Conventional wisdom and a variety of academics, such as David Farber, author of Chicago ’68, hold that the lawlessness of the youth in Chicago’s streets drove voters to Richard Nixon, “the law and order candidate,” and helped usher in decades of Republican rule. They blame the uncouth demonstrators for the demise of the Democratic Party and the Left.
It is time to challenge those historical assumptions, not simply to set the record straight, but because our understanding of the past influences our strategies for a progressive future.
The reality is that it was racism—not cultural politics or demonstrations in the street—that caused a majority of white voters to abandon the Democratic Party. And it was the Democratic establishment’s inability to embrace new political realities that resulted in the squandering of the progressive vote that might have spelled victory and a different history.
We think of 1968 as the watershed year when Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” made the South a permanent fixture in the Republican Party camp, but the shift began earlier. In 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy praised the lunch-counter sit-ins challenging segregation. “The American spirit is coming alive again,” he said. The Democrat-lauded March on Washington was in August 1963, one year before the Civil Rights Act made employment, residential and other discrimination a crime.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won the presidency with a larger margin of victory than John Kennedy, but he lost the Deep South, turning Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina into Republican strongholds, a position they maintain today. Then came the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the ensuing white backlash, and the 1967 Loving Supreme Court case, which legalized mixed-race marriages.
In 1968, Hubert Humphrey lost to Nixon, 42.7 percent to 43.4 percent, with 13.5 percent of voters choosing segregationist George Wallace.
It is ironic—and explains much about the advent of President Donald Trump—that while the media and Democratic strategists were blaming the lawlessness of the demonstrators for Nixon’s victory and counseling that we should all be “better behaved” if we wish to win in the future, only Republican political strategist Kevin Phillips recognized the more important underlying dynamic. He wrote:
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. … 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 lack of understanding of racial politics is compounded by a tendency to blame Humphrey’s loss on those who weren’t willing to compromise. Pundits like my friend Todd Gitlin too often castigate the young, the anti-war forces, women and blacks for not holding their noses and voting for Humphrey.
I disagree. The mistake was not ours, but that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic elected officials. With his brutal, senseless suppression of demonstrations, Daley managed to make the Democratic Party and the Chicago police the focal point of ire, rather than the war that people had come to protest. As for the DNC, had it chosen to embrace an anti-war, pro-choice, anti-poverty agenda— the agenda being fought for in the streets—we would have voted and Humphrey might have won. Our protests were not a diversion from the politics of the moment: We were the politics of the moment.
Why bring up this 50-year-old history now? Because the racism that underlies Trump’s rhetoric, actions and base is starkly similar to the racial politics that Phillips described nearly 50 years ago. So, too, is the challenge that the Democratic Party faces today, as evidenced in the 2016 election and the subsequent DNC leadership fight: Whether the party should to continue to search for and win that elusive white male moderate voter (a la Hillary’s campaign) or fully embrace the progressive and racially diverse politics of the newly energized constituencies of women, radical labor, LGBTQ activists, Latinos, African Americans, youth and socialists (in all their intersections).
If the Democratic Party hopes to win, it must represent us—all of us—and boldly.