The 1968 presidential election was pivotal. It was also extremely close. Democratic Vice-President Hubert Humphrey lost to Republican candidate Richard Nixon by 0.7% of the popular vote; Humphrey lost several big states by less than 2 or 3%.
That loss ended the most progressive eight-year period in American history since the New Deal — voting rights, medicare, anti-poverty programs, etc. And in defeating Humphrey, the voters rejected the person who had for forty years most represented progressivism in America politics, ever since he led the fight for a civil rights stand in the Democratic convention of 1948. Instead, Americans chose a conservative; conservatives controlled the White House for 20 of the next 24 years. A key to Humphrey’s loss – although surely not the only one – were the riotous street demonstrations by young people on the left. Could the Occupy movement repeat this story in 2012?
The cutting issue in 1968 was the War in Vietnam and the main motivation of the street demonstrators was to end the war, although for many Americans the television news clips of antiwar demonstrators fighting police merged with the news clips of ghetto residents fighting police amid burning buildings.
The politically most dramatic episode occurred in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. For about a week police clashed with thousands of young protestors across the city. Hundreds of people were hurt. The news of the violence outside penetrated into the convention hall. A sizzling moment of televised history occurred when Senator Abraham Ribicoff (CT) directly chastised Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for what he called the police’s “Gestapo tactics.” Daley, who was sitting right below the podium, responded with a loud curse and (by some accounts) anti-Semitic remark. Viewers watched Hubert Humphrey be nominated for president and watched the violence at the same time.
What happened in the streets of Chicago was in great measure a “police riot,” as determined later by a federal investigation, albeit a riot egged on by Yippies and anti-war activists. Nonetheless, the question here is not who was right or wrong in the streets, but what the consequences were.
I know of only one study, by John Robinson, that directly addressed that question. An immediate telephone survey found an “overwhelmingly” large majority of Americans supported the police. In an academic survey conducted just before the voting, Americans’ feelings about “Vietnam War Protestors” were so unfavorable that their dislike of those demonstrators was exceeded only by their dislike of the KKK and Black Muslims. In that same survey, nearly 6 in 10 interviewees either said that the Chicago police used the “right” amount of force or that they used “not enough force” against the protestors; only 2 in 10 said the police used too much force (the rest could not say).
It is hard to tell whether the specific events in Chicago made a difference in the vote; a few percent of survey respondents volunteered comments about the convention when they explained their political preferences. Yet, among independent voters, 4 in 10 who thought the police force was right voted for Humphrey and only 1 in 10 who thought the force was not enough did.
The critical point is that the Chicago violence vividly and viscerally tied Democrats to violent street protest. Richard Nixon (and third-party candidate George Wallace) for months had been running a law-and-order campaign, arguing that the Democratic administration coddled black rioters and antiwar protestors. Nixon claimed that he would restore the order that the “silent majority” of Americans desperately sought. It did not matter that the “troublemakers” were protesting against Humphrey; they were on the left and Humphrey was the left; and the Democrats had failed to control the disruptions. Nixon could hardly have wished for a clearer presentation of his case that Democrats meant disorder.
In a close election, many factors can tip the outcome. In 1968, Humphrey hesitated in breaking with Lyndon Johnson on the war, the South Vietnamese government dragged out peace negotiations, and Democratic insurgent Eugene McCarthy delayed in endorsing Humphrey. But certainly the antiwar street action (which, by the way, research suggests did nothing to end the war) was one of those factors.
We have a rough parallel looming today. In its early days, the Occupy – or the 99% – Movement helped turn the media’s attention to economic inequality and financial malfeasance. (We should not exaggerate how much the public’s attention has turned; in a November, 2011 Gallup Poll, 55% of respondents said they were following the protests closely, below the average for major news stories.) Obama has been able, without explicitly embracing the movement, to use some of the media attention to mobilize support for progressive moves. Certainly, his campaign hopes to mobilize young Occupy sympathizers for his re-election campaign.
The danger is that as Occupy gets more confrontational – in the effort to take over a building in Oakland, in the vandalism that accompanies some of the protests – it will generate an increasingly negative image. (As in 1968, who is actually right and who is wrong in these clashes is politically irrelevant.) Once again, average Americans may interpret what they see on their televisions as the Democrats unable to control the social disorder created by their allies on the left. It now appears that Occupy will go to the Democratic convention in Charlotte; there is a Facebook page for it and Charlotte officials are getting nervous (see here).
Deja vu all over again?
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.