The line of protesters at the Republican National Convention ambled their way into Cleveland’s Public Square, festooned in individual brick wall costumes given a common span by their interlocked hands. Some were chanting pithy slogans of the positivist pro-love type (“The walls that they build to tear us apart / Will never be as strong as the walls in our heart”), some the more adversarial anti-Trump variety (“There is no debate / Trump equals hate”). Others made small talk and flashed immediate, amiable smiles when they caught sight of like-minded observers. Receptive watchers, however, were few and far between. “So ineffective!,” one exception casually declared, to which his companion replied, “It’s just something to do to feel like you’re doing something.” These two passers-by did not betray a partisan affiliation by either their appearance or words. They wore neither the dirt-caked beards of the anarchist left nor the “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts made ubiquitous by the efforts of Alex Jones and Co. Indeed, their tone could neither be called joyous nor rueful; the words uttered were as cut-and-dry as a court reporter’s typeset. As they saw it, what was supposed to occur with a bang instead elicited a mere whimper.
The lack of unrest in Cleveland surprised many who had observed the “bang” quality of commentary leading up to the RNC. A plethora of news outlets— NPR, the Boston Globe , Mother Jones , and New York Magazine among them—had speculated that Donald Trump’s temperament and penchant for reaping fracas could easily cause the convention to degenerate into the sort of outright bedlam seen only once in modern American political history: at the Democrats’ 1968 conclave in Chicago. There, a ten-thousand-strong phalanx of youthful protesters chanting a more forceful line—“The whole world is watching!—battled the Chicago Police Department. Observing a palpable lack of billy clubs, paddywagons, and tear-gas clouds wafting over Lake Erie, though, it became apparent that Cleveland 2016 would not go down in history as a redux of Chicago 1968. Upon reflection, it is clear that in their eagerness to report on history, the media ignored a number of discontinuities that easily explain why protest violence didn’t erupt. And it was the same story the week after in Philadelphia, where deep splits within the Democratic Party were evident—Bernie supporters booing speakers and waving signs for Green Party candidate Jill Stein—but there were no riots or mass arrests.
Beyond the cheap seats of the conventions, the swell of commentary comparing 2016 to 1968 persists: the racial tension, the air of political crisis, the persistence of Roger Stone , the hawkish establishment Democratic nominee, and so forth. Yet on closer examination, the apparent analogies fade. Black Lives Matter isn’t inspiring a million students to walk out of classes ( as Students for a Democratic Society did ) or taking faculty members hostage (as SDS also did ). Inner cities aren’t being burned out by rioters. Afghanistan is not Vietnam. National political figures like RFK and MLK are not being assassinated. 1968 was tragedy; 2016 is farce. Let’s explore the disanalogies in more detail in one of these cases: the expectations that the RNC would be another Chicago 1968.
1. The 1968 Democratic Party’s crisis of legitimacy is not echoed in today’s Republican Party.
As late as 1968, the notion of competing in primary contests in order to win a party nomination was somewhat novel. The process had only been revolutionized by John F. Kennedy eight years prior, mainly to prove his competitiveness as an Irish Catholic in largely Protestant states such as Wisconsin and West Virginia. So in the lead-up to Chicago, a candidate had the choice of either taking his message directly to the voters, or else relying, as generations of previous Democratic nominees had, on courting party elders holding sway over state delegations and translating this backroom support into a wave of momentum come the convention.
The problem with this time-honored method was that Kennedy’s victory over such convention-squatters as Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson had proved it was no longer the only route to the nomination. By the time then-President Johnson announced his decision not to seek a second full term, two other Democrats, both decidedly anti-Vietnam War, were taking advantage of the accrual of popular support afforded by the primary system—first Senator Eugene McCarthy and his middle-class cohort, and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s poorer and more multiracial coalition. Meanwhile, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, hewing to his boss’s Vietnam policy, also adhered to Johnson’s 1960 precedent of ignoring the primary process in order to inherit the nomination on the floor of the Chicago Amphitheatre. The result of this decision must have surprised Humphrey, having decades before established his reputation as a liberal tribune. The diminishment of McCarthy’s ambitions combined with the untimely assassination of RFK left a vacuum in Chicago that a) antiwar Democrats were avid to fill with one of their own, and b) were adamant not be filled by the not-yet-victorious Humphrey, who not only erred in his opinions on Vietnam but had ignored the primary electorate’s initial blessing. Such was the anger that lefty delegates attempted to nominate Ted Kennedy and, failing that, George McGovern. In the aftermath of Humphrey’s defeat, intraparty rules were even changed to better reflect the primacy of primaries.