Who’s going to be the lesser evil in 1968?

October 25, 2016

Every four years, the mantra is heard from liberals and progressives: Support the Democratic Party's "lesser evil," if for no other reason than to stop the Republicans' "greater evil." During each quadrennial circus, the task of building an independent left-wing political alternative that speaks for working class interests is put off.

This debate is decades old. In 1967, American socialist Hal Draper addressed the same questions in the context of a coming presidential election. His classic article should be re-read every four years with the current contest in mind. The original article was published in the January-February 1967 issue of the Independent Socialist, This version is taken from a republication by the International Socialist Review, with original annotations following the text.

IN 1968, when the presidential sweepstakes come up again, liberals all over the country are likely to face the California Syndrome. At the risk of sounding like a Californian, I'm referring to the political pattern that was acted out in the recent Brown[1]-Reagan contest in that state--whose denizens have this in common with New Yorkers, that they tend to think that whatever is happening in their state is What's Happening. Sometimes it is.

In '68 the problem is going to be: vote for Lyndon Johnson[2] again or not. 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[4]? 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-Fullbright[5], or its equivalent.

President Lyndon Johnson (center) with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (right)
President Lyndon Johnson (center) with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (right)

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 Lerner[6] 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[7], 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."[8] (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.

New Development

For the moment, so much for the Lesser Evil pattern. But there is an interesting difference between the classic case (Hitler and Hindenburg in 1932) and the Johnson-Goldwater case. There really was a significant political difference between Hitler and Hindenburg; the general himself would never have fascized Germany. If he called the Nazi to the chancellorship, it was because he believed that the imposition of government responsibility was the way to domesticate the wild-talking Nazis, that the burden of actually having to run the country would turn the "irresponsible" extremists into tame politicians like all the others, in the pattern usually seen (as with the Hubert Humphrey[9]). But Hindenburg himself was not a Hitler and he really was a Lesser Evil. What the classic case teaches is not that the Lesser Evil is the same as the Greater Evil--this is just as nonsensical as the liberals argue it to be but rather this: that you can't fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them.

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 bogey 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 system[10] as no Republican governor of an agricultural state dared to do.

It was he (not Clark Kerr[11]) who in 1964 unleashed an army of police against the Berkeley students. After the Watts uprising, it was he who named John J. 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 [California Democratic Council] the final decapitation when he personally mobilized all his strength to oust Si Casady as CDC head.[12] 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 1930s 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 deep going crisis and despair, by stratification--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 deep going 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

Under the pressure of bureaucratic-statified capitalism, liberalism and conservatism converge. That does not mean they are identical, or are becoming identical. They merely increasingly tend to act in the same way in essential respects, where fundamental needs of the system are concerned. And just as the conservatives are forced to conserve and expand the statified elements of the system, so the liberals are forced to make use of the repressive measures which the conservatives advocate: because the maintenance of the system demands it.[13] Just as when Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley[14] and then invoked it against striking workers. What is more, because the liberal politicians can point a warning finger towards the right and because the lib-labs will respond to it, they are even more successful than the conservatives in carrying out those measures which the conservatives advocate. It is not necessary to claim that even that pitiful man, Hubert Humphrey, is merely a hypocrite. No, I fully believe, myself, that he is as sincere a liberal as the next lib-lab specimen. It is liberalism which requires the examination, not Humphrey's morals. Nor was that even more pathetic man, Adlai Stevenson, simply a rascal when he found himself lying like a trooper at the UN in the sight and knowledge of the whole world.[15]

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.

Notes from the International Socialist Review

1. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown (Democrat): California state attorney general, 1951-59; Governor of California, 1959-67.

2. Lyndon B. Johnson: the Texas Democratic vice president was sworn in as president in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He went on to win election to a full term in a landslide against GOP candidate Barry Goldwater in the presidential race in 1964. At the time of the writing of this article, Johnson was planning to run as president; but he later announced he would not seek another term as president after the January, 1968 Tet Offensive exposed the U.S.'s inability to win the war in Vietnam and his poll figures dropped precipitously.

3. George W. Romney: Served three consecutive terms as governor of Michigan, from 1962 to 1968. Chairman of American Motors Corp. from 1954-1962, and a contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

4. At this time, Ronald Reagan was the Republican governor of California. He later (1980) was elected president and served two terms. His presidency personified the new drift to the right in U.S. politics--a ruling class backlash against the political and social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. He was famous, like the current president, for making inane statements such as: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."

5. This refers to a hypothetical 1968 presidential ticket of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. J. William Fulbright. Kennedy served as attorney general in brother John F. Kennedy's brief presidential administration, and then became a senator in 1964. He was assassinated on June 5, 1968. Fulbright of Arkansas (who once employed Bill Clinton as an intern) was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fulbright was an early Vietnam hawk who became a leading establishment opponent of the war.

6. A well-known liberal newspaper columnist of the day.

7. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential nominee who ran against Johnson in 1964. He advocated using nuclear weapons to defoliate Vietnam.

8. Johnson ran for president in 1964 promising to deescalate the war in Vietnam. When he won the election, he did the opposite, sending hundreds of thousands more troops.

9. Hubert Humphrey: elected as vice president with President Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1964, and he was his party's unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1968.

10. The bracero program: a post-Second World War government-sponsored plan aimed at importing low-paid Mexican labor to the U.S. Mexicans under this program were allowed to come and work in the U.S., but were required to return to Mexico when their work term expired.

11. President of the University of California system during the Berkeley students' famous Free-Speech fights in 1964.

12. 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.

13. It is worth noting that although the trend toward statification that Draper describes began to shift by the late 1970s toward "globalization," i.e., more neoliberal capitalist policies, the same political pattern was apparent. Not only Republicans Reagan and Bush, but also Democrat Clinton, carried out the neoliberal policies. Therefore Draper's point that liberalism and conservatism tend to converge around the particular historic interests of the ruling class still applies.

14. Taft-Hartley: 1947 labor bill that curtailed the rights of unions. Among other things, it empowered the government to obtain an 80-day injunction against any strike that it deemed a peril to national security. The act outlawed sympathy strikes or boycotts (boycott against an already organized company doing business with another company that a union is trying to organize), denied legal protection to workers on wildcat strikes, and outlawed the closed shop.

15. Adlai Stevenson: U.S. diplomat & Democratic politician; governor of Illinois 1949-1953; Democratic presidential candidate 1952, 1956; U.S. ambassador to UN 1961-1965. Famous for making a presentation to the UN in 1962 revealing the presence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Stevenson's presentation denied important facts. For example, the U.S. had recently launched an armed CIA invasion of Cuba--landing at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Stevenson denied U.S. involvement. Stevenson also left out of his presentation the fact that the U.S. had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey pointed at the Soviet Union.

Further Reading

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