Monday, March 14, 2016

Forty-eight years ago, another divisive election

This is the eve of an election primary day like none I have seen in nearly 50 years. Forty-eight years ago, in 1968, America faced an election that was tearing the nation apart. Lyndon Johnson, who had pushed through more consequential legislation than any president since FDR but who had become a pariah to many voters because of the Vietnam War, chose not to run for a second full term — a decision validated by his death as his successor's term expired.

Johnson's surprise withdrawal from the race, opened the door for challenger Gene McCarthy and, belatedly, for Bobby Kennedy, who was in many ways Johnson's nemesis.

Republicans were trying to recover from the debacle of Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat in 1964. Richard Nixon, the former vice president and 1960 presidential candidate who couldn't win the California governorship, was the improbable Republican front-runner.

Seething emotions on both sides ripped the fragile fabric of America. An assassin's bullet ended Kennedy's candidacy and crushed the hopes of millions of younger voters. In Chicago that summer, establishment Democrats would align behind Hubert Humphrey, who carried the awful yoke of being Lyndon Johnson's vice president and heir. Riots would disrupt the Democratic Convention, which would adjourn amid seething anger within the party.

Meanwhile, Nixon would campaign not as the anti-communist warrior he had been early in his career but as the candidate who would "bring us together." But his election strategy, which depended upon winning Southern states still rebelling against Johnson's civil rights legislation and the tectonic changes those laws brought to the former Confederacy, made it clear that Nixon's path to election was built on dividing the country into groups that could support him. As president, he would cultivate support from the "Silent Majority" of people angry over war protesters, rising inflation and a too-liberal Supreme Court.

This year, we see the same seething anger and the same divisions of the electorate. We see some of the sort of violence seen outside the Chicago convention hall in the summer of 1968. This year, social media and other communications changes make the anger more mobile and powerful and the demagoguery more persuasive. If anything, the voters of 2016 are more gullible and more easily fooled by slick campaign tactics.

We who remember the election of 1968 don't want to relive it.

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