The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The specter of 1966 haunts the Democrats

In this Jan. 12, 1966, photo provided by the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson prepares for his State of the Union address with, from left, Richard Goodwin, Jack Valenti and Joseph A. Califano Jr., at the White House. (AP)
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The United States is booming, with the Federal Reserve forecasting 7 percent growth this year and 3.3 percent next year. Unemployment should be almost back to pre-pandemic levels in 18 months.

Buoyed by a $1.9 trillion economic package and a possible bipartisan infrastructure bill, with social and environmental legislation to come, President Biden enjoys a 53 percent approval rating in the RealClearPolitics polling average, while 41.9 percent feel the country is heading in the right direction — the most since 2009.

Meanwhile, Republicans remain tainted by former president Donald Trump’s wild campaign to discredit the 2020 election, which inflames their extremist base — but turns off suburban voters by the millions.

The stage is set, in other words, for a Democratic wipeout in the 2022 elections, even bigger than the 26-seat loss in the House the average first-term incumbent president’s party has lost since World War II.

This is not an actual prediction, just a deliberately provocative extrapolation from the historical case that may resemble our current political panorama most closely: the 1966 midterm election.

In 1965, fresh from a historic landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater, whom Democrats successfully branded a dangerous extremist, President Lyndon B. Johnson and a Democratic Congress enacted Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, a landmark voting rights law, and a new immigration law that reopened the country to newcomers after four decades of restriction.

The U.S. economy grew 6.4 percent in 1965 and 6.5 percent in 1966. Unemployment hit 3.8 percent by the end of the latter year, the same robust level the Fed expects to see by the end of 2022.

Yet in the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost a net three seats in the Senate and an astonishing 47 in the House; their share of votes cast for House seats fell 13 percentage points relative to 1964.

Democrats still held majorities in both houses. That would not be the case for Democrats today, who have a bare five vote edge in the House and a 50-50 tie, plus Vice President Harris’s vote, in the Senate. But the disastrous 1966 election did begin the political weakening that forced Johnson to abandon reelection — and enabled Republicans to retake the White House — in 1968.

Why did Democratic political fortunes reverse amid legislative success and widely shared prosperity? Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam in early 1965, but as of November 1966 only 31 percent of Americans believed the war was “a mistake,” according to the Gallup Poll.

What probably rattled the middle class more were a surge of inflation, which nearly doubled from 1.6 percent in 1965 to 3.0 percent in 1966 — and a sense that previously low levels of crime were creeping upward dangerously.

Like the United States in the early 2020s, the United States in the early 1960s had just experienced a three-decade-long crime decline. Homicide rates fell from 9.8 per 100,000 in 1933 to 4.5 in 1955, and then remained at or about that level until 1965, when the rate hit 5.1 per 100,000. In 1966, the homicide rate surged again, exceeding 5.5 per 100,000 for the first time in 18 years.

The United States, having slashed the homicide rate from 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 to its recent low of 4.4 per 100,000 in 2014, has seen a gradual uptick in recent years — then a spike in 2020.

The FBI recorded a 15 percent increase in the first half of 2020, relative to the first half of 2019, which, if it kept up through the whole year, would mean the U.S. murder rate last year exceeded 5.5 per 100,000 for the first time in 13 years.

To be sure, the 1966 election results also reflected backlash against the racial-justice achievements of the Johnson administration by White voters who often blamed the civil rights movement for urban uprisings in Watts in 1965 and Cleveland in 1966.

There are parallels to today’s conservative backlash against Black Lives Matter and critical race theory. Social-media-savvy youths focused on gender identity baffle and unsettle today’s older generation, just as the first countercultural “longhairs” did in the mid-60s.

Democrats are underdogs anyway due to GOP-controlled redistricting, but could conceivably hope for a repeat of 1998, when an economic boom, coupled with ideological excesses by their Republican opponents — a partisan impeachment attempt against President Bill Clinton — helped them reduce the GOP House majority by five seats. At the time, the gain was the first for a second-term incumbent president’s party since 1822.

They’d be better off acting on the lesson of 1966, which is that Democrats’ control of Washington may hinge on their ability to address legitimate concerns about inflation and crime, without abandoning the drive for racial justice — or allowing their most progressive voices to alienate suburban moderates.

Eric Adams, the Black former police officer who leads the New York Democratic mayoral primary after campaigning on a promise to control that city’s resurgent violent crime, seems to get it. “If the Democratic Party fails to recognize what we did here in New York," Adams said, "they’re going to have a problem in the midterm elections, and they’re going to have a problem in the presidential election.”

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