2016 Is Not 1968
From what I observed firsthand in Cleveland, aside from the presence of Black Lives Matter protesting police brutality, the most inveighed against topics were Trump’s policies toward Latin American and Muslim immigration. While it is hard to doubt the sincerity with which many of the white faces (easily a majority of the aforementioned hand-holding protest) denounced these twin tent poles of Trumpism, it is also hard to picture them feeling the same sense of personal fear of deportation as many of the young men in Chicago felt regarding potential death in a rice paddy. This, in turn, robs the protest of what it most requires: dedication to cause that will not just melt away once the Thin Blue Line appears (as most of the Cleveland ones did). Far from a racial or ethnic demographic dictating solidarity, it seems as though a pervading fear among a certain age cohort matters far more.
3. A meddling mayor vs. a disinterested one.
The Great Man theory of history has fallen out of favor lately, but it is still important to take note of how personalities can turn the tiller of history. The fact that Mayor Richard J. Daley was presiding over Chicago at the time of the convention ensured that it ended the way it did. Daley himself stood atop a growing fault line that would only become more seismic in the decades to come: the young liberals who made their presence known in Grant Park, and the white, working class voters—once reliable members of the New Deal coalition, but soon to join up with Nixon’s “silent majority” and end their political odyssey as “Reagan Democrats”—from whose ranks the Irish Catholic Daley had himself originated.
As recounted by Newton Minow, a close Kennedy consiglieri, Daley had expressed his personal trepidations about the seemingly ceaseless spiral of men and funds down the Vietnam drain. But he also recognized earlier than most party luminaries that white, working class Democrats who voted the party line on pocketbook issues would not abide a scene of permissive, lawless chaos. A review of the Daley biography American Pharaoh puts it thus: “Daley had come to see the protests as a challenge not to the war but to the sense of order and traditional social values that were crucial to him. And so he overreacted.”
This overreaction—a natural extension of Daley’s attempt to placate a demographic faction of the party at the expense of another—took the form of 11,900 CPD officers and 7,500 Illinois National Guardsmen who, far from the stoicism and restraint of the multiple police contingents in Cleveland, allowed themselves to be drawn into confrontation; a later inquiry described it aptly as “a police riot.” As a Democrat, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson played no role in the hurly-burly of internecine Republican squabbling beyond formally welcoming the delegates on Day One. Therefore, he could have hardly been blamed for street violence emanating from the GOP’s own internal inability to bridge its factional gulfs.
I wasn’t in Philadelphia for the Democrats’ own conclave, but the press accounts suggest it was the same story. The superdelegate and platform controversies were resolved amicably and did not turn into major crises of legitimacy. Bernie energized the left, but directed it toward supporting Hillary, not into the streets. The “Mothers of the Movement” appeared on the DNC stage, not at the head of a rival protest. There may be real splits within the Democratic Party and the Democratic leadership, and Donald Trump might not be sitting down for Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka with John McCain or doing P90X with Paul Ryan anytime soon, but both parties’ conventions peacefully absorbed new political currents. 1968 was a year of political and social chaos; 2016, thankfully, does not compare.
Matthew Pennekamp is a resident junior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.