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American Maelstrom on 1968 and politics

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Michael Cohen’s American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division provides a useful and easy-to-read history of the 1968 election cycle. Cohen opens with LBJ’s perspective after the 1964 election. He had been a prodigious legislator as a Senator. As a re-elected president, he had control of Congress and a perceived mandate after crushing Barry Goldwater. Cohen argues that the “mandate” was more about maintaining the status quo and opposition to Goldwater’s perceived radicalism– than LBJ’s penchant for activism. In any case, his energy, resolve, and deal-making ability resulted in an amazing flurry of domestic policies. 

Cohen then jumps into foreign policy and allows us to reminisce about a powerful anti-War movement– when the Left cared a lot more about this topic (p. 23, 31, 35-50). Hubert Humphrey had been opposed to the Vietnam policy and wrote a prophetic memo (70). But then he swallowed his whistle and became a cheerleader as vice president under LBJ– the means justified by the end of him wanting to become president (77). LBJ got immersed in Vietnam and talked about backtracking, but the actions never matched the words (158). 

The Primary Characters 
Eugene McCarthy courageously decided to challenge LBJ in the primaries, based on opposition to his approach in Vietnam (133). While McCarthy was an uneven campaigner (137), his entry into the fray and his surprising near-win in NH paved the way for RFK’s entry, LBJ’s exit, and Hubert Humphrey’s entry soon after. 

Cohen describes the popular history of RFK’s run as mythical– “informed more by hagiography than history” (147). (One can say the same thing about his brother JFK’s presidency.) RFK was murdered in early June, just after his narrow victory in the CA primary over McCarthy (139). (Johnson had become more popular after declining to run– and with the mess among his potential replacements, he strongly considered getting back in the race [159-160]!) But Cohen argues persuasively that RFK was never likely to beat Humphrey (146-149). 

MLK Jr. had been murdered on April 4th. The Voting Rights Act was passed on August 5th, but six days later, a traffic stop went poorly in Watts, leading to riots. Crime and mayhem both increased dramatically (28) leading to more backlash from voters and fueling what would be a disastrous convention for the Democrats in Chicago later that month. 

On the GOP side, George Romney was a successful governor in Michigan, but his skills and passion did not translate to the national stage. He was relatively liberal, a gaffe machine, vague on foreign policy, and helpful to Nixon as a distraction. Nelson Rockefeller was the long-time governor of NY, a “technocrat”, a “reformer”, and a “do-er” (195), but too tentative on the national stage. He was effective with the public, but had repeatedly annoyed party insiders– e.g., attacking Eisenhower and Nixon in 1960 on foreign policy (198). An awkward divorce and remarriage in 1962-63 was another roadblock for his political future (200). 

But Nixon and Reagan are the most important and interesting characters here. Cohen describes Nixon as a “progressive conservative” in terms of domestic policy (175); a foreign policy “wise man” after his loss in the 1962 governor’s race; and a “great” politician who recast himself (again) and enjoyed a second political resurrection (170). 

Reagan was emerging as a political force– with a key speech on conservatism in 1964 (more palatable than Goldwater) and then, in the 1968 primary season (as the governor of CA). Apparently, he was thought to have a “meager knowledge of public policy” (210). This seems strange for an Econ major, but perhaps his policy prowess emerged later. (I have read that he spent a lot of time on thinking about policy and enunciating positions in the 1970s.) He combined a law-and-order emphasis, pragmatic fiscal conservatism, and an anti-elite but optimistic style that was attractive to voters. But it was too early for him to win the nomination, even with Nixon’s checkered political background. 

Cohen devotes a chapter to AL governor George Wallace– a 3rd-party candidate who did really well: 14% of the popular vote and 8% of the electoral vote– the last non-Dem/GOP candidate to win a state. Wallace also had some influence on political rhetoric going forward. In Cohen’s estimation, the impact was huge. But it seems more correlation than causation– as other candidates in both major parties and independents like Ross Perot– continued to attract the voters drawn to Wallace. (He had earned more than a third of the vote in three 1964 Democratic primaries [WI, IN, MD] and was arguably leading the race as a Democrat in 1972 before being shot and paralyzed.) Cohen describes Wallace as “an extraordinary political manipulator” (221). But again, it’s not clear whether he was manipulating as much as reflecting. To that point, Cohen describes Wallace as a product of heightened democracy in the 1960s (232-233)– one of the downsides of fervent democratic practice. 

Wallace attracted racists, but also voters who were concerned about social change, law and order, elites, and coercive school busing. Ironically, his aggression against blacks as governor helped both him and the Civil Rights movement, by giving national politicians a convenient foil (229). Interestingly, Wallace started his political career as an anti-racist, before flipping after getting beat in an election (223). (In this, he was like Elizabeth Warren, in changing sides when he knew better. At least, Wallace flipped back late in his political career, after becoming a Christian, with an impressive Civil Rights record in his final term as governor.) He had been a prolific New Deal Democrat (234). He was very popular as governor and tried to evade term limits. When that failed, his wife Lurleen ran in 1966, when she was elected as the state’s first female governor. (She died of cancer in May 1968, stopping his presidential campaign for five weeks.) 

The Conventions and the General Election 
With the primary characters described (pun intended), Cohen turns to the two conventions: the GOP in Miami and the Dems in Chicago. (We are introduced to Spiro T. Agnew here– who Cohen depicts as being in the right place at the right time throughout his political career [254-257]. He also adds more detail on Humphrey’s vacillation and the prospect of a late entry by another Kennedy: Ted!) Given the structure of the primaries at the time, neither party’s nomination was clinched. (The Dems would make dramatic changes after this cycle, putting much more weight into primaries and caucuses.) But Nixon and Humphrey were clear favorites– and there was relatively little drama, at least on-stage. (Cohen describes a variety of machinations behind the scenes. But none of it amounted to much.)  

The real drama was outside the convention, as Mayor Daley told his police to be rough with protesters and the media (261). In Cohen’s telling, Miami was fitting since it was “plastic”. And Chicago was appropriate given its cronyism, Daley’s emphasis on law-and-order, and the tension there between working-class ethnics and African-Americans. Throw in some other opponents: Vietnam vs. Hippies; Segregationalists vs. Blacks; Daley vs. Jews (281)– and the propensity for mayhem and violence reached epic proportions, an embarrassment to the Democrat party and a millstone for Humphrey’s candidacy. 

Given the public’s dissatisfaction with the Democrat administration and the debacle of the Democrat convention, Nixon started with a tremendous lead. In fact, Humphrey was closer to Wallace in the polls. Wallace faded a bit with his choice of ultra-hawk General Curtis LeMay. His lack of subtlety about the military in general and nukes in particular was a liability. (This was reminiscent of Perot’s massive stumble in 1992 by choosing Admiral Stockdale.) 

Humphrey finally found the courage to step away from LBJ on Vietnam in Salt Lake City on September 30th. Momentum changed dramatically: energy increased; money and endorsements rolled in; and the embarrassing heckling of the anti-War Left turned to cheers. The VP choices also seemed to matter a bit: Agnew as a liability and Muskie as a star (316-318). Cohen also has a long discussion of a potential “October surprise”: LBJ’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese– with the potential for shenanigans on both sides and a focus on Nixon’s back-channel efforts (318-326). 

With a big lead, Nixon played it safe, including vague pronouncements, moderate policy stands, and a focus on image– what Humphrey described as a “papier-mache man” just after the election (330). The label was certainly true on domestic policy. (It doesn’t seem accurate on foreign policy or Watergate, but Cohen doesn’t speak to those at length.) Of course, the irony is that Humphrey was the pot calling the kettle black, especially in subsuming his “principles” on Vietnam to serve under LBJ. Cohen argues that he lost because the SLC speech came too late– and that his courage only emerged from desperation. 

It is noteworthy that an incumbent party lost an election, especially with a relatively healthy economy after a huge victory four years earlier. Vietnam would seem to be a causal candidate, but Cohen argues that it couldn’t be– at least in direct terms. The public was still ambivalent and the candidates were not that far apart on policy. But Vietnam fed the public’s general unease and the Anti-War faction was an embarrassing thorn in Humphrey’s side. And it certainly became a long-term problem for the Democrats (331-333). I understand and can sympathize with that, but I miss the days when they had a vibrant, principled liberal wing in their party. Today’s Democrats are almost as happy as the GOP to see military interventionism. 

1968 as a “pivotal” point for national politics? 
In the last two chapters, Cohen gets more explicit about tying 1968 to politics since then. The title of the book clearly fits; society and politics were a tumultuous “maelstrom” that year. But the book does not live up to its subtitle– imagining 1968 as a threshold moment for the “politics of division”. Cohen notes that Nixon’s victory “ushered in GOP presidential dominance”. True enough. But he also argues that it introduced ”four decades of division, incoherence, and parochialism in American politics”. This is unsupported– and, I think, unsupportable.
Given presidential elections, 1968 seems pivotal from a partisan lens. The GOP would win the presidency in every election until 2008– except for two relatively-conservative, Southern governors: Jimmy Carter in 1976 (a narrow post-Watergate win) and Bill Clinton in 1992/1996. But there’s more to the story than merely a flip of the switch in terms of elections or certainly, the dominant approach to politics. In fact, Cohen makes most of these points himself.  

First, 1968 was not so much pro-GOP as a repudiation of LBJ. (Nixon’s coattails were tiny.) Second, Nixon was a big-government president, expanding the War on Poverty (the real money starts flowing in his administration) and dramatically increasing the role of government throughout the economy. Third, Wallace had great success again in 1972– as a Democrat. Fourth, the Dems were busy with their own internal problems for years, indicating that this was not merely a matter of GOP political success. Fifth, there is always an ebb and flow to presidential politics and Senate majorities (177).  

Three points not mentioned by Cohen: The Democrats held the House for another 26 years, often with huge majorities. One might call Watergate partisan, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. And Reagan governed in an effective and bi-partisan manner through most of his term, including his massive marginal tax rate cut with a heavy-majority Dem House. None of this is helpful to Cohen’s thesis.  

Instead of 1968, I would point to the early-mid 1990s. The end of the Cold War removed an existential threat and changed the dynamics of partisan rivalry. (Does anyone remember that we used to worry, all the time, about nuclear weapons?) And in 1994, the GOP finally took over the House under Newt Gingrich, leading to Clinton’s “conservatism” (and a relatively strong presidency)– and ushering in an era when the battle for Congress became much more contentious. (Another key moment was Bush II’s ill-fated decision to go to Iraq and then stay there indefinitely– giving us Obama, which led to Trump.) 

Part of the problem is that Cohen imagines that the War on Poverty could have been far more successful. If so, the 1968 thesis has more pop. If not, then the “War” was going to inevitably inspire a small-government backlash– independent of Wallace, Nixon, etc. Cohen also seems confused by the different response of voters on extending civil liberties vs. domestic policies with economic and financial implications—again, as if politicians like Wallace and Nixon were required to stir a pot (25). Giving someone greater ability to vote is one thing (and quite popular); dramatically increasing redistribution is another. The general public was never going to be happy about this turn in policy 

Cohen argues that the immense number of programs passed in LBJ’s administration implied that the programs would struggle as they played out in practice. He blames “lack of attention to execution”, not being “adequately prepared”, and “inexperienced practitioners with minimal oversight” (17). Excuses like these are common when complex government activism falls short. It’s far more likely that the programs wouldn’t have worked anyway, given what they tried to accomplish. Along those lines, Cohen conflates these programs with government activism that had been much more effective in the 1930-1950s. But those earlier efforts were over-rated and low-hanging fruit; the later efforts were in areas inherently more difficult to have success. 

Similarly, Cohen observes that trust in government fell quickly– from 61% to 45%, from 1966 to 1968 (23). It would fall further in the next few years as well– not surprising given Vietnam, domestic turmoil, domestic policy failures, Watergate, and the debacles under Carter throughout the late 1970s. 

As such, it’s more compelling to see 1968 as correlated rather than causal– as an inevitable response to flawed policies, domestically and in Vietnam. While the landscape was changing dramatically in parts of the country, it’s a mistake to overstate the overall impact of 1968 within the country overall. 1968 was noteworthy and “pivotal” to some extent. (Maybe “inflection point” is a better term.) But singling it out for special notice and four decades of special influence is far more weight than it can carry. 

Cohen discusses the “Southern Strategy” but is careful not to put too much weight on it. This is an improvement over popular but facile analysis elsewhere. There are other important pieces to the puzzle. The GOP was a distinctly minority party, but the majority Democrats had ethnic minorities, labor unions, African-Americans, and liberals to balance– an impossible task, at least with Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty in the mix. Another angle not directly pursued by Cohen: to what extent did the GOP “go conservative” because its liberal leaders were unimpressive and Reagan, its champion in the wings, was so compelling politically?

And how can one consider the “politics of division” in this time period without addressing the topic of legalized abortion? Competing rights– here, between mother and child– usually lead to contention. The Dems made the fateful decision to go “pro-choice” instead of pro-life– and the political landscape would be dramatically different within 12 years. (George McKenna uses Rip Van Winkle as a thought experiment to explain why it’s surprising that the Dems did not advocate for the vulnerable.) How would politics be different today if the Dems had chosen to defend babies instead?

Still, Cohen’s book is useful as a history of a fascinating year in American society and politics. It was an important year in our nation’s history, even if it didn’t have the political impact that Cohen posits. 


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