The division in this country right now seems similar to the division that led to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Back then, we faced a backlash from social progress and social legislation that inflamed passions of both the right and left. Today, instead of passing Civil Rights and Great Society legislation, we elected a black president and passed a sweeping health care reform bill. Like the late sixties, one side rose up in opposition to the changes to our society and laws while the other thought even greater transformation was on the horizon and they pushed for more than the country would tolerate.
1968 was among the most contentious years we had until now. The Vietnam War was raging and so were the protests against it. At the Olympics, African-American medal winners raised a fist in support of Black Power, a gesture that drew cheers from activists on the left and jeers from those on the right. Lyndon Johnson was so unpopular, he declined to run for re-election. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. In June, it was Bobby Kennedy. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into mass protests with violent police crack downs.
The Democratic Party was divided between the establishment that had been in control for more than thirty years and the anti-war, pro-civil rights activists. The coalition of conservative Southern Democrats, union labor and Northern liberals was coming apart at the seams. Working-class white America, feared the changes and the upheaval in society. They wanted order and patriotism. With the help of George Wallace’s Independent Party, the so-called Silent Majority put Nixon in the White House.
While we haven’t yet seen the violence that marred 1968, we’re seeing the same forces at odds today, if for different reasons. The rise of white nationalism simmered under Obama with birtherism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Trump empowered it and brought it to the surface. Activists from the left have responded with large and sustained protests to Trump and his policies.
As we head into the 2018 cycle, the Democratic Party is split again. This time, the divide is between those who want to focus on economic populism and those who want to push for more social change. Activists are demanding statues commemorating the Confederacy come down and athletes are kneeling instead of standing for the national anthem to draw attention of the plight of African-Americans.
White middle America doesn’t relate to the protests but associates them with Democrats. They don’t see a movement to end white supremacy; they see vandalism and disrespect for public property. They don’t know why those football players are kneeling for the national anthem; they just think they’re disrespecting the flag and the country.
Trump is trying to divide the country. He knows that stirring up the social justice warriors will further consolidate his base against them. His twitter barbs at Kim Jung Un play well with the likes of Franklin Graham and the Christian Right even if they undermine international stability. He’s keeping the people who gave him the GOP nomination engaged in the process. It’s not good for the country but it’s good for Trump.
If the 2018 election is about social instead of economic change, Republicans will do better than they should. Continued upheaval will keep moderate voters who are unhappy with Trump away from the polls. Trump supporters who would normally sit out a midterm will be engaged to protect monuments, the flag and the president.
Like 1968, this year may be the beginning of years of turmoil. A fractured Democratic Party will have difficulty at the ballot box but a fractured Republican one may abandon traditional conservative principles. The protest movement of the late 1960s gave way to the leisure suits of the 1970s and eventually the Reagan Revolution in 1980. It also began decades of improved, if imperfect, race relations and the development of a more substantial black middle class. Who knows where we’re headed now.