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Joe Biden has learnt the wrong lessons from 1968

A California Highway Patrol officer detains a protestor at UCLA this week. Credit: Getty

May 5, 2024 - 1:00pm

After 100 pro-Palestine protesters were arrested at UCLA, President Joe Biden broke his silence of several days and addressed the chaos engulfing US university campuses. A sign of the generational divide in Americans’ views on Israel, university campuses have been the sites of demonstrations, encampments, and occupations, as students call on their institutions to end relationships with Israeli universities and on the US government to pressure its ally to cease its military campaign in Gaza.

Over the past few days, many comparisons have been made to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the Sixties and Seventies which engulfed university campuses — the latest proponent being Bernie Sanders. In April 1968, the New York Police Department dressed in riot gear and stormed Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, making use of underground tunnels. That same year, protesters declared that Columbia would be henceforth known as “Malcolm X University”. In 2024 Hamilton Hall has been renamed “Hind’s Hall” by protesters, in memory of a six-year-old girl killed in Gaza in January.

Biden is one of the few people in American public life who was around for both sets of protests, both times as a sceptical onlooker rather than an enthusiastic supporter. In April 1968, he was a student at Syracuse Law School. In his 2007 memoirs, he wrote that he viewed campus anti-war protesters with disdain, calling them “assholes” and asserting he was “far apart from the antiwar movement”.

In private, Biden probably shares similar sentiments about today’s protesters, and the feeling is mutual. This time, however, the President cannot simply swear at the protesters and wait for them to go away. But his instinctive centrism also risks repeating the mistakes of the Democratic candidate for president in 1968, Hubert Humphrey.

Humphrey, vice president at the time, could not disavow the American war effort in Vietnam, as was urged by the Left of his party. Yet, the perception that the US had succumbed to chaos empowered the political Right. The scenes of unrest at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, far from Humphrey’s crowning moment, became an albatross worn around his neck for the rest of the general election. In an uncomfortable coincidence, the Democratic convention this year returns to Chicago.

Likewise, the current protests put the President under two competing and intense pressures. On the one hand, hostility towards the protesters from Biden risks exacerbating his estrangement from young voters and the Left of the Democratic Party. A CNN poll released last weekend showed Biden trailing Donald Trump among young voters, with 51% of those under 35 saying they’d vote for Trump, compared to just 40% backing Biden. Young people have been notoriously difficult to poll during this election, but if the CNN numbers are even close to accurate, a Democratic deficit among young voters bodes poorly for his prospects in November.

At the same time, if Biden is perceived as being too soft on the protesters he risks antagonising the Right and independents. Thus, the President felt compelled to describe violent elements of protests as “despicable” and that antisemitic chants “echo the worst of human history”.

The vocabulary of the Sixties may not be precisely the same, but it certainly rhymes with Republicans’ language today. In 1968, the segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace denounced “silver spoon brats” on university campuses, speaking warmly about how he would happily mow down protesters with his car. California Governor Ronald Reagan described UC Berkeley, another site of protest today, as a cesspit of “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates”.

But it was the Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon who was the main political beneficiary of the unrest. Indeed, Nixon understood that the conflict on campus crystallised the conflict he wished to promote in the public mind — a privileged, naïve, out-of-touch progressive Left, siding with the enemies of America and American values. Nixon emphasised that his administration would mean law and order, even if that ultimately meant the National Guard storming university campuses, sometimes to fatal effect.

Nixon deployed this message with great success in both of his elections. In 1968, the combined Nixon-Wallace vote was 57% of the popular vote. Four years later, Nixon (on his own) secured nearly 61% of the popular vote, the highest vote share of any Republican candidate before or since.

Biden has admitted that in 1968 “I thought of myself as a Republican”, but he soon found himself repelled from the sharper edges of Nixon’s divisive rhetoric. In 1970, Biden was elected a Democratic county councillor in Delaware. Two years later, he was elected to the US Senate, where he would remain for the next 38 years.

Biden fashioned himself as a moderate Democrat — not one of the “assholes” occupying the campuses, but not one of those who cheered on the National Guard as they stormed campuses. This is his comfort zone. It’s a paean to an America that is, as he put it on the day he announced his 2020 campaign, “ethical, straight, telling the truth, supporting our allies. All those good things.”

So too was it Hubert Humphrey’s vision of America, but as in 1968 this centrist position may not be enough to unite a fractured nation, where sinews that once connected the country were long ago severed.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
15 days ago

America has a largely a center-right constituency. The groups that settled our country – waves of immigrants from the British Isles, followed by large waves from Germany and Europe – fled aristocracies and paternalism, and flourished in a vast and wide open area that was largely wilderness.
Democrats, particularly as of late, have a very center-left agenda. They’re primarily an urban party, and are a coalition of the very wealthy and the very poor. Few of their policies appeal to business owners, the self sufficient, the independently minded, or anyone who’s any sort of pioneer.
Voters will turn away from presidents and parties who blunder into disastrous wars, appear to have mismanaged things like the real estate or financial sectors, or who aren’t as resolute during pandemics, hurricanes, or mass panic events.
But they largely reject both authoritarianism and chaos, which seems to be what’s on offer now from the left.
Biden may appear to be a moderate, and perhaps he once was, but his party is increasingly the opposite. Barring some glaring error from Trump, he’s very unlikely to be re-elected, and anyway Biden won’t be voted out by a small slice of very young voters at very selective universities.
More than a few of whom don’t wish to see our flag taken down and replaced with those of Antifa or Hamas.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
14 days ago

I thought this was an insightful comment, but you said something I have heard many times – the Dems are an alliance of the very wealthy and the very poor. I’m not sure I disagree, but policies like net zero, the inflation reduction act, student loan buyouts are particularly punishing and insulting to the working poor. So what poor people are the Dems aligned with – the non working poor? I might be wrong, but wouldn’t this be a very small percentage of voters?

Steven Howard
Steven Howard
14 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think it’s probably more the urban poor they are aligned with. But IMO this is also the problem with these kind of coalition parties, inevitably different parts of the coalition get the short end of the stick.

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
12 days ago

Have you read Trump’s political program? So who wants to be a dictator, sow chaos and hatred, and disembowel security and health care? Not to mention abortion – he will frighten all suburban female voters, a key constituency

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
15 days ago

‘ …rhymes with Republicans’ language today. In 1968, the segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace denounced “silver spoon brats” on university campuses, speaking warmly about how he would happily mow down protesters with his car.’

George Wallace was a Democrat. How else could he have been a 4-time Governor of Alabama in the Jim Crow era?

Buena Vista
Buena Vista
15 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Methinks the author of this essay is out of his depth. He writes of history of which he seems to have only a quite superficial knowledge.

Steve Hamlett
Steve Hamlett
14 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Wallace did indeed run as a third-party candidate in 1968 – the American Independent Party. He won five southern states with a total of 46 electoral votes.

Rob N
Rob N
15 days ago

Biden will say what he needs to say to get your vote. Always has been nothing more than a power seeking politician.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
14 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

Biden is an opportunist – not a deep-thinking or principled man.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
14 days ago

Any comparisons to 1968 are superficial IMO – the only similarity is that a bunch of college students are protesting. The US doesn’t have boots on the ground in the Israeli war and thousands of Americans are not dieing. The hippies had a utopian vision of the world IMO. Today’s students have embraced a racist ideology – both so-called anti Zionism and CRT – and want to impose their ideology on the rest of the country. Also, protestors won’t get within a mile of the Democrat convention. They will have the city locked down like Fort Knox.

Agnes Barley
Agnes Barley
14 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

This is a protest against their country’s part in genocide. Leave racist ideology out of it and think humanity, many Jewish students are out there protesting Zionism

Ian_S
Ian_S
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

You’re sadly deluded. Come back after 1) you’ve read Hamas’s charter, in particular where they announce their core organisational dedication to wiping Jews from the earth, and 2) think about what Israelis could do if they really wanted to eliminate 2 million Gazans. In short you’re just mindlessly repeating Hamas’s main political message. That’s what stupid elites do. Is that who you identify with — manipulated rich idiots?

Agnes Barley
Agnes Barley
14 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

3rd November Netanyahu “Destroy the Amelkites… do not spare women children infants” Is that preferable you?

Ian_S
Ian_S
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

If Netanyahu wanted to — assuming he could, given the checks and balances the state of Israel has that are notably absent from the deranged Islamic regime of Hamas — he’d have already wiped out all of Gaza’s brainwashed Islamic loving population. But he didn’t. So no genocide, sorry. As with all other cultural elitist goofy beliefs, it’s misinformation that you’re repeating. OTOH, you still need to read Hamas’s charter, particularly the parts saying their war is not actually about “decolonisation” (a word that makes cultural elites swoon in a miasma of romantic bliss) but a religious commitment to extermination of Jews. You’re a deluded useful idiot. Learn something that isn’t fashionable woke rubbish.

Agnes Barley
Agnes Barley
14 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Hamas’ Charter is words only but “The Israeli Mad Religious Entity” is acting out his words to the letter, killing innocent women and children. And I ask, does that mean nothing to you?

Martin M
Martin M
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

I seem to recall that the current situation started when Hamas raped and murdered a lot of innocents (including babies) as a specific act (not as “collateral damage” of an attach on military targets. I also recall that Hamas militants are happy enough to hide behind “innocent women and children”, in the hope that incoming Israeli fire will kill some of them on a “collateral damage” basis. The most telling aspect of this conflict is that as soon as it started, Egypt slammed its border shut. After all, the Egyptians know better than most what Hamas is like, and they didn’t want any of its members on Egyptian soil.

Agnes Barley
Agnes Barley
14 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

“The current situation” did not arise out of nothing! With the toll now at 34,262 dead and over 7,000 injured, so many of them women and children. We have to demand an end to this genocide

Ian_S
Ian_S
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

Despite Goebbel’s aphorism, repeating Hamas propaganda often enough doesn’t make anything true. It’s still just misinformation.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

Not really. Israel is not finished with rooting out Hamas operatives. Only then should the chaos stop. Who values only getting half the job done?

Ian_S
Ian_S
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

Why are Western elites so attracted to the “romance” of extreme right violent Islamism? Wait. I think I know the answer. Because Western cultural elites can’t fathom that their “freedom fighting” Islamic fascists have such radically non-western cultural beliefs, including the ability to stomach aggregation of women and children into attack zones, so they can be killed and their corpses shown off in “viral” videos. Not convinced? Answer me this: why aren’t Gazan non-combatants not herded down into Hamas’s tunnels when the IDF announces — announces! — they’re about to attack? (Since no other middle eastern state wants them, they’re too radicalised and dangerous). Why they aren’t sheltered is because Hamas’s whole idea — their very strategy — is to have non-combatants killed, so they can use the body count in the propaganda war you so unquestionably imbibe. You’re the perfect dupe: reacting emotionally, unable to hold nuance over simplistic moral narratives, and unwilling to question beyond the sheeple narratives fed to you by Hamas and their Western apologists; to the point that you’re now supporting a violent extreme-right (but Islamist, which somehow makes a difference for sappy cultural elites) evil genius master-plan for exterminating Jews. Wow. How mind-controlled can.you.get?

Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye
14 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Barley

You are misquoting. He quoted the pentateuch verse “Remember what Amalek did to you”, which is a Hebrew idiom for an implacable enemy – referring to Hamas. He didn’t say “destroy” nor “do not spare women children infants”.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
14 days ago

Interesting

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
14 days ago

American liberal protesters are exactly the people who would have wailed to stop Eisenhower at the border of Germany in 1944. “Who will think of the children??”

Agnes Barley
Agnes Barley
13 days ago
Reply to  Richard Ross

That is silly

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
12 days ago

When it comes down to the wire and voters get to choose between Biden and Trump (if he is not in jail) lots of critics will hold their noses and vote for Biden.