1968 versus 2016.

Author:Kilgore, Ed

Despite the many similarities, this year isn't 1968. Because Hillary understands what Johnson never did: that he had to be (mostly) at one with his party's base.

American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division

by Michael A. Cohen

Oxford University Press, 448 pp.


For history buffs or political observers of a certain age, the 2016 election cycle has frequently prompted the following sentence: "This is the craziest year since 1968."

Yes, 2016 has resembled that famously disordered election year in many ways large and small. The demise of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio at the hands of Donald Trump was one of the more shocking upsets since Lyndon Johnson was driven from the nomination race after New Hampshire. Trump himself reminds many observers of George Wallace, particularly when his campaign rallies turn into alternating media-baiting exercises and actual riots.

The Democratic nomination contest brought back memories, too. Bernie Sanders's enormous youth following is reminiscent of the legions of kids who cut their hair, dressed up, and got "Clean for Gene" McCarthy during his quixotic antiwar crusade. Like Hillary Clinton, Hubert Humphrey was a veteran liberal struggling with lethal crossfire from the left and right. No, there have not been--please God--any assassinations of leading political figures this year, unlike in 1968. But the atmosphere of polarization, excitement, fear, and a sense that anything could happen was as pervasive in 1968 as now. And we are not at the finish line yet.

Michael Cohen's new account of the 1968 elections, American Maelstrom, is a careful, faithful retelling of the story of that year and what it portended. Like Rick Perlstein (whose 2008 book, Nixonland, covers much of the same ground), Cohen is fascinated by the rapid unraveling of the massive electoral majority LB J assembled in 1964, and by the poisonous new divisions that entered the national bloodstream, suddenly demolishing the consensus politics that had dominated the 1950s and early 1960s. Johnson's audacity in pursuing civil rights and voting rights legislation so soon after taking office as president, and his hubris in adding guns to butter by pursuing an anticommunist war in Vietnam at the very same time, are a constant subtext of American Maelstrom. So, too, are the many centrifugal forces Johnson could not control, most notably African Americans frustrated with the slow pace of change and ready to burn down their own communities if need be, and an antiwar movement that had matured into a national phenomenon even before the Tet Offensive blew up the mythology of a successful limited war--all in 1968, of course.

If there is an argument made by Cohen in this book, it is this: millions of Democratic voters--furious with African Americans who seemed ungrateful at the pace of racial progress, and privileged college kids rebelling against their parents' values--rejected the New Deal/Great Society proposition of shared progress and prosperity via governmental action. Instead, these voters began to embrace a sort of "what's in it for me" attitude toward government, favoring "operational liberalism" of support for programs they perceived as benefiting themselves but at the same time responding positively to conservative limited-government rhetoric with heavy cultural undertones. In 1968's ultimate winner, Richard Nixon, a "silent majority" found a pol more than willing to accommodate these ostensibly conflicting impulses.


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