CRF Blog

Lessons from the Election of 1968

by Bill Hayes

In Lessons from the Election of 1968 for the New Yorker, Louis Menand reflects on what that election tells about today.

The Convention left the Party fractured. McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey, who began the fall campaign far behind in the polls. “Right now, you’re dead,” his campaign manager, Lawrence O’Brien, told him. He did come back, and nearly made up the difference. At the end of September, he at last broke with Johnson and announced that he would halt the bombing. At the end of October, McCarthy finally endorsed Humphrey. It was not quite enough. On November 5th, something happened that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier: Richard Nixon was elected President.

The story of this election has been told in many books, from Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1968” and Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page’s mammoth “An American Melodrama,” both published in 1969, to Michael A. Cohen’s “American Maelstrom,” which came out in 2016. It is featured in classic histories of the postwar period, including Hodgson’s “America in Our Time,” Allen J. Matusow’s “The Unraveling of America,” G. Calvin MacKenzie and Robert Weisbrot’s “The Liberal Hour,” and Todd Gitlin’s “The Sixties.” The story of the 1968 Presidential election is like oral poetry, a saga passed down from bard to bard that no one (or no one of a certain age, maybe) seems to tire of hearing.

Lawrence O’Donnell’s “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” (Penguin) is the latest in this string of recitations. O’Donnell is the host of “The Last Word,” on MSNBC; he has worked on Capitol Hill, and he was a writer and producer for “The West Wing.” His book relies almost entirely on published sources, and so it adds little to what we know. But he is a talented storyteller, and his analysis of campaign tactics is sharp.

And the story of that election still matters. In 1968, Americans elected a man with some savvy and no principles. In 2016, they elected a man with neither. O’Donnell’s book makes it a little easier to understand how we got from there to here. It turns out that the distance is not all that great.

Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).

In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on. [more]