Domestic Affairs

1968: The Year that Broke the Democratic Party

“I proudly accept the nomination of our party!”

The convention hall erupted in thunderous applause. Its speaker, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, paused to relish the moment. The Democratic Party had gathered in Chicago to anoint him as Lyndon Johnson’s successor. After losing the nomination to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and falling under President Johnson’s wing in 1964, Humphrey was at last in sight of the White House. The indomitable spirit of Franklin Roosevelt continued to animate Democratic politics, with Johnson heralding his “Great Society” as an extension of the New Deal. And Humphrey, as the chief architect of Johnson’s civil rights program, was eager to carry the Rooseveltian torch into the 1970s.

But while the convention buzzed, a certain tension gripped its delegates. Just beyond the amphitheater’s walls, antiwar demonstrators clashed with Chicago riot police as clouds of tear gas billowed through the city’s streets. National guardsmen patrolled barbed-wire-lined checkpoints surrounding the convention. Bloodied students were hurried away on stretchers. The rhythm of protest chants unraveled into a discordant roar as phalanxes of police engaged the demonstrators. Attendees were not insulated from hostility within the convention; the delegation of Eugene McCarthy, the insurgent antiwar candidate, scowled at what they perceived as the establishment’s coronation of Humphrey. 

The 1968 Democratic National Convention came at the end of a bitter primary season. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. lay in state, both having fallen to assassin’s bullets months earlier. Southern Democrats, irked by the liberal initiatives of party leadership, largely defected to George Wallace’s segregationist breakaway party. Younger voters pledged themselves behind Senator Eugene McCarthy — whose campaign was oriented around opposition to Vietnam — in an effort to repudiate the Johnson-Humphrey status quo. It was clear that the New Deal coalition was buckling under the weight of 1960s social forces. 

After Richard Nixon secured the Republican nomination, the 1968 general election would pit two stiff, unlikable vice presidents against each other. The fractured Democrats could not find it within themselves to rally around the timid Humphrey, whose candidacy was marred by his being tethered to Johnson.

That November, Humphrey suffered a loss which would trigger a period of soul-searching for the Democratic Party. Nixon’s victory ushered in a period of Republican dominance that would not fracture until Bill Clinton’s 1992 election. This begs the question: what happened in 1968? Why did it happen? And why did it break the Democratic Party?

A President Under Siege

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson entered his fifth year of the presidency. The larger-than-life Texan had spent much of his tenure strong-arming his legislative agenda through Congress, which included the most ambitious civil rights program since Reconstruction. The irony was conspicuous: in the decade marking the hundredth anniversary of Appomatox, a Southern Democrat would be the one to wrestle for minority empowerment. At the helm of the federal government, Johnson would also command a “war on poverty,” enacting a series of measures designed to uplift rural Americans from their economic anguish. 

But as Johnson focused on domestic ailments, another war demanded his attention: the one engulfing Vietnam. Publicly, he voiced skepticism toward American involvement, infamously remarking in 1964 that Americans ought not to do “what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” But privately, he did not exert himself against escalation. His advisors exhorted him, as commander-in-chief, to pursue a policy of more active containment. As a man whose expertise rested in domestic issues, he was apprehensive about acting independently in foreign affairs and followed escalation as the approach of least resistance

Vietnam was thus branded “Johnson’s war,” and its resounding unpopularity would tarnish his domestic legacy. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” became the staple chant of anti-Vietnam demonstrations. In November 1967, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, sympathetic towards America’s antiwar youth, announced his intention to challenge Johnson for the 1968 Democatic nomination. McCarthy, of course, stood virtually no chance of usurping the Texan giant. But he hoped that his base, largely composed of students, could make enough noise to at least unsettle Johnson and the party establishment. 

Eugene McCarthy did more than merely unsettle the president, however. Swarms of students descended upon New Hampshire, the first state to vote in the Democratic primary. On election day, the results were devastating for the president: 42% cast their ballots for Eugene McCarthy, leaving 49% for Johnson. Primaries are generally easy victories for incumbents — mere formalities which broadly affirm party support for the president’s re-election. To nearly suffer a loss to a student-staffed campaign was hugely embarrassing. 

Four days later, Robert F. Kennedy, one of Johnson’s chief political rivals apparently emboldened by McCarthy’s success, announced his candidacy for the 1968 nomination. Now the Johnson team had to contend with the charismatic younger brother of a martyred president, who was a far more frightening opponent than the Minnesota senator. 

So on March 31, 1968, President Johnson delivered a televised address in which he withdrew from the upcoming election. It was a difficult decision, as his legislative vision lay unfulfilled, but it was ultimately a wise choice. He figured that a humiliating defeat at the party nominating convention would disgrace his legacy. By staging a self-withdrawal, he could at least leave the White House with his dignity intact. Furthermore, by liberating himself from the stress of the campaign, he could devote the entirety of his political energy to ending the war in Vietnam, which had clearly overshadowed his domestic achievements. Finally, he could anoint Vice President Hubert Humphrey as his successor, enabling the perfection of his Great Society from behind the scenes.

A Party Ablaze

From the mid 50s to the late 60s, Johnson stood as the de facto leader of the Democratic Party. As Senate majority leader and president, he was a ruthless disciplinarian who managed to keep the Party’s disparate elements in check. In withdrawing from the race, he effectively relinquished any pretension to party leadership, and the precarious New Deal coalition began to crumble. From its carcass rose three factions who would joust for the Democratic soul. 

The McCarthy and Kennedy wings were riding groundswell youth movements, but their politics were far from alike. McCarthy was a protest candidate whose far-fetched bid for the White House was barrelling wildly into success. His platform was anchored by an anti-imperialist paradigm which challenged America’s Cold War orthodoxy, calling for an unequivocal withdrawal from Vietnam alongside wider accommodation of communists in the postwar world. 

On the other hand, Kennedy advanced an upbeat brand of liberalism which drew support from minorities and the poor, amassing a constituency more reliable than the scattered intellectuals backing McCarthy. However, Kennedy was hesitant to firmly renounce the Johnson war policy — while certainly critical of the administration’s approach to the war, he was among its central architects and thus did not fundamentally disagree with the conflict itself. His dovish posturing was motivated by the idea that Johnson botched the war beyond rescue, not by serious anti-imperialist convictions. Indeed, Kennedy would later charge McCarthy as “soft on communism,” an undesirable designation in midcentury America.

Throughout the spring of 1968, the two senators would duke it out in the handful of states that offered primary elections. While today’s presidential candidates are nominated in collections of primaries held throughout the entire country, the process has not always been so democratic. At nominating conventions, each state party sends delegates who vote for presidential candidates, and whoever secures a majority proceeds to the November general election. These delegates were typically apportioned by party leaders in smoke-filled back rooms, but in the 20th century, some state parties began apportioning delegates through elections — or primaries, as they are now known. By 1968, fourteen states (plus D.C.) had opted for the electoral method. 

That was the Democrats’ modus operandi when Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his candidacy. Ostensibly, Humphrey was a good candidate. He boasted a lengthy resume and had proved his administrative mettle as a general in Lyndon Johnson’s legislative war. But the waters were stormy with anti-Johnson sentiment, which posed a conundrum. His rivals enjoyed immense success in advertising themselves as alternatives to Johnson, and Humphrey, as vice president, was deeply enmeshed in LBJ’s political circle, tainting himself as a creature of the establishment. Choosing to avoid direct confrontations with his insurgent competitors, Humphrey neglected to file for the remaining primaries and instead focused on courting local party leaders who would sponsor his nomination. 

On June 5, after winning a handsome victory in California, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles. His sudden and violent demise would dramatically alter the dynamic of the race. With two months to go until the Chicago DNC, it was not clear who was going to clinch the nomination. The race had essentially narrowed to Humphrey and Kennedy, and while the former possessed an inherent sway over party insiders, the latter was more charismatic and sat atop a sizable coalition of working-class and nonwhite voters, which might have proven attractive to local party leaders. Kennedy’s death rendered Humphrey the presumptive nominee. 

A City Ablaze

The primary was cast in the shadow of a colossal question: Vietnam. Kennedy, as arguably the only viable challenger to Humphrey, doubled as the only viable anti-Vietnam voice in the primary. His absence meant that in a nomination season flavored by anti-war rhetoric, the Party was going to nominate the “the administration’s strongest advocate on Vietnam” — a move made more insulting by Humphrey’s refusal to participate in a single primary election.

Humphrey was not oblivious to the popular perceptions of his candidacy. Kennedy’s assassination magnified the vice president’s inattention to left-leaning anxieties, so he turned his eye towards ameliorating tensions between the left and center blocs of the Party to build a coalition capable of withstanding the Nixon offensive in November. 

However, as he maneuvered to distance himself from the war, Lyndon Johnson loomed in the background, bullying him into supporting the status quo. In an attempt to reconcile his loyalty to Johnson with the demands of the electorate, Humphrey opted for a new strategy of advertising the domestic successes of the “Great Society” while evading the Vietnam question as much as possible. When pressed about it, he would vaguely affirm his support for the war’s resolution. Predictably, this pleased no one. 

In late August, Democrats gathered to nominate their candidate for president. Students and other disaffected youths congregated in Chicago to protest, famously holding a mock convention in which they nominated a pig for president. Richard J. Daley, the Chicago mayor whose iron-fisted approach to municipal administration harkened back to the days of big-city bosses and political machines, corresponded closely with President Johnson to keep the situation under control. As the environment looked increasingly fragile, Johnson deployed federal troops to patrol the city’s streets. Chicago was the kindling and Humphrey the gasoline, and everything looked like it could combust with the slightest agitation. 

The convention initially proceeded smoothly. South Dakota Senator George McGovern was in attendance in a last-minute bid to excel as a compromise between Humphrey and McCarthy, effectively functioning as a stand-in for his late friend Robert Kennedy. Within the convention, there were debates and speechmaking; outside of it, there were harmless demonstrations. 

Then balloting began. The delegates overwhelmingly voted for Humphrey, with a tepid 24% pledging themselves behind McCarthy and 6% going for McGovern. The Humphrey team wanted to make some conciliatory gesture towards the “dove” faction to unify the Party going forward, but President Johnson objected, arguing that antiwar posturing among major presidential candidates would render the Vietnamese less inclined to negotiate. At the night’s end, McGovern endorsed Humphrey but McCarthy remained silent.

Protesting soon descended into rioting. Chicago police, with Daley’s thumbs-up, turned to violence against the “yippies,” committing acts of brutality which were broadcast throughout the nation. That night, Humphrey’s eyes stung from wafting tear gas clouds as multiple death threats reached his door. He had won, but at what cost?

A Country Ablaze

All of this played into a theme dominating political conversation in the late ‘60s: law and order. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, playing off of his relative youth, promised a “new age of leadership,” and that age had arrived — only it was decadent and violent, characterized by brazen irresponsibility both at home and abroad. The decade was marked by high-profile assassinations interspersed with race riots and raucous protests. It was a stark departure from the perceived idyll of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, as Chicago combusted, the Republicans enjoyed an orderly primary, with Richard Nixon easily coasting to the nomination. His message was implicit: in 1960, when asked to choose between Nixon and the Democrats, Americans chose the Democrats, yielding a decade of chaos and decay; in 1968, they were again asked to choose between Nixon and the Democrats. Would they err again?

Nixon reinforced this message by juxtaposing himself strategically against a backdrop of DNC chaos. While Humphrey and Johnson wrestled over Vietnam as George Wallace tried to syphon votes from discontented Southern Democrats, Nixon exuded an air of cool and collected competence, boasting a “secret plan” to end the war and promising to redress the racial grievances of Southern voters. Indeed, according to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldemann, Nixon emphasized the importance of using dog-whistles and euphemisms to draw racists towards the Republican Party.

That’s what ailed Humphrey as he flew from Chicago to begin his general election campaign. Early polls suggested that he was in for a pummeling from the Nixon campaign in November. The Deep South, long a Democratic stronghold, was projected to go for George Wallace and his American Independent Party. Voters sick of the Johnson war policy were intrigued by Nixon’s promise to withdraw from Vietnam with dignity. Furthermore, it was difficult for voters — beyond a subset of pragmatic liberals – to get excited about an antiquated New Deal Democrat propped up by the DNC. While Kennedy and McCarthy demonstrated sensitivity to the new social anxieties of the late 1960s, Humphrey was a student of the liberal internationalism of Harry Truman, a mode of thought unfit for the period’s shifting political dynamics. 

In late September, with his prospects looking especially dismal, Humphrey delivered a speech in which he dramatically denounced the Vietnam War, pledging to halt the bombing of Southeast Asia if elected. While it earned the scowl of Lyndon Johnson — who proceeded to quietly withdraw his support of the Vice President — it denied the Nixon campaign of a critical advantage, and the Humphrey team delighted in the rebounding of their poll numbers. While doubts certainly lingered over Humphrey’s sincerity, the electorate could at least appreciate that Humphrey was trying to wrest his identity from Lyndon Johnson — that he, to quote George McGovern’s exhortation, was being “his own man.” 

Alas, it was not enough. On November 5, a weary electorate handed Richard Nixon the presidency. While Humphrey only narrowly lost to Nixon, Republican performance was depressed by the defection of white Southerners to George Wallace. 

The Democratic Party was shattered. In 1968, there were three generations of Democrats battling for the Party’s soul. There were white Southerners, from which the Party drew its political power during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But by the late ‘60s, many of them were defecting to the Republicans or third-party alternatives. There were labor unionists and urban blue-collar workers — largely concentrated in the North — whose role in the Party was cemented by the Rooseveltian “revolution” of 1932. And there were young baby boomers coming of age in a postwar world. In many ways, 1968 was the last hurrah of these old-school urban political forces who resisted young, left-looking liberals and troglodytic Reconstruction-era racism to coronate their candidate. 

It was a coalition replete with irreconcilable antagonisms that was bound to collapse. In writing this, I do not mean to imply Humphrey’s nomination destroyed the New Deal Coalition and thus the Democratic Party as it had been known for 40 years but rather that his nomination came at the confluence of numerous social currents and agitated latent tensions within the Party. Indeed, an old anecdote holds that Lyndon Johnson grumbled he had “signed the South away for a generation” with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the quote is certainly historical fiction, it represents the reality Democrats had to contend with. 

If anything, Humphrey’s nomination demonstrated the party’s inability to channel those social currents. Its leaders were grossly out of touch with the electorate’s opposition to Vietnam and the new ideas emanating from the younger generation. It was the failed compromise candidate, George McGovern, who spearheaded the effort to democratize the nominating process. His McGovern-Fraser Commission recommended that state parties implement primary elections to select their delegates, which would theoretically prevent Humphrey-like candidates from assuming the party mantle. By 1976, all states were using some form of democratic input to nominate presidential candidates. The Republican Party followed suit. 

This drama was not resolved in the Commission, however. These intra-party tensions would again come to a head in 1972, with Humphrey, McGovern, and Wallace — who decided to return to the Democrats — launching bids for the presidency. Wallace tried to drag the party in its leftward lurch back to its segregationist roots, but he was shot and permanently paralyzed on the campaign trail. McGovern and Humphrey emerged as the frontrunners in a competition between the new “radical” social liberalism of the ‘60s and the older liberalism of the New Deal. McGovern narrowly bested Humphrey at the ‘72 convention, but suffered a colossal loss to Nixon in light of poor campaign strategies, the president’s popularity, and the Democrats’ hesitance to support him.

In fact, it was one of the worst performances the Democrats had ever seen in a modern presidential contest, with McGovern securing a measly 17 electoral votes and barely breaking 37% of the popular vote. It was more than a loss; it was a death knell. With the dissolution of the New Deal coalition, the Party sought recourse in left-wing “McGovernism,” which availed them as well as far-right Barry Goldwater did the Republicans in 1964. 

But whereas the Republicans accelerated their ideological shift after 1964, the DNC stopped looking to the left after 1972 and began capitalizing on the rightward momentum of the GOP. In the 1976 Democratic primaries, the Party establishment quickly found their favorite: the little-known peanut-farming governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. A religiously-minded moderate from the South, Carter was skeptical of interventionist economics and conservative in his approach to emerging social issues. 

He swept the nomination from the hands of his better-known rivals and prevailed against the disgraced post-Watergate GOP in the general election, becoming the last Democratic presidential candidate to win back the entire South. He governed with an emphasis on economic austerity and deregulation, priming the ground for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “revolution” and the ensuing twelve years of conservative dominance. 

It took Bill Clinton, a self-professed “Third Way” centrist, to win back the White House for the Democrats. He styled his coalition the “New Democrats” and promised “triangulation,” or policy that is neither left nor right wing. His administration delivered tax cuts, free trade agreements, more deregulation, and socially conservative legislation, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. 

In 2008, another New Democrat, Barack Obama, won the White House with formidable majorities in the House and Senate. And while his aims were vaguely left-wing, he governed with substantial deference to economic conservatives and only embraced progressive social policy when he found it politically convenient

The result is a Democratic Party which spends its days cautiously negotiating with itself about political palatability. Lyndon Johnson did not ask himself such questions when passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — in fact, he pursued justice despite its electoral untenability in the South. Franklin Roosevelt, while not entirely unfriendly with Wall Street, actively antagonized bankers and businessmen for their financial recklessness. While Hubert Humphrey hoped to carry the Rooseveltian spirit into the 1970s, he did the exact opposite — he inadvertently imbued the Democrats with a timidity which continues to haunt them into the twenty-first century.

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