1968 was perhaps the pivotal year of the ‘60s, and the images that flashed around the world — the student riots in France, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the violence surrounding the Democratic convention in Chicago — were the ones that solidified the image of the decade for years to follow. But as Michael Cohen makes clear in his new book, American Maelstrom, perhaps the longest-lasting legacy is the political divide that emerged as a result of the presidential election that year. As he writes: “What would change was the attitude of Americans towards their government. Post-1968 … would be defined by economic, cultural, even spiritual anxiety, informed by a fundamental and seemingly unwavering mistrust of those in positions of authority.”
Unlike other books on 1968, which have focused on the infamous Chicago convention, Cohen refines his commentary almost exclusively to the ensuing political campaign. As he makes clear as he profiles the more than half-dozen candidates who tossed their hats in the ring, the war was always the overriding factor, not just in the campaign itself, but in the unification-shattering aftermath of American political discourse. No event before or since has divided America to such an extent, and as Cohen emphatically makes clear, the toxic political environment in which we live today is a direct result of this fracturing.
LBJ’s decision to not seek a second term, followed closely by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June, threw the Democratic party into tumult, placing the nomination at the feet of the ineffective VP Hubert Humphrey, whose waffling on the war, influenced by his loyalty to Johnson, probably cost him the election. Cohen also makes clear, however, in his page-turning narrative, that the assumption, in retrospect, that, if Bobby Kennedy had lived, he would have gotten the nomination is by no means solid. More likely, his assassination cast a pall on the whole process — and the Democrats in particular. As Humphrey reflected: “I think the people thought … that all this violence … was a kind of by-product of the way the country had been operated.”
When protesters and police met in a bloody clash in the streets of Chicago — to chants of “the whole world is watching” — it was mostly Democrats who were protesting, but the aftermath of those riots equally energized the rising Right’s “law and order” candidates: not just winner Richard Nixon, but Ronald Reagan as well as American Independent Party candidate George Wallace whom, Cohen makes the argument, may have been the candidate with longest-lasting impact. As former governor of Alabama, Wallace was key to the mostly racially-based “southern strategy” that would ultimately be embraced by Republicans, starting with Nixon. Through his perennial mouthpiece Pat Buchanan, Nixon called on “the silent majority” to win two elections even at the height of anti-war sentiment, the second in a landslide. Cohen sees Wallace as partially responsible for this new embrace of populism: “In the years that followed his run for the presidency, one would be hard-pressed to find a politician who didn’t speak in the … antigovernment idiom that he popularized.”
As Cohen points out, this duplicitous playing on people’s fears, particularly in regards to the racial unrest that was sweeping the country at the same time, was a double-edge sword culturally: “The lack of public support for an expansive and activist government … played directly into the hands of conservatives who had little interest in using the levers of government to improve the economic prospects of America’s working and middle class.”
Sound familiar? That’s because of the obvious parallels to this year’s presidential race, whereby, until just a few weeks ago, when Cruz and Kasich finally dropped out, clearing the path for the Wallace-invoking Trump, it looked as though this season might be the most tumultuous since ’68, with the Republican convention this summer shaping up to be almost as fractious and chaotic as the Democratic one was that year—and possibly as violent.
Party affiliations aside — and they were much less-clearly defined then anyway — we can see parallels all up and down between ’68’s list of contenders and this year’s: Hillary is Humphrey, Trump is Rockefeller, Cruz is Wallace, Sanders is Eugene McCarthy, etc. It just shows that ugly political discourse is nothing new — only now it’s magnified one million times over. The world is watching more than ever — but what they’re watching mostly is the bloodthirsty beast of American politics fully unleashed.
American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division | Michael A. Cohen | Oxford University Press | 427pp
Joe S. Harrington is the author of Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock N’ Roll published by Hal Leonard in 2002