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Occupy 2012: Another 1968?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 6, 2012

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.

Comments to “Occupy 2012: Another 1968?

  1. Lesser evil politics may prevent “evil” from coming to power, but it is incapable of preventing the lessers from doing so. So if you’re for Obama, his slightly altered version of Bush’s (and Kennedy’s and Johnson’s and Nixon’s–oh, wait, he ended a war…) pro-war politics, his bailouts of the top of the class hierarchy instead of bailouts of mortgages of working people and the poor, etc. (and this is a progressive politician that must be defended from the “right”?), the “correct” position would be to tell those mobilizing for neither lessers nor “evil” politicians to shut up and go home, lest they scare away well-meaning “swing voters.” (Even this is flawed, for polls have shown a significant amount of support for Occupy among white working class men as late as October.) If you’re for a different set of policies (those that help working people, women, oppressed groups–whose interests are all betreyed under the repression of neoliberal austerity program of Obama et al.–from most who write and are published, and certainly from those who excercise political influence), you’d do well to leave the myopic “paradigm” of evil lesserism.

    Where to go? There is only one way to end the injustices most US inhabitants have suffered, particularly during the last several decades, and that is to fundamentally alter the class and property hierarchy and install a governmental system capable of maintaining this change. Most learned people call that socialism. And no, you are incorrect that antiwar demonstrations did nothing to end the war. Of course the Vietnamese resistance was an important fact in the defeat, but so was the mass movement at the end of the 1960s and especially the early 1970s. By then we know that the US military could not fight. GIs were fragging their officers and otherwise mutinying. This was at least partially a result of the fact that their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and relatives, were influenced by or participating in the antiwar movement. And this climate of antiwar sentiment *definitely* constituted a context in which coming out against the war *as a GI* was more easy than in its absence. (You are a sociologist, no?). This *definitely* had an effect in bringing the war to an end. So it’s disappointing that you simply fling a liberal dogmatic phrase about how there’s no research (have you even looked?) at readers instead of providing us with an analysis of social forces which could enlighten us as to what we can do not to support more of the same of the prevailing politics, but to achieve a real and new progressivism instead.

  2. Democrats like myself who grew up in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s, don’t believe in violence or in the destruction of property, and we believe cheaters cannot win. We are not afraid and won’t hesitate to provide protection for our families and our nation, we are ever vigilant and consider ourselves to be America’s true patriots. For us family comes first, we want our children to receive the best education possible, we believe in helping our neighbors, support healthcare for all, tithe at our churches and willingly pay our fair share. We believe in democracy. This is who we were in 1968 and it’s who we are today, despite decades of misinformed conjecture and fabrication of the truth.

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