Monday, October 07, 2013

Elections That Changed America

My granddaughter who turns 16 today has a high-school assignment: Was 1968 a critical election year that changed America? She will answer in her usually independent way but, as a delegate to that Democratic convention who was tear-gassed in Chicago, I can weigh in with an opinion.

In my lifetime, I would argue, there were three pivotal moments: FDR in 1932, Nixon that year and George W. Bush in 2000. The jury is still out on Obama in 2008.

Most elections reflect rather than divert social and political currents, but those few arguably made a difference in where the country was heading. One of the tests is what would have happened if the other guy won.

Without Roosevelt’s first victory and mandate for a New Deal, when and how would the Great Depression have ended and would social legislation that provided a safety net for the poor and old ever have been enacted?

If the 2000 vote had not been decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision on Florida, how would a President Gore have responded to or perhaps avoided 9/11 and the wars that followed? And how would he have dealt with impending economic collapse seven years later?

The case for 1968 is more complicated, as tantalizing as the outsized figure of LBJ, who started in the White House by waging a War on Poverty and passing a landmark Civil Rights law but ended by enmeshing the country in a Vietnam war nobody wanted.

Without Johnson’s downfall, the Richard Nixon who lost a gubernatorial race in 1962 after being beaten by JFK two years earlier would never been elected dogcatcher, let alone a President whose criminal behavior over Watergate led to resignation to avoid impeachment.

But the real changes in 1968 were more subtle. After a century of a Solid (segregated) South for Democrats, the Civil Rights Act brought George Wallace in as a third-party candidate to take those states away from Hubert Humphrey, cost him the election and start that section of the country on the path to being unalterably Republican.

The Democratic Party was fundamentally changed, too. The Northern liberal states went on to the fiasco of 1972, nominating George McGovern to be easily beaten by a not-yet-unmasked Nixon.

Neither major party has been the same since. As we face today’s horrors, what can we intuit about 2016? Can Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden on one side or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie on the other stop our downward slide into chaos?

Meanwhile, to my beloved granddaughter, happy birthday and make up your own mind about 1968. When your generation takes over, you will need to show better judgment than we ever did.

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