Today we welcome a guest post from Aram Goudsouzian, author of The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America, just published by UNC Press.
The presidential election of 1968 forever changed American politics. In this character-driven narrative history, Aram Goudsouzian portrays the key transformations that played out over that dramatic year. It was the last “Old Politics” campaign, where political machines and party bosses determined the major nominees, even as the “New Politics” of grassroots participation powered primary elections. It was an election that showed how candidates from both the Left and Right could seize on “hot-button” issues to alter the larger political dynamic. It showcased the power of television to “package” politicians and political ideas, and it played out against an extraordinary dramatic global tableau of chaos and conflict. More than anything else, it was a moment decided by a contest of political personalities, as a group of men battled for the presidency, with momentous implications for the nation’s future. Well-paced, accessible, and engagingly written, Goudsouzian’s book chronicles anew the characters and events of the 1968 campaign as an essential moment in American history, one with clear resonance in our contemporary political moment.
The Men and the Moment is avaialble now in both print and ebook editions.
Politics, Old and New
Throughout the presidential election of 1968, pundits buzzed about the “New Politics.” The term had no single meaning, but it adopted special significance amidst that year’s great upheavals. At heart, the New Politics represented a new way of selecting party nominees for the presidency – by taking politics right to the people. Although no candidate of the New Politics triumphed in 1968, the trend had profound implications for the nation’s future, showcasing both the promises and perils of popular democracy.
Under the “Old Politics,” party insiders controlled the nominating process. Only a handful of states had open primaries, where popular votes determined the delegation at the national party convention. In other states, a prominent politician ran as a “favorite son,” so he could control those delegates and trade political favors. In still other states, the primaries were “beauty contests,” with no effect on the actual delegation. Many states had no primary at all – just a convention of party officials. So the national delegates tended to be products of the party bureaucracy, often more loyal to party leaders than popular preference.
In 1968, the first candidate associated with the New Politics was Eugene McCarthy. The cerebral, diffident senator from Minnesota was an unlikely challenger to his fellow Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson, but he ran to oppose the Vietnam War. During that winter’s New Hampshire primary, McCarthy took 42% of the vote, an astounding repudiation of an incumbent president. Though a languid campaigner, McCarthy had an army of student volunteers who traipsed through the freezing cold, canvassing door-to-door and passing out flyers. The people-powered campaign capitalized on doubts about the war, stoked by the recent Tet Offensive. Soon came LBJ’s shocking announcement on March 31 that he would not seek re-election.
The Republicans, too, had a New Politics candidate. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the standard-bearer of the party’s progressive wing, envisioned peace in Vietnam and social justice at home. He entered the election too late to compete in the primaries, so unlike McCarthy’s grassroots effort, he ran a mass-media campaign designed to demonstrate that only he, among the Republicans, could win the general election. He ran 337 full-page ads in fifty-four newspapers, aired constant commercials on local and network television, and staged made-for-TV-news events such as stagecoach rides in Idaho and convertible processions through Manhattan. This billionaire cast himself as a man of the people, hoping that enough delegates at the Republican National Convention would see him as their best hope on Election Day.
No candidate embodied the New Politics more than Robert F. Kennedy. Since the 1963 assassination of his brother, Kennedy had exhibited a new empathy for the downtrodden, developed a more relaxed and ironic persona, and questioned the Vietnam War. The New York senator capitalized on his personal charisma and modern technology to bypass machine politics. In primary campaigns from Indiana to California, he launched an advertising blitz through television, radio, and print, while staging huge rallies and train processions that demonstrated the wild enthusiasm of his followers, including the young, the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities. Kennedy was seeking a new Democratic coalition, one geared to the concerns of poor and working-class people of all stripes.
When Kennedy was shot and killed in early June, just after winning the California primary, it derailed the optimism of the New Politics. Rather than rally the liberal anti-war wing of the Democratic Party, Eugene McCarthy entered a deep funk, and he failed to mount a legitimate challenge for the nomination. Without Kennedy to stir conservatives’ fears about a charismatic, class-oriented challenger for the presidency, Nelson Rockefeller lost his best argument that the Republicans should nominate a popular moderate. Both parties picked establishment candidates: Republican stalwart Richard Nixon, and Democratic vice-president Hubert Humphrey. In 1968, the Old Politics still reigned.
Yet there was one more New Politics candidate, even if few pundits identified him in that vein. While other challenges to the establishment came from progressives, George Wallace tapped into strains of conservative populist resentment. During his frenetic public events, Wallace railed against liberal bureaucrats, media snobs, haughty judges, radical professors, and other elites who threatened the status of his white, working-class constituency. As Alabama governor, both before and after this presidential run, he was a Democrat. But he ran as an independent in 1968, bringing his version of southern conservatism to a national audience.
Wallace ran a grassroots campaign. Over 75% of his contributions were under $100. His loyal followers paid admission for rallies and bought buttons, posters, and bumper stickers. His on-the-fly barnstorming tour generated surging poll numbers through September of 1968, stirring concerns that he would prevent either party from winning an Electoral College majority, which would then throw the election to the House of Representatives.
Wallace’s campaign fizzled before Election Day, and Nixon emerged as the victor. But the Republican Party’s future would rely, in part, on Wallace’s conservative “gut” issues; in his calls for “law and order” and his paeans to the “silent majority,” Nixon exploited voters’ anxieties about race, radicalism, morals, and crime. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was enacting reforms to open up delegate selection, which led to the nomination of the liberal George McGovern in 1972. The New Politics might not have triumphed in 1968, but they helped to forge the modern identities of both major political parties.
Aram Goudsouzian is professor of history at the University of Memphis. His previous books include Sidney Poitier and Down to the Crossroads. For more information, visit his website.