The presidential election

Considering Hodgson’s notion of the presidency as a prime symbol of the liberal consensus (99), the presidential election of 1968 becomes all the more important because it brought Richard Nixon to power, a distinctly different president from his immediate predecessors. During the primary season, the most important tensions were within the Democratic Party. As the situation in Vietnam deteriorated and inflation rose in early 1968, President Johnson lost popularity, boosting the chances of his competitors, most importantly Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. McCarthy came close in the New Hampshire primary and made further gains after the Tet Offensive on January 30. Not much later, on March 31, Johnson announced that he would not to seek the nomination altogether, highlighting the influence of the Vietnam War in this election. Although it initially looked like a race between Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Kennedy was assassinated in June and McCarthy’s campaign failed to win support within the Democratic party. What could have been a revolutionary campaign for progressives became a disaster for the New Left and the peace movement. At the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Vice President Humphrey was nominated in a move by the Democratic party that upset many activists, who were present in Chicago to protest the war and show their support for McCarthy. The delegates at the convention, however, decided to go with someone that better represented their views and selected Humphrey as the Democratic candidate. Many antiwar protesters felt that their candidate McCarthy had been denied the nomination and this led to protests that have become infamous for the decision of Chicago mayor Daley to send in a police force, who used severe violence against protesters. The Republican primary had been less intense, but in many ways, Nixon was also a compromise candidate to reconcile the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party. In the general election, Nixon’s main threat was not Hubert Humphrey but rather George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, who ran for the American Independent Party and managed to win several Southern states with a platform of white supremacy.

‘There was no real choice in this election.’

The general election was an unexciting affair, with little “enthusiasm for either man running on a major party ticket” (Isserman and Kazin 236) and many were unhappy with the state of American society and politics, as is clear from voter turnout. This is also reflected in the literary accounts, with Mailer suggesting that “the intelligent American voter was now in the situation of that poor Southern Black forced these last fifty years to choose his ballot between the bad racist and the racist who might conceivably be not all bad” (Mailer Miami, 79); there was no real choice. Obviously, minorities, Indigenous people in particular, felt the same way, as they did in most elections. After all, politicians only ever changed parts of the system, never the system itself (Deloria Custer 185) and neither party adequately represented their interests. In the end, Nixon won easily, despite a brief comeback by Humphrey with the help of organized labor. As a result, a new party system emerged as the South slowly transformed into a Republican stronghold. The election is therefore not only important for the issues debated but also for the voting results, reflecting the crystallization of a new party system and a new balance between the major political ideologies of liberalism and conservatism. A more practical outcome of the election is the effect it had on the nominating process of Democratic candidates, as primaries became more important and certain regulations were introduced to ensure diversity of delegates at the Convention . Most of these developments still seemed far off, however, as people watched the 1968 election unfold, focused instead on Richard Nixon and the events that took place in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.

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