The lessons of 1968

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, right, and and his running mate, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, left, with their wives at the Democratic Convention in Chicago following their nomination on Aug. 29, 1968.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, right, and and his running mate, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, left, with their wives at the Democratic Convention in Chicago following their nomination on Aug. 29, 1968.AP/Associated Press

The year 1968 casts a heavy shadow over the modern American experience.

The events of the year transformed this country. There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, just three months apart and five years after President John F. Kennedy had been slain in Dallas.

There was the Tet Offensive and the images of dead Americans on the grounds of the US embassy and the summary execution of a Vietcong guerrilla on the streets of Saigon. There were riots, first in American cities after the death of MLK and then in the streets of Chicago, between antiwar protesters and the city’s police force. There was the stunning announcement by Lyndon Johnson that he would not seek another term as president, the McCarthy and Kennedy insurgency against the Democratic Party establishment, the race-baiting campaign of George Wallace and the final, razor-thin victory of Richard Nixon.


But what’s always fascinated me about 1968 is the political landscape – and that’s the subject of my new book, “American Maelstrom: The Election of 1968 and the Politics of Division.’’ This was the moment when the liberal consensus began to crumble, when white fears over the costs of integration and anxiety over rising crime rates spurred a conservative, anti-government backlash that still dominates American politics.

Richard Nixon’s victory in November 1968 ushered in a period of divisiveness in American politics, of diminished expectations in government and of a retrenchment in domestic policy for which we’re still paying a price today. Racial divisions became tenser as Republicans largely chose to ignore black voters and focused instead on mining white resentment and anxiety. Ideological divisions were sharpened as the post-’68 rhetoric highlighted the growing values gap between liberals and conservatives. After ’68, it wasn’t enough that liberals had different views on politics; they were presented by Republicans as having somehow alien, even anti-American values – and liberals responded in kind, fueling the political polarization that is so familiar today.


It’s hard to argue that all of this came from one election, but ’68’s impact was vast and the transformation it birthed was significant.

But here’s why politics and elections matter. On the one hand, what made 1968 a seminal moment were the powerful political, social, cultural, and racial forces that combined in that one year.

On the other hand, we had the forces of personality and contingency. The outcome of 1968 was not set in stone. Decisions made by the nine men who sought the presidency that year are of vital importance. For example, there is Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam and in the fall of 1967 his refusal to recognize and deal with the growing anger in his own party about his conduct about the war. Vietnam destroyed the Democratic Party in 1968 and Johnson is largely responsible for it. Even after he dropped out of the presidential campaign, he refused to allow his vice president, Hubert Humphrey (the eventual Democratic nominee), to separate himself from Johnson on the war. For his part, Humphrey, who had first raised objections to escalation in Vietnam in 1965, lacked the courage of his convictions and failed to stand up to Johnson, dooming his chances of winning the presidency. Had he done so at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago or even earlier, I am convinced he would have become president.


What if Eugene McCarthy had not challenged Johnson for the Democratic nomination? His near upset performance in the New Hampshire primary brought Robert Kennedy into the race and by the end of March forced Johnson out. Would LBJ have run if not for McCarthy’s challenge, and would he have won in November? I suspect he would have run and prevailed.

What if Robert Kennedy had not been shot and killed after winning the California primary in June 1968? It’s unlikely that he would have won the Democratic nomination that year, but the competition he would have provided to Humphrey — and the fear from Johnson that he might end up the nominee — would likely have softened LBJ’s opposition to his vice president taking a more dovish position on the war.

What if Wallace hadn’t run in 1968, taking votes away from Nixon and making it possible for Humphrey to almost narrow the gap and prevail on Election Day?

In the end Humphrey barely lost the election by a mere half million votes. If 42,000 votes in New Jersey, Missouri, and Alaska shifted from Nixon’s tally to Humphrey’s, no candidate would have won the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The election would have then been decided in the House of Representatives, where Humphrey and the Democrats enjoyed a sizable advantage and likely would have prevailed.

Then what?

As president, Humphrey would have likely moved quickly to wind down the war in Vietnam and pushed a liberal legislative agenda. Perhaps welfare reform and universal health care might have become the law of the land, arresting the political decline of Democrats and strengthening the party’s identity with its traditional working class voters. He would have had a close relationship to labor and might have been able arrest the decline of union representation that would do so much long-term damage to Democrats (and America’s working class). The white backlash would still have been a feature of national politics, but President Humphrey would have been well-positioned — and politically attuned — to deal with its impact in ways that minimized the damage to Democrats.


For Republicans, losing in 1968 would have likely led to major soul-searching within the party. A Nixon loss would likely have convinced many Republicans that a more moderate face for the party was essential. Perhaps this would have provided a boost to Charles Percy of Illinois or John Lindsay in New York, even the much-scorned Nelson Rockefeller. Even if conservatives were able to get Reagan at the top of the ticket, a loss to Humphrey would have practically guaranteed a GOP move to the center in 1976.

If that occurred — no Watergate, likely no Carter or Reagan, potentially no right-ward turn at the Supreme Court, a more moderate Republican and Democratic Party, and a less polarized electorate. The list of “what might have beens” is almost too numerous to keep track of. It’s a reminder of how much personality and contingency matter in presidential politics — and how in close elections small decisions can have seismic historical impacts.


The fact is, had Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet gone six inches to the left, had Humphrey comes out against the war earlier, had a few thousand voters switched their ballot from Nixon to Humphrey, we’d quite likely be living in a world quite different from the one we know today.

Who says politics isn’t completely fascinating?

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.