Many pixels have been spilled in punditry about the coming apocalypse in Cleveland at the Republican convention, with good odds that the Republican Party will tear itself apart. But looking at the Democrats, I see scary overtones of the debacle that was the 1968 presidential election.
The vitriol and self-righteous anger coming from the Sanders and Clinton camps—and most important, from their legions of partisans, directed at each other—seems too reminiscent of what happened to the Democrats in 1968. That year, on the antiwar left, the Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy camps hated each other, with the McCarthy people seeing Kennedy as an opportunist. McCarthy was the Senator/poet insurrectionist; Kennedy was earnest liberal who would bring back Camelot. Both pledged to end the Vietnam War.
When Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, that internecine battle shifted to an even deeper hatred between McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, eventual Democratic nominee.
The self-righteous anger on the left was deepened by the riots engendered by Mayor Daley’s police goons at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in August 1968. Eventually, with the Democrats in chaos, Richard Nixon won the presidency, and the whole mess ushered in 24 years of right-wing Republican rule (with a four-year interregnum in the middle, the hapless Jimmy Carter presidency). Those 24 years brought forth deep corruption, including seven more years of the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the War on Drugs, Al Qaeda, Clarence Thomas, and so much more. And maybe most important, that seeming Republican lock on the presidency saw the Democrats turning to the right and embracing neoliberalism as a way to end the Republican reign, which brought us Bill Clinton.
Drawing direct historical parallels is of course fraught with dangerous pitfalls, but it is easy to see Bernie Sanders filling in for McCarthy, who drew legions of young supporters in 1968. Hillary Clinton pulls from both Kennedy and Humphrey. Kennedy, in some ways a solid liberal, had skeletons in his liberal closet. He was tainted by his years as Attorney General under his brother, President John Kennedy, years in which J. Edgar Hoover was allowed to run a repressive police operation in the FBI. Humphrey, on the other hand, embraced solidly liberal domestic policies with a hawkish foreign policy. Sound familiar?
In 1968, with Eugene McCarthy’s defeat, the antiwar left was cast adrift, in terms of electoral politics. McCarthy couldn’t bring himself to support Humphrey.
The synopsis above is a simplified version of a complex campaign; there were a lot of other factors, including the late entry of George McGovern into the 1968 race. But what’s key is that vitriolic anger, and an inability to forge alliances with prospective allies who just are not pure enough to be part of the club. And I wonder if that anger in 2016 might not allow the Democrats to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.