Who’s Going to be the Lesser Evil in 1968?
This article was written in 1966 and first published in the Independent Socialist, January-February 1967. It is an answer to those on the US left who argued in favour of a vote for the Democrats against the Republicans in the 1968 presidential election.
In ’68 the problem is going to be: vote for Lyndon Johnson again or not.2 Among all those schizophrenic people you know whose heart is in the famous Right Place – viz. a little left of center – ulcers are going to ulcerate, psychiatrists’ couches will get political, and navels will be contemplated with a glassy stare. Johnson or Nixon? Johnson or Romney?3 Johnson or Reagan? Johnson or anybody? As a matter of fact, even before this point is reached, there bids fair to be a similar pattern inside the Democratic Party machine itself: Johnson or Kennedy-Fulbright,4 or its equivalent.
Now radicals have been wont to approach this classic problem with two handy labels, which in fact are fine as far as they go. One is called the Tweedledum-Tweedledee pattern, and the other is called the Lesser Evil pattern. Neither of these necessarily quite describes What’s Happening. To see why, let’s take a quick look at both of them in terms of 1968.
(1) The ‘68 race could be a Tweedledum-Tweedledee affair, and it may be. For example, Johnson versus Governor Romney. One can defy even Max Lerner5 to insert even a razor-thin sentence between the politics respectively represented by these two millionaires. In fact, there is bound to be a sector of liberal sentiment which would indeed see the Lesser Evil in Romney, since there is as yet no evidence that Romney is quite as rascally a liar as the present Leader of the Free World. But roughly speaking, these two are politically indistinguishable: this is the defining characteristic of the Tweedledum-Tweedledee pattern. (The sociological label for this invented by the professorial witch-doctors is Consensus Politics.)
(2) In contrast, the Lesser Evil pattern means that there is a significant political difference between the two candidates, but ...
To explain the "but", let’s take – for reasons that will appear – not a current example, but the classic example.
The day after Reagan’s election as governor of California, a liberal pro-Brown acquaintance met me with haggard face and fevered brow, muttering "Didn’t they ever hear of Hitler? Didn’t they ever hear of Hitler?" Did he mean Reagan was Hitler? "Well", he said darkly, "look how Hitler got started ..." A light struck me about what was going on in his head. "Look", I said, "you’ve heard of Hitler, so tell me this: how did Hitler become chancellor of Germany?"
My pro-Brown enthusiast was taken aback: "Why, he won some election or other – wasn’t it – with terror and a Reichstag fire and something like that." "That was after he had already become chancellor. How did he become chancellor of Germany?"
Don’t go away to look it up. In the 1932 presidential election the Nazis ran Hitler, and the main bourgeois parties ran Von Hindenburg, the Junker general who represented the right wing of the Weimar republic but not fascism. The Social-Democrats, leading a mass workers’ movement, had no doubt about what was practical, realist, hard-headed politics and what was "utopian fantasy": so they supported Hindenburg as the obvious Lesser Evil. They rejected with scorn the revolutionary proposal to run their own independent candidate against both reactionary alternatives – a line, incidentally that could also break off the rank-and-file followers of the Communist Party, which was then pursuing the criminal policy of "After Hitler we come" and "Social-fascists are the main enemy".
So the Lesser Evil, Hindenburg, won; and Hitler was defeated. Whereupon President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and the Nazis started taking over.
The classic case was that the people voted for the Lesser Evil and got both.
Now 1966 America is not 1932 Germany, to be sure, but the difference speaks the other way. Germany’s back was up against the wall; there was an insoluble social crisis; it had to go to revolution or fascism; the stakes were extreme. This is exactly why 1932 is the classic case of the Lesser Evil, because even when the stakes were this high, even then voting for the Lesser Evil meant historic disaster. Today, when the stakes are not so high, the Lesser Evil policy makes even less sense.
In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater,6 who was going to do Horrible Things in Vietnam, like defoliating the jungles. Many of them have since realized that the spiked boot was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for "actually carried out Goldwater’s policy".7 (In point of fact, this is unfair to Goldwater: he never advocated the steep escalation of the war that Johnson put through; and more to the point, he would probably have been incapable of putting it through with as little opposition as the man who could simultaneously hypnotize the liberals with "Great Society" rhetoric.)
So who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.
This latter pattern is what has been going on in this country for the last two decades. Every time the liberal labor left has made noises about its dissatisfaction with what Washington was trickling through, all the Democrats had to do was bring out the bogy of the Republican right.
The lib-labs would then swoon, crying "The fascists are coming!" and vote for the Lesser Evil. In these last two decades, the Democrats have learned well that they have the lib-lab vote in their back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those forces to the right. The lib-labs were kept happy enough if Hubert Humphrey showed up at a banquet to make his liberal speeches; or, before that, by the Kennedy myth which bemused them even while the first leader on this planet poised his finger over the nuclear-war button and said "Or else!" With the lib-lab votes in a pocket, politics in this country had to move steadily right-right-right – until even a Lyndon Johnson could look like a Lesser Evil. This is essentially why – even when there really is a Lesser Evil – making the Lesser Evil choice undercuts any possibility of really fighting the Right.
But now notice this: when the Lesser Evil named Johnson was elected in 1964, he did not call in the Greater Evil to power, as did Hindenburg. He did not merely act in so flabby a manner that the Right wing alternative was thereby strengthened – another classic pattern. These patterns would have been old stuff, the historic Lesser Evil pattern in full form.
What was bewildering about Johnson was that the Lesser Evil turned out to be the Greater Evil, if not worse. Was it then the Tweedledum-Tweedledee pattern, after all? Am I merely then saying that the apparent difference between Johnson and Goldwater (even within the framework of capitalist politics) was just an illusion? Is the conclusion merely that all capitalist politicians have to be the same, that therefore the case against voting for the Lesser Evil is that there is no Lesser Evil?
I don’t think that’s the answer; I think there is a third pattern around, which is neither Tweedledee-Tweedledum nor the classic Lesser Evil choice. If the Johnson-Goldwater contest was one example, then an even better one was provided by the recent Brown-Reagan race. For Pat Brown really is a liberal, whatever you may think of Johnson; and thereby hangs the tale.
Because this genuine liberal, Pat Brown, acted for eight years as governor of California in no important respect differently from what a conservative Republican would have done. The operative word is acted. He sold out the water program to the big landholding companies as his two Republican predecessors never dared to do. He fought tooth and nail for the bracero system9 as no Republican governor of an agricultural state dared to do.
It was he (not Clark Kerr10) who in 1964 unleashed an army of police against the Berkeley students. After the Watts uprising, it was he who named John A. McCone’s commission to whitewash the whole business, and who then supported the right wing’s anti-riot law to intimidate the ghetto. It was Brown who gave the liberal Democratic CDC the final decapitation when he personally mobilized all his strength to oust Si Casady as CDC head.11 If half of this had been done by a Reagan, the lib-labs would be yelling "Fascism" all over the place. (As they will during the next four years, no doubt.)
And I repeat that I don’t think this took place simply because Pat Brown was a Tweedledee reflecting image of Reagan. Here is a somewhat different interpretation:
A profound change has taken place in this country since the days of the New Deal – has taken place in the nature of capitalist politics, and therefore in the two historic wings of capitalist politics, liberalism and conservatism. In the 1930’s there was a genuine difference in the programs put before capitalism by its liberal and conservative wings. The New Deal liberals proposed to save capitalism, at a time of deepgoing crisis and despair, by statification – that is, by increasing state intervention into the control of the economy from above. It is notorious that some of the most powerful sectors of the very class that was being saved hated Roosevelt like poison. (This added to the illusions of the "Roosevelt revolution" at the time, of course.) Roosevelt himself always insisted that a turn toward state-capitalist intervention was necessary to save capitalism itself; and he was right. In fact, the New Deal conquered not only the Democratic but the Republican Party. When Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal were succeeded by Eisenhower’s regime, the free-enterprise-spouting Republican continued and even, intensified exactly the same social course that Roosevelt had begun. (This is the reality behind the Birchite charge that Eisenhower is a "card-carrying Communist"!)
In the three and a half decades since 1932, and before, during and after a second world war which intensified the process, the capitalist system itself has been going through a deepgoing process of bureaucratic statification. The underlying drives are beyond the scope of this article; the fact itself is plain to see. The liberals who sparked this transformation were often imbued with the illusion that they were undermining the going system; any child can now see that they knew not what they did. The conservatives who denounced all the steps in this transformation, and who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new stage, were also imbued with the very same illusion. But even Eisenhower – who has never been accused of being an egghead, and who, before he was nominated for the presidency, made exactly the same sort of free-enterprise-hurrah speeches as Reagan was paid to make for General Electric – even he was forced to act, in the highest office, no differently from a New Deal Democrat. Because that is the only way the system can now operate.
Fruits of Lesser Evilism
So besides Tweedledee-Tweedledums and besides the Lesser Evils who really are different in policy from the Greater Evils, we increasingly are getting this third type of case: the Lesser Evils who, as executors of the system, find themselves acting at every important juncture exactly like the Greater Evils, and sometimes worse. They are the product of the increasing convergence of liberalism and conservatism under conditions of bureaucratic capitalism. There never was an era when the policy of the Lesser Evil made less sense than now.
That’s the thing to remember for 1968, as a starter.
1. In the 1966 election contest for governor of California, Ronald Reagan defeated the Democratic incumbent Pat Brown.
2. At the time this article was written, Lyndon Johnson was planning to run again for president; but after the January 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam led to a sharp fall in his poll ratings he announced he would not seek another term.
3. Michigan governor George Romney was a contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.
4. As an alternative to Johnson, some Democrats were at that time pushing for a presidential ticket of Robert Kennedy and William Fulbright, both of whom had criticised the Vietnam war.
5. Max Lerner was a well-known liberal newspaper columnist of the day.
6. Barry Goldwater was the right-wing Republican presidential candidate who ran against Johnson in 1964.
7. Johnson ran for president in 1964 promising to de-escalate the war in Vietnam. When he won the election, he did the opposite, sending in hundreds of thousands more troops.
8. Hubert Humphrey was elected as vice-president with President Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1964, and was his party’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1968.
9. The bracero programme, which was introduced in 1942 in response to wartime labour shortages, involved importing low-paid Mexican agricultural workers to the US on temporary contracts. The US Department of Labor officer in charge of the programme described it as a system of "legalized slavery".
10. Clark Kerr was president of the University of California during the Berkeley students’ famous Free Speech struggle in 1964.
11. Original note by author: The reader is referred to the October 1966 issue of Ramparts magazine for a brilliant (and detailed) exposition of all this, including an analysis of how it all could be done by a man who really is a liberal. Ramparts does this in terms of concrete facts; in this article I am generalizing. Editorial note: John McCone was the former CIA director appointed by Pat Brown to head the commission investigating the 1965 Watts riot. The California Democratic Council was an association of grassroots Democratic Party organisations. The CDC was divided over the Vietnam war and Simon Casady was a leading figure in the anti-war tendency.
12. The anti-union Taft-Hartley Act became law in 1947 after Truman’s veto was overturned by Congress. In 1948 Truman used the law to impose an 80-day "cooling-off" period to block a strike by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
13. Adlai Stevenson was US ambassador to the United Nations from 1961-1965. In a statement to the UN in 1962 revealing the presence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba, Stevenson denied US involvement in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and also omitted the fact that the US had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey pointed at the Soviet Union.