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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 upon to choose between two candidates operating within the traditional context of liberal democracy, he must choose between that context and the totalitarianism the Wallace candidacy portends. For the readers of this journal, the choice must be easy in the abstract: Obviously Wallace must be contained and liberal democracy given another chance. But the choice is hard to come by and painful to live with when one has to face the concrete question: Who, Humphrey or Nixon, is more likely to restore the vitality of our political institutions, reunite the nation, and govern well? Let it be said right away that for different reasons, to be discussed shortly, both candidates appear to be singularly unqualified for these tasks. If the choice were simply between Humphrey and Nixon within the traditional context of the two-party system, I would have said that the choice is a matter of political taste, but not of political judgment since there is really nothing to choose between their qualifications. There is no lesser evil to be preferred since both candidates portend evils, different in kind but not in degree. It is the Wallace threat to the ethos and the institutions of America that forces a choice upon us, not between the candidates’ intrinsic merits but between their respective abilities to contain Wallace.

TO DISPOSE of some irrelevant arguments first: there can or course be no doubt that Humphrey is a more attractive human being than Nixon. If I had to choose a companion for a deserted island, I would not hesitate to choose Humphrey. While Humphrey’s tongue would be likely to tire before my mind gave way, Nixon would be capable of having me for dinner and make me thank him for the privilege. However, the human qualities we value in a friend are not necessarily assets for a politician. “It sometimes happens,” wrote Henry Taylor in The Statesmen, “that he who would not hurt a fly will hurt a nation.” Men of good will and even of great intellectual awareness have frequently been bested in the business of politics by the smart politician who knew what he wanted for himself and how to get it. Politics has its own standards of excellence which are different from those of other spheres of action.

It is also obvious that Humphrey has a better intellectual grasp than his opponent of some of the substantive problems with which the next president must come to terms. Humphrey is aware of the acute threats to American society, through the decay of the cities and the aggravation of racial conflict, and he knows that these threats must be countered by reforms rather than by repression. But the reforms he has suggested by and large have been bypassed by history. They might have been adequate twenty or thirty years ago but they are only palliatives today. While Humphrey has shared the liberal illusion that disarmament is possible without at least concomitant settlement of the political issues from which the armaments race arose, he has clearly seen the enormous risks of nuclear proliferation as well as the risks and irrationality of the nuclear arms race.

On the other hand, while Nixon has not shown his hand with regard to Vietnam, Humphrey has shown his, and it is Johnson’s. The best that can be said of Humphrey’s speech of September 30 is that it reiterates Johnson’s position. The worst that can be said about it is that it goes beyond Johnson’s position in asking Hanoi not only for some kind of reciprocity—explicit or implicit—in exchange for a complete cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, but specifically for “Communist willingness to restore the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.”

The role Humphrey has played in the conduct of the Vietnam war has been deliberately obscured and falsified. It has been said that the Vice President could not help defending the President’s policy in public while trying to change them in private, and that he would emerge with a different policy once he could be “his own man.” The trouble with this argument is that there never have been two Humphreys—any more than there have been two Nixons—one willy-nilly supporting the war, the other opposing it. There has only been one Humphrey, wholeheartedly and passionately supporting the war in private as well as in public. One needs only to read his speech of September 30 in order to see how completely and sincerely he is committed to Johnson’s philosophy and strategy. As the new Nixon is but the old Nixon packaged for public consumption, so Humphrey as “his own man” is just the Humphrey he always was—and that is his insuperable handicap. He has always been warmhearted, decent, idealistic, enthusiastic, uncritical, easily swayed by emotion, intoxicated by his own rhetoric, lacking in political judgment, failing in political organization and management, and without the authority of a political leader.

The New York Times, in its editorial of October 6 endorsing Humphrey, has embellished the myth of the dovish Humphrey struggling at long last to emerge from under the wings of Johnson. The New York Times finds it “significant that the former members of the Johnson administration who are rallying to Mr. Humphrey’s support include its best known doves.” Whom does The New York Times have in mind? George Ball, who had doubts about some of the tactics of the war but, as his recent book clearly shows, has seen eye to eye with Johnson on philosophy and strategy? Or those former members of the Johnson Administration who, far from being opposed to the war, wanted to improve its operations? Or those who enthusiastically supported the war so long as the polls supported it, and followed the polls into half-hearted opposition? In truth, it was impossible to be a member of the Johnson Administration and a dove at the same time, and Humphrey has been very careful to follow in Johnson’s footsteps by maintaining the ostracism of all those who had been opposed to the very idea of the war from the outset and without reservations.

NIXON’S ASSETS and liabilities are the reverse of Humphrey’s. He has shown no intellectual understanding of the momentous issues with which the next president will have to deal. Most disturbing is his apparent conviction—I stress here as elsewhere “apparent,” for in Nixon’s case the distinction between appearance and reality is extremely hazardous—that the more nuclear weapons a nation has the better off it is militarily. His remedy for the disintegration of American society appears to be private enterprise and the police. However, Nixon has one quality, indispensable but not sufficient in a political leader, in which Humphrey is lacking: the gift of political organization and manipulation. He transformed the Republican Party, virtually moribund four years ago, into an instrument of his power and victory. He has done this by organizing the party from the grass roots up, by giving his competitors enough rope to hang themselves, by straddling the issues, such as Vietnam, or by glossing them over with unexceptionable generalities, such as those on the cities and race.

These political gifts are at the service not of a great political vision nor even of a limited political program, but of a drive for personal power. Nixon thus far has shown all the qualities of a politician of the second rank, but none of those of a political leader or statesman. The mistakes Humphrey would have made enthusiastically, unthinkingly, well-meaningly, Nixon is likely to make by limiting his calculations to the effect his actions might have upon his personal political fortunes. Thus, as Johnson, in spite of his different intentions, was reduced to executing in Vietnam approximately Goldwater’s policies, so Humphrey, his intentions and insights notwithstanding, would in all likelihood be forced to put Nixon’s policies into practice on the domestic scene because he would have failed in the tasks of political leadership, organization, and manipulation. While Nixon would embark upon an unlimited nuclear arms race deliberately, and with conviction, Humphrey, lacking the political savvy to make his convictions prevail against strong hostile pressures, would do so hesitatingly and regretfully but would be likely to acquire Nixon’s convictions in the process. However different the two contenders are in personality, ability, and style, they offer us the prospect of the same calamities.

That grim picture has only one redeeming feature, favoring Nixon. Nixon is more likely than Humphrey to make an end to the Vietnam war; for in contrast to Humphrey, he is not emotionally committed to it, nor does he bear any responsibility for it. He can afford to allow political calculations to determine his actions, and these calculations point unmistakably in the direction of speedy liquidation of the losing enterprise. If the cost of liquidation should be painfully high, the Democrats are available for blame.

Weighing the over-all prospects both candidates present to the people, and trying to choose between them, one must suspend political judgment, which is supposed to guide us to the choice of the lesser evil. For while they present two different kinds of evil, by what objective criteria is one to decide which is the lesser? Political judgment tells us only that neither candidate is qualified to be president of the United States from 1969 to 1973 and that it is impossible to foresee on the basis of the record which administration is likely to be less calamitous for the nation. This being the case, it is perfectly rational not to vote at all since there is no basis for a rational choice. The decision to vote nevertheless becomes then a matter of subjective preference, of political taste.

THE MATTER could rest here if the issue before us were nothing more than a traditional contest between the two major parties. In truth, the crucial issue—crucial for the future of American democracy—is not between Humphrey and Nixon, but between Humphrey and Nixon, on the one hand, and Wallace, on the other. The rational voter is called upon to answer not only the question—unanswerable on rational grounds, as we have seen—as to who, Humphrey or Nixon, would make the better president, but also and above all who is better qualified to defend American democracy against the onslaught of the Wallace movement. That latter question is indeed susceptible of a rational answer.

The Democratic Party is likely to suffer a debacle similar to the one that befell the Republicans in 1964. The debacle of 1968 may turn out not to be worse than that of 1964 as far as popular and electoral votes are concerned—although even this is quite possible—but it is bound to be worse in its political consequences. The Republicans after 1964 only needed to reformulate their philosophy, to retune their political machinery, to unite behind a leader, and to watch the Democrats ruining the country—and they look like unchallengeable winners four years later. The Democrats cannot do after 1968 what the Republicans did after 1964; for the popular base of their political power has crumbled under the impact of the Vietnam war and the racial crisis. The disaffection of the intellectuals and students as well as of large sectors of the lower middle class in the North and of virtually the whole party apparatus in the South has left the Democratic Party with a drastically diminished population base.

To recover what it has lost, the Democratic Party has two policies to choose from. Either it can compete not only with the Republican Party but, primarily, with the Wallace movement for its share of the conservative and fascist vote, or it can reconstitute itself as the progressive party of the Left by creating a new combination of popular forces united by common or parallel interests. However, these are long-range prospects. In the short run, the Democratic Party, tainted by failures at home and abroad and paralyzed by the irrelevance of its leaders, is unable to perform the traditional task of the opposition party to present itself as an alternative to the party in power four years hence. The opposition party is the Wallace movement, and the fate of the Republic will be decided not by the number of votes Humphrey can garner in defeat as compared with Nixon’s, but by the strength Nixon can muster against Wallace. Nixon’s strength is Wallace’s weakness. Thus the defense of liberal democracy requires a huge popular mandate for Nixon to pursue a conservative policy in the spirit and within the institutional framework of the liberal-democratic tradition.

THERE ARE two pitfalls, which could nullify the prospects for Nixon’s defending liberal democracy; there is an opportunity, which could enhance them. Nixon may feel compelled to compete with Wallace for the support of the potential fascist vote, as Eisenhower, Nixon, and Dulles competed in the Fifties with Joseph McCarthy. The choice of Agnew may be a harbinger of a general appeasement of the radical right. Such appeasement may or may not take the fascist wind out of Wallace’s sails, but it will make the Republican Party fascist. If Nixon should fail to provide, by whatever policies he may choose, an alternative to Wallace acceptable to large masses of the American people—and here is the other pitfall—it is possible that liberal democracy in America has played its last card and lost the game. Many of the millions who in 1968 either remain faithful to the Democratic Party out of conviction or traditional loyalty, or vote for Nixon as the lesser evil and as an acceptable conservative choice may yet find Wallace proved right in his rejection of the two traditional parties and may turn to him as the only available savior.

Yet regardless of whether Nixon succeeds or fails, they might also turn to a savior from the Left, provided one is available. It is characteristic of the volatility of large sectors of the American electorate, not only in their party affiliation but also in their general position in the political spectrum, that many of the people who voted for Wallace in 1964 and are likely to vote for him in 1968 voted for Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy only a few months ago. They want a charismatic leader, the repository of their troubles and the incarnation of their aspirations, and they will still want such a leader in 1972. If Nixon should by then have failed, Wallace would have the field all to himself, provided the Democrats cannot counter his charismatic leadership with one of their own.

FOR THIS REASON American democracy seems to be best served not only by Nixon’s victory in 1968 but also by a defeat of the Democratic Party so drastic as to amount to the disavowal of its present leadership, philosophy, and policies and to render inevitable the radical transformation of its philosophy and structure. For without such a defeat and the transformation following it, the Democratic Party may do consistently and on a large scale what it did in Chicago only by means of Mayor Daley’s unchallengeable sway: to act out what Wallace preaches. That would be the road not of competition but of imitation and ultimate absorption. If the Democratic Party is to save itself and American democracy, it must be made to pay for its political sins by being defeated in 1968. That defeat will be the defeat of Johnson, his heir, and their supporters. Only when they have been discredited and eliminated by electoral defeat will the men who could have saved it in 1968—the Kennedys, the McCarthys, the McGoverns, and their heirs—have a chance to save it in 1972.

This analysis, if there is any merit in it, presents a dismal picture indeed: pathetically dismal with Humphrey, riskily dismal with Nixon, disastrously dismal with Wallace. In a European country, stratified in its social structure and set in its political ways, the situation might well be called hopeless. It is not so in America. Many Americans do not occupy a fixed position in the philosophic and political spectrum. They move from one political position to another, as they do from house to house, city to city. In America, nothing is determined once and for all, and anything is possible, the worst and the best. Wallace may rise to become the American Hitler, or he may fade away, an American Poujade. The way we vote, or don’t vote, will be a factor, however small in itself, in the determination of what will happen and what can be avoided.

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