Hubert Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey; drawing by David Levine

The two-party system is like those magic black and white squares which look like a staircase at one moment and a checkerboard the next. Sometimes the two parties seem very distinct and sometimes they seem very much alike. This is one of those periods in which they look very much alike, whence the growing disillusion with the two-party system itself. The twin problems of retreat from empire abroad and of conciliating the black revolt at home call for changes of attitude and policy more fundamental than any we have faced since slavery.

The differences between the two parties just aren’t that fundamental. To examine the past and nature of the Democratic party, which has normally been the party of change and reform, is to doubt its capacity to cope with the twin crises of our time. In the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, unlike those of Grover Cleveland, it seemed easy to tell Democrats from Republicans. When we look back on the New Deal now, from the perspective of our present needs, the difference does not look as sharp as it did then. The rhetoric of American political controversy has never prized understatement, and the strategy of the rich has been to scream so loudly at the slightest diminution of their privileges that the sheer decibel count gives the poor the satisfying illusion that a revolution is going on. So it was with the Roosevelt Revolution. When the clamor died down and the smoke of battle began to lift, the Bastilles were still standing.

IF one were trying to explain the American two-party system to a visitor from a different political planet, let us say a citizen of a Soviet one-party state, the simplest way to begin would be to say that both American parties were capitalist parties. The difference between them has been that generally the Republicans have represented the interests of the big property-owners; the Democrats, the small. But both are equally devoted to private property. After five years of Lyndon Johnson, it may be hard to recall that in the Administrations of FDR and Harry Truman the Democrats were tormented by the accusation that they were crypto-Communist. If a Soviet visitor asked hopefully whether it was true that in those days the leadership were secretly inspired by Lenin, one would have to explain that such charges must be taken in the same sense as when oppositionists within a Communist party are denounced as agents of capitalism. This is the universal poetic license of political controversy. When the Democrats are most heatedly accused of interfering with free enterprise, it usually turns out that all they have been doing is trying to slow up the rate at which the big fish of business have been swallowing the little ones.

Any division of the two parties between big property and small requires many qualifications. Big landowners dominate the Democratic party in the Southern states, which are still pretty much one-party systems; small farmers are the backbone of the Republican party in the Midwest and the rural Northeast. There are also big businessmen in the Democratic party and small businessmen in the Republican; indeed Babbitt—the archetype of the Republican standpatter—was a small business man, from the Midwest let it be noted. It is often said that American politics stops at the water’s edge; it also stops at the oil well’s mouth. The same big oil companies which dominate the Republican party in New York and Philadelphia also dominate the Democratic party in Houston and Oklahoma City. Depletion allowances are as sacred as the Stars and Stripes.

Wisely managed corporations diversify their political portfolios by giving to both parties, though not so generously to the Democrats. In a famous incident during a Federal investigation of the Sugar Trust in the 1890s, a sugar magnate—or tycoon, as we now say—was asked about the extraordinary impartiality shown in the benefactions he showered equally on both parties. “The American Sugar Refining Company,” he replied genially, “has no politics of any kind….Only the politics of business.”

This helps explain why few big businessmen flee the country when the Democrats, as in the 1948 Truman campaign, wage anti-big business campaigns so ferocious as to make Soviet citizens tremble lest the directors of General Motors end up digging uranium in the Far North of an American Siberia. Truman, in a famous speech to farmers at Dexter, Iowa, a few weeks before the 1948 election, sounded like a latter day Robespierre. “The Wall Street reactionaries,” he said in prose as sharp as any guillotine, “are not satisfied with being rich…they are gluttons of privilege…cold men…cunning men…. They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship.” But when this enragé won, the stock market barely yawned.

The style of politics has changed. Trouncing big business, which proved sure-fire stuff two decades ago, has gone out of fashion. We are in a new Era of Good Feeling, in which both parties—and both wings of both parties—share a trusting faith that any problem can now be solved by enlisting private enterprise—so long as it is sufficiently subsidized from public funds. The cynical may wonder whether this is not just another way of buying the acquiescence of the wealthy in social reform by arranging that they make a profit on that, too. Here is a sample of the new rhetoric, as practiced by a present-day radical Democrat:


I do not think we have many real grievances to be urged against bigness in business today…. Some Americans hark back before the days of the managerial revolution, back to the days of the “robber barons.” But this country and its economy have matured spectacularly since the trust-busting days…. The big businesses of bygone generations did, indeed, act in a pattern of savage repression of competition. And current revelations of price-fixing [perish the after-thought!] and other price-holding practices do not help to ease a strong historical suspicion of the motives of great corporations on the part of government leaders, small business men and others…. [But] the pluralistic economy of the 1960s bears little resemblance to the economy of the turn of the century that brought forth the first great trust-busting era…. It is high time that the traditional hostility between the intellectuals on the one hand and management on the other was ended. Doctrinaire thinking has no place…[etc.].

Alert readers may already have recognized the prose style, as bland as marshmallows, richly garnished with fashionable literary and political clichés1 of Hubert Humphrey. The quotation is from his last book as a Senator, The Cause Is Mankind. So statesmanlike had he become by 1964 even before his maturing four years as Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President.

HARRY TRUMAN was an unsuccessful haberdasher while Humphrey has been stigmatized, somewhat snobbishly, because of his family business, as “a drugstore liberal.”2 On the eve of a new nominating convention, it may be useful to recall that the great heroes of the party of the common man have not been of lowly origin. Its four outstanding Presidents were all of the Gracchus type, upper-class leaders of lower-class upsurge. All the Democratic revolutionaries—as their fond followers hailed them—were men of comfortable fortune and privileged position. Jefferson and Roosevelt were landed aristocrats; Jackson—the only one of them born in poverty—amassed a fortune in land and slaves, in shrewd alliance with the haves against the have-nots of the frontier; the kind of early hardship Wilson knew was of the genteel and socially secure variety that afflicts the sons of ill-paid Presbyterian ministers in well-to-do Southern small towns.

Except for Jefferson, all were originally of rather conservative views, and none was ever as radical as he sounded. Even Jefferson, as Richard Hofstadter observed in his perceptive The American Political Tradition, confined “the generous and emancipating thoughts for which his name is so justly prized” almost entirely to his private correspondence. To their overwrought political opponents, all four seemed to be traitors to their class, reckless leaders of the angry dispossessed. But unlike the Gracchi none of them ever nourished the tree of liberty with more than a few drops pin-pricked from the privileged, who bleed easily. They were revolutionists only in an inflated and metaphorical sense.

Jefferson affirmed the equality of man but never tried to extend the right to vote beyond the propertied minority. Jackson was the symbol rather than the leader of the Jacksonian Revolution; its battles for universal white manhood suffrage and free public education were won before he became President. Wilson, like Teddy Roosevelt, began by being disdainful of the progressive tide they both later rode to fame and power. The measure of Wilson’s New Freedom—how glamorously our liberal patent medicines have been labeled!—is that its principal surviving monuments are the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. The former, after all the attacks upon “the Money Trust” which led up to it, merely rationalized our central banking system. The latter, which was to protect the country against the abuses of big business, long ago degenerated into a toothless watchdog.

THOUGH UTOPIAN SOCIALISM had as great a vogue among American intellectuals before the Civil War as Communism did before the Second World War, and the American Socialist party was a living force before and for a decade after the First World War, socialistic ideas—as distinct from specific reforms which the Socialists were first to advocate—never penetrated the Democratic party. Even Roosevelt, who was ready to try anything to get the country out of the Great Depression, stopped short at the socialistic. Early in his Administration there was some agitation “to put idle hands and idle machines together”; there was an attempt to do just this in an idle Ohio mattress factory. I can remember my disappointment as a young editorial writer on one of the few pro-New Deal newspapers in the country when the project was so quickly nipped in the bud that it seems to have disappeared from the history books. Production for use—a forgotten phrase—was taboo. The Roosevelt Administration preferred to make jobs by “leaf-raking” and public works rather than disturb production for profit. FDR’s celebrated pragmatism ended where the profit system began. His successors show no disposition to go beyond it.


The Democrats as the party of the agrarian and small property-owner, and of the urban machines based on the proletarian immigrant, have tended to be readier for social reform than the Republicans, but not beyond the frame-work of the capitalist system. Indeed, the Democrats are super-sensitive to attack as “soft on communism.” This is often a major determinant of what they will do in foreign and domestic policy. But the record is full of anomalies. Wilson began the non-recognition policy the Republicans applied to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt broke the diplomatic embargo and extended recognition to Moscow.

SHOULD INCREASED international tension or domestic turbulence bring a flare-up of our characteristic American anti-Communist paranoia, it is hard to tell which party would be first to pander to it. It was the liberal Democrat, Wilson, who sent Eugene Debs to jail in World War I and the conservative Republican Harding who pardoned him. The first American witch hunt after the Russian Revolution was launched by Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But it was the Republicans who revived the Red mania as a political tactic early in the Great Depression under the now forgotten Hamilton Fish, the first sniffer-outer of what came to be known later as “un-American activities.” Right-wing Democrats and Republicans carried this on as a weapon against the New Deal and with covert help from J. Edgar Hoover revived it again as soon as the Second World War ended.

The purpose was to smear the period of Democratic dominance (in the ugly words later used by Eisenhower’s unscrupulous Attorney General, Herbert Brownell) as “twenty years of treason.” The Democratic reaction was an attempt to run at one and the same time with the hounds of anti-Communism and the hares of Jeffersonian liberalism. Truman instituted a loyalty purge within the government which put a premium on mediocrity and cast a pall of fear on the capital long before Joe McCarthy. His Smith Act prosecution of the Communists was begun in 1948 as a weapon against the Henry Wallace third party movement. But his Attorney General, Tom Clark, opposed the repressive Mundt-Nixon bill and Truman himself vetoed it as an effort at thought control in a message which was in the great tradition of Jefferson’s opposition to the Alien and Sedition laws.

Panicky Senate Democratic liberals, among them Humphrey and Morse, had tried to block this bill with a substitute which was in some ways worse—a bill setting up detention camps in time of war or national emergency for persons suspected of being potential spies or saboteurs. This monstrosity marked the debut in American legislation of the idea that a man might be jailed not for something he did but for something it was thought he might do. The right-wingers cheerfully tacked this on to their own bill whereupon these liberals turned about and voted to support the President’s veto of the entire measure. But a Congress under the influence of the anti-Red sentiment stirred by the Korean war passed it over Truman’s veto. Thanks to this law, America some day may see concentration camps used against black or white radicals.

HUMPHREY’S CIVIL LIBERTIES record during this and the McCarthy period followed the standard Democratic pattern. He made occasional speeches against McCarthyism but was himself a junior McCarthy in purging the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota and investigating the labor movement, particularly the United Electrical Workers, for communistic influence. The high-watermark of Humphrey’s cowardice as a liberal or defensive hysteria as an anti-Communist was set in 1954, when with the same group of Senate liberals (this time including John F. Kennedy3 ), Humphrey sponsored the outlawry provisions of the Communist Control Act of 1954. These set up standards so sweeping for determining who was a Communist that Humphrey, Morse, and the other sponsors could have been declared Communists too. It was a Republican, John Sherman Cooper, who made the one principled speech against this nonsense, and it was Kefauver who cast the lone vote against it.

Humphrey, as the current villain of the anti-war forces, is being blamed for all this but his record is no worse than that of Wayne Morse, their current hero, or of many other good liberals like the late Herbert Lehman. They made a shabby record during Joe McCarthy’s heyday; it was a Republican Administration and a group of Senate conservatives who finally did McCarthy in. But Humphrey’s record has a rich flatulence characteristic of the man; he never does anything by halves, and has a genius for making a fool of himself. “I am tired,” he said in 1954, “of reading headlines about being a leftist.” So in the Senate that year we find him deploring the disbandment of his own little labor witch hunt subcommittee, offering to make its files available to Joe McCarthy, declaring that “rooting out Communist infiltration…is priority business” and boasting that his Communist outlawry amendment would force every Senator to stand up and be counted. “We are going to lay the issue on the line,” he exulted, “and not on the fringes.”

When the Eisenhower Administration, as well as many of Humphrey’s old ADA friends, objected that outlawry would be unconstitutional, Morse chortled gleefully, “It now appears that the White House thinks the Senator from Minnesota is a little too hard on the Communists.” Morse had lent his prestige as a constitutional lawyer to the Humphrey bill, and still boasts—to show his own political purity—that he once helped father a bill to outlaw the Communists. This whole episode reached its comic climax when Humphrey told the Senate a man “does not have to become a member of the Communist party to express unorthodox ideas. Let him become a member of other parties, or of the Republican or the Democratic party, if he wants to express unorthodox ideas.” Someone should have unfurled a travel-style poster in the Senate chamber at the close of that speech, “Join the GOP and overturn the world.”

MARX in his Eighteenth Brumaire said history was a form of politics. A corollary needs, however, to be added. The larger the ingredient of politics, the poorer the quality of the history. This is particularly true when the historical estimates reflect immediate rather than long-range political considerations. Judgments made in the heat of a presidential campaign are bad enough; those molded by the passions of a campaign for the nomination are worse. Four years ago in the pages of this same New York Review I poked fun at Humphrey’s inflated rhetoric and his attempts to ingratiate himself with businessmen, but welcomed as a liberal victory Johnson’s choice of Humphrey as running mate. Eugene McCarthy then appeared only as a moribund Senate liberal who had played ball with the oil interests on the Senate Finance Committee and was the choice of Texas Governor Connally. Goldwater was the menace; Johnson was not only the lesser evil but the hope of peace. Humphrey’s more distant past, like Morse’s, was forgiven because of the part Humphrey had played in the fight for a nuclear test ban, for disarmament, for civil rights, indeed for almost every social reform measure of the preceding eight years.

Had McCarthy become Vice President, Humphrey might today be the hero of the peace forces. The reversals of mood and ideology required, despite the record we are now emphasizing, would have been no greater than those which occurred in the case of Robert F. Kennedy, or Wayne Morse, or of the Americans for Democratic Action, when that organization of homogenized and certified anti-Communist liberals—which Humphrey helped to found—turned against the war and Humphrey himself. Ambition, conviction, recognition of objective circumstance, may be more powerful than past position and any desire for consistency. Who for that matter would have dreamed a year ago that Allard K. Lowenstein could hoist that most lackadaisical of all the Senate Democratic liberals, Eugene McCarthy, onto a white horse?

The historian has the good fortune to begin after fate has given him the outcome; he can then decide according to his political philosophy the factors which made it “inevitable”—no word ever more richly deserved the disparagement of inverted double commas. The man who must write before we know what will happen can only rework past history to fit the outcome his heart fears or desires. Wisely operated oracles, as far back as Delphi, knew that their only safety was in ambiguity. But voters and those who presume to advise them face an inescapable test—the need to pick from two usually ambiguous choices. Which brings us back to the magic squares of the American two-party system, and why this system sometimes seems to be government by roulette. You put down your money but you never really know what you’re going to get.

THE WAR. The war. The war. It ruined Johnson. And Johnson ruined Humphrey. And a Humphrey-Nixon choice this time may ruin the American political system. The hardest part of my pre-convention assignment is to assess the history of the Democratic party and the nature of its seemingly all but certain candidate in the light of the war, and the overwhelming need to end it.

The first thing to be said about the war is that it has become the overriding issue because we are unable to win it. Our past is littered with Vietnams, small countries on which we have worked our will in the name of anti-Communism and, before Communism, of liberty. But the deeds arouse little protest when (as Lady Macbeth urged) done quickly. Johnson was as arrogant in the Dominican Republic, Dulles and the CIA as unscrupulous in Guatemala, but neither brought any widespread revulsion. Our national conscience did not twinge until the military situation hurt. Vietnam would be no issue if the Diem dictatorship had succeeded, if Kennedy’s “advisers” had been enough to subdue the revolt against it, if Johnson’s bombing of the North had worked, or if Westmoreland’s strategy could have gone on to the point where there were no more Vietnamese left, and we could be sure we didn’t have to start body-counting the Chinese, too. If the Viet Cong go on causing us enough trouble, any President will have to make peace because victory isn’t worth what it would cost, and the wider risks it would entail. This is why John F. Kennedy to his credit drew back twice on Cuba. So we co-exist with Communism 90 miles off Key West but decline to compromise with it 9,000 miles from California. To the fresh eye, the frontiers of freedom must seem downright whimsical.

The second thing to be said is that successful wars, especially if short and profitable, are popular. When Lincoln as a Whig Congressman opposed the Mexican war, the result was his defeat for reelection. Pulitzer and Hearst made circulation, McKinley won reelection, and Teddy Roosevelt earned his glamorous reputation with that “splendid little war” against Spain which marked the debut of American imperialism in the Far East. The Philippines were our first Vietnam in Asia, Aguinaldo the first Ho Chi Minh we encountered; there was no lack of enthusiasm when we set out, in the slogans then current, to “help our little brown brother,” and if he rejected that help to “civilize ’em with a Krag.” The Krag was the M-16 of the time. An Anti-Imperialist League sprang into action between 1898 and 1900. But a new book4 which has gone neglected shows that its leaders were upper-class conservatives and liberal gentlemen like Godkin of The Nation. Perhaps this study of the first American anti-imperialist movement has attracted so little attention during the current anti-imperialist agitation because in this it runs so counter to political clichés. The popular side was pro-imperialist.

A LOT OF NONSENSE has to be cleared away if we are to chart a fresh course. We Americans are neither the benefactors we think ourselves nor the devils our enemies see in us. Most peoples at some time in their history are expansionist and the expansion is always carried on in the name of some benevolent mission. The Czars found this in Pan-Slavism, the Kaiser in Kultur, the French in their mission civilatrice, and the British in the white man’s burden, which was heavy with loot from the darker continents. Revolutionary movements, whether religious or secular, are particularly expansionist. From Mohammed to Mao their leaders have felt the urge to bestow the new faith as widely as possible, if necessary by the scimitar or gun.

Among the smaller peoples, our current victims, the Vietnamese, themselves rank high on any scale of aggressive imperialism. Their acquisition of the Mekong delta, which they took from the Khmers, goes back only to the eighteenth century, and Black Nationalists who see the Vietnam war as whitey vs. colored should speak to the darker-skinned Montagnards, the dispossessed “nigras” of the Vietnamese peninsula.

Among the big peoples we rank high as land-grabbers. We pushed to the Pacific and took half of Mexico as our Manifest Destiny, reluctantly abandoned our designs on Canada, dominated the rest of the hemisphere in the name of Pan Americanism, set out to make the world safe for democracy under Wilson, and are now rigging elections as far away as Southeast Asia in the name of self-determination. Nations like gases tend to expand until stopped and contained by countervailing forces they cannot overcome. We may be headed for containment by China.

Another obstacle to clear thinking is the myth that the people are inherently peaceful. This is part of the democratic ideology. It was born on the eve of the French Revolution, and survived proof to the contrary furnished by the fresh enthusiasm of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies. In our own country the Democrats as the popular party have been expansionist from the beginning. They were the agrarian party, and hungered for more land. It was mercantile and capitalist New England which was cold to the War of 1812, even though the war was presumably fought for free maritime commerce; the planters of the South saw the war as a way to solidify their hold on the Floridas while the farmers of the Northwest wanted to annex Canada. The Monroe Doctrine, that first monument of naïve North American imperialism, was a Democratic party accomplishment.

The secret of this unilateral declaration of a protectorate over the hemisphere was that Canning’s original proposal for a joint Anglo-American declaration would have included a self-denying ordinance, pledging both powers to seek no territorial aggrandizement. When Monroe consulted Jefferson as the party’s greatest living elder statesman, the latter replied, “Do we wish to acquire to our own confederacy any one or more of the Spanish provinces? I candidly confess that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could be made to our system of States.”5 Jefferson would have accepted Canning’s invitation, though with this imperialist regret. Calhoun, too, was ready “even if it should pledge the US not to take Cuba or Texas.” But the prevailing view embodied in the Monroe Doctrine only barred the transfer of any territory in the Western Hemisphere to a European power. Though all this was done in the name of making the Western hemisphere safe for freedom, we declared our neutrality as between Spain and the colonies in revolt against her. Secretly we often favored Spanish rule.

In the Clark memorandum (see footnote five) the State Department for the first time disclosed instructions sent our Minister to Madrid in 1829 urging Spain to keep control of Cuba. Bolívar’s liberating armies were freeing the slaves and “the sudden emancipation of a numerous slave population…could not but be very sensibly felt upon the adjacent shores of the United States.” The Vietnamese war is in the pattern set by our relations with Latin America: in the name of liberty, we supported first foreign and then native oligarchies. On one refreshing occasion our unctuous pretensions were abandoned for plain talk. When Cleveland’s Secretary of State warned Britain to keep hands off Venezuela in 1895, he interpreted the Monroe Doctrine with a frank imperial arrogance even Lyndon Johnson in his most brash private moments could hardly equal:

Today [Secretary Olney warned Britain] the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition. Why? It is not because of the pure friendship or good will felt for it. It is not simply by reason of its high character as a civilized state, nor because wisdom and justice and equity are the invariable characteristics of the dealings with the United States. It is because in addition to all other grounds, its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all powers.6

Five years after Olney’s note, the Democratic party for the first time in its history did indeed campaign against McKinley in 1900 on an anti-imperialist platform, but they were “at a disadvantage,” as Robert Beisner’s study of the anti-imperialist movement shows, “because they had bellowed for war in 1898 as loudly as anyone.” William Jennings Bryan, the party’s foremost anti-imperialist leader “first volunteered to fight in Cuba, then declared himself an opponent of expansion, and finally urged Senate approval of the peace treaty” by which we annexed the Philippines and set out on the course we are still pursuing, of trying to make the Pacific as much a Mare Nostrum as the Atlantic or the Caribbean. Indeed our Navy’s ambition is to control all the seven seas, and all the Eurasian outlets to them, from the Bosporus to the Formosan straits. Only the rhetoric of anti-Communism keeps us from seeing that no nation in history has ever had such grandiose imperial pretentions, such hubris, chutzpah, or brass.

THE CHOICE now is between disengagement and disaster. To scale down these colossal ambitions is the first necessity of American politics. But the retreat from empire, as the experience of other great nations has shown, is traumatic. There could be no poorer choice than Humphrey for that task. The first requirement is to disown Johnson’s war, and Humphrey cannot disentangle himself even if he would from his association with it. Humphrey’s nomination would ratify, while McCarthy’s would rebuke, the decisions which put US combat troops again on the mainland of Asia. The second count against a Humphrey choice is that his is the very type of spurious liberal evangelism which has provided idealistic cover for our effort to dominate the world. McCarthy’s more astringent and sophisticated views offer some hope of a change. We need to recover our cool.

A third count against Humphrey is that he has given no reason to believe that he is any more ready than Johnson to negotiate a compromise in Vietnam. He went far beyond mere loyalty to Johnson when he told U.S. News & World Report (May 27), “If Nixon and Humphrey should be the candidates in the general election, I don’t think our views of the war would be far apart.” This is a war Nixon has wanted us to fight since 1954. Humphrey told students at St. Paul last May 27 we ought to be willing to stay at the conference table “in Paris for months, and if necessary for years, until a satisfactory solution was reached.”

This is in accord with the Johnson strategy of defusing anti-war protest with the talks, keeping the fighting at a level the public will tolerate and hoping that somehow we can restore a non-Communist South Vietnam, like South Korea, in our sphere of influence. Humphrey’s speech of July 12, supposedly designed to chart a foreign policy of his own, sounds remarkably like the same Johnson-Rusk cracked record. On the one hand Humphrey says, as they do, that “we are not the world’s policeman,” but on the other hand we must be prepared to fulfill mutual defense commitments where others “violate frontiers and foster local turmoil” as, though he did not say so, in Vietnam. So we are back where Johnson started. Nowhere here is there the necessary recognition that we may only make “local turmoil” worse by the magnitude and clumsiness of our intervention. This is the beginning of wisdom, but Humphrey is a long way from it.

The psychological and institutional obstacles to a retreat, not just from Vietnam but from the future Vietnams that a Pax Americana makes unavoidable, are so great as to make one doubt its possibility. A new President must face up to a military bureaucracy so huge that its weight in the scales of policy is almost insuperable. It is not that the Pax Americana policy has made such a huge machine necessary. It is that the existence of the machine, and all the careers and interests which depend upon it, require continuance of the Pax Americana. We are the prisoners of this machine, which must find work commensurate with its size to justify its existence. The magnitude of the monster is indicated by the growth of the military budget from $12 billion just before the Korean war only eighteen years ago to its current $80 billion and the $102 billion recently requested of Secretary Clifford by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is like trying to keep a dinosaur as a household pet. It will eat us out of house and home. But only McCarthy has even touched on this subject.

The psychological obstacles are as great. The average man approaches the problem of war with simple reactions of anxiety and threatened virility thousands of years old. There is a strong movement for peace, but there is also a strong contingent of cave-man among us, and it is hard to see which is the majority; the same people often belong to both categories. Reagan and Wallace speak for large constituencies, too. In Vietnam as in Korea the Democrats have kept the wars limited while Reagan, like MacArthur before him, speaks for a Republican right wing which thinks the whole business can be ended in no more time than it takes to go from the 17th to the 18th hole by dropping a bomb on Peking and another on Moscow.

THE TWO URGENT ISSUES are the Vietnamese war and the black revolt. Both require solutions for which we are poorly conditioned. One is to give way in Vietnam to a Communist, though also nationalist, tide. The other is to deal with aspirations of the black, and the other poor, which can only be met by fundamental changes, a real redistribution of income from haves to have-nots, and an intervention of the State deeper and more far-reaching than anything America has ever known before. The only party less prepared for this than the Democrats, though not much less so, are the Republicans.

The issues, however, are beyond that unspoken ideological consensus within which the two-party system operates. The Democratic party, unlike the Republican, has some legitimate claim to being the party of “the people.” But the people for whom it speaks turns out on closer examination to be middle-class owners of property, white collar workers, or the organized working class. The urban and rural poor, and all but the thin upper strata of the blacks and our other “colored” minorities, are not really a part of its constituency. They are outside “the people” in whose name it claims to speak. Unfortunately for revolutionary theorists, the more fortunate, those with something to lose, are the overwhelming majority. The poor, white and black, are but a lower fifth of the population. Should the Democratic party move too far in the direction of taking them in, and serving their interests, it is likely to lose much of its white and skilled worker followers to the Republican party. It is this which makes the Democratic party look so unsatisfactory to the black radicals and the New Left, a purveyor of half measures rather than fundamental change. But in this the party faithfully reflects a majority constituency, and in this sense it is truly representative.

The new radicals generally are unwilling to face up to this reality. They prefer to believe that there is something wrong with the party, or with something called “the system,” or that society is sick, rather than admit that what they are revolting against is the majority itself. To admit that would be too difficult and too untactful a break with the dominant ideology of democracy. Black nationalist separatism is fantasy based on despair but in one respect it is more realistic than the New Left, for in proposing separation it recognizes that what it is combating is the white majority and not some clique, conspiracy, or perverse ruling elite which has somehow led “the people” astray. In a democratic society it is always assumed that the people are good, as in theology it is always assumed that God is good. Evil is an accident, or the work of the devil. When the numbers of ordinary men commit some outrage against humanity, it is tacitly assumed that somehow they are not part of “the people.”

That myth, the Common Man, is the theoretical sovereign of democratic society and when he turns up in a racist mob or a typical veterans’ organization, ideology literally turns off our vision. Democratic political stereotypes remain stalwartly non- and pre-Freudian because you can’t win elections by telling voters they themselves are at fault. It is easier to let them off the hook by blaming some abstraction. Adam’s sins are still attributed to some serpent which crept into the Garden. It is the nature of the white majority, and of man, that brings the two-party system to the verge of breakdown when faced with the need to swallow a military defeat and to tax the whites for the benefit of the blacks. The danger is that the white majority may choose instead to follow a simplistic demagogy which advocates as the way out a get-tough policy at home and abroad. Against that darkening backdrop, McCarthy is a wan hope.

(I. F. Stone’s essay on the Republican Party appeared in the June 20 issue.)

This Issue

August 22, 1968