2016 Is Not 1968
The problem with this time-honored method was that Kennedy’s victory over such convention-squatters as Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson had proved it was no longer the only route to the nomination. By the time then-President Johnson announced his decision not to seek a second full term, two other Democrats, both decidedly anti-Vietnam War, were taking advantage of the accrual of popular support afforded by the primary system—first Senator Eugene McCarthy and his middle-class cohort, and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s poorer and more multiracial coalition. Meanwhile, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, hewing to his boss’s Vietnam policy, also adhered to Johnson’s 1960 precedent of ignoring the primary process in order to inherit the nomination on the floor of the Chicago Amphitheatre. The result of this decision must have surprised Humphrey, having decades before established his reputation as a liberal tribune. The diminishment of McCarthy’s ambitions combined with the untimely assassination of RFK left a vacuum in Chicago that a) antiwar Democrats were avid to fill with one of their own, and b) were adamant not be filled by the not-yet-victorious Humphrey, who not only erred in his opinions on Vietnam but had ignored the primary electorate’s initial blessing. Such was the anger that lefty delegates attempted to nominate Ted Kennedy and, failing that, George McGovern. In the aftermath of Humphrey’s defeat, intraparty rules were even changed to better reflect the primacy of primaries.
Donald Trump, to put it simply, does not suffer from the same crisis of legitimacy. Like it or not, here is a man who dispatched sixteen different opponents for the Republican nomination with far greater ease than most would have thought around this time last year. Furthermore, he did this all before reaching Cleveland, competing in every primary and ending up with a greater haul of popular votes to his name than any prior winner to have mounted the RNC stage. For him to have pried a defeat from the jaws of victory would have seen Republicans, in spite of the semantics surrounding bound and unbound delegates, indulge the same democratic deficit that the Democratic leaders of nearly fifty years ago allowed by laureling Humphrey. This, in turn, could have led to the same discord for the drafted Republican ticket that plagued the Humphrey/Muskie ticket as it limped out of the starting gate.
2. Today’s coalition of protesters don’t have as much at stake.
The politics of protest are always at their most exciting when they are imbued with a sense of purpose; vague platitudes can be the terrain of the armchair enthusiast, but men and women of action are needed to translate those platitudes into progress. But while each movement’s grassroots views its particular cause celebre with an equal sense of urgency, to paraphrase from Animal Farm, some causes are more urgent than others.
In Chicago 1968, the primary protest cause was, of course, the Vietnam War. But different segments of the populations experienced different Vietnam Wars. One of the most reiterated lines of argument is that the war was waged on the backs of African-Americans, a sentiment that lent inspiration to the final phase of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life in activism. Undoubtedly the experience of black soldiers was far harsher than their white brothers-in-arms. But in terms of actual risking of life and limb, the death toll among black soldiers by war’s end in 1973 was 12.5 percent of total casualties compared to a total stateside population of 13.5 percent.
What might be a more telling barometer to measure the headwinds of Chicago’s tumult is the 76 percent of veterans described as lower middle/working class. Not incidentally, a nearly complementary 23 percent of veterans had fathers who possessed “professional, managerial, or technical occupations.” Read into this difference between the hard hat and the white collar and it is possible to discern a common unifying theme: the inaccessibility of a college education. Nothing is much thought now of the banality of the high school-to-college transition, but only in the aftermath of the Second World War with the passage of the G.I. Bill were semesters spent amongst books and professors seen as something other than the preserve of the wealthy. Nevertheless, egalitarianism took time to set in; by 1968, still only 13.3 percent of American males completed four years of college. With student deferment being the primary means of avoiding the draft, Baby Boomer protesters who found themselves statistically boxed out of admission in an increasingly competitive process (a noticeable uptick in college applications occurred in the late ‘60s) had a personal reason to rally outside the convention—without the safety of the classroom, it could have potentially been their war.