In looking for ways to make sense of this bizarre, absurd and downright defective political season, a number of pundits have found 1968 a handy comparison. The desire to connect modern upheaval to an important year in 20th Century American history is understandable. 1968, like 2016, was a tumultuous time punctuated by what seemed like one cultural shock after another: high-profile assassinations, social protest and occasionally something pleasant like the first manned spacecraft moon orbit.
But this ain’t 1968 my friends. I deliver that pronouncement with an appropriate mix of hope and fear. Because we’re rolling into uncharted territory and we’re going to need our full rational/emotional arsenal.
So much has happened this week alone that Donald Trump’s non-rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago on the evening of March 11 feels like ages ago. This incident, in particular, has offered an easy analogy to the 1968 Democratic Convention, also held in the Windy City. Understandable. Student protests, a divisive political candidate and police activity. Same, same right? Wrong.
Though the conscientious objectors who flooded the kingdom of Richard J. Daley in ‘68 were united for change, as last week’s protestors joined forces to just say “no” to The Donald, the circumstances and outcomes were much different. Haynes Johnson of Smithsonian Magazine, who witnessed Convention activity firsthand observed, “For Democrats in particular, Chicago was a disaster. It left the party with scars that last to this day.”
Tough battle between former First Lady, New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, versus Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, the Democratic Party has only benefitted as a whole from this election cycle. It has been a respectful, informed war of ideas elevating the party above the brawling, guttural, backward-looking shame that is today’s national GOP. The three-man race of Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich is far from over. But for any remaining “moderate” Republicans who no longer recognize their team, yearning for a return to sanity after November’s electoral drubbing, don’t hold your breath. I couldn’t have said it better than our own Poor Richard Jr., who wrote earlier this month:
“Either way it plays out, the Grand Old Party is no more. It must fundamentally change after this election or say good-bye forever. Even they know they cannot maintain their strategy of reliance mainly upon white voters. Obstructing the vote and a Democratic President is bound to eventually backfire, especially when you consider that the youth of this country is disproportionately liberal. Even some of our allies and most of the rest of the world are beginning to think that we are its largest threat to world peace. Some of that is in no doubt because of the insane rhetoric spouted from these extreme Republican candidates.”
That oft-shared “insane rhetoric” takes us back to Chicago last weekend. Another important difference between the events at UIC and the 1968 Democratic Convention is the relative unity of the people and public officials. In an Op-Ed for Truthout, University staff members Amalia Pallares, Sara Hall and Jennie Brier wrote:
“In contrast to what Trump has suggested, the rally was shut down by Trump himself, not because of violence.
There was no physical violence reported before the Trump campaign announced the decision to ‘postpone’ the event…Earlier, protesters outside the arena had shouted anti-Trump chants as Trump supporters lined up. Some Trump supporters directed confrontational speech at protesters. Once most people were in the pavilion, protesters outside continued to rally and chant peacefully. Families with strollers, children, faculty, students and Chicagoans from all walks of life mingled while a roster of students spoke on the microphone and guided chants on the edge of campus facing the pavilion.”
That account paints a rather endearing portrait of orderly, stratified disagreement, respectfully monitored by authorities. This is quite a departure from the riot gear and mayhem that marked Chicago and the Democratic Party in 1968. It was not a band of “thugs” that scared Donald Trump. It was an allied assembly of academics, concerned citizens and children, connected by their rejection of hate speech and the idea of an authoritarian narcissist at the helm of our nation. What could be more excitingly, energizing American?
So no, this is not 1968. There is no Vietnam, but rather a concerted battle for the moral and spiritual future of our battered democracy. Though the themes of racial inequality, corrupt leadership and revolution may run through the decades, the reality is that America largely returned to status quo after the hot summer of ’68. The lack of fundamental shift goes a long way toward explaining why we’re engaging in the same passionate discussions 38 years later. This election matters and whichever direction the electorate leans, real change is coming.