Will Democrats Revive the Divisions of 1968?

by Randy Shaw on January 15, 2008

I have long viewed the 2008 November elections as ushering in the strongest progressive majority in the United States since 1964, with the potential for a tidal-wave shift toward the Democrats that has not been seen since 1932. But amidst the increasingly harsh tones between the Obama and Clinton campaigns, a less positive historic antecedent may be looming: 1968, when the Democratic Party split between Hubert Humphrey and the older, pro-Vietnam War “establishment” on one side and the younger, anti-war generation that backed Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy. This split led McCarthy and Kennedy supporters to sit on the sidelines as Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election, and led Humphrey backers to do likewise in November 1972 when George McGovern was the Democratic nominee. In both cases the chief rift was generational, a trend already clear in the Obama-Clinton divide. But the 2008 split also involves issues of race and gender, and while unlikely to deny a Democratic presidential victory, this divide would hamper progressive legislative efforts in 2009 and beyond.

While young activists likely look back at the excitement of 1968 with regret over having missed such a time, the political reality of that year was quite depressing. The excitement of President Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election soon gave way to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the assassination of Robert Kennedy as he appeared to become the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

With Kennedy gone, the Democrats nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. This would be akin to the Democrats in 2008 nominating a candidate who still enthusiastically backed the Iraq War, and the anti-war movement that had backed McCarthy and Kennedy understandably refused to work on behalf of Humphrey’s candidacy.

Republican Richard Nixon won in November 1968, which became the nation’s most transformative election of the last 75 years. Historians still dispute whether younger progressives’ inaction on Humphrey’s behalf cost him the election, but nobody questions that the 1968 primary campaign split the Democratic Party for more than a generation.

We could be seeing history repeat itself on a lesser scale in 2008. Supporters of Obama and Clinton both have reasons to remain on the sidelines if their candidate is not the nominee this fall.

Obama’s campaign parallels that of McCarthy and Kennedy in that backers of all three candidates believe they are part of a movement, not simply an election contest. A movement is not deterred or diverted by the results of a particular election, and its members continue to organize until its goal is achieved or clearly fails.

Should Clinton win the nomination and election in November, Obama backers who entered politics through his campaign will either retreat from the arena or continue to build a movement that pushes a President Clinton to the left. Either way, few Obama supporters will be working hard to expand a Clinton-controlled Democratic Party.

And Obama’s defeat would find the Democratic Party embroiled in a public battle over its willingness to support African-American leadership. Ironically, it was Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that seemed to put the Party’s “race” problem behind; now his wife’s campaign is resurrecting this once-suppressed issue.

But while Obama’s defeat threatens to demobilize an entire generation of idealistic young activists, Hillary Clinton’s loss would create deep bitterness among another core Democratic base: women. While this anger might be stronger among women over 40, this is precisely the demographic that Democrats depend on to win elections.

Further, do not assume that Clinton backers will embrace Obama either as the nominee or as President. Progressives learned from the McGovern campaign that Establishment Democrats—not women over forty but the corporate folks like Senator Clinton’s campaign chair, Terry McAuliffe — will not hesitate to undermine candidates they do not control.

The traditional media makes such undermining easy. All it takes is for establishment Democrats like CNN consultant James Carville to criticize a progressive Democrat, and the media is off and running about how this elected official has “shifted” away from “the mainstream.”

In fact, it could be argued that the McGovern campaign was the best thing that ever happened to the Democratic Party Establishment. By joining with Republicans in delegitimizing McGovern and progressive policies, these moderate Democrats have prevented anyone outside the Party establishment from winning the Party’s presidential nomination for nearly three decades.

So the prospects for the Obama and Clinton camps to be one big happy family come the fall are not good. The only question is how deep and lasting will be the rift.

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