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“We’ve progressed and I don’t see it stopping”: why 1968 was still much worse than 2016

National Guard in front of burning buildings
After riots in Chicago in April 1968.
Declan Haun/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, a sniper shot 14 people, killing five, near the end of a protest against police brutality in Dallas. The shooting followed two killings of African-American men by police earlier in the week, and the deadliest mass shooting in American history in Orlando, Florida, less than a month ago.

The sense of instability — plus the chaotic Republican campaign of Donald Trump — brought one comparison to mind for many in the media: 1968.

The superficial parallels are obvious: Shocking gun violence. A nation convulsing over racism and inequality. A chaotic presidential campaign featuring populist candidates who gleefully paint nonwhite people as the enemy.

The reference to 1968 — even, and maybe especially, by people who don’t remember the year themselves — may also be to a national mood. It’s a feeling captured by William Butler Yeats in his apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” So 1968 is a shorthand for a fear of institutions breaking down, or a fear of new wounds that will leave scars that persist for generations.

But many historians and journalists who remember 1968 don’t think the comparison is quite apt.

President Obama, who was just 7 years old in 1968, also dismissed it. "You're not seeing riots and you're not seeing police going after people that are protesting peacefully,” he said Saturday.

To better understand both the year itself and its totemic significance, I called Michael Cohen, a national political columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of a recent book, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division.

Cohen and I discussed 1968 in history and American mythology and why he thinks 2016 isn’t a similar inflection point in history. A transcript of our conversation follows, edited and rearranged for length and clarity.

Libby Nelson: You’ve written a book on the year 1968. To what degree you think this year is repeating, or reminiscent of, what happened in 1968?

Michael Cohen: I don’t buy it. At all, actually.

I think it’s helpful to step back a second. In 1968, there were half a million American troops in Vietnam. There were thousands of Americans who were killed in the war in Vietnam. After [Lyndon] Johnson announced he was not running for reelection was the deadliest period of the entire war. You had two assassinations of major American political leaders in a two-month period. You had riots.

There is no comparison between the level of violence we’re seeing in ’68 and we’re seeing today. Political violence of the sort we saw in 1968, assassinations of political leaders, it doesn’t happen anymore in this century.

We have much greater racial progress than in 1968. And so when these things happen, they shock us in ways they wouldn’t have shocked us 35, 40 years ago. The fact that people are so outraged by what happened in Minneapolis and Louisiana — as it should be — it is a sign of progress.

All of these incidents bring up issues that would have been pushed under the rug 45 years, and now they’re things we actually talk about. A lot of Americans have more sympathy for what African Americans actually have to deal with. In a way, the outrage over it is a positive.

LN: So why are people turning to 1968 as a reference?

MC: I think it’s because 1968 has become a lodestar for a period of political instability. And the country is really divided right now in a way similar to 1968.

Name a year in America when it seems like the country is falling apart, and you come up with 1968—

LN: Or 1861.

MC: Right, I guess 1861, but no one remembers that directly. 1968, in some ways, you can argue is the greatest national tumult since the Civil War.

A couple of months ago, in March, there was this riot at the Trump rally in Chicago, and it would have been impossible to not draw the comparison. It’s easy to make those connections, and that’s part of what’s driving it.

LN: Do you think this comparison keeps coming up because people remember the year, or because they don’t?

MC: Because they don’t. A lot of us weren’t alive in ’68. I wasn’t.

LN: I wasn’t either.

MC: I wasn’t born in ’68. There is a reason I wrote a book on 1968. It’s a year that resonates with Americans. If I asked you to name the years that were most important years in American history, you’d say maybe 1865 for the Civil War, 1929 for the Great Depression…

LN: 1776.

MC: And 1968. It encapsulates so many of the angers and anxieties of modern America. It’s why I relate to it. It makes sense that people kind of make that connection with Trump and George Wallace and the racial issues.

LN: Could it be that Americans are invoking 1968 because they’re ignorant of history and what really happened that year?

MC: It’s less that people don’t get history and more “presentism” — they tend to overstate what’s happening at any given moment. After the bombings in Paris, everyone said the world is falling apart and it’s all going to hell.

But there’s never been a better time to be alive in the world. Poverty is way down, there are fewer wars, more democracy, they have more access to water and health care and education. It’s understandable that if you look at what’s happening in the news, you think it’s the worst. But I can assure you, it was much worse in the past.

LN: What have you found is most misunderstood about 1968?

MC: How much the country was falling apart. I remember reading something from early January 1968 that said the country was on the break of a nervous breakdown. That was before the assassinations, before the violence in Chicago — there was a real sense that America could not survive that year, that America was falling apart.

It wasn’t true, but it was legitimate to think that way, with two political leaders being shot down within two months of each other.

People in this country don’t like political change. And the sense that we were having a nervous breakdown drove people in a more conservative direction politically, not surprisingly. I look back on it now and I think, if I were a voter in ’68, I may not have liked Richard Nixon, but it’s hard to have trust in Democrats after what happened in the previous four years.

That was a very unique moment that hasn’t been repeated, and we’re in a much better place than we were then.

LN: You mentioned Trump and Wallace. One of the other parallels people are drawing with 1968 is with the election that year, the violence at the Democratic National Convention, and the sense of political unpredictability. Are those comparisons any more valid?

MC: We haven’t seen anybody like Donald Trump in American political history except for George Wallace in 1968 — [someone] willing to engage in political demagoguery, to act like a racist, to act like a misogynist, to act like a xenophobe. But I think Trump is worse than Wallace. I think he actually says things that are more provocative and more hateful than even Wallace did.

In 1968, the political system reflected the vast political divide, but the primary divides were inside the parties. In the Democrats it was between the antiwar and pro-war Democrats; in the Republicans, between the moderates and the conservatives. Now the divide is between Democrats and Republicans. It feels much more visceral than it did.

But we’re much more sensitive to [race] now. In ’68, a lot of black Americans wouldn’t have reacted as vocally as they’re doing now, and a lot more white Americans are pissed off about it than would have been in ’68. All that matters. The bashing of Mexican immigrants that you see Trump engaging in has led to outrage. The reaction to the violence is a sign of progress.

LN: One argument you’ve made that I’m interested in is that 1968 continues to shape our politics. How?

MC: The big political movement that emerged out of 1968 was the cultivation of white anxiety and fear about immigration and civil rights. The way Wallace won five states in the South that year and 13 percent of the vote was he cultivated those fears. After ’68, you have Republican politicians who embrace Wallace’s rhetoric or embrace Wallace’s approach.

This Republican effort to play on those white fears and anxieties has continued. Donald Trump is the apogee of that effort. It’s what has allowed him to be successful.

LN: Maybe we’re not reliving 1968 but still living it, at least in the sense that the debates that began then are continuing.

MC: We’re still in ’68 because the Republican Party hasn’t let go of the political rhetoric and political ideas that came out of that year. It’s one of the reasons they have slowly marginalized themselves, because they haven’t let go.

But we’re not in that year in the sense that they’re not going to be successful. It doesn’t work anymore.

LN: How are the Democrats shaped by 1968?

MC: The anti-establishment attitude that drove Sanders really emerged out of ’68 — in support of the idea that Democrats could use the political process to effect real change. That attitude has shaped Democratic politics every year since then. .

LN: So we’ve seen 1968 become a touchstone for a time when things seemed to be going completely off the rails. During 1968, was there a year that people called back to as they tried to express what was happening in the country? Is there a year that was symbolic for people living in 1968 the way 1968 is symbolic to us today?

MC: That’s a good question. For a lot of Americans, the Great Depression was the lodestar and the reason a lot of middle-class whites, for example, were so fearful about racial progress. They were afraid they’d lose the gains they made, and they could remember economic deprivation.

But there was a big generational divide: between people who didn’t want to go back to the way things were, and people who didn’t remember that and wanted to see the progress continue.

LN: That sounds very familiar, but almost in reverse: Then, people were afraid of losing the progress they’d made since the bad old days; now people see only what they have lost since then.

MC: When people say “make America great again” now, they remember a period when life was easier, at least for them. They’re not thinking about the experience of black Americans. I’m not defending it, but I get why people feel that way.

LN: What drew you to write about 1968?

MC: When I started researching the book, I was really struck by how this was an inflection point on so many levels. In a lot of ways we moved in a better direction, certainly a direction where we’re much better placed today than in ’68. Politically, the way the country shifted pretty dramatically is pretty profound. You go from the New Deal coalition to the anti-business populism and this anti-government populism.

Look at how similar the rhetoric of today is to the rhetoric that was beginning to emerge out of that year.

LN: But you’re not convinced 2016 is the same kind of inflection point?

MC: I don’t think it’s an inflection point. The social progress that you’ve seen in the country on gay rights, on race relations — it’s not all we’d like to see, but we’ve progressed and I don’t see it stopping. I think the country’s politics have moved in a much more progressive direction.

The inflection point is for Republicans, and what happens to them, and whether or not they acclimate themselves to these larger changes in American society.

I can imagine a scenario in which the country moves in an even more liberal direction. I can’t imagine the country moving in a more conservative direction. But that’s because I assume Trump is going to lose. If Trump does win, it’s a total inflection point.