Here Come the 1968 Mistakes Again

Hubert Humphrey campaigning for President in 1968. Photo Source: Kheel Center – Flickr: Louis Stulberg – CC BY 2.0

“In our countercultural bubble, we assumed everyone watching the convention shared our feelings of revolt, but the spectacle in Chicago, as history showed us, had an unintended effect. It was the ‘law-and-order’ [Richard] Nixon who got elected.”

This statement comes from David Ansen in “First Look at Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Vanity Fair, July 22, 2020). It reminds us that Sorkin’s new movie about the 1968 Democratic Convention will provoke previews and reviews that mangle the history of that year.

Every four years since 1968, the same cautionary tale is retold: If the Vietnam War protesters had been well-behaved at the Chicago Democratic Convention and campaigned for Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, he would have defeated Richard Nixon and ended the war. Therefore, the peace movement shares the blame for millions of casualties in the last six and a half years of the war.

The only problem with this accusation is it does not make sense.

The flaw is in the story’s premise: that the election was so tight Humphrey would have won with a little more support.

Nixon and Humphrey were less than one percent apart in the popular vote. That sounds close, except that the national popular vote has nothing to do with who wins presidential elections. The electoral college picks presidents, and Nixon won 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191. Not at all close.

After the election someone calculated that with a shift in just x-thousand votes in this state, and y-thousand in another state, and so on, the 1968 electoral margin would have disappeared. They did not take the next step, which would have been to calculate the actual probability of all these what-ifs happening at once and no counteracting changes happening at all. They would have found the chances to be miniscule.

Meanwhile, why did Richard Nixon win? Many historians point to his invention of a diabolical “Southern Strategy,” which employed racially charged issues such as law and order and welfare fraud to win racist votes in the eleven Confederate states.

This story is wrong, too. While Nixon used racism, of course, he did not invent the Southern Strategy. Southern slaveholders invented it at the founding of the republic, and it has become a regular feature of American politics.

For example, the former Confederate states were part of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition. Southern support did not come for free. Franklin Roosevelt’s programs were confined in what historian Ira Katznelson has called the “southern cage.” That is why the Social Security Act did not apply to agricultural and domestic workers, the only jobs many African Americans in the south could get. This was FDR’s Southern Strategy.

In 1980, after the Republican National Convention, nominee Ronald Reagan chose to begin his campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi. This small county is known for only one thing, the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. It was one of the worst atrocities of the civil rights era. When Reagan told the crowd, “I believe in states’ rights,” everyone knew what he meant. That was his 1980 Southern Strategy.

On July 26 of this year, Republican U.S. Senator Tom Cotton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he thought slavery was a “necessary evil.” Why? He was getting an early start on his 2024 Southern Strategy.

The outcome of the 1968 election had been decided four years earlier. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Congress realigned the American political parties. They kicked the Confederacy out of the New Deal coalition by passing the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid in 1964 and 1965.

The southern states had nowhere to go except the Republican Party, which is what they proceeded to do. In 1968, Democrat Humphrey won only one of the eleven Confederate states. The rest split between Nixon and third-party candidate George Wallace, a former Alabama governor and a raw segregationist. Polls showed if Wallace had not run, his votes would have gone to Nixon by a two-to-one margin. Nixon’s electoral vote margin over Humphrey would have been even larger than it was.

Except when Jimmy Carter won one term due to the Watergate scandal. Republicans owned the White House for the next twenty-four years. And since 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has won the majority of white votes in the South or nationwide.

Why does this history make a difference today?

Every landmark advance for freedom in this country can be credited to a social movement. This no mystery. Only social movements have enough energy to carry out such work.

The three most powerful social movements in U.S. history were centered on the 1860s, 1930s, and 1960s. No one knows yet whether the 2020 street uprisings will be the beginning of another movement of the same magnitude. If so, it will have been the most consequential development of 2020.

This frightens those with a personal stake in the status quo. The last thing they want is to face a social movement. That’s why they malign or erase the history of earlier movements, as in the two examples about the peace movement and the Southern Strategy.

First, the ridiculous slander that the peace movement doubled the length of the Vietnam War comes up every four years for a reason. It leads to this advice: “Don’t bungle things like we did in 1968. Don’t waste time with independent movements. And don’t think for yourself. Just do what the Democratic Party tells you to do.”

Second, as we saw, the proximate cause of the 1968 party realignment was not Nixon, it was Johnson and the 1964-1965 Congress. The ultimate cause, however, was the civil rights movement. It had acquired an unstoppable momentum over the ten years since Emmet Till’s lynching in 1955. The movement had made civil rights a domestic crisis and a national disgrace around the world. It made the realignment unavoidable. Attributing the outcome of the 1968 election to “Nixon’s Southern Strategy” is an attempt to make the civil rights movement disappear from our history.

Paul Ryder has been research assistant to attorney Leonard Weinglass, Pentagon Papers Legal Defense; national staff, Indochina Peace Campaign; policy director for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste; and organizing director for Ohio Citizen Action. He is the principal author and editor of “The Good Neighbor Campaign Handbook” (2006) and co-editor with Susan Wind Early of “Tom Hayden on Social Movements” (2019).