A campaign that makes the political turmoil of 1968 look good
There is rare agreement, on the left and the right, that the 2016 presidential election season is looking to be a repeat of Democratic Party’s 1968 race.
There was a bitterly fought primary campaign that year, with fierce public debates over the Vietnam War, race relations and law and order. The campaign led to a divisive and volatile Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with clashes between antiwar protesters and club-swinging cops in the streets outside the arena, and protests inside the hall over both the war and the mayhem outside.
The resulting split in Democratic ranks, plus the widespread public belief that the country was coming apart at the seams, led to Republican Richard M. Nixon’s win in November. The GOP went on to win the White House in all but one of the next half-dozen elections.
This time around, however, it is Republicans who seem most vulnerable to splintering after a fevered primary season. The Donald Trump insurgency is defying the best efforts of the GOP establishment to steer primary voters to other candidates. This seems a dire threat to Trump’s adopted party’s prospects — not only in the November election, but also potentially for decades to come.
Trump’s supporters, like many liberal anti-war Democratic primary voters did in 1968, view the race in apocalyptic terms. They will not easily be persuaded to cast their votes strategically for another nominee should a “brokered convention” in July deny the current GOP front-runner the nomination.
“I want to see Trump go up there and do damage to the Republican Party,” one middle-aged white voter in Mississippi told a reporter after former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, urged the party faithful to support other candidates.
Resentfully nihilistic sentiments among the party’s base voters do not contribute to building and maintaining durable majority coalitions, though many political pundits now suggest this could happen. Just ask the Democrats in 1968.
Yet, similar to the 1968 race and identical to it are different categories. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “but it does rhyme.” (The Twain attribution is a little dubious, but it’s the kind of thing he might have said.) Consider three ways in which 1968 and 2016 resemble each other while retaining significant dissimilarities.
First, the nominating process is significantly different. In 1968 the Democratic establishment’s candidate, and eventual nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, did not run in a single primary. Only 14 states and the District of Columbia held primaries that year, and the victories were largely divided between two insurgent, anti-war candidates, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, and New York Senator Robert Kennedy. (Though a few “favorite son” candidates did run as surrogates for Humphrey.)
The overwhelming majority of delegates who gathered at the convention in Chicago in August 1968 were thus chosen by party insiders, chiefly elected officials, rather than primary voters. So it should not have been surprising that they proved overwhelmingly pro-Humphrey — and awarded him the nomination on the first ballot.
Many liberal voters, accordingly, sat on their hands in the fall’s presidential campaign.
Thanks to reforms in both parties’ nominating process during the 1970s, most Republican and Democratic delegates today are chosen by primary and caucus voters, allowing presidential candidates to claim a popular mandate. Thus far in the Republican race, Trump has ridden a wave of populist resentments, and is well on his way to secure the simple majority he needs for nomination on the first ballot.
Should he remain the front-runner but fall short of the necessary 1,237 delegates, the consequences for Republicans could prove even more devastating than the boss-driven selection of the presidential candidate did for the Democrats in 1968.
In 1968, Humphrey’s selection, however controversial within party ranks, was still politics-as-usual. If Trump fails to win on the first ballot, and party insiders manage on a subsequent ballot (the dreaded “brokered convention”) to steer the nomination to an alternative candidate, it will be perceived as more akin to politics-by-coup-d’etat. Angry Trump voters are likely to abandon the Republican Party.
Second, the gap between party insiders and insurgent candidates in 1968, while wide in terms of specific issues, especially the Vietnam War, was far narrower in terms of the candidates’ experience and capabilities. The candidates, ordinarily team players, had a lot in common, among themselves — and with their party’s elite. In 1968, McCarthy had served in Congress for 20 years, 10 in the House of Representatives and 10 in the Senate. Kennedy, in addition to being the brother of a martyred Democratic president, had been U.S. attorney general, and spent four years as a senator. McCarthy’s fellow Minnesotan, Humphrey had served a term as mayor of Minneapolis, before serving three terms as a senator (the last as Democratic majority whip), before taking his place as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president.
They were all dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. Solid party men. None of the candidates, faced with defeat, had any intention of bolting the party for a third party effort. In a less polarizing set of circumstances, say minus the Vietnam War, it’s easy to imagine either Kennedy or Humphrey, and perhaps even McCarthy, proving a candidate acceptable to all the party’s factions, insiders and outsiders alike.
Today, however, there is a profound disjunction in the leading Republican candidates’ experiences, credentials and loyalties. Real estate developer and reality television star Trump has never held or seriously pursued elective office. Cruz and Rubio have backgrounds in Republican state politics, but neither have served long — or with any particular distinction — in national office. At the start of the primary season, none would have been the Republican establishment‘s top choice. At least two, front-runner Trump and his chief rival, Cruz, are regarded by many party insiders as deranged or disloyal. Rubio, acceptable on other grounds, is seen as a hopelessly maladroit.
Further muddying the choices is the fact that the divisions among the candidates, rather than based on a serious debate over policy direction, have devolved into playground insults. Whatever else might be said about the Democrats in 1968, they took their separate stances over real and substantive issues, such as the Vietnam War. Penis size did not emerge as a subject for discussion.
Finally, in comparing 1968 to 2016, the violence factor needs to be considered. The backdrop for the 1968 presidential campaign included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, campus occupations and urban riots, as well as the protests in the streets of Chicago outside the convention. The anti-war protesters chanted “The whole world is watching” as they were beaten and arrested by Chicago police. In a sense they were right — though not about what “the world” would conclude from their example.
That fall, Republican television commercials featured clips of the Chicago disturbances, and demanded “How can a party that can’t keep order in its own backyard hope to keep order in our 50 states?”
A fair question — that today can be asked of Republicans. When the front-running candidate for the nomination has some conservative commentators invoking the specter of fascism, the Republican vision of “order” isn’t necessarily going to play well in November.
After one black man was beaten and ejected from a Trump rally in Atlanta, the candidate commented on Fox News, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” (i.e. chanting “Black Lives Matter!”) Following a similar event a few weeks later, Trump’s response was, “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.”
The rancor displayed by Trump rally-goers, encouraged by their candidate and directed against protesters and media alike, bears some resemblance to the “old days” of 1968 — especially the hate-filled gatherings for third-party segregationist candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace — who once vowed to run over any protesters who sat-in in front of his limousine.
What happens if Trump is denied the Republican nomination in Cleveland in July? Will his supporters, with his overt or implied approval, fill the streets outside the convention hall in violent protest? Or will some of them seek “Second Mmendment solutions” to their political frustrations? (One of Trump’s New Hampshire campaign officials was arrested earlier this month in connection with his role in the 2014 Bundy Ranch armed standoff with federal officers in Nevada.)
The 2016 election is not simply a repeat of 1968. If the current election evokes the historical rhyme scheme of that earlier contest, it is chiefly in the stakes involved and the uncertainty of the outcome.