by Keaton Weiss
Noam Chomsky’s recent appearance on the Bad Faith podcast has been fodder for debate among Leftists as Election Day draws near. Hosts Briahna Joy Gray and Virgil Texas challenged him on his support for Joe Biden, claiming that progressives pledging their unconditional allegiance to Democrats in general elections has led to a decades-long rightward shift in Democratic politics, and American politics more broadly. Chomsky fired back by accusing them of “helping Trump win,” and that they were making a “terrible choice” by considering boycotting the Democratic ticket in the hopes of forcing the Democratic Party to court the Left vote more aggressively in future elections.
More recently, Chomsky gave an interview to Salon in which David Masciotra asked him, “How do you respond to the irresponsible leftist purity that discourages voting for Biden because of his limitations as a candidate, and the troubling aspects of his record?”
Chomsky replied, “My position is to vote against Trump. In our two-party system, there is a technical fact that if you want to vote against Trump, you have to push the lever for the Democrats. If you don’t push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump. We can argue about a lot of things, but not arithmetic.”
Let’s begin where he’s flatly wrong. As a matter of simple “arithmetic,” one is not “assisting Trump” unless one votes for Trump. There is an argument to be made that in the case of a voter preferring Biden to Trump, but, say, Hawkins to Biden, that one’s choice to vote for Hawkins over Biden disadvantages Biden, and, in effect, helps Trump. Fair enough. But that formulation is more complicated than a mere arithmetic problem, contrary to Chomsky’s categorization. Because in order to claim that a vote for Hawkins aids Trump, he would have to prove that a Green vote would otherwise be a Blue one were the Green candidate not on the ballot. Again, this is a point that can be argued for or against, but it is not, as Chomsky asserts, a mere question of mathematics; there’s quite a bit more to it than that.
Also, Chomsky repeatedly accused Briahna and Virgil of “helping Trump,” even when challenged on this point. Briahna retorted, “Professor, I wouldn’t argue that I am helping Trump; I would argue that if the Democratic Party, if Joe Biden as a candidate, were unwilling to concede these very common sense concessions, that would help him in electoral contexts, and would also be the right thing to do, that it is he who would be enabling Trump, and that framing the onus as decidedly on the voter…is wrongly doing a kind of voter shaming that continues to have the affect of suppressing the vote among people who are, I think, very valiantly asking for a better world.”
This is obviously true, and so this is yet another point on which Chomsky’s position is badly misguided. As a matter of objective political reality, if a voter makes a demand that a candidate refuses to accept, and as a result, the voter doesn’t support the candidate, then at the very least, the voter and the candidate are equally responsible for not making a deal. If you write to the corporate headquarters of McDonald’s and tell them that you’re willing to patronize their restaurants if they start offering veggie burgers on their menu, and they refuse, and you respond by telling them that you won’t eat there because they declined to accommodate your request, would it be at all reasonable of them to write you back a nasty letter accusing you of helping Burger King dominate the fast food market? As absurd an example as this is, it’s exactly the case Chomsky is making. Just as in this example, McDonald’s made a conscious choice to forego your business by not adding veggie burgers to the menu, Joe Biden is consciously choosing to forego a certain amount of Left support by choosing not to accommodate the core demands of Left voters. Perhaps his decision makes sense from his perspective. Perhaps he feels he’d rather bet on the moderate conservative vote than the progressive vote, and he fears that by courting Leftists he’d scare off the moderates and suffer a net loss overall (just as McDonald’s would probably lose money on veggie burgers). Right or wrong though, the point is that Joe Biden is choosing to decline Briahna Joy Gray’s support just as much as she’s choosing not to support Joe Biden’s candidacy. And so, as Briahna put it, to place the “onus decidedly on the voter,” is ridiculous and wrong.
Now let’s consider where he’s correct. I happen to agree with Chomsky’s opinion that hoping to influence the Democratic Party years down the road is a foolish reason to withhold your vote from Joe Biden in November of 2020. We’ve already run this experiment: Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, and mainstream Democrats have it in their heads, largely thanks to corporate media propaganda, that her defeat was attributable to disaffected Leftists who either stayed home, voted Green, or wrote in Bernie. And how did these Democrats respond? By nominating Joe Biden. There’s no real evidence to suggest that Leftists who refuse to support the party’s centrist candidates in general elections have had any success in pulling the Democratic Party to the Left by doing so. If anything, at this rate, a Biden defeat might just yield a Manchin-Lieberman ticket in 2024. The party made clear in 2016, and again in 2020, that they would much rather lose to Republicans than allow Leftists to take over their party. If you accept this as truth, which I know most of you do, then how can you possibly argue that sabotaging their general election candidates will force the party bosses to surrender control of their institution, or snap the party faithful out of their Morning Joe-induced hypnosis? Simply put, Leftists cannot leverage their votes against a party that would rather lose than have Left support be the deciding factor in their victories.
But more important than where Chomsky is right and where he’s wrong, is that on balance, Chomsky’s 2020 punditry and commentary has been unhelpful to the progressive cause.
Consider why these conversations about how to vote are happening in the first place. Progressives are torturing themselves with this question in 2020 because they have no candidate on the ballot. If we had a candidate we felt strongly about supporting, and who stood a chance to win, then the decision of who to vote for would be an obvious one, and we wouldn’t be wasting countless hours debating it amongst ourselves. The reason we’re stuck in such a miserable dilemma is because our movement has not yet amassed the strength it needs to be a viable electoral force in a national election.
The Left is operating from such a position of weakness right now, not because we haven’t “leveraged our votes” enough, nor because we’re too “pure.” The reason the Left has no power is very simple: we haven’t yet built it. We haven’t built large, robust institutions of our own, outside the Democratic Party, that wield sufficient influence in the political system to compete in a presidential race. The biggest reason we haven’t built the kind of institutional Left power we so desperately need is largely because we’ve always lacked the confidence to do so. We’ve been bullied by decades of Cold War propaganda into bashfulness about our anti-capitalist disposition, lest we be called socialists or communists. We know the society around us has been brainwashed by frontier fantasies of rugged individualism, and so we’ve always been afraid to proclaim too straightforwardly that we must retire such a brutal and uncivilized ideal and instead promote a politics aimed at providing for the common good. In a country as jingoistic and nationalistic as ours, we’ve felt uneasy about critiquing America’s militaristic foreign policy as harshly as we’d have liked to. In a culture that fetishizes development and economic growth, we’ve been hesitant to make a full-throated case for environmentalism and conservationism, for fear of being mocked as “tree huggers.”
Now, however, thanks in large part to the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, the American Left has found its spine again. We’re no longer placating the liberal class with mealy-mouthed doublespeak about how “we’re not against capitalism, we just want to reign in the excesses of capitalism,” or how “we’re not against war, only against stupid wars.” We’ve finally built up the courage to articulate our ideas on our own terms, whether the establishment narrative managers like it or not, and to begin to build the institutional power necessary to fight for those ideas on the national stage (Our Revolution, Sunrise Movement, a swelling DSA membership, Movement for a People’s Party, etc.).
So while Chomsky is right to push back on the idea that leveraging our votes will help move the Democratic Party to the Left, his chiding and shaming of progressives who refuse to fall in line behind Joe Biden serves only to weaken the conviction of the progressive movement, and inhibit its ability to break from the Democratic Party and build its own organizational power bases. Furthermore, his assumption that Leftists who refuse to vote Blue are aiding and abetting Trump’s re-election does nothing but “manufacture consent” (cheers to those who get the reference, and shame on those who don’t) for the establishment narrative that “irresponsible left purity” is to blame for the rise of right wing demagoguery.
Surely, Chomsky himself knows this to be untrue. He understands, as does any committed Leftist, that predatory capitalism, soulless neoliberalism, and feckless centrism are what ushered in this era of resurgent right wing populism. So why does he so unquestioningly accept the interviewer’s premise that our current political problems are the result of stubborned progressives’ refusal to check their “purity?” Even if he wanted to advocate for voting Biden, he should have at the very least challenged the framing of Masciotra’s question. Instead, by internalizing and regurgitating this tired and ahistorical argument that the Trump presidency is the product of petulant Leftists prioritizing purity over practicality, he’s causing the progressive movement to second guess itself just as it has finally managed to kick that habit.
It should go without saying that Chomsky deserves a world of credit for having been a great mentor to the Left, which makes it all the more frustrating to see him browbeat his own proteges with hackneyed corporate media talking points about how Leftists’ unbending commitment to the very values he instilled in them will be to blame should Trump win re-election. He is a thought leader of the progressive movement, and he’s spent a lifetime earning his claim to that title. As such, he certainly has every right to support whichever candidate he wants, and to argue on that candidate’s behalf. But to do so in such cheap fashion as to parrot the most insipid Blue MAGA Twitter bile is miles beneath him, and leagues beneath his legacy.
This is the same man who said, in 2016, that “Both political parties have moved to the right during the neoliberal period. Today’s New Democrats are pretty much what used to be called ‘moderate Republicans.'” And even though he supported Hillary Clinton in the general election that year, the point remains that a man of his stature and intellect ought to expect some portion of his acolytes to interpret the above quote as license to reject lesser-evilism as an electoral strategy. He shouldn’t be surprised, much less upset, by the realization that many of his admirers took his words to heart. And most importantly, as someone who literally wrote the book on propagandist news outlets and their poisonous effect on our politics, he shouldn’t be insulting his own readers with arguments lifted straight from corporate media teleprompters.
For further discussion and debate on this topic, listen to episode 93 of the Due Dissidence podcast by clicking the player below:
Photo: Anja Niedringhaus, AP