While a student, Al Kagan worked on the Eugene McCarthy campaign for president in New Hampshire, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Washington, DC., and experienced the 1968 Democratic Convention. He also did a bit of work on the Bernie Sanders campaign.
The 1968 Presidential Campaign
The Civil Rights and Black Power movements were strong in 1968, and significant anti-racist legislation had been passed in Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and urban rebellions rocked the country. The Poor Peoples’ Campaign brought thousands to camp out on the Washington Mall. The Vietnam War was raging, and the Tet Offensive proved that the Viet Cong were strong. Hundreds of thousands of students were marching in Washington and everywhere else against the war. US government officials agreed to negotiate with North Vietnam at the Paris Peace Talks. This massive pressure forced President Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term.
A counterculture was rising, with values antithetical to the dominant corporate culture. It valued personal freedom, tolerance, equality, community, holistic living, sexual liberation, and recreational drugs. Some established urban communes and some went “back to the land.” Some were apolitical, but others combined counterculture with radical politics. All manner of leftist political groups sprang up. This “New Left” distinguished itself from the dogmatic and hierarchical Old Left, although sectarian left politics never disappeared. By the end of 1969, radical groups sprang up advocating the violent overthrow of the US government.
The military draft was a huge motivator for young men to join the anti-war movement, march, burn their draft cards, commit civil disobedience, leave for Canada or Sweden, or just drop out and go underground. Some used tricks to get medical exemptions, and others became conscientious objectors. Many inside the military organized off-base anti-war coffee houses, applied for conscientious objector status, or went AWOL. Young soldiers often disobeyed their officers, and some even “fragged” them (threw grenades into their tents). Young women, although not subject to the draft, were almost as equally motivated to oppose the war.
Senator Eugene McCarthy was the peace candidate inside the Democratic Party. He mobilized thousands of young people to campaign in presidential primaries across the country. Men were urged to “Get Clean for Gene,” meaning cut long hair and shave to make a good impression on middle America. After a few months, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy became the second peace candidate.
There were massive demonstrations and police riots at the notorious 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Many young people were hospitalized, even some McCarthy volunteers who were beaten in their hotel beds. Thousands of demonstrators chanted “The Whole World Is Watching.” But the Democratic Party establishment nominated discredited pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey for president. McCarthy did not campaign for Humphrey, and remained silent until October, when he did endorse Humphrey. So it is no surprise that Republican Senator Richard Nixon became president. He promised to end the war, but refused to say how.
The 1972 Presidential Campaign
Although the anti-war movement continued unabated, President Nixon was in a strong position. He had concocted a strategy of “Vietnamization,” the withdrawal of large numbers of American troops while supposedly building up South Vietnam’s military. Although later shown to be a total failure, this was great for electioneering. And Nixon won praise for his very surprising overture to China, ending a hostile relationship in place since the Chinese revolution in 1949. Democrats were divided, but this time the peace candidate won the nomination, George McGovern. The Republicans succeeded in branding McGovern as weak on defense, and some southern Democrats left the party. Even worse, the AFL-CIO remained neutral. In the end, Nixon won re-election by a landslide. McGovern later acknowledged that he had run a disastrous campaign.
The 2016 Presidential Campaign
2016 is relatively calm compared to 1968 or 1972. The exception is of course in African-American communities, which have suffered so much police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement is strong and other movements are gearing up, especially the environmental, prison justice, Fight for $15, transgender, and Palestinian rights movements. The Bernie Sanders campaign for president captured the imagination of young people who understand that a better country is possible.
As opposed to 1968 and 1972, there is no draft, and US foreign policy has been nearly absent from the presidential campaigns, except for obligatory statements about fighting terrorism. Bernie Sanders made just a brief mention of Palestinian rights and the US overthrow of governments during the 1970s. Even though the US is bombing Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, and helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen, there is no longer any significant movement to stop the American military’s killing machine, perhaps in part because drone bombing significantly lowers the number of American soldiers killed and maimed.
There has been a massive accumulation of elite and corporate political power and wealth since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Unions have been systematically attacked, and the distribution of wealth is much more skewed. The end of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union demotivated the capitalist class to willingly provide benefits to working people. Many Americans do not see raises, but rather cuts in benefits. Many feel that their jobs are in constant jeopardy, are underemployed, or are working part-time. Many have dropped out of the labor force entirely. Many young people are scrambling to work two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Although the Sanders campaign did exceptionally well through grassroots organizing, the political establishment appears to have weathered the storm. Although Hillary Clinton is roundly discredited as corrupt and self-serving, the Democratic Party establishment had no problem in nominating her for president. Sanders endorsed her to beat neo-fascist Donald Trump, and it appears that most Sanders supporters will grit their teeth and vote for her, at least in the key contested states.
Is There Hope for the Future?
As many young people adopted some variation of socialism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people are again viewing socialism as a viable alternative to the dysfunctional economic system. However, as opposed to 1968, few people belong to avowedly socialist groups today. Although young people generally have more progressive views than older folks, there is less of a “generation gap” today than in 1968, when a popular youth slogan was “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30.” Perhaps the threat of fascism at home is more real today than it was in 1968? Privacy rights are under attack, and new technologies make spying on everyone so much easier. Richard Nixon was a much more mainstream centrist candidate than Donald Trump today. Years of the Republican Party’s appealing to right-wing racists, but without using overt language, have reached a logical conclusion. Trump now overtly shouts his law and order anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric for all to hear.
Although Jill Stein (Green Party) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) are on most ballots, neither has a chance of winning. So what would it take for our political system to produce an electable candidate who would represent the 99% instead of the 1%? Changing our profoundly dysfunctional system will take a serious organized resistance, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. Both McCarthy and McGovern were primarily anti-war candidates, but Sanders has broad appeal because he concentrates on bread and butter issues, and the rigged economic system that is leaving more and more people out. Sanders indeed changed the terms of the debate, and Hillary Clinton was forced to partially or fully adopt many of Sander’s proposals. It remains to be seen if the Sanders “political revolution” along with growing social movements can eventually overcome established interests.
Power to the People!