In his landmark 1955 article “A Theory of Critical Elections”, V.O. Key posited that certain U.S. elections result in dramatic reconfigurations of political parties, or realignments. During these elections – which are typically preceded by intense periods of political and societal discord – Republican and Democratic platforms shift dramatically and there is a realignment of voting blocs. Elections generally accepted as realignments are 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 and 1968. Given that the 1968 realignment is commonly viewed as the last widely–accepted realignment and foundational to contemporary politics, understanding the events surrounding it is important if we are to gain a better sense of our current division.
In 1965, trust in government began a slow, downward slide that has yet to reverse. Concurrently, trust and engagement in civic organizations and political parties declined, leading to what some termed a political dealignment. Building on this, as President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, white New Deal Democrats – particularly men – began to jump ship to the Republicans, while minority voters coalesced on the Left – trends that have shaped contemporary politics and which continue today. Despite the Great Society and the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, “[b]y 1968 81% of Americans agreed that ‘law and order has broken down in this country.’” The Left and Right responded to this situation in different ways.
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection was created. The creation of this committee, among other things, led indirectly to our current presidential primary system and embraced measures intended to increase minority representation – or, put another way, launched wholesale identity politics. In the years before 1968, the New Left – which would prove instrumental at the ’68 convention – had been growing in strength. Free love, hippies, and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement were laying the foundations for a new Democratic Party focused on social justice. C. Wright Mills published his “Letter to the New Left” in 1960, followed closely by Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement in 1962 and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique one year later. Broadly speaking, it was at this moment that the Left began its slow but final break from classical liberalism.
During this same period, the Right embraced the rhetoric of “law and order” as Nixon built on themes that Goldwater raised in 1964. The Left criticized this rhetoric as racist, because law and order concerns were typically raised in the aftermath, and ashes, of race riots, and measures to reinstate that law and order disproportionately affected African-Americans. And, in current times, this divide has grown even more pronounced.
In addition, 1968 saw the New Right rapid rise to prominence within the public square with the Buckley/Vidal debates. Though the ideals of the New Right had been percolating since Buckley published the conservative touchstone God and Man at Yale – one of the first critiques of elite academia as perpetuators of leftist ideology – and founded the National Review in 1955, seeing Buckley – young, handsome and charming – on television made being conservative appealing for young women and men. Contributing to this shift was Reagan’s landmark 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing”, and Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative of that same year, both of which advanced crisp, unapologetically conservative visions of governance.
Lastly, the Right’s attitude towards the Cold War (exemplified by the “Daisy” political ad), or, specifically, its unequivocally negative view of the Soviet Union was also significant. This attitude towards the Soviet Union is important for two reasons: 1) it hardened the Right’s opposition to communism (as the Right understands it, i.e., socialism, i.e., Marxism), which has been transmitted down to the present; and, 2) Reagan crystallized his politics during this period, which have, given Reagan’s status, immeasurably influenced the contemporary Right.
But it was not solely the period’s presidential politics that reverberated into 1968. The decade was chaotic almost beyond comprehension:
- 1961: the U.S. entered Vietnam
- 1962: the Cuban Missile Crisis
- 1963: President Kennedy assassinated
- 1965: Malcolm X assassinated
- 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinated
Further, the decade played host to the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and a slew of other counterculture movements (e.g., anti-war, gay rights, El Movimiento) while landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 were all passed, with the Equal Rights Amendment reentering the national conversation supported by the freshly founded National Organization for Women (NOW).
Perhaps most importantly, for the first time, television allowed the country to see things up close, to see the caskets coming home and the Tet Offensive seemingly firsthand, to be there in Selma and Watts, Birmingham and the Great March on Washington. And all of this is to say nothing of the chaos erupting in other countries, from decolonization to the Cultural Revolution. The 1960s were finally then, an era of lost innocence, of a generation groping for its identity, of the levers of power changing hands. The world was moving, and the very ground beneath America’s feet shifting.
The year of 1968 represents the period’s apogee, as the Right embraced individualism afresh and the law and order narrative, while the Left welcomed social justice through identity politics. The mark of a true realignment is not simply that politics shift dramatically, but that any such shift has staying power. 1968 drew the battle lines for next five decades. As the New Right and Left turned towards organizing, they found a public yearning to organize. While the New Left benefited from the public’s desire to organize in the 1960s, the New Right seems to have harnessed it in a more effective, efficient fashion in the long term.
As the New Left splintered and its disciples followed their personal callings, both the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council were founded in 1973. As Phyllis Schafly geared up against the Equal Rights Amendment, Milton Friedman propagated the gospel of free markets, and Ayn Rand elaborated objectivist theory on campuses across America, a slew of campaigns against the successful, socially progressive policies of the Left sprang up. While the Left was consolidating its victories and winning in the courts, the Right was organizing the silent majority that would carry Reagan to the White House. And from there, it is but a skip and a jump to today’s politics – which many imagine to be our next realigning period.
Joe Chatham is currently completing a Juris Doctor at Yale Law School and a Masters in Public Administration as a John F. Kennedy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research covers the intersection of intergenerational political and social movements in the U.S. for the modern period.
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