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Democratic Centralism | The Nation

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Democratic Centralism

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"When the ax came into the woods, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'" There is more intellectual content in this old Turkish folk warning than in the entire output of the "lesser evil" school. Here comes Albert Gore Jr., striding purposefully toward us with a big chopper resting easily on his shoulder. He is pumped and ready; his handlers have been making him up to look like a cross between Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he actually does resemble a bronze condom stuffed with walnuts. In advance he announces his fealty to the corporate state order, his deference to the military, his eagerness to please authority and his commitment to Star Wars, the war on drugs and the ownership of politics by money.

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Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine...

But aaah...look at the handle on the guy! If we vote for him, you can hear them simpering, he might extend family and medical leave. He might be generous about the minimum wage. He might allow us to carry on terminating pregnancies. Leave out the abortion bit, and you get an idea of what life under Juan Perón was like. It is the task of the Leader to provide (as evidenced by the degrading applause for Kim Bill Sung and his cornucopia speech in Los Angeles), and it is the duty of the audience to remember, small attentions and hope for small mercies. Incidentally, this works both "bipartisan" ways. You didn't care for Nixon? But he went all the way to China on your behalf! Such ingratitude after all they've done for us. (Robert Scheer is the most conspicuous of those who have argued for both Clinton and Nixon, in these pages, thus promoting lesser-evilism to its unfalsifiable or transcendental level, beyond the reach of reason.)

The Nixon point reminds me to give a whack in passing to Eric Alterman, who resuscitated the hoary myth of 1968 in his October 16 Nation article, "Bush or Gore: Does It Matter?" According to this liberal sob-story, the dogmatic and fanatical types who wouldn't vote for Hubert Humphrey were the ones who gave us Watergate and Cambodia. This is nonsense on stilts. In late 1968 the Johnson Administration discovered that Nixon was engaged in secret dealings with the South Vietnamese junta. Nixon told them that if they sabotaged the Paris peace talks by pulling out at the last minute--they pulled out two days before the vote--they would get a better bargain from the incoming Republicans.

You can read most of this story in Chapter 23 of Anthony Summers's new book, The Arrogance of Power, but it's been told before by senior Democrats like Clark Clifford, Richard Holbrooke and William Bundy. All accounts agree; the tapes and the evidence of Nixon's treason were put in front of Humphrey. If he had gone public he could have delivered an annihilating counterblow. But he decided that this would be uncivil and partisan, and that it would also shake people's confidence in their leaders. So he put bipartisanship first--and was justly humiliated. His fault. I am goddamned if I'll be blamed for a surreptitious diplomacy and an unspoken political handshake that were both state secrets at the time.

But then, if you can "objectively" blame dissenters for bringing us Nixon, you can easily overlook the group named Democrats for Nixon, which actually campaigned for the guy, and campaigned for him after his first evil four years. Don't tell anyone, but Democrats for Nixon became the neoconservative Democratic Leadership Council, which incubated Clinton, Gore and Lieberman. Lieberman even unseated, with right-wing money, the hated Republican Lowell Weicker, who had favored Nixon's impeachment.

From this parodic, contented, amnesiac perspective the next lazy step is almost automatic: You can't do anything about the powers that be, the Gores and Bushes who are insulated from democracy in a "lockbox." But you can take a high and righteous tone with those who might spoil everything by voting for Nader. It's not enough that the two-party machine has all the money at its disposal and all the press and media, too. It still needs courageous volunteers to ram its message home. These unctuous surrogates seek to persuade us that, though we have no power, we can and should still be held responsible.

Oddly enough, this worn out and discredited recommendation is offered us in the name of "realism." How realistic is it, how hard-boiled and tactical and grown-up, to tell a political party, in advance, that it owns your vote? To tell it this and then to tell it that it may use your vote for "evil" purposes? (The reservation or stipulation that the evil must of course be "lesser" is a mental exercise on your part alone. You have already conceded the evil; you leave it to the party to determine if it's "lesser" or not. Now imagine how interested the machine is in your petty casuistry.)

This surrender involves, when you come to examine it, a strange combination of simultaneous narcissism and servility. All the lesser-evilists write as if they would be personally responsible for the next Supreme Court appointment, and in the next moment throw their votes into the unsorted heap that lies at the foot of the Dear Leader. The moral resemblance to a plebiscite in a one-party state is not utterly coincidental; "lesser-evilism" equals, and always has equaled, voting Democratic every time and no matter what. This habit--which I call Democratic centralism--is based on a one-party mentality and uses similar methods of intellectual coercion. The joke, of course, is at the expense of the donkey loyalists. Because both parties always actually "win" and then proceed to share the spoils.

Thus it's not solely a question of what you think, but of how you think. A vote for Ralph Nader's brave and intelligent campaign is, at bottom, a question of self-respect. You could vote in a pinch for a party that you barely agreed with, but you should not vote for a party that offers to bribe you--and with your own money. "Consider the alternatives," they say. That's exactly right; indeed it could, if not misused, be a definition of radical politics. So consider: Four years from now, which vote will you be able to recall with any pride?

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