1968 Part IV: After Chicago, The End Game

by Michael Liss

The broken-down jalopy that was Hubert Humphrey’s campaign wheezed its way out of Chicago and headed…anywhere but there. The Convention was an utter disaster. The only “bump” in the polls was a shove backwards, and Humphrey seemed to have nothing with which to shove back. He had no coherent message on the biggest issue of the day—Vietnam. He was working for an absolutely impossible boss, LBJ, who demanded complete loyalty and delighted in humiliating him. His campaign was broke…it literally didn’t have enough money to pay for orders of Humphrey buttons.

It didn’t end there. He was fighting the electoral realignment centrifuge that was ripping apart the New Deal Democratic coalition. The formerly Solid South was more than 20 years into its secession. The Party’s hold on the blue-collar family was being tested by the cultural appeal of George Wallace. Suburbanites were worried about the violence in big cities and wanted leadership to do something about it. In theory, they were moderates, supporters of the Civil Rights movement. In practice, many applied a NIMBY approach. The youth vote was inextricably connected to the anti-war vote; the war was inextricably connected to Johnson; and LBJ was inextricably connected to Humphrey. Read more »

1968 Part II: The Center Vaporizes

by Michael Liss

There was a sense everywhere, in 1968, that things were giving. That man had not merely lost control of his history, but might never regain it. —Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man

Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd outside the Justice Department, 1963. U.S. News and World Report collection, Library of Congress.

Last month, I wrote about Eugene McCarthy’s Vietnam-based primary challenge to Lyndon Baines Johnson’s reelection campaign, the angst-ridden mid-March entry into the race by Robert F. Kennedy, and LBJ’s stunning withdrawal on March 31, 1968. I ended with April 4, when the “Dreamer,” Martin Luther King, was assassinated.

Some of the chaos that ensued is the subject of this piece. “Things were giving,” seemingly everywhere, and all at the same time. America’s ability to deflect the course of history as it accelerated toward the unknown was disappearing. The months that followed the King assassination were punctuated by more violence, more uncertainty, and the continued deterioration of social discourse.

None of this appeared out of thin air. Grassroots efforts on Vietnam and on civil rights had been intensifying for years, as had been the backlash to those movements. FDR’s New Deal coalition was fraying, most notably in the South, but also in the industrial Midwest. 1968 was also to be the last stand of the “Liberal” Republicans, people like Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, and John Lindsay. We think about them and their ambitions with an amused raised eyebrow, but, at the time, they were men of reputation and influence.

There were so many crosscurrents, so many strange alliances, that it’s difficult to trace each causation, but if you want to pick up on an organizing thread other than Vietnam, look to George Wallace. History frames Wallace largely as the segregationist that he was (after losing his first run for office for being more moderate than his opponent, he vowed “never to be out-n…ed again”). It sometimes skips over how Wallace had a broader message, anchored by the emotional appeal of his racism, but also including perennial themes of law and order and economic and social grievances that resonated in people’s lives. Read more »

The Counter Revolution

by Akim Reinhardt

FDRThe United States boasts a deeply conservative economic tradition. From its origins as a colonial, agricultural society, it quickly emerged as a slave holding republic built on the ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide of Indigenous peoples. After the Civil War (1861-65), it reshaped itself in the crucible of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism straight through to the Roaring ‘20s. A post-Depression Keynesian consensus led U.S. leaders to reign in the most conservative impulses during the mid-20th century, but the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s set the stage for the current neo-liberal moment.

Consequently, ever since the industrial revolution, the United States has typically trailed other developed nations in establishing a basic social welfare system. It has never fielded a competitive socialist or labor party. It was the last major nation to implement an old age pension. More recently, ObamaCare made it the last major nation to mandate that all of its citizens receive some sort of healthcare coverage, even if it's quite wanting in many cases.

Amid its overriding conservativism, the United States has had only three presidents with any real socialist tendencies: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45), Harry S. Truman (1945-53), and most recently Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose presidency (1963-69) ended before half of current Americans were born (median age 37.9).

The election of Donald Trump as president and, just as important, the impending Republican dominance of Congress, make certain that the United States will not correct its social welfare shortcomings anytime soon. Indeed, the nation may take significant steps backwards.

However, a quick review of America's stunted progressive history suggests that the opportunity for a progressive counter-revolution may be closer than it appears at this dark moment.

Read more »