The social disorder accompanying the 2016 election cycle has led to comparisons with the socio-political turmoil of 1968. Some in the media, including James Fallows and Alec MacGillis, have been quick to remind us that the body count at home and abroad was much larger in 1968. Jonathan Chait holds up President Obama’s government-by-stakeholders as a rejoinder, as though all the worst moments of 1968 represented the whole of that year.
Indeed, more than a year ago, Noah C. Rothman argued the problem of urban violence is far more nuanced now, with implications for both major political parties. Nevertheless, we casually dismiss the comparisons of 2016 to 1968 at our peril.
Thankfully, 2016 has not seen political assassinations like those of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The riots following MLK’s death resulted in dozens of deaths; the occasionally violent protests following officer-involved shootings in this cycle generally have not. Ill-trained and sometimes racist police shooting citizens under sometimes questionable circumstances does not approach the horrors of Jim Crow.
Yet we feel today’s deaths no less than past ones. The breakdown in trust between our more integrated police forces and the disproportionately minority communities they police remains a cause for serious concern. Conversely, as I write this, a gunman who fired on police in Dallas during a protest stated he wanted to kill white police officers out of anger at police-involved shootings. That the gunman does not appear to have been part of the Black Lives Matter protest does not make the police officers any less dead. Our reactions to these tragedies are magnified by the Internet bringing them live to our smartphones, much as the perception of Vietnam was affected by graphic, daily television coverage unknown in prior wars.
Even absent assassinations, we suffer from a vacuum of political leadership perhaps unseen since 1968. The parallels between Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and George Wallace’s 1968 run, from the stoking of race-tinged grievances to the well-attended populist rallies, have been widely discussed. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pathological lying, conspiratorial bent, self-pity, and self-entitled disregard for the law recall Richard Nixon as much as they mirror some of Trump’s worst qualities. The possibility of violent protests at both major-party conventions has been seriously entertained. That libertarian Gary Johnson may be the closest comparison to Hubert H. Humphrey in 2016 arguably suggests a worse menu than Americans faced in 1968.
Obama’s Echoes of Johnson
This year’s political vacuum has different causes. In 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson chose not to seek a second term rather than face the voters’ judgment on Vietnam, race-related unrest, and the like. President Obama is far more popular, and will not face the voters again by law.
Yet Obama remains a Johnsonian figure. He entered office aspiring to be as transformational a figure domestically as LBJ (or Ronald Reagan, as he would put it). He vastly expanded the federal government, whether through the (still-unpopular) Affordable Care Act or an array of executive and administrative actions of varying degrees of legality. The latter category includes everything from his attempt to make immigration policy without Congress (now enjoined) to his coercion of an Illinois school district into granting a transgender student access to the girls’ locker room (now in litigation).
President Obama’s response to urban disorder has been largely the same as that in 1968: gun control. Crime statistics and elections since 1968 should have deterred Obama and his Democrats from this obsession, but they have not. To the contrary, congressional Democrats traded on the legacy of the civil rights movement by staging a sit-in to advance a gun control blacklist that would infringe on the right to keep and bear arms without due process of law, disproportionately punishing Muslims. That this Orwellian stunt was led in part by Rep. John Lewis reflects worse on 2016 than on 1968.
President Obama also has been dogged by inherited foreign entanglements to which he lacked commitment, much as Johnson was. He has been forced to extend our commitment in Afghanistan (his “good” war), where the Taliban is as strong as it has been since 9/11. His precipitous withdrawal from Iraq fulfilled a campaign promise, but created opportunity for the virulent Islamic State and a conflict that (as with Vietnam) spilled over national borders and caused humanitarian tragedies.
The resulting refugee crisis has contributed to: the destabilization of governments across Europe; the United Kingdom voting to withdraw from the European Union; and terror attacks in Europe and the United States (including dozens of fatalities in Orlando, for those fixated on body counts). Like Johnson, Obama has misunderstood his enemies, tried to wage war on restrictive terms, and reaped the whirlwind. One can almost smell the bouquet of vintage 1968 malaise.
Are the 1970s Ahead Again, Too?
These failures of leadership, now as then, are not limited to the White House or national politics. State and local governments bear primary responsibility for other failures of governance, symbolized by the failures of urban policing. These issues are less racial than they were in the Dixiecrat South, or in the Chicagos or Bostons of 1968, but they are not entirely race-neutral, either.
Similarly, our institutions of higher education are again roiled by political strife. The primary differences are that the causes celebre for college protest now are generally less weighty (and occasionally hoaxes), while the responses from targeted administrators are generally more feckless (perhaps out of nostalgia for 1968). Other parallels are observed in pop culture. In 1968, some of our Olympians saluted the Black Panthers; at this year’s Super Bowl, Beyoncé Knowles and her dancers…saluted the Black Panthers.
In 2016, the New Left’s aggressive agenda of revolutionary social change has been met by the New Reactionary Right’s appeals to the worst angels of our nature. The pressures extremists have brought to bear against a disconnected and weakened political elite resemble those of 1968. We recognize the symptoms of these social ills, even when the symptoms are less severe.
We also recognize that our immediate choices seem inadequate to address these ills. Dismissing these comparisons only increases the risk that our future looks more like the 1970s, for which 1968 was a socially costly launch pad.