Fishbein: The World Will Be Watching

New Hampshire’s primary could offer activists a useful spotlight.

by Dan Fishbein | 1/10/19 2:25am

I don’t always notice it — when trying to beat the KAF line or, in the opposite direction, rushing to my history classes in Carson. But, when not confronted by a menacing time crunch as I progress down First Floor Berry, the year 1968 can’t help but catch my eyes in its bright red lettering. 

As an Americanist scholar, the majority of the history classes I’ve taken have covered the last 100 years, the tumultuous “American Century” — I gravitate toward the 1968 exhibit “USA: The Whole World Watching.” Reading the panel, I learn (or, rather, refresh my memory) that that year witnessed vibrant debates within the Democrat Party. This sounds familiar, I think, even as today’s debates among Democrats will not crescendo for another year or so. I remember the headlines I’ve read in The New York Times in the past few days: “2020 Candidates are Lining Up. Which Democrat Matches the Moment?” and “The Democratic Primary Doesn’t Have to Be a Nightmare.” 

The 1968 convention sure was one. The assassination of Robert Kennedy, the one candidate who perhaps best offered a response to civil rights and anti-war activists, shocked the nation. Reports on the horrors of the Vietnam War, or the prolific protest displays of groups like the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement, interrupted regular campaign coverage. That July, as Democrats gathered in Chicago to decide the future of their party, police and national guardsmen attacked 10,000 anti-war demonstrators in Grant Park. For those anti-war demonstrators and the more than 40 percent of the country that disapproved of the War, the nightmare continued as pro-war candidate Hubert Humphrey emerged victorious from the Convention.

However, that public display by 10,000 young and determined activists at Grant Park helped ensure that the Vietnam War became the decisive issue of that year’s election.  Although Richard Nixon had taken hawkish stands on Vietnam in 1967 and earlier, his advisors encouraged him to pivot to an anti-war position to pin the war’s chaos on the Lyndon Johnson administration, where Humphrey had served as vice president. Upon his victory, Nixon enacted a brief escalation in American intervention, then proceeded with a gradual withdrawal of American troops that ended with a complete exit in 1973.

Now, Nixon did not meet all of the anti-war Left’s demands by any means. His campaign rhetoric of “law and order” encouraged a crackdown on their protest activity, as well as on that of the Panthers, AIM and other groups pushing for a redress of their historical and political grievances. Nevertheless, the efforts of demonstrators in Chicago in the summer of 1968 to force their country’s attention toward the chaos of Vietnam did succeed. Their actions illustrate the effect that a small group of determined activists can have in turning elections and changing American history. 

  As I stare through the exhibit glass and muse about the historical role played by these activists, I wonder what our country’s future might look like if we allow the memory of 1968 to transcend the confines of museum displays and inspire us to act. “Someone recently asked me whether I thought things were better or worse now, 50 years later,” librarian Dennis Grady writes in the exhibit. “I have yet to answer.” A little more than a year from now, the eyes of the country will look to New Hampshire. I hope that people will have made up their minds by then, and will know that they can still enable change through a willingness to take firm stances on their beliefs. 

Several issues hang in the balance that will dictate the future identity of the Democratic Party. The primary will play a large role in determining the future of crucially important Democratic standpoints, such as those on immigrant rights, the political role of large corporations, the structure of our health care system and our efforts to save the environment. Past primary election cycles have shown that a candidate’s performance in New Hampshire can dictate the final outcome of the race. While New Hampshire assigns few delegates, the media coverage of the country’s first primary can elevate a flailing candidate to the front running position; studies show that a win in New Hampshire raises a candidate’s share of the final primary count in all states by 27 percent. 

  When newscasters went to Chicago in July 1968, they turned their cameras and microphones not only to inside the International Ampitheatre where the convention unfolded, but also to the parks outside. It took only 10,000 people to shift the narrative in that election. If activists start organizing now, making plans for how they can redirect election cycle media coverage to the issues they care about, they too may find that they can dictate a monumental election, and history.