Not since 1968, have I seen such dangerous animosity—and shortsighted opponent bashing—between mainstream and insurgent Democrats. The consequences of the philosophical feud for the soul of the Democratic Party were catastrophic for the country then, by helping elect Richard Nixon. In 2016, the outcome could be far, far worse, since the GOP candidates are much more terrifying than Nixon. Lost in all the rancor and self-righteousness on both sides is Bernie Sander’s prophetic quote: “Even on our worst days (his and Hillary’s) we are 100 times better than any of the Republican Candidates.”
The most pertinent historical analogy for the Election of 2016 that is nearly spot on is the election of 1968. Many of us, as Anti-Vietnam War college students & activists, were deeply involved in either Gene McCarthy’s or Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential campaigns against the Democratic establishment. Just as Hillary Clinton is vilified by many of Bernie Sander’s backers, we despised Hubert Humphrey, because he was tied to LBJ’s policies of pursuing the War in Vietnam. Many of us die-hards on the Left downplayed HHH’s impeccable Civil Rights Record and his courage in the U.S. Senate fighting the Dixiecrats. We were blinded by the righteousness of our cause, and no Vice-President of LBJ’s could carry our banner.
In June, 1968, RFK was assassinated after winning the California Primary. Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy fizzled and George McGovern (yes, the same one) became the RFK stand in. The Democratic establishment was best personified by the Chicago Police’s gestapo tactics against anti-war demonstrators on the streets of Chicago, and Mayor Richard Daley shouting down liberal Senator Abe Ribicoff from the floor of the Democratic National Convention. They crushed what was left of our spirits and overwhelmed us politically. Many of my colleagues on the Left, just left politics to go lick their wounds.
Rather than mourn, I plunged headlong into the US Senate Campaign of Paul O’Dwyer in NY against incumbent GOP Senator Jacob Javits. O’Dwyer was a leader of the anti-war movement, a Democratic Socialist long before Bernie Sanders held office, a great civil rights lawyer, my political mentor before Mario Cuomo, and a superb human being. Many of my fellow Kennedy/McCarthy supporters, still angry from defeat, vowed to sit out the election, even if it meant electing Richard Nixon. Humphrey then, like Hillary now, became an irrational object of hatred, despite a 100% Congressional rating from the Americans for Democratic Action, the leading Progressive group of that time.
O’Dwyer struggled for weeks over whether or not to endorse Humphrey. One week before the election he finally did, in the interest of defeating Nixon, Roger Ailes (who masterminded Nixon’s campaign) and their dangerous friends. I followed O’Dwyer’s leadership, and spent hours arguing with friends about the necessity to stop being petulant, swallow our wounded pride and support Humphrey because the U.S. Supreme Court was at stake, as well as progress on Civil Rights. The Nixon/Ailes “Southern Strategy” and the powerful racist Third Party candidacy of George Wallace had placed all of the social justice gains of the 1960’s at risk. Although too young to vote for President in 1968 (the voting age was then 21), I campaigned vigorously for Hubert H. Humphrey on the strength of his Civil Rights Record, and the future of the Supreme Court. Devastatingly, many fervent anti-War activists who were old enough to vote stayed home, helping Nixon win the presidency by a mere 500,000 votes. Nixon went on the destroy the U.S. Supreme Court by appointing the likes of William Rehnquist as a justice, despite Rehnquist’s record as a Republican political operative in Arizona of actively preventing Blacks from voting. Nixon also stepped up bombing in Vietnam (and Cambodia), dismantled civil rights protections, and repeatedly violated the Constitution during Watergate.
The lessons of 1968 should not be lost on us in 2016. The real danger from an increasingly irresponsible breach between Bernie’s and Hillary’s backers is the fact that if either stay home—or support a Third Party candidacy of someone like, say, Michael Bloomberg–the Supreme Court will be lost for generations, as well as any lingering hope of advancing human rights, or mitigating the already damaging consequences of Climate Change upon our children. The effect of such catastrophic catcalling and bitterness against each could cause irreparable harm to the country, giving us a newer, far more dangerous version of Richard Nixon, and a much more powerful and insidious Roger Ailes, now in control of Fox News, determined to turn back 60 years of progress on civil rights keeping power in the hands of wealthy, white-male, Right Wingers, and leaving the rest of us behind.