cobb was partially a result of the "spoiler" label. Many also blamed him for getting Bush elected, and so decided to not really run a presidential campaign in 04. At the same time, I think it safe to say that his campaign in 2000 did more to promote the Green party and get them ballot status than anything before or since.

    -With Nader, there are institutions in place that go against the statement that with him there's no "long run" accomplishments. Besides helping build a stronger base for the Green Party in 2000, his supporters are paving the way for electoral reform, getting the debates open, and confronting the two major candidates with the issues. Obama's supporters certainly aren't bringing the pressure, they still have this "anybody but Bush" mentality, the same perspective which allowed Democrats to nominate such an unelectable (and terrible) candidate as John Kerry in 2004.

    -I think it's interesting that you see Nader's campaign as personality based, as opposed to focusing on core values. Taking a seriously look at Obamamania and the hero worship of John McCain, I think you can see a big difference between their campaigns and Nader's on this point exactly: Nader support is based on the issues; theirs are based on image and ideology.

    -I'm interested in knowing the profound historical difference between this election and the 2000, 2004 elections. Although there is a difference, is it historical, and in what sense in terms of real change? If the Obama "movement" turns into something of substance, maybe history will be made. But this needs to happen no matter who gets elected.

    -Oh, I've written too much. I suggest coming to the film showing of An Unreasonable Man Thursday evening if you haven't seen it yet. There will hopefully be a good discussion following the film. As far as movement building and strategy are concerned, I think you'll see more of it coming from the ranks of Nader and McKinney supporters than Obama's, although obviously any progressive movement that wishes to be successful will have to attract people from his movement. I'm against "purity" politics, but I don't fail to see the consequences of compromise, situational or not. It is a short term strategy with long terms consequences. Climate change, perpetual war, and for profit healthcare... the consequences of compromise on these issues far outweigh the "hope" and "change" Obama will bring.

    -As to the spoiler claim, Harvard professor B.C. Burden did a study of his 2000 campaign and concluded there was no intent to spoil, and no significant difference is his campaigning in battleground states compared with other states.

    and here is a paper I read to learn more about his relationship with the Green Party:


  4. Hi Charles,

    Still a True Believer. I appreciate that.

    I won't go round and round with you on this. I've been on this path a long while now and, once more,think it makes little strategic sense to support Nader this time around. I find it curious that you never pick up my suggestion to support McKinney and the Greens over Nader in 2008. That seems to make a whole lot more sense to me in terms of movement building, party building, future building. Nader's run does none of those things.

    Ultimately, politics is not about purity, but about strategic choices that help you achieve your ultimate goals. The problem with the left, often, is that it chooses ideological/political purity and thus relegates itself to marginality/obscurity. If you never achieve power by winning elections, effecting policy, then it matters little how "right" you might be. And so, when the Greens made strategic decisions to not play the spoiler role again in 2004 and not choose Nader, it made sense, I think. Without the Greens, we saw how weak the Nader movement really was.

    And, as a former Nader supporter and Green Party advocate, someone who has actually worked for Nader and Joel Rogers on their 1990s "democracy toolbox" campaign, I think you far overstate Nader's impact. In 12 years, Nader has done very little to actually open up the electoral system, the debates, or really challenge corporate power, etc. On all these issues he articulates a sound argument that I agree with, for the most part, but in terms of actually making change on any of these fronts, he has failed. And, he has really done little to challenge the major party candidates on the issues. Of course, this is in large part because of the structural problems with our electoral system, but the fact remains that Nader's current strategy for change is a failed one. Banging your head against the same wall until it is bloodied is not a sign of a wise man, let alone an effective political strategist, but rather a lunatic or an egomaniac.

    I think you've built up Nader's 2008 campaign into something it is not: meaningful. It is a marginal presence, at best. The proof is always in the pudding:

    1996: 685,297 votes or .71% of the pop. vote

    2000: 2,882,995 votes or 2.7% of the pop. vote (I worked on this campaign. It was his best shot under the most friendly political circumstances and he couldn't even get to 5%!)

    2004: 405,623 votes or .35% of the pop. vote (note when he goes it along, the bottom drops out)

    2008: ??? (if he gets the paltry amount he got in 2004, I'll be surprised)

    So, again, Charles, Nader makes little strategic political sense in 2008. None, really. You'd be better served:

    - putting your third party efforts behind Cynthia McKinney and the Green Party, or

    - working with other progressives to try to get Obama elected and then press him to be more liberal/progressive on key issues.