Opinion: 1968 protests should serve as a warning to today’s Democrats

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Democrats are increasingly anxious about their party’s internal divisions over the Israel-Hamas war, which are threatening to hurt their chances in November.

The eruption of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses and the ensuing clashes with police portend bad times ahead. While the demands of student protesters vary somewhat from school to school, they are largely centered around calling for the end of the war and the divestment of university funds from companies linked to Israel or businesses profiting from the war.

Following the decision by Columbia University president Minouche Shafik to authorize the New York Police Department to shut down the protests, leading to the arrests of more than 100 students — and similar actions at other institutions — the students have broadened their objectives to include advocacy for free speech and the right to protest. Meanwhile, many other students across the country feel that universities have done too little to prevent antisemitic rhetoric, harassment and physical intimidation. This week, the University of Southern California announced that it would be canceling its graduation ceremony citing security concerns.

Many student protesters see the Biden administration as responsible for and complicit in the violence and humanitarian crisis Gazans are facing. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Republicans smell a political opportunity. On Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson, a representative of Louisiana, traveled to New York City, where he told Columbia protesters to “go back to class and stop this nonsense.” He also called on Shafik to resign “if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos” and suggested the possibility of calling the National Guard if the protests were not contained. Whether or not this is a genuine concern for Johnson, it is clear that at least politically, the GOP intends to paint the Democrats as a party with radical constituents who threaten the stability of our institutions.

The turmoil we’re seeing brings back memories of the widespread student protests of 1968 — a comparison that won’t be lost given that the Democratic National Convention this year will take place in Chicago. Democrats might be regretting their choice to hold the event in the Windy City, given that one of the most tumultuous conventions in American history took place on those very same streets. After President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection, the party nominated his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. But Humphrey’s moment of coronation quickly turned into a moment of chaos. As Chicago police, unleashed by Mayor Richard Daley, confronted anti-Vietnam War protesters with tear gas and batons on the streets outside the convention, the televised images of violence greatly harmed Humphrey’s prospects in November.

Former Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate, capitalized on the Democratic divisions by running as the champion of “law and order,” speaking for the Americans he called the “Silent Majority.” One of his campaign ads showed images of protesters while his voiceover said, “Dissent is a necessary ingredient of change, but in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resort to violence … I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.” In his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Nixon promised to represent the “forgotten Americans — the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land … they give lift to the American dream.”

Nixon carried this theme right to victory in November. His numbers would probably have been even greater had he not faced third-party competition from Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who joined him in blasting anti-war hippies.

Many historians have come to agree that the intensity of the anti-war movement, which targeted Johnson (“hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”) as the architect of the conflict, ended up dampening support for Humphrey and opening a door for Nixon to win the White House.

Biden and his campaign must surely be worried now that history will repeat itself.

However, there are many important differences between 2024 and 1968 that could make this current situation significantly less damaging for Biden than some Democrats fear. Right now, the debates over the war are not centered on having American boots on the ground, as was the case with Vietnam. And while there are ongoing tensions among Democrats over how to tackle problems such as criminal justice reform, the party as a whole is much more aligned on these fault-line questions than they were in the 1960s, when the divisions within the party ran much deeper.

The anti-war protests in the 1960s went on for years. Now, it remains unclear whether the protests — which are not yet nearly as large in scale or scope as were the anti-Vietnam protests — will continue to intensify or start to dissipate, especially as school lets out for the summer months. And in one recent Harvard Kennedy poll surveying young people between the ages of 18 and 29 in March, the findings showed the Israel/Palestine conflict ranked second-lowest in importance, coming in below gun violence as well as bread-and-butter issues such as inflation, health care and housing.

Whereas the 1968 convention played out in an era of network television, where political conventions could command the attention of a much broader and diverse range of Americans, the media landscape of 2024 means that the convention will be seen, if at all, by a fragmented audience. Meanwhile, social media has also led to the rapid circulation of extraordinarily damaging videos and images of antisemitic rhetoric and acts within the campus protests.

And, of course, the person who will attempt to win on the “law and order” theme in 2024 will have to do so in between multiple legal cases. While Trump called for a crackdown on protests in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, he may have limited success in this case, given his multiple criminal indictments (he has denied all wrongdoing) and the fact that his own presidency has come to embody disorder and chaos to many voters.

Notwithstanding the differences that currently make these situations quite distinct, Democrats would do well to take the potential political threat seriously and to remain engaged with all the constituencies who are invested in this conflict before the critical months between August and early November.

At a minimum, Biden can avoid the mistake Humphrey made, trying to simply ignore the fury that was raging underneath him, with the band playing “Happy Days Are Here Again” at the 1968 DNC convention to drown out the anti-war delegates.

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