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.

American Maelstrom
American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division
by Michael A. Cohen
Oxford University Press, 448 pp. Credit:

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 LBJ 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.

Complicating this dynamic was the acceleration of an ongoing breakdown of ancient regional party allegiances, gradually replaced by more appropriate ideological affinity. The first great shift was in the Deep South, where white voters began abandoning the Democratic Party over civil rights in 1964. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won only one state of the former Confederacy (Texas). There was a nostalgic revival of Dixie Democracy under Jimmy Carter in 1976 and a smaller comeback under Bill Clinton in 1992 (both made possible by nearly full African American participation), and down-ballot strength that lasted into the twenty-first century. In the end, however, the defection of the South to the GOP gave Republicans their so-called electoral college lock on the presidency by the 1980s.

But 1968 came to be viewed as a seminal turning point in American politics less for the partisan shifts it reflected and intensified than for the nasty and unforgiving tone of cultural conflict it exemplified. It erupted within parties (like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s obscene and anti-Semitic outburst at Senator Abraham Ribicoff for describing the Chicago police department’s handling of antiwar protesters as “Gestapo tactics”), between parties, and, most of all, beyond parties, in televised street conflicts in multiple places over multiple issues.

Indeed, the images of 1968, punctuated by assassinations, riots, clashes between hard hats and antiwar marchers, the violence at the Democratic convention, and the violence at George Wallace events, have sometimes overwhelmed the actual history. Cohen, who wasn’t born until 1971, struggles (mostly successfully) with the temptation to descend into generational stereotypes about the free-loving, dope-smoking hippies of the Baby Boom generation battling the stolid values of their parents. Truth is, most of the “counterculture” avatars of 1968 were from a small elite cluster of college kids; the real broadscale breakdown in traditional mores occurred in the 1970s. But it’s true that a middle-age, middle-class, white American watching that year’s events on television might have felt her or his world turning upside down and inside out.

Cohen’s decision to work his way through 1968 via the various presidential candidacies keeps his account rooted in concrete events rather than retroactive hyperbole. Inevitably, he devotes a lot of attention to LBJ’s descent from the all-conquering victor of 1964 to the man who was driven from his reelection race after the first primary and could only appear safely at military bases. Those who remember the later agonies of Democrats who feared being deemed “soft” on national security may empathize with Johnson’s all-consuming fear that conservative attacks on him for “losing” Vietnam might unravel his domestic agenda. That fear was raised to the level of stubborn obsession by Republicans’ huge midterm gains in 1966. Ultimately, of course, LBJ had it backward; he was undermined by the indirect social and economic effects of Vietnam, and undone by antiwar Democrats. And while he did agree to abandon his reelection campaign with surprising alacrity after falling short of the crushing victory he was expected to win over Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire (and reading the polls showing him actually losing to McCarthy in Wisconsin, too), his stubbornness on the war lived on, to the terrible discomfiture and eventual demise of his vice president and chosen successor, Hubert Humphrey.

Cohen explains carefully that Humphrey’s instincts on Vietnam were far sounder than Johnson’s. But Humphrey’s early efforts to get LBJ to rethink his position just led to the president freezing him out of the decisionmaking circle on the war, and never allowing him the political space to stake out his own position. While Cohen periodically questions Humphrey’s courage on Vietnam, it’s important to remember that his strategy for winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 involved skipping the primaries and relying heavily on machine and southern Democrats who, in turn, were more or less in LBJ’s palm. As late as the convention itself, Humphrey was still being threatened with a presidential visit to Chicago and a sudden revival of an LBJ reelection campaign if he dared cut a platform deal with antiwar Democrats. Crazy as that seems in retrospect, Humphrey was in no position to call the bluff of the party’s capo di tutti capo.

Humphrey’s late-general-election surge in the polls came after he finally broke, albeit slightly, with the administration on Vietnam, suggesting that an earlier assertion of independence might have brought him victory. Cohen seems to agree. The surge in popular support for Humphrey was also the predictable result of two other factors: the inevitable decline in interest of the Wallace candidacy outside the South, and growing skepticism about the centrist bona fides of Richard Nixon. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that what ultimately doomed the Democrats was Johnson’s refusal to shift his position on Vietnam to where common sense and his own voters were telling him to go. And perhaps the biggest difference between 1968 and 2016 for Democrats is that Hillary Clinton has not made a similar mistake on trade and other issues.

Another dubious product of many careless memories of 1968 is that Robert Kennedy would have surely been the Democratic nominee if not for his assassination on the night of his California primary victory over Gene McCarthy in early June. As Cohen explains, Humphrey had by then locked up powerful support from elected officials and party bosses in states without primaries, and Kennedy was not showing the popular support needed to overturn that coalition: “[An] early May Gallup survey found that only a quarter of voters wanted to see Democrats pick Kennedy as the standard-bearer in Chicago,” Cohen writes, “placing him behind both McCarthy and Humphrey.”

Theoretically, McCarthy could have consolidated antiwar opposition to Humphrey and put on a spirited challenge in Chicago, but his desultory campaigning and complete lack of emotional connection with critical elements of the party like labor made him a fading influence on events. Even at the convention, a large slice of RFK’s delegates went not with McCarthy but with the late substitute candidate George McGovern, who was to become the Democratic nominee in 1972.

Democratic divisions over the war and the ever-increasingly related “law and order” were front and center at the convention, when what was later officially described by a blue-ribbon commission as a “police riot” broke out, first against protesters in the streets and parks of Chicago, but eventually spilling over into the lobbies of convention hotels and the convention arena itself. By the time Humphrey was nominated as the “happy warrior” of American politics, it was a grim misnomer for the broken candidate of a broken party.

Democrats were not, of course, divided just by left and center-left differences of opinion over Vietnam: the southern wing of the party was ultimately devastated by the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, who had four years earlier shown his potential national appeal in surprisingly strong primary performances in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland.

Cohen’s take on Wallace is one of the best features of a very good book, and helpful in understanding the otherwise shocking appeal of Donald Trump. Yes, racial grievances—in the South against desegregation, and in the North against riots and open housing legislation—were never far from the surface in Wallace’s campaign. But it’s not accurate to say he and his supporters were simply to the right of the GOP:

A majority of his backers identified themselves as Democrats and were far more likely to be supportive of government spending than traditional conservative voters. They just preferred the kind of spending that benefited them. When the American Independent Party issued its platform in October 1968, it called for greater government engagement in nearly every other facet of American life: more job training for “all Americans willing and able to seek and hold gainful employment; more federal monies for transportation, education, and even the space program; a significant increase in Social Security benefits; and more support for elderly health care.”

The white working-class voters who gravitated to Wallace are in many respects ideological forebears of the white working-class voters showing up at Trump rallies today, where they are likewise treated to attacks on the “lying liberal news media” and occasional cathartic violence against the inevitable protesters. And those rallies were pretty much the sum and substance of Wallace’s campaign, much like Trump’s:

The candidate, said one aide, was completely uninterested in the “nuts-and-bolts” of campaign operations. . . . His advisors maintained tenuous control over the various state campaigns, many of which were stocked—in the words of [Wallace aide Tom] Turnipseed—by a “motley group of segregationists, Southern rednecks, Northern ethnics, John Birchers, corporate executives, right-wing kooks and assorted bigots.” The campaign seemed to operate by the seat of its pants. . . . “An almost total lack of organization” defined the Wallace campaign.

It’s fascinating to speculate in retrospect what Wallace might have accomplished in 1968 or in 1972 with a major-party nomination in his hands, and horrifying to realize that a candidate so similar to him is in that position today.

Richard Nixon famously became adept at coopting both Wallace’s racial appeals and his selective appropriation of New Deal government activism on behalf of the white middle class. But his route to the 1968 nomination was imperiled by a pincers movement of old and new forces in the GOP.

Having lost to Goldwater in the 1964 primaries, Nelson Rockefeller offered a restoration of what was then called “Eastern Seaboard” Republicanism in 1968 (though he hamstrung his own campaign by initially declining to run but then jumping back in after the primaries had begun). He was the spiritual godfather of every candidate in both parties who seeks to overcome ideological differences with the “base” with a naked “electability” argument.

Having accumulated little goodwill from party leaders, Rockefeller relied instead on opinion polling to convince GOP delegates. He needed the numbers to show him not simply outperforming Nixon but also trouncing Humphrey by such a margin that Republicans would see nominating him as their only chance to win in November. A week before the convention, that strategy collapsed.

A Gallup poll showing Nixon running ahead of Rockefeller against Humphrey came out just in time to help Nixon wrap up the nomination. But Nixon himself had to cut off a charge from the right among southern delegates attracted to last-minute candidate Ronald Reagan via a historic deal with Strom Thurmond that cast a long shadow over Nixon’s vice presidential choice (Spiro Agnew, as a last resort after Thurmond vetoes of more popular but Dixie-phobic prospects), civil rights policies, and Supreme Court appointments.

Having won the GOP nomination against the twin perils of Rockefeller’s electability and Reagan’s ideologized charisma, Nixon hewed to a similar center path to the presidency, with Wallace’s presence on the campaign trail making it possible for the Republicans to seem moderate on domestic and foreign policy issues. He won traditional GOP states, southern border states, and the swing states of California, Illinois, and Ohio, en route to a victory by a margin that was narrow in both the popular vote (0.7 percent) and the electoral college (301–191, just thirty-one more than a majority). He also had virtually no coattails, which fed Nixon’s obsessive determination to win a decisive reelection victory in 1972, accompanied by the self-destructive hubris later known as Watergate.

As Cohen notes, the 1968 Democratic performance was by any measure a calamity: “In 1964, [Humphrey] and Johnson won forty-three million votes and 61 percent of the popular vote. Four years later, nearly twelve million of those same voters abandoned Humphrey. . . . Forty percent of Johnson voters in 1964 cast a ballot for Nixon in 1968.”

The Democratic deficit of 1968 among white voters would persist and generally increase until the very present, along with Republicans losing an overwhelming percentage of minority voters. The exceptional partisan and ideological polarization of 1968 never entirely subsided, and cultural issues steadily became central instead of peripheral to presidential politics (particularly after the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion). The national consensus that so briefly appeared in 1964 has not returned, despite repeated false appearances in 1984, 1996, and 2008.

The biggest shock is that the generational divisions and racial intolerance that created so many ugly images and memories in 1968 are back with a vengeance nearly a half century later, along with a dizzying sense that we have no idea what comes next.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.