Why the Chicago ‘68 Convention Matters Today

In 1968, Richard M. Nixon was the Donald Trump. How was he stopped?

By Andy Thayer

The events around the 1968 Democratic Convention were a sharp turning point in U.S. politics. In full view of news cameras, Mayor Richard J. Daley let his police crack the heads of anti-war protesters in the streets of Chicago, as well as cameramen, other journalists and passersby. Inside the convention, he showed brazen contempt for the popular will by engineering the selection of a pro-war candidate who hadn’t won a single primary.

Such blatant contempt for democracy alone would be reason enough to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention. But the lessons to be learned from the events surrounding the 1968 convention and its aftermath are far more profound than that.

For those who wanted wholesale change – from a society of greed and violence to one that values human beings – the Democratic Party’s actions were a gut-wrenching teachable moment. For a few years afterwards, the notion that our salvation was to come from the Democratic Party became a laughable proposition among wide layers of people.

Giving up on the major parties, people began looking to their own efforts to win the changes they wanted.

Prior to the Democratic convention, almost no one on the left had any illusions about Richard Nixon, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, a man so widely reviled as a far-right opportunist that he was commonly known as “Tricky Dick.”

But, with the notable exception of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Democrats were embraced by many black activists of his generation following the mid-1960s passage of civil rights legislation. And such were the popular hopes of the largely white anti-war movement that the Democratic Party fielded not one, but three major candidates in the 1968 presidential primaries who claimed to be anti-war, and who between them won 80% of the votes.

But these hopes for peaceful change within the system were rudely dashed by events both within and outside of the Chicago ’68 convention. The result was one of those rare, brief periods in U.S. history when two factors simultaneously converged: 1) large numbers of people were engaged in social/political issues on a day-to-day basis, and 2) they were profoundly alienated from both major political parties.

This “independence period” brought about one of the broadest and most far-reaching advances in progressive legislation and social advancement seen in U.S. history. The independent spirit of 1968 forced politicians of both parties and the courts to do things they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing had the broad movement subordinated itself to the major parties.

A radicalized labor movement frequently ignored its encrusted leadership with wildcat strikes against racism, speedup and victimization of union activists. They threw up independent shop floor organizations in post offices, the Teamsters, the coal mines, and the automobile industry. This was accompanied by a strike wave that resulted in U.S. workers attaining their high-water mark in real wages in 1974.

Women took the newfound spirit of independence to reject earlier, more conservative generations of movement leadership and, in a direct precursor of today’s #metoo movement, developed a mass consciousness about sexual harassment, unequal pay and advancement opportunities on the job. The mass desire to gain control over one’s reproductive destiny forced a Nixon-packed, all-male Supreme Court to legalize abortion in 1973.

The “anything is possible” mood led LGBTs to reject the strategies of most earlier movement leaders – consisting mainly of craven, hat-in-hand appeals to politicians and psychological experts to tolerate us. Born out of one of that period’s several LGBT riots against police repression, the new movement loudly proclaimed “Gay is Good!,” and established the LGBT movement on a mass basis for the first time in U.S. history. The U.S. movement in turn helped inspire movements in countries around the world over the next few decades. Everything LGBTs have won subsequently in law and social attitudes would not have been possible without this earlier, independent movement.

What became the premiere Black Power organization, the Black Panther Party, had less than 100 members in late October 1967. By 1969 its membership had peaked at over 10,000 people. It launched the first sustained, nationwide campaign against police brutality in the North. While it was unsuccessful in making the changes it desired on that front, its free breakfast and community health programs embarrassed the federal government into sweeping action.

For example, between October 1967 and February 1970, the food stamp program doubled. By May 1970, it had tripled. By February 1971 it had quintupled. And the president at that time, Richard M. Nixon, was every bit as racist and anti-poor as the current White House occupant. Under that era’s Racist-in-Chief, the administration pushed the most far-reaching affirmative action plan of any administration before or since.

While today we’ve seen the current and past administrations contemplate opening up oil drilling on the eastern seaboard and welcome the Dakota Access Pipeline, back in the day the host of environmental laws currently being dismantled by the Trump administration – the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act – were enacted during the Nixon administration.

A president who had contemplated using nuclear weapons on Vietnam was forced instead to end the U.S. war on the Vietnamese people. The rejection of the legitimacy of both major parties, prompted by the brutal treatment of anti-war protesters outside of the Chicago ’68 convention, informed the ultimately successful worldwide anti-war movement. From people in the streets around the globe to U.S. soldiers refusing orders to fight the Vietnamese, the people relied on their own efforts to make change.

For a good decade-and-a-half afterwards, our rulers’ fear of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” prevented them from invading other countries, such as Angola during the Ford administration. Even when they did start to break the Syndrome, they were so worried about possible popular backlash that they began with pin-prick actions such as Ronald Reagan’s invasion of tiny Grenada and George H. W. Bush’s invasion of Panama. The Vietnam Syndrome that halted major invasions for several years was thus probably responsible for saving millions of lives.

Richard J. Daley

So as terrifying and awful as the events surrounding the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention were for those who experienced them, we perversely have much to be thankful for in their effect on subsequent events. When Mayor Daley ordered his police to attack protestors, he undoubtedly thought he was going to “teach them a lesson.” Ironically, he did – just not the one he intended. His brutal tactics outside the convention, and the Machine’s domineering tactics within, both helped inform and galvanize these independent movements that accomplished so much in the next few years.

Apart from 1968 through the early 1970s, the convergence of these two critical factors – mass social engagement and profound disaffection from both political parties – has occurred in the U.S. only twice since World War I: the period 1934-1936, and in the Civil Rights Movement from the late 1950s thru 1965.

While it is outside the scope of this article to discuss how those earlier “independence periods” came about, it is no accident that each of them saw social movements make the most profound, positive changes in this country’s modern era. They brought us the right to form unions, Social Security, an end to legalized apartheid in the U.S., plus a flood of social spending for housing, medical care and jobs.

The Empire Strikes Back

The other side was not going to take the challenges posed by the movements lying down.

Since the early 1970s, forces around the Republican Party have pursued a well-funded campaign of think tanks, extensive media and academic outreach, astro-turf “community” groups, and political campaigns explicitly aimed at rolling back the gains of the late 1960s / early ‘70s, not to mention the programs won during the Great Depression.

On the Democratic side, in 1972 the anti-war movement was strong enough to take titular control of the Party with the nomination of George McGovern. But all they won was a fetid corpse. Leading Democrats succeeded in sabotaging the McGovern campaign, even though as “good Democrats” they were pledged to support the party’s nominee.

It was a far more blatant betrayal by the party’s apparatus than putting its fingers on the scales of the 2016 primaries to ensure a Clinton victory. The result was a Nixon victory which was the biggest electoral landslide in U.S. history until that time – an ironic result given the “mainstream” Democratic Party’s current penchant for blaming left third-party formations such as the Greens for their defeats.

To those who looked to the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign to break the stranglehold neoliberalism has on the Democratic Party, the 1972 McGovern campaign should serve as a lesson of what the Party apparatus would have done in the event Sanders had secured the nomination. Since 1972, the Democratic Party has locked down its nomination rules to prevent another McGovern. It looks set to redouble those efforts ahead of 2020 in response to the threat from Bernie phenomenon.

More importantly, its main program of defeating the late 1960s/early 1970s movement has been through a program of political incorporation through what’s been called the NGO Industrial Complex — grant-making, giving low-paid jobs to young activists in exchange for squelching their political voices, and crowding out genuine grassroots groups through well-funded and staffed non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

At the top, there’s been an insidious revolving door between the Party, government bureaucracies, consultancies, think-tanks, academia and the NGOs themselves. These NGOs, when not busy side-tracking or taking credit for the achievements of true grassroots groups, are mainly focused on raising funds to maintain their executive directors’ six-figure salaries and expensive offices. They use their pseudo-grass roots legitimacy to amplify Democratic Party talking points, only calling out Republican crimes and thus opening the Left to the charge of hypocrisy.

The result is that to outsiders, what appears to be “the Left” rarely or never seems to call out Democratic Party politicians by name when they commit the same crimes as Republicans – whether those crimes are the largest deportations in history, escalation of the Afghanistan war, bombings of other countries, or unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers – all features of the Obama administration. Much of what considers itself the “hard Left” also mutes its criticisms, or keeps them buried in the little-read pages of their journals and newspapers.

Besides ignoring or excusing the crimes of the Democrats, a prime task of the “left” NGOs is to make sure that the demands of the movement don’t get ahead of what the Party is prepared to accept. Accordingly, following the neoliberal dictates of their wealthy benefactors, NGO demands are ideally “revenue neutral,” symbolic and cost those benefactors little. The hidden history of the LGBT drive for equal marriage rights is replete with examples of this.

The most cynical and expansive examples of this incorporation strategy were pioneered by Bill Clinton, who was a master of progressive-sounding rhetoric combined with policies that often were to the right of the Republican Party mainstream at the time. So as to keep in touch with their base, the typical Republican Party response then was to move further to the right, with the result that the whole terrain of official U.S. politics moved steadily rightwards during the 1990s into the current century. The Trumpian end-game is not so mysterious when put it into this context of long-term neoliberal appeasement.

A more contemporary example of this can be seen in “Obamacare,” which was a virtual carbon copy of Republican Mitt Romney’s neo-liberal plan for Massachusetts (preserve-the-market-at-all-costs healthcare provision). Once Obama embraced Romney’s neoliberal policies, suddenly the same program was rebranded as “socialist” by the mainstream Republican Party.

Those who control the Democratic Party have shown repeated contempt for a whole series of majoritarian demands, from universal healthcare, to affordable housing, to pulling out the troops (and drones) from the Middle East and Afghanistan. Their strategy is to position themselves two centimeters to the left of the Republicans and say, “We’re the best you can get, take it or leave it.” As the Hillary Clinton campaign showed, such a strategy is so uninspiring and insipid that the majority of working-class voters will simply stay home.

Lessons of the 1968 Convention for Today

Unfortunately, we cannot simply will “independence periods” into being. Their creation is beyond the powers of even the most powerful groups and individuals.

Short of them, we must organize more modest activities that encourage this same independence among our fellow activists, never serving as the adjunct or cover for either major party as they attempt to lure us with appealing rhetoric. When politicians attempt to take credit for the gains produced by activism – something the Democratic Party routinely does – we must vociferously correct the record. However unpopular, as it frequently was during the Obama years, we must name the names of all politicians who oppose us, regardless of party.

What we need are movements and organizations, in however incipient form, that are truly independent and do not scale their demands to the needs of the Democratic Party.

It will be a huge disservice to the goals we are fighting for if we repeat the history of the 2008 elections, accepting neoliberal policies merely because they are accompanied by nice-sounding rhetoric. We must not allow ourselves to be herded into that camp by breathless fearmongering about “Trump’s fascism” (thus implying that the neoliberal variety is acceptable).

Trump didn’t get into the White House by his own efforts alone. He was abetted by a failure of eight years of neoliberal Democratic Party rule bailing out the rich while delivering good rhetoric and mostly token programs to the working class, rather than the massive changes that poll after poll shows most Americans want.

Rather than look to the Democratic Party, we need to look to the lessons of the independent movements that have won what reforms we enjoy today, and ultimately overthrow the beast that continually tries to claw back what gains we have won.

The Democratic Party can’t be taken over and reformed, no more than the state can. This is revolutionary politics 101. As I wrote on the eve of the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia,

“A state which has repeatedly shown the utmost brutality at home and abroad in its two Century existence — committing genocide against Native Americans, mass slavery of African Americans, killing more than 3 million in Southeast Asia, to name a few examples — will never allow itself to be peacefully taken over by the 99 percent. They’ve launched coups, invasions and wholesale massacres over far lesser slights…

“They’d sooner slaughter all opposition rather than respect an election which fundamentally challenged their power and wealth… The idea that the Democratic Party, let alone the state which it serves along with the Republicans, could ever be peacefully captured was an enormous illusion that Bernie supporters will have to put to rest if they want to be part of a genuine revolution.” 

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Andy Thayer is one of the organizers of “1968 & 2018: Unite Against War & Police Brutality,” an August 25th protest and march to mark the 50th anniversary of the events surrounding the notorious 1968 Chicago Democratic Party Convention. More information about that event can be found here and at ccawr.org

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