Today marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 presidential election, in which Richard Milhous Nixon defeated the Democratic nominee, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and became the 37th President of the United States. The Watergate break-in was still four years away, the ensuing scandal of which ultimately forced Nixon to resign the presidency on August 9th, 1974, preventing the House from impeaching him. But long before his resignation, on Election Day, Tuesday, November 5th, 1968, many Americans already knew that the country had taken a turn for the worse. Tomorrow, Americans will vote in the 2018 midterms. And although the bookends of this fifty-year timeline aren’t perfect (Election Day 1968 was a presidential election and tomorrow is a midterm election) and despite the fact that the political landscapes of these two moments are completely different, it’s good to check in on the past half-century if for no other reason than to see how far we’ve come and to gauge where it is we might be heading.
While many of us assume that the current political situation is the worst the country has ever seen, it helps to keep things in perspective by comparing our own time with fifty years ago. For one, the country was in complete turmoil in 1968: the United States was fully engaged in the Vietnam War, a quagmire that divided the country between war-mongering “hawks” and peace-loving “doves.” Throughout the year, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks against U.S. military and civilian targets throughout South Vietnam, which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides and shocked the U.S. public who had been led to believe that the North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation. In March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on national television to speak to the American people about his “Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam,” famously closing his speech with his announcement, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” opening the door for Robert “Bobby” Kennedy to run on the Democratic ticket. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., an icon of the civil rights movement, was shot and killed in Memphis Tennessee. Several hours later, Bobby Kennedy, who was campaigning in Indiana at the time to earn the Democratic Party’s nomination, buried his face into his hands and said, “Oh God. When is this violence going to stop?” A little over two months later, Kennedy was himself killed by a lone gunman at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. As if all this wasn’t enough, the Democratic National Convention that year turned into a bloodbath with protesters being beaten by police outside the convention in the streets and parks of Chicago. And there were many other riots across the country that year. All-and-all, 1968 was a pretty bad year for America, culminating with the election of Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
So what does all this mean? Why should we care about 1968? Isn’t fifty years an arbitrary timeframe? Yes, a five-decade span of time is fairly arbitrary, as historical events tend not to fit neatly into ten-year units. (Presidential terms themselves are four to eight years.) Nonetheless, history is divided into centuries for simplicity’s sake, and a half-century is generationally relevant in that many Americans who lived through 1968 remember that tumultuous year quite well. Further, the past fifty years of American history constitute a split between what has been recognized as a cultural move to the Left and a political move to the Right. Since the late ‘60s, the American people have become more progressive in their values while the political establishment has become more conservative. Jimmy Carter was president for only one term and the Clinton and Obama presidencies represent what is known as Neoliberalism, which is hardly liberal and a far cry from the progressive reforms that began in the late nineteenth century. True, we have come quite far in many other ways. The legal right of women to vote was nationally secured in 1920, and though there remains much work to be done, rights for people of color, the LGBT community, the disabled, the elderly, and the working class have all come very far over the course of the last century as well. But political gains remain precarious and this is why tomorrow’s midterm elections are so important. From Watergate to what John Oliver refers to as “Stupid Watergate,” we have seen our country lose its way politically. We can’t stay home and hope that things will just get better. If there’s even going to be a House to impeach Trump (assuming that’s the best strategy for the Democrats), we have to get out and vote and try to restore some sanity to our country.