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The Election, Echoes of 1968, and How History’s Mistakes Repeat Themselves

The Election, Echoes of 1968, and How History’s Mistakes Repeat Themselves
Image Credit: Mike Stewart

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. How the college protests have grown, visualized (WaPo)
  2. What do the US campus protests mean for Joe Biden in November? (The Guardian)
  3. This Is How Power Protects Itself (The Nation)
  4. As tensions grow, more Americans see China as an enemy (LA Times)
  5. Journalism’s Existential Fight Against A.I. (The New Republic)
  6. Why are politicians so negative? (Hint: It’s a media problem) (Nieman)
  7. Why does the night exist? (El Pais)

Hi! How’s everyone? Here’s a big hug from me and Snowy. Welcome new readers, a Big Thanks to everyone who’s joined us on this journey, and thanks again for all the amazing and wonderful discussions we’re having.

Is Biden Going to Lose the Election Because of Young People?

So. By now, people—pundits, columnists, journalists, lots, maybe even you—are beginning to ask: is Gaza going to cost Biden the election? Not what’s happening in Gaza, per se, but what’s happening in America, over Gaza.

That’d be an incredibly heavy-handed…”response”…police-state style…to…student protests. Waves of protests erupted, and, as you know by now, those young people were met with almost sadistically, comically disproportionate response. Like the NYPD posting a picture of a... bike lock... and calling it the kind of stuff terrorists use, much to the amusement of Twitter.

Let me be frank with you. All this is 100% going to cost Biden the election, probably. This is an incredibly foolish thing to do—Biden’s silence speaks volumes. First, it gave the impression that certain lives didn’t matter, and now, it gives the impression, even worse, that protesting that sort of callousness is going to be met with the kind of heavy-handed reaction we might expect from a…


Is that unfair to say? Am I being “controversial” again? Come on now. Student protests. Being met with everything from mass arrests to snipers to military style police. It’s more than a little ridiculous. This was described in one of America’s newspapers as a “revolt”—one that still describes Jan 6th as a “riot.” Maybe you see my point. No, this isn’t a revolt, and the Democrats badly need to get some perspective here. Do they…care…about…anything…anymore? Forget the basic ideals of peace, justice, truth, and equality—those went out the nearest window, and shattered it, when they went silent on Gaza. Now, do they even care about losing?

Or do you think young people being pepper-sprayed and frog-marched are going to happily turn around and vote for them?

The Brutal Political Reality of the 2024 Election

Look. The political reality of the upcoming election is very simple. Biden won by razor-thin margins in swing states, and that is what…swung…the election his way. Those margins were less than a hundred thousand people in many places. Yet more than that have already declared themselves as “uncommitted” voters in certain States recently, because of all the above. So the calculus is as simple as it is lethal.

The Democrats are breaking their fragile coalition. Young people didn’t exactly vote for them enthusiastically last time around. They had to sort of hold their noses and do it, despite being suspicious that the Democrats were going to betray them in the end. And how did that turn out? Just as they suspected.

Young people are different these days. They’re incredibly cynical about politics, even to the point of losing confidence in democracy itself. They’re hostile to institutions, and they could care less, really, about “brands,” money, or power. In that context? To a social group with those attitudes? Betraying them is the kiss of death. I say that with my bona fide Don Draper hat on. You can’t treat your customers like this…and expect them to happily come back for more.

Is This Another Vietnam Moment for America? Or, Why America Never Became a Modern Society

So what’s really happening here? People have raised, too, the specter of another 1968 moment for America. They say that because of the obvious parallels between war and student protests. But I think that analogy is much, much truer for even deeper reasons.

Let’s think back in American history. What was the greatest mistake it made in the modern era? To this day, we’re not really supposed to, allowed to, say it out loud but it was the Vietnam War. I don’t say that for political reasons. But if you don’t already know, let me explain—and Ken Burns magisterial documentary series, by the way, tells the story pretty well.

Lyndon Johnson, that rarest of things, a Democrat from the South, had a revolutionary idea. One that would’ve changed America, and the world, forever—if only history had turned out differently. It was called the Great Society. And it was the inheritor to the New Deal.

The Great Society was a set of domestic programs in the United States launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965. The term was first referenced during a 1964 speech by Johnson at Ohio University, then later formally presented at the University of Michigan, and came to represent his domestic agenda. The main goal was the total elimination of poverty and racial injustice.

New major federal programs that addressed civil rights, education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, and transportation were launched during this period. The program and its initiatives were subsequently promoted by LBJ and fellow Democrats in Congress in the 1960s. The Great Society in scope and sweep resembled the 1930s New Deal domestic agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So. The Great Society was sort of the forerunner, or parallel, to what we’d later call modern social democracy. Which would emerge, proper, in Europe and Canada—places where, if you’re lucky enough to be, you have a dizzying array of the most advanced human rights in human history, from healthcare to dignity itself. 

The Great Society hoped to reinvent what a society was. It had pretty revolutionary goals, even for that age, which was a revolutionary one—think of how radical it would be today, to speak of “the elimination of poverty and racial injustice.” Biden and the Democrats don’t even speak that language anymore, let alone aspire to really build a society like that. The Great Society would have made an America much more like modern Europe or Canada—place where modern institutions guarantee advanced rights to all, and thus, have stayed relatively insulated from the severe shocks that have buffeted America.

Think of what eliminating poverty and injustice then would have done, after all, to prevent Trumpism now.

But history didn’t turn out like that. The Great Society never came to be. That America was stillborn. Why? The Vietnam War. Johnson ended up spending all his—and America’s—capital on it. His own political capital—after bruising defeats and setbacks, guess what? Young people turned against him, and his credibility and legitimacy was gone. He blew a hole through America’s finances, which made actually investing in the Great Society more or less impossible. And all that paved the way for…Richard Nixon. 

Whose malign influence persists to this very day. It was under Nixon, after all, that modern conservatism was really born, with it’s sort of obsessive focus on “dirty tricks,” like Watergate, or demonizing and scapegoating, or dividing and polarizing. Trump’s truest political forefather is Nixon, and in Trump, we see the apotheosis of Nixonism write large.

That’s how much the Vietnam war’s fatal folly echoes through history. It put America on a completely different set of trajectories. Politically—young people turned away from the Democrats in disgust, and the Republicans began a series of victories that persist to this day. That’s largely because America was placed on a much lower economic trajectory, never having invested in functioning, modern social systems, all of which would unravel the working and lower middle class, and lead directly to Trumpism. And of course it sort of put America on a very different sociocultural trajectory, too: today, European and Canadian style social democracy can easily be demonized and tarred as “communism” in America, because America never had a formative encounter with modernity in the form of a Great Society.

See how much damage that did?

How Turning Points Shape Historical Trajectories, or, Why Being the Lesser Evil Isn’t Always Good Enough

All of that brings us back to now. Is this another Vietnam War moment, a 1968? It is, and in a way much, much deeper than student protests and an ugly, sordid war. 

It’s another moment in which America’s trajectory changes, dramatically, for the worse, all over again. Just as then, young people are turning away disgusted, from a party which seems to value bullets and bombs over…peace, prosperity, justice, equality. And even though, as then, the better angels of the Democratic Party still remain interested in an America that makes progress…the party as a whole is squandering its credibility and legitimacy for the sake of conflict people, those on its side, don’t want.

Think of what happens next? Just as then, a fanatic and lunatic…and crook…ends up in the White House. He undoes decades of progress in one fell swoop, just as Nixon worked hard to erase civil rights and any sense of American unity or equality. The chance for a Great Society is lost, for another several generations.

It’s true to say that of course there’s one way this parallel doesn’t quite work. The Democrats are hardly offering a Great Society now. That’s true, but in a way that harks back to the 1960s, too. Then, they spent the money they should have spent on building better lives for Americans on war, and destroyed their political capital in the process. Today, they don’t even seem to be interested in doing that much, just mostly on the war part.

That’s a fatal equation. It tells us this is like 1968, but in a way, worse. Because back then, as many will be right to point out, Johnson was serious was about the Great Society. He really wanted to do it, and we know that from various forms of his personal correspondence and so forth. But he was immensely frustrated, and in a way, confused and bewildered. He just couldn’t give up on the war, because he felt he’d lose the most political capital that way, not to mention, maybe the Cold War, too. And so he grew sort of fixated on it, at all costs, including his own political undoing.

Today, the Democrats seem to have forgotten all of that. They don’t have a New Deal or Great Society. They make sort of overtures, once in a while, towards programs and projects of social reinvention. But opening a few chip factories—yes, it’s a good idea—is a far cry from a new social contract. 

And so this is worse than 1968 in the sense that young people have little to believe in. There’s little reason for them to back the Democrats, apart from: they’re the lesser evil. Unlike back then, they’re not remotely offering any form of social reinvention—maybe just less regress. 

But being the lesser evil has a fatal flaw. There’s a point at which it just becomes a distinction without a difference. If the evil over there is like five hundred, and the evil over here is like four hundred and ninety seven, but what you want is…no evil…what do you do? Maybe you just give up, out of sheer despair, and say, I can’t back this, because I can’t stomach it. It’s a violation of my morality, and I do myself too much moral injury by saying this lesser evil is OK, because it’s still a lot of evil.

Part of Being a Grown Up is Not Repeating the Same Old Mistakes

I’m not saying that’s how I feel. But it is pretty clearly how a lot of young folks feel. How a lot of minorities feel. How a lot of people feel. People who are critical, because they make up the parts of the coalition the Democrats need to win

Nixon, famously, sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam so he could win the election. How Trumpian is that? 

And yet this is what history is. It’s a tale of folly, ugliness, stupidity, and a whole lot of violence, hate, spite, and evil. Once in a while, a bit of good triumphs, and those moments we should cherish, remember, and treasure. It’s not enough to just say “young people are making a mistake by not backing the lesser evil!” It’s up to us, the elders, to be the ones who learn from history’s mistakes. Instead of repeating them, and wondering why things never seem to go our way. Repeating history’s mistakes is the province of the far right. When the side of democracy, my friends, falls into that abyss, we should all shudder.

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