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Bronner writes: "Trump: first against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and now against Joseph Biden - another bitter pill for the left to swallow. There are enough who throw up their hands in frustration."

Attendees await former vice president Joe Biden at a campaign event at Texas Southern University in Houston, March 2, 2020. (photo: Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)
Attendees await former vice president Joe Biden at a campaign event at Texas Southern University in Houston, March 2, 2020. (photo: Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

A Short History of the Lesser Evil

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

29 October 20


rump: first against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and now against Joseph Biden – another bitter pill for the left to swallow. There are enough who throw up their hands in frustration. Trump the neo-fascist vs. Biden the slightly-left-of-mainstream Democrat. The former vice president epitomizes the lesser of the evils. Biden’s domestic policies are not exactly robust, though they’re radically more egalitarian than those of the president, and he is indeed taking the left wing of the party for granted; the “undecided” voter is his target; and explicit calls for class politics are off-limits. Trump’s xenophobic vision of “America First” has offended Western allies and withdrawn the United States from international treaties pertaining to climate change and Iran, while sabotaging the UN and its agencies such as UNWRA, UNESCO, and others. As for Biden, his foreign policy mistakes were egregious even before he offered support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many will have their doubts when they cast their ballots.

Whether Trump beats Biden or not, moreover, the president’s semi-fascist base, between 35 and 40% of the country, is not going away. Rank careerists, cynical wise guys, and identity politicians in the Democratic Party who took industrial workers and the left for granted in 2016 paved the way for Trump’s electoral triumph – and the trauma is still with us. But those who did not vote or threw away their vote on a third party, rather than vote for Hillary Clinton, the “lesser evil,” didn’t help matters either.

Our “genius” president, as Trump calls himself, won the decisive states in the 2016 election by fewer votes than those given to the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. Of course, she never stood a chance of winning anything except admiration from the pure of heart, the self-righteous, and the self-centered, who could not possibly vote for the lesser of the two evils – as if elections were somehow created for those listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

There has never been an American election not based on the “lesser of the two evils.” Even the presidential campaigns of Franklin Delano Roosevelt were not for the pure of heart. Comparing him with either Hillary or Biden (let alone Eleanor with Melania) would be absurd. But FDR’s politics was not without flaws. He left Jim Crow basically untouched, tempered the more radical demands of strikers in Flint and elsewhere, and twisted traditional norms by running for four terms and trying to “pack” a reactionary Supreme Court (which might yet prove necessary should the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate in 2020). Regarding foreign policy, moreover, he privileged dictators over popular movements in Latin America, created an Office of Naval Intelligence, provoked Hitler with his lend-lease policies, placed a stultifying embargo on Japan, supported secret attacks on Japanese forces, and provoked Pearl Harbor.

All of this occurred while much of the pacifist and radical left embraced the slogan “Never Again War!” Roosevelt was also blamed for failing to end the Great Depression of 1929 by communists and other radicals who demanded “more” government intervention in the economy. Other than the fringes, however, those further to the left had the sense to vote for him. Had Roosevelt lost those elections, the New Deal would never have been passed, and the welfare state would have remained an object of opprobrium. What’s more, while the result might not have been as bad as the Nazi takeover envisioned in Phillip Roth’s Plot Against America, it would have been bad enough; Roosevelt’s defeat would surely have cost England the war.

There were far louder cries on the far left of “sell-out” during the presidential campaign between two former vice-presidents in 1968: Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey. That remains a particularly sensitive topic for my generation. Everyone despised Nixon, including his former boss, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. That was perhaps even more the case with Nixon’s now-disgraced and forgotten vice president, Spiro Agnew, the former Governor of Maryland, whose gangster-like greed and sheer stupidity somehow anticipate Trump. In any event, Nixon was completely upfront about his agenda. He called for increased military intervention with respect to the Vietnam War, which later resulted in the genocidal bombing of Cambodia. Nixon also employed the “Southern Strategy” to full effect by using racist tropes and opposing the civil rights movement. With the staunch assistance of Agnew, moreover, Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and supported attacks on intellectuals and experts (let alone anti-war critics) as “nattering nabobs of negativity.” Indeed, this should all sound very familiar.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey was considered a war criminal by most of the left. He couldn’t rid himself of the stench emanating from his boss’s genocidal Vietnam policies. But he was clearly a better man than Nixon, who engaged in the crudest form of red-baiting in his defeat of Helen Gahagan Douglas – calling her “pink right down to her underwear” – in the California senatorial campaign of 1950. Humphrey bravely opposed the segregationist “Dixiecrats” at the Democratic Convention of 1948. A staunch supporter of civil liberties and civil rights, he was a critic of McCarthyism and an intrepid advocate of the “great society” programs, which today mark the flip side of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy.

Humphrey was a reasonable and intelligent man who lacked the anti-intellectual biases and bigotry of his opponent. The great majority of the black community was behind him. Supporting Humphrey should have created no problem at all. And yet…. A leader in the fight for nuclear disarmament, there was simply no excusing his complicity in the Vietnam debacle, whatever his campaign promises to get the US out, just as there was no excuse for Hillary or Biden’s support of the Iraq war. Then too, the excitement created by Bobby Kennedy’s primary campaign against Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 was matched by the profound grief generated by his assassination, and this was only enhanced by memories of his brother, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. There were also the massive demonstrations in Washington DC, and the “days of rage” when “the whole world was watching” and Senator Abe Ribicoff angrily accused the Democratic mayor Richard Daley of using “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”

In short, it was understandable why so many radicals and young people chose not to vote for Humphrey and the Democrats; I was one of them. But I was wrong. Nixon defeated Humphrey by less than 1% (though the crook comfortably won the electoral college) – and the Cambodian and Vietnamese people paid the price. Would it have been different had Humphrey won? I don’t know. Perhaps it would have been – but that “perhaps” was good enough reason to roll the dice and vote for the lesser evil. It would not have cost me a thing except my sense of moral superiority.

Sectarianism has always had a blind spot when it comes to drawing distinctions between political opponents and policies; it has always been either my way, my politics straight down the line, or the highway. The judgment is always self-referential: how do candidates relate to my needs? Never is it a matter of how one candidate or the other might make a difference for the disenfranchised and exploited. Once policy differences are taken into account, of course, the stakes change. Judgments are no longer simply subjective or narrowly moral. There is a practical responsibility to the polity at stake.

That is especially true in the United States with its “exceptional” electoral system. Even the briefest glance at The Federalist Papers (especially numbers #10 and #51) shows that the system has been rigged against “the great beast” of the poor from the start. Its insistence on coalitions of self-interested “factions” rather than ideological parties, its winner-take-all elections, its undemocratic electoral college, and its voting restrictions create obvious disincentives for any third party. Yet, it can disrupt: Governor George W. Bush won the presidential election of 2000 by taking Florida with less than 600 votes while Ralph Nader, the third party candidate, convinced just under 100,000 (mostly leftists) to cast their ballots for him. Might this have made a difference for the 37 million refugees generated by the Iraq War? Perhaps. Anyway, the lesson is clear: vote for the lesser of the two evils while working for the aims of a radical social movement.

The old slogan from the 1960s – “Don’t vote! It only encourages them!” – was silly even then. “They” need no further encouragement, and Republican strategy is again one of suppressing the vote. In addition, radical social movements tend to benefit from having a more liberal regime in power, while the opposite is true for reactionary movements and more conservative administrations. Each mass-based social movement can exert pressure on its ideologically more acceptable political party. That was brilliantly shown by the Tea Party and, to a somewhat lesser extent, by Occupy Wall Street, and boldly by the followers of Bernie Sanders.

Everyone surely knows the damage Trump has done: to the courts, to the state department, to the intelligence agencies, to the welfare state, to foreign policy from the Levant to Iran, to US relations with Western Europe, to environmental politics, to civil liberties and voting rights, to immigrants, to enlightened political discourse, to race relations, to respect for science and intellectuals, to the quest for economic equality, to civic decency, and to ... Everyone also knows that Joe Biden, whatever his faults, is not “really” the same as Donald Trump. He is not a pathological liar, and he knows the difference between legitimate reporting and “fake news.”

Differences vanish only with the belief that elections are made for saints: Forget the casuistry, and the anger, and the disappointment, and the frustration, and the pseudo-dialectical convolutions. Kant was right in insisting that “he who wills the end wills the means thereto.” If you want Trump out, you need to vote for Biden. It’s as simple as that. And such is the case even in the states that Democrats are sure to win: the size of the electoral victory or defeat can carry symbolic value, especially when the threat of contesting the election is real.

Again, there is no need to surrender the fight for transformative political goals. That is what social movements are for. They can bring to bear the need for greater economic equality, and “more” welfare programs than what Biden might have in mind. They can also raise the demand for radical political change: abolishing the electoral college, setting term limits for judges, expanding voting rights, altering the tax code, taxing the church, and the like. Obviously many such demands are “unrealistic,” but they deserve being raised. None of this has anything to do with voting for the lesser of the two evils, and if this seems contradictory to dogmatists and sectarians, it isn’t. That approach is still the only meaningful path forward.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. His most recent work is The Sovereign (Routledge).

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