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1968 and Today
by Jonah Birch
November 5, 2004

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I think that a useful comparison for leftists today to use when talking to people about Bush is the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. The election that year took place in a context of growing social polarization and anger around the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1968, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had demonstrated the incredible unpopularity and weakness of the U.S. occupation in that country.

Nixon of course was a right-wing Republican, who had made his name as a vicious anti-Communist during the 1950s. His campaign was built around a deeply reactionary platform that included support for the War in Vietnam (though he did promise that he had a “secret plan” to end the War), opposition to court-ordered integration, a focus on “law-and-order,” and strong defense of the status quo against the Black Power and women’s rights movements.

His opponent was Hubert Humphrey, a “liberal” Democrat and Lyndon Johnson's Vice-President. Humphrey supported the Vietnam War as well, although he said at the end of his campaign that he would like to bring the troops home. He was a pure establishment figure, as beholden as Nixon to the U.S. ruling-class, and was certainly not a “movement” candidate in any sense. Despite his support for the War, Humphrey had the backing of much of the anti-war movement. Many of those who had actively opposed the U.S.'s butchery in Vietnam had been brought back into the Democratic Party during the primaries by Eugene McCarthy, a mixture of Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean. Like Kucinich and Dean, when McCarthy lost the nomination to Humphrey he handed all of his supporters over to the pro-war Democrat.

In the end, Nixon defeated Humphrey by less than 1 million votes in one of the closest election in American history. Many on the left were of course devastated, believing that the election had demonstrated a new rightward shift in American popular consciousness.

They were totally wrong. The 1968 election, a contest between two pro-war candidates, was never a referendum on what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam. In fact, in the period immediately following Nixon's election the United States experienced one of the most intense periods of mass radicalization ever. By 1969, 3 million people were calling themselves revolutionaries. Opposition to the War continued to grow, especially among working-class and poor Americans. The continued resistance of the Vietnamese and the revolt of GIs in Vietnam augmented the expanding anti-war movement, creating the conditions that eventually would force the U.S. out of Vietnam.

Moreover, despite Nixon's deeply reactionary personal politics, the power of the social movements in this country forced him to offer a series of other concessions. Under Nixon, federal spending on social services increased substantially, the first affirmative action programs were created, abortion was legalized, and the death penalty was (for four years) declared unconstitutional.

The left right now needs to be real clear. We oppose everything that George Bush stands for, everything that he wants to do. But Bush's reelection, like Nixon's election in 1968, doesn't mean that the game is up; it doesn't mean that people in this country are just right-wing and that's all there is to it. The left needs to do what John Kerry and the Democratic Party never could: offer people a genuine alternative to what's going down right now. Polls consistently show right now that people are feeling particularly vulnerable and insecure about their lives and their futures. People are looking for answers, for people to blame. If the only solutions they're hearing are reactionary solutions they're going to move in that direction. But if the left can tap into the growing anger about the Iraq War, about stagnating wages and job losses, about unaffordable health care and racism, we can build movements that can present people with alternative, progressive solutions.

In this project we have some allies, most importantly the resistance in Iraq and the growing disgust in the army about the occupation. The U.S. ruling-class is facing serious contradictions right now, and we can’t forget that. The only way that Bush's reelection is going to kill us is if we get so demoralized that we give up on the movements.

Jonah Birch is a student at Columbia University. He can be reached at