When Liberalism Came Apart

AP Photo/stf

Attorney General Robert Kennedy uses a bullhorn to address black demonstrators, June 14, 1963, at the Justice Department. The demonstrators marched to the White House, then to the District Building, and wound up—officially—at the Justice Department. There were few incidents. 

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division
By Michael A. Cohen
Oxford University Press

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon
By Larry Tye
Random House

The raucous rallies for George Wallace in 1968 revealed that something had gone terribly wrong in America. As the presidential candidate of the American Independent Party, the racist Alabama governor who had defied federal efforts to desegregate his state attracted the support of many white working-class Democrats, who now angrily rejected their old liberal allies. Outside a rally at Madison Square Garden, as Michael Cohen recounts in his new book American Maelstrom, there were “shoving matches and fist fights” as “Confederate battle flags were flown, then wrested away and set aflame to chants of ‘Burn, baby, burn.’ Cries of ‘Sieg Heil!’ were matched by chants of ‘Commie faggots!’”

The 1960s ended in traumatic fashion for liberals and the New Deal coalition. The Vietnam War blew open a divide between anti-war activists and Lyndon Johnson’s administration, while racial unrest and changes in sexuality generated a conservative white backlash against liberal social and cultural values. Most frightening to politicians in Washington, nobody in either party seemed to respect the political establishment anymore. The outsiders of the time—Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy on the left and California Governor Ronald Reagan on the right—were the politicians whose voices resonated at the grassroots. Bob Dylan was right: The times they were a-changin’; it just wasn’t clear in what direction.

The biggest beneficiary of this turmoil proved to be Richard Nixon, who defeated Hubert Humphrey and Wallace in an extraordinarily close presidential race. Liberals who hoped that the country would keep moving to the left found themselves in a state of disbelief. Nixon, the red-baiting politician who had remade himself into a party statesman, took control of the White House.

Amid the turbulence of the 2016 presidential election, it’s instructive to read two new books about the political battles of the late 1960s. Neither Cohen’s narrative history of the 1968 election nor Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon fundamentally challenges prevailing interpretations of the era. But both books explore in depth the people and the battles of those years and illuminate how the liberalism of the 1960s came undone.

Based on newly released archival material, Tye’s book shows the connections between Robert F. Kennedy’s early years as a hard-line anti-communist and his later political career as a liberal. Although other accounts have discussed Kennedy’s conservative origins, few authors have probed so deeply into just how committed and ruthless the young lawyer had been, willing to violate civil liberties in pursuit of his goals. Kennedy developed a strong attachment to the anti-communist zealot Senator Joseph McCarthy, even though he understood the excesses of McCarthyism. When McCarthy died in 1957, Kennedy was so grief-stricken that he sent his staff away while he recovered his composure. Three years later, drawing on the rough tactics he had learned in his apprenticeship to McCarthy, he masterminded a brilliant campaign for his brother Jack, first against Humphrey in the primaries and then against Nixon in the general election.

As attorney general in his brother’s administration, Kennedy continued to hit hard against organized crime, while leaving untouched people such as Frank Sinatra and big-business leaders whom the Justice Department might also have prosecuted. When advising the president on foreign policy, Kennedy was not a dove. Dismantling Kennedy’s own account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Tye shows that he was an “outspoken hawk” willing to use military force against the Soviets. Moreover, the crisis itself was a direct outgrowth of the clandestine policies toward Cuba (Operation Mongoose) that Bobby Kennedy helped to engineer. “The attorney general,” Tye writes, “was employing precisely the methods that he had condemned in actions by the Soviet Union: subverting another country’s government, underwriting guerrilla armies, and operating under the cloak of darkness rather than in the light of day, where Bobby said democracy did best.”

Even as Kennedy gradually awakened to the tragic state of race relations in the South, he authorized FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. While Kennedy’s role in that decision is not new information, Tye’s book puts it in the context of his tactics during the anticommunist crusades of the 1950s and shows how he brought those methods into the government.

So how did Bobby Kennedy change? Tye argues that he underwent a series of turning-point experiences in the 1960s when he was awakened to the progressive side of his party’s tradition and learned about the struggles of African Americans and farmworkers and the costs of military conflict. Tye centers his narrative around such experiences as the trip that Kennedy took while he was a senator from New York to meet with the poor in Mississippi. “I’d formed an image of him as a tough, arrogant, politically driven man from the Joseph McCarthy era,” Marian Wright Edelman recalled. “These feelings dissolved as I saw Kennedy profoundly moved by Mississippi’s hungry children.”

Tye argues that by the time Kennedy decided to run for president in 1968, he saw the potential for a new Democratic coalition that would be more inclusive and vibrant than the one Franklin Roosevelt had created. His embrace of issues such as civil rights was genuine, not born of political calculation. Kennedy had an extraordinary political gift. On the campaign trail, Tye writes, Kennedy could “make rhinoceros-hided scribes fall in love with him to an extent not seen since Franklin Roosevelt or perhaps his distant cousin Teddy.” At the very moment that George Wallace was trying to tear working-class Americans away from the Democratic Party through racist populist appeals, there were many Democrats, and idealistic reporters, who believed that RFK had the potential to keep the New Deal intact and to expand it to include new constituencies such as Hispanics.

To be sure, Tye acknowledges, Kennedy was a complicated figure who was beset by contradictions and inconsistencies, but this was part of what made him so intriguing as a political figure. He was willing to defy the conventional political divisions—embracing the cause of civil rights while also understanding the need for law and order in the cities and the case for market-based approaches to domestic problems. The book ends on a tragic note, as Kennedy’s assassination on the night of the California primary shattered liberal hopes.

In American Maelstrom, Cohen devotes a chapter to each of the key figures in the 1968 election. His portrait of Lyndon Johnson emphasizes the president’s disastrous decisions on Vietnam—a sobering contrast to recent accounts that have highlighted Johnson’s political acumen. According to Cohen, none of the Democratic candidates, not even Kennedy, could have mounted a successful campaign that year.

Here is where the two books engage in a debate rather than a conversation. Cohen sees Kennedy as more of an opportunist (as he is depicted in Robert Caro’s work) and disputes the claim that Kennedy could have been a coalition-building candidate. According to Cohen, this was a “mirage” that reporters at the time mistakenly accepted. Despite Kennedy’s primary victory in California, his campaign was falling apart, and one of his strongest assets—his support among African Americans—would have been a huge liability in the general election.

Kennedy is not the only Democrat who comes in for criticism in Cohen’s account. Eugene McCarthy receives the most favorable treatment for his inspirational anti-war campaign, but he was not much of a campaigner. McCarthy didn’t like the give-and-take of retail politics and at key points became emotionally disconnected from the campaign. Given his role as vice president, Humphrey didn’t stand much of a chance of overcoming the burden of Vietnam. As Cohen portrays him, Humphrey was a craven politician who repeatedly acceded to political pressure even when he knew that a policy was not in the best interest of the country.

While Cohen argues that Republicans were also divided—in their case, between moderates and conservatives—they had a number of advantages that tilted the campaign their way. Most important, Republicans were not the party of Johnson and the Vietnam War. Unlike the Democrats, they also had a seasoned candidate in Nixon, who ran a sophisticated media-centered campaign that avoided specifics while hitting the right notes on the issues that angered the electorate. Nixon was able to capitalize on the working-class fury that also drove Wallace’s third-party campaign.

The good news for liberals from Cohen’s book, which is spot on, was that Democrats were able to institutionalize their policy achievements in the 1960s, while “conservatives failed to translate [the country’s rightward shift] into direct policy gains.” It was only later, as the Republican Party moved further to the right, that conservatives finally started to roll back liberal policies.

Both authors would have benefited from doing more to incorporate the robust historical literature that has been published in recent years about conservatism before the 1970s. Historians such as Kimberly Phillips-Fein, Ira Katznelson, Michael Kazin, Michael Hogan, and Kevin Kruse have shown that previous scholars had overstated the dominance of liberalism and missed the ideological civil war that persisted during the New Deal era. As I’ve also argued in my own work, the right was central to American politics all along. On Capitol Hill, a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans ruled the roost from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was not an era of liberal dominance in the House and Senate. Liberalism thrived not because there was any kind of consensus but because strategic party activists and elected officials figured out ways to mobilize and legislate over the opposition of entrenched congressional and business opponents. This is the context needed to make sense of liberalism’s defeats.

Both books also raise the perennial question about how much weight to put on individuals and elections in explaining the political dynamics of an era. Tye’s biography often delves so deeply into Kennedy’s life that the social movements and party battles that rocked the nation fade into the background. He presents Kennedy’s evolution as resulting from personal awakenings rather than the broader changes in American politics.

Cohen repeatedly criticizes “game change” narratives about politics but still works within that framework. The 1968 election, he says, shifted politics for decades to come. Political scientists like David Mayhew have argued that focusing on individual elections can mislead scholars in understanding causality by shortening their time perspective. Many of the political phrases that Cohen says came out of the 1968 election—such as Republican pledges to be “tough on crime” or denunciations of a “liberal elite” that was “weak on defense”—were merely variants of a discourse that had been taking shape since World War II. A focus on a single election also tends to make the differences between the candidates seem more historically significant than they sometimes are. It is difficult to distinguish between a large pack of candidates competing individually and a true factional war in which the candidates represent large and sizable party constituencies.

Cohen’s book, however, makes an important contribution by bringing out the significance of conservative populism in the 1960s. Building on the work of Rick Perlstein, Cohen shows that the new development in the 1968 election was the emergence of Wallace’s politics of fear and his brand of angry conservative populism. Over time, as Cohen argues, Wallace provided the template for Republican politics. With Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee in 2016, that insight will resonate with readers more than Cohen could have ever anticipated when he began his book. Readers would do well to look back to 1968 as we all try to figure out what the nation is going through today.


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