In this election season, there have been a number of analogies made between the 2016 and 1968 elections. Michael Cohen’s new book, “American Maelstrom: The Election of 1968 and the Politics of Division,” tells the story of 1968. He kindly answered some questions about the book from political scientist Tom Schaller and me. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Why write a book about 1968 now? What attracted you to this particular election?
Michael Cohen: First and foremost, this was an amazing election with an assemblage of political talent unlike anything we’ve ever seen in American politics – Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and George Wallace. These are the men who defined American politics from the 1950s to the 1980s — and in each of their stories and the races they ran in 1968, there is a very specific political legacy.
And then you had so many incredible events that year: The Tet offensive, Eugene McCarthy almost beating LBJ in New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy challenging LBJ for the nomination, LBJ dropping out a few weeks later, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the riots outside the Democratic convention in Chicago.
But the bigger issue is that 1968 represented a clear inflection point in American politics. Political junkies will be familiar with the traditional story of 1968: that it represented the end of the New Deal coalition and the post-war liberal consensus, and began the country’s political shift to the right. But 1968 was also a huge turning point for both parties.
On the Republican side, it confirmed the ascendancy of the conservative right — something that many observers had pooh-poohed after Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964.
For Democrats, it was a more decisive break, from the Cold War politics of Johnson and Humphrey to a more liberal foreign policy perspective and a greater appreciation for social justice issues — at the expense, as it would turn out, of economic justice issues.
Moreover, the shift of both parties toward their more liberal and conservative political wings (especially the Republicans) really did begin in 1968. The liberal consensus had always been a bit overrated, but there’s truth to the idea that both parties in the 1950s and ’60s coalesced around a certain set of ideas on domestic and foreign policy — and particularly on the latter that began to end in 1968. So this election, in many ways, spurred the process of political polarization that we’re dealing with today.
Beyond that, you see in 1968 the creation of a new political narrative and a new language about politics. A lot of this came from George Wallace, who is the underrated figure from 1968. He largely birthed the idiom of conservative, anti-government politics, but unlike Goldwater or other more doctrinaire conservatives, he gave it a much more populist feel. He was anti-elitist, focused his message around working-class Americans (albeit white working-class Americans), and mined growing white anxiety and resentment over civil rights and integration. But he was not a small conservative — in fact, quite the opposite. Wallace was actually a New Deal liberal, except on race.
To be sure, the shift out of 1968 was not so much a policy shift as it was a political shift. After 1968, Republicans and in particular Nixon figured out how to play on fears over crime, integration and economic anxiety to reassert themselves as the nation’s dominant political party.
Were Republicans really the dominant political party after 1968? The Democrats still controlled the House and often the Senate for many years thereafter. The White House oscillated back and forth — eight years of one party, eight years of another — with the exceptions of Carter’s one term and George H.W. Bush’s one term. It seems like the story isn’t so much which party was dominant as who the parties were.
MC: I’d answer that question in two ways. Republicans certainly became more dominant in presidential elections – they won four of the next five, and I tend to view 1976 as an anomaly because of Watergate (and even then Ford almost won).
That political shift, I think, largely occurred because of the post-1968 and especially post-1972 perception that Republicans were better equipped to deal with foreign policy and the Soviet Union, in particular. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their run as the country’s presidential party ended in 1992, a year after the Cold War had ended.
But you’re certainly correct that Democrats still held sway in Congress and on the state level, in part because of their continued advantage in the South, which didn’t fade dramatically until the 1990s.
But I think the GOP post-1968 dominance is more about narrative than politics. The so-called liberal consensus of the 1950s and 1960s (a combination of anti-Communism abroad and government activism at home) is always a bit overstated, but I think it’s fair to say that most politicians and most Republicans believed the liberal consensus existed and governed accordingly.
After 1968, the new narrative was the GOP’s conservative, anti-government populism. The attractiveness of that populist message was also overstated, but again politicians – particularly Democrats – believed that it appealed to voters. And if you look at the Democratic congressional class of 1974 and Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, it’s pretty clear that the party shifted to the right on economic issues – embracing deregulation, passing business-friendly tax cuts and turning away from its long-standing support for labor.
The vigor and energy Democrats brought to domestic policy in the 1960s began to fade after 1968, and the party was in much more of a defensive crouch on those issues. The party was still rather liberal on social issues and foreign policy, but those positions tended to play to the GOP’s advantage.
So I think Republican dominance is subtler and deeper than just the electoral results. But it’s also certainly true that while the nation’s political debates tended to take place on conservative turf, that didn’t necessarily translate into big policy gains.
A theme of the book is that 1968 helped change politics in certain ways, but in other ways, it didn’t. Let’s talk first about the changes. What do you see as important trends that this election either helped create or helped further?
MC: The biggest divide in 1968 was not the war in Vietnam, but rather race and growing white anxiety about the price they would have to pay for integration. That materialized in a number of ways: fears about what black advancement would mean for property values, the quality of their kid’s schools and workplace security. But, the most dramatic impact was on crime. One thing I don’t think I fully appreciated when I started working on the book is the extent to which crime really did increase significantly in the 1960s. It’s rather stunning, and to a large extent Democrats didn’t know how to respond to it.
Part of it was political. They didn’t want to go too hard on the issue for fear of alienating black voters and liberals. But it was also Vietnam and the almost myopic focus of the White House on the war at the expense of domestic issues. It created a political vacuum that Republicans were more than eager to fill — and one that operated in tandem with fears over integration, since crime had a black face for many white voters. Some analysts criticize the GOP for race-baiting with their focus on law and order, but it wasn’t as if they were making the issue up.
As time went on, crime and integration became conflated with big government. Republicans argued that liberal bureaucrats were pushing integration on white middle-class Americans, paying for anti-poverty programs with tax dollars from white voters, and all the while coddling criminals. There’s no question that this argument resonated, particularly in the South, which had long been a bastion of Democratic voters.
So in many ways, the biggest effects of 1968, at least politically, were to create a very clear racial divide between the two parties and also to give “big government” a bad name. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were suspicious of the expanded welfare state, but they also really did appreciate its benefits. After 1968, they began to see government as more interested in helping poor minorities than them. That gave a major political opening to Republicans.
Then what didn’t change?
MC: Even as the political narrative shifted to the right, the policy shifts were not quite as evident. The welfare state didn’t shrink after 1968; it expanded.
Nixon, in particular, governed more or less as a New Deal Democrat. This was more out of necessity — he had a Democratic Congress — than ideology, although he was certainly not that conservative. He cared about politics and creating a new Republican majority, and he understood that he couldn’t do that if Democratic voters were worried he’d cut their Social Security or take away the government programs they liked.
And although Reagan talked about shrinking government, he followed a similar course. He cut taxes, increased the defense budget, reduced regulation (though Democrats largely supported deregulation) but he also preserved Social Security, raised taxes to reduce the deficit, and didn’t make much of an effort to cut government spending.
The result was that American politics became more ideologically conservative but remained largely operationally liberal. It created what I call “a great divergence.” On the one hand, Americans are much more suspicious and fearful of government than they were in the 1950s and ’60s, but their support for Social Security, Medicare, public education, environmental programs and transportation spending hasn’t decreased much at all.
“Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” really captures the ambivalence of voters about the role of government. Americans want big government that helps them. This encourages Republicans to present any expansion of government as something that will hurt Americans and the benefits they rely on, while Democrat defend the specific programs that people like.
So 1968 created a political dynamic in which Americans hate big government in the abstract but love the specifics. This has made it hard to find any common ground between the two parties, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past seven years.
In 2016, we’re seeing a lot of analogies to 1968. A liberal insurgent Democrat is defeated by the establishment. A Republican is saying controversial things about race and threatening to run as an independent. Do you think these analogies work?
MC: Trump is a very much like Wallace in how he taps into racial fears. Trump’s message in this regard fits with how many, though not all, Republican politicians have talked about racial issues since 1968.
Where Trump differs from most Republican politicians today — and here again he resembles Wallace — is that he’s not a doctrinaire conservative. He’s talked about protecting Social Security and Medicaid. He rails against free trade agreements. He’s talked — rhetorically, at least — about raising taxes on the rich. In a way, he is following the playbook of not just Wallace but Nixon, who certainly didn’t look anything like an ideological conservative. He’s running as populist, and that’s a perfect description of Wallace in 1968.
What about on the Democratic side?
MC: Sanders’s rise is certainly consistent with the anti-establishment ethos of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign and McGovern’s 1972 campaign. The playbook is similar: Run as an outsider candidate, rely on liberal activists and grass-roots support, and, like McCarthy in particular, appeal to a more elite white audience and less so minorities. (In 1968, most of Robert Kennedy’s success derived from his strong support among black and Hispanic voters.)
But here’s what’s really interesting about Sanders: He is also a reaction to the Democratic Party’s reaction to 1968. After that election, the party became much more liberal on foreign policy and social issues. You saw some of that in 1972, an election in which McGovern won the nomination on the strength of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. The reaction of Democrats, ironically, was to largely embrace his positions on foreign policy, civil rights, gender issues, social issues like abortion and the death penalty, and process issues like campaign finance reform.
But on economic issues there was a sense among Democrats that the party had been burned by Johnson’s Great Society. There was also lingering resentment toward labor for its support of the Vietnam War and its hostility toward Democratic reformers. So as a result, Democrats, particularly in Congress, moved away from the kind of economic liberalism, even economic populism that had defined the party for decades. I think this helped Republicans appeal to voters on economic issues.
The Sanders phenomenon is in some ways a reaction to this move away from economic liberalism — with the accompanying embrace of international trade and so-called “neoliberal” solutions to policy challenges. Sanders has a lot of support among white liberals, but he’s also done quite well among working-class white voters, who I think view the Democratic Party as too close to Wall Street, too focused on international trade and not interested enough in their challenges. The roots of that stretch back to 1968.
Even if, as you persuasively argue, so much of our understanding of today’s politics can be traced back to 1968 origins, the country is nevertheless vastly different today. How does the book foretell changes such as the racial transformation and the growing coastal-inland and urban-rural splits that define today’s politics?
MC: On race, it’s hard to believe now, but Nixon got around 30 percent of the black vote in 1960. In 1968, he got about 10 percent. I think Republicans made a very concerted decision after 1968 that they had little to gain by trying to win over black voters and instead could gain by playing on white fears of black advancement. From a political perspective, that ended up being a smart play, but playing on white resentment and anxieties became the GOP’s go-to electoral approach, and as the country’s demographics have changed that approach has made it much harder for Republicans to win back black voters, or any non-white voters, for that matter.
Beyond that, Republicans adopted a more strident tone toward Democrats – and particularly liberals – after 1968. Liberals were described as reflecting alien values – particularly on social issues like abortion, welfare, busing and gay rights. Democrats became the party of weakness and appeasement on foreign policy, giveaways to minorities on domestic policy and libertines on social policy. GOP rhetoric presented a liberal agenda as one that was actively harmful to working-class Americans and their “family values.” Democrats responded in kind with their own de-legitimizing rhetoric.
So, if you look at the urban-rural, religious-secular, coastal elites-inland “real Americans” divide in modern American politics, many of its antecedents emerged out of 1968.
Given that the voting age was 21 in 1968, any American eligible to vote in 1968 had to be born on or before 1947 — right at the start of the post-war economic boom. These boom years contrast sharply with today, as wages have been stagnant and inequality rising for years. How can we contextualize 1968-era politics for today’s voters?
MC: As you noted, the two decades after World War II saw extraordinary economic prosperity – low unemployment, strong economic growth and a welfare state geared toward helping Americans protect the gains they’d made. That prosperity began to fade at the precise moment when Americans were becoming increasingly suspicious of governmental solutions to the nation’s economic challenges. In fact, even though the economy was in good shape in 1968, there were already pretty clear indications that Americans were becoming more anxious.
That’s one of the ways that Republicans dominated post-1968 politics. They had a simpler, more attractive economic message: Make government smaller, cut taxes, spending and regulation, and prosperity will ensue. But the economic anxiety was very real: Unionization was on the decline; foreign competition was threatening industries that had long been protected; the oil shocks sparked higher inflation; the middle class saw their wages and job security decline.
When you hear Trump talk about making America great again, he’s tapping into a sense among an older generation of Americans – a sense that’s also passed down to younger generations — that things used to be a lot better for the middle class in this country. Of course, in Trump’s telling, immigration comes in for blame, whereas before him the target was poor blacks benefiting from the hard work of middle-class Americans. But things certainly have gotten worse for the white middle class and the white working class since 1968. For a lot of voters, when Trump says he’ll make America great again, they want to believe him.