The Lesser Evil

Perfect democracy gives the voter a choice between different policies by giving him a choice between different candidates, each identified with a different policy. We probably had such a choice in 1952 and 1956 when we could choose between Eisenhower and Stevenson, and we thought we had it in 1964 when most of us preferred Johnson to Goldwater. What occurred in 1964 is typical of the way imperfect democracy operates, which is another way of saying the way contemporary democracy operates. The voters deceive themselves into thinking that they are choosing a policy by choosing a man. In truth, they base their preference for one as against another man on criteria which may or may not be relevant to the formation and execution of policy.

It is characteristic of the situation with which the election of 1968 confronts us that it contains elements of perfect and imperfect democracy, but in such a fashion as to put into question the very survival of American democracy. That survival is threatened from two different quarters. It is threatened by the Wallace movement, which in its appeal to a perplexed and frightened primitivism is the American version of Fascism, and it is threatened by the irrelevance, as far as the substance of policy is concerned, of choosing between Humphrey and Nixon.

The choice between Wallace, on the one hand, and Humphrey and Nixon, on the other, is a choice not only between men but between policies as well. But the policies Wallace has espoused—carefully couched for the time being in democratic language in order to avoid alienating prospective voters—are incompatible with the principles and practices of liberal democracy. A victorious Wallace would try to establish a totalitarian democracy in which a self-perpetuating majority, unconcerned with individual and minority rights, would have a monopoly of political power.

The next president, whoever he may be, will be faced with the task of restoring the unity of the nation, now impaired by large-scale disaffection at the bottom and the top of the social pyramid. Two methods are at his disposal: radical reforms which will satisfy the elemental aspirations of the disaffected and thereby make an end to their disaffection; and the imposition of the government’s will by force which will make an end to the outward manifestations of this disaffection. While these two methods can be separated for the purpose of intellectual analysis, they coexist in the practice of governments. What distinguishes a liberal from a tyrannical regime is the relative weight assigned to the free interplay of social forces and the organized violence of the state. There can be no doubt that Wallace would minimize the integrative role of freely given consent induced by social reforms and rely mainly upon the power of the majority to be used for the purpose of imposing by force upon recalcitrant minorities a pattern of conduct submissive to the will of the majority.

The choice before the voter is, then, of great significance. Before he is called …

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