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Vote for the lesser evil?

This article is over 19 years, 3 months old
The American Marxist Hal Draper wrote this article in 1967. He asked key questions about who to vote for in elections in the US
Issue 1913

This article was written as the election for governor of California, between Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Party’s Edmund “Pat” Brown, had just finished. The 1968 presidential election was looming where the Republican Richard Nixon was to face Hubert Humphrey.

There are differences to 2004—in particular the capitalist method which parties share is “free market globalisation” rather than state intervention. But the argument has echoes of the debate today.

THE DAY after Reagan’s election as governor of California, a liberal pro-Brown acquaintance met me with haggard face, 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,” I said, “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 Hindenburg, the general who represented the right wing of the Weimar republic but not fascism.

The Social Democrats [a Labour-type party], leading a mass workers’ movement, had no doubt about what was practical politics: 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.

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 1967 America is not 1932 Germany, to be sure, but the difference speaks the other way.

Germany’s back was up against the wall and there was an insoluble social crisis.

The country 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, many people convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against the Republican Barry Goldwater, who was going to do Horrible Things in Vietnam, like defoliating the jungles.

Lots of them have since realised 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”.

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.

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 imposed fascism on 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.

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.

The argument rather is 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 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 liberal left 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 [union members backing the Democrats] in their back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those forces to the right.

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.

A profound change has taken place in this country since the days of the New Deal in the 1930s.

It 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 programmes put before capitalism by its liberal and conservative wings.

The New Deal liberals proposed to save capitalism, at a time of profound 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, the president at that time, like poison.

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 Republican regime, the free enterprise spouting Republican continued and even intensified exactly the same social course that Roosevelt had begun.

Under the strong 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. The maintenance of the system demands it.

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.

So, besides elections between two candidates who are exactly the same, and the Lesser Evils who really are different in policy from the Greater Evils, we increasingly are getting this third type of case.

This is when 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.

For the full Hal Draper article click here

This is one in a series of articles that Socialist Worker will be running on the US elections.

They include Alex Callinicos’s article this week on page 4, and in the future a discussion between activists. If you have views on this debate, e-mail [email protected]


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