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Throughout the Trump presidency, the summer of Black Lives Matter protests and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when asked about the alarming degree of polarization and anger in politics, I would always offer by way of comparison a time when I thought things had been worse: 1968. A year ago, in a Moment interview with my editor Amy E. Schwartz, I admitted that my faith in that answer was wavering. The events of January 6, 2021 were something new and qualitatively different. A year later, we’re all still trying to get those events in perspective. Do I still regard 1968 as my benchmark for division and danger? Let’s think this through.
Things about 1968 that were worse than 2021:
- We were still engaged in an unpopular war, 30,000 Americans had died in Indochina by 1968 and another 20,000 would die before we withdrew. In 2021, we got out of an unpopular war that had gone on far longer but cost far fewer lives.
- Two of the most inspiring leaders in the country, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, were assassinated. Last year, we experienced no political assassinations.
- The King assassination was followed by a wave of riots in Black neighborhoods in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, DC and other cities.
- In 1968, George Wallace ran a populist, pro-segregation presidential campaign that carried five southern states and 45 electoral votes. Just under 10 million Americans, 13.5 percent of the national electorate, voted for him—and, by implication, for undoing the gains of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
- Instead of Wallace, Americans elected Richard Nixon president. Had Democrat Hubert Humphrey won two more states, say Illinois and Wisconsin, the election would have gone to the House of Representatives where Wallace hoped to be a power broker.
Things about 2021 that were worse than 1968:
- The January 6 attack on the Capitol was inspired by the outgoing president and supported by a significant minority of Americans who became convinced that the election of 2020 had been stolen from him, opening a wide gulf between those who believed in the official vote counts and those who believed a nefarious conspiracy had falsified the results.
- The politicization of COVID-19 deepened that gulf, pitting people who welcomed a vaccine and consented to wear masks against those who believed both measures were, at best, federal overreach. The latter group seemed to overlap with Americans convinced that critical race theory is being dictated to elementary school students.
- The leaders of the Republican Party, faced with the rise of “Stop the Steal” pro-Trump, fact-resistant populists within its ranks, knuckled under to them, choosing public silence and off-the-record criticism with only rare examples of political courage. By way of contrast, Democrats in 1968, with big majorities in both houses of Congress that included southern Dixiecrats, still persevered with desegregation policies that President Lyndon Johnson knew would cost them the South.
- We withdrew from Afghanistan in a manner that left Afghan allies at the mercy of their enemies. In 1968, a similar fate for Vietnamese allies of the U.S. was still a few years off.
So, which year was worse?
For me, it’s a tough call. It is easy to belittle the dangers we faced in 1968, because we know how events developed in subsequent years and decades. We know now that Richard Nixon did not get away with hijacking the CIA and the FBI for his own political purposes. We had no confidence of that 50-odd years ago. We don’t yet know if we are about to see a conservative populist wave election that boosts believers in conspiracies into leadership positions, or one in which that prospect pushes independent voters away and pushes the GOP back to its conventional economic and social conservatism.
For some reason, I’m optimistic about the country. We have MRNA boosters and Liz Cheney. I remember how I felt in 1968 and I still think that was worse, if only by a whisker.