Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 8/23/18
Most of the people who write about August ’68 have it wrong.
Conventional wisdom and academics such as David Farber, author of “Chicago ’68”, hold that the lawlessness of the youth in Chicago’s streets during the Democratic National Convention drove voters to Richard Nixon — “the law and order candidate” — and ushered in decades of Republican rule.
They imply that the lawless and uncouth demonstrators of that day are to blame for the demise of the Democratic Party. The revisionists, too, have it wrong, painting a picture of well-intentioned, well-matched forces on both sides.
As one of the people then in charge of the demonstrators’ security — and, more important, as a young political leader at the time and a political activist today — I believe it’s high time we dispel with the myths and set the record straight. This is a matter of importance not just for history, but also because the Democratic National Committee is meeting in Chicago this week and, ironically, it faces many of the same issues the party faced 50 years ago.
First and foremost, the question for the party today is how to beat Trump. And here, the past is most instructive. The reality is that it was a combination of racism and the inability of the Democratic Party to embrace new political realities and constituencies that led to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s defeat in the 1968 presidential election and to Nixon’s victory — not cultural politics or demonstrations in the street.
While most historians write of 1968 as the watershed year in which Nixon’s “Southern strategy” consolidated the South in the Republican camp, the reality is quite different. While Democrats had held the South for generations after Reconstruction, President John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was the last time this was true.
What happened? African-Americans finally won some semblance of racial equality. Between 1960 and 1968, the nation changed fundamentally. The early 1960s saw the lunch-counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and more. The year 1963 saw the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act that made discrimination in employment and housing illegal.
The year 1965 saw passage of the Voting Rights Act, through which African Americans finally regained enfranchisement, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, which made mixed-race marriages legal in all states.
It is true that Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in 1964 with a larger margin of victory than Kennedy’s margin in 1960, but that election also saw the beginning of a trend that has never reversed. Johnson received only 40 percent of the white vote and, for the first time in 100 years, lost the South. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina all went Republican. In the 1968 election, however, Nixon didn’t get that Southern vote. Instead, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi voted for the white supremacist George Wallace. Humphrey lost to Nixon by less than one percentage point, 42.7 to 43.4.
It is disturbing and explains much about the advent of Trump that while many observers, including the media and Democratic strategists, were blaming the lawlessness of the 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrators for Nixon’s victory that year — and counseling us to be “better behaved” — there was one Republican strategist, Kevin Phillips, who really understood what was going on.
It was, he explained, in large part a matter of racism. “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that,” Phillips wrote in the New York Times in 1970. “But Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
The second part of why Humphrey and the Democrats lost in 1968 must be owned by the party itself.Pundits — mostly white and mostly male — have often castigated the young, the anti-war protesters, women and blacks for not holding their noses and voting for Humphrey. As Todd Gitlin wrote in May in the New York Review of Books:
“As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers and plutocrats, the Left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The Left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.”
But I disagree. Just as the mistakes of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago police made them, rather than the war in Vietnam, the focal point of the demonstrations and national news coverage, so too did the 1968 Democratic National Convention squander the moment. It had been a hard year. The hope felt by progressives in January was dead and buried by July, along with the bodies of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and those killed in the urban uprisings of April. Had the Democrat Party understood this and embraced our anti-war, racial equality and pro-choice agenda, rather than treated us as interlopers, 1968 — and everything that followed — might have been very different.
Why bring up this 50-year-old history now? Because the racism that underlies Trump’s rhetoric and actions and motivates his political base is starkly similar to the racial politics of nearly 50 years ago. Also familiar is the challenge that the Democratic Party faces today, as evidenced in the party’s 2016 electoral losses and its continued search for direction.
Just as then, the Democratic National Committee today must decide whether to continue to search for that elusive white male moderate voter — the voter they lost way back in 1964 — or speak to and embrace diverse constituencies looking for new leadership. This was the spirit that elected President Barack Obama.
The Democratic Party requires a leadership that embraces diversity and see it not as a millstone, but as the chief asset upon which to build a truly “great” American future.