Elections US Style: 1968 and 2016
From the perspective of citizens, elections are seen as determining who will be “in” and who will be “out.” That is, the focus is how parties and candidates try to win elections, the supposition being that losing an election is never an option for a political party. From the perspective of the parties and their members, however, elections have to be managed carefully to ensure that they, the members who control the party, don’t lose their power. To do this, they must protect the prevailing political order or the regime because it is the regime that has elevated them to prominence, has empowered them. And sometimes, in order to preserve their power and the status quo, it makes sense to “lose” an election. This is something like losing a battle but winning the war.
Consider the presidential election of 1968. This election occurred at a time of considerable civil unrest. In fact, it is generally assumed that LBJ, the incumbent president, was driven from office because of this unrest, leading him to announce that he would not seek and he would accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. It is generally assumed that Johnson had become such a divisive figure that it was assumed that he could not have been re-elected in any case. Therefore, Johnson stepped aside so the Democrats would have a chance to win the upcoming election.
But there was obviously more at stake than winning that election insofar as many of those engaged in civil disobedience and others who were angry over the Vietnam War wanted more than withdrawal from Vietnam. Many saw themselves as harbingers of a “new” or different kind of political order, a political order where the likes of LBJ, Richard Nixon, or Hubert Humphrey would be outsiders. In other words, these “activists,” as is often the case with activists, were interested in “regime change,” to use a contemporary expression.
Hence, mainstream politicians, those invested in the status quo, needed to find a way to control or disarm these activists, these insurgents. Because the threat came primarily from the Democratic Party, it was necessary and would be beneficial for the Democrats to lose the election. And Johnson shrewdly accomplished both of these objectives, disarming the insurgents in his party and losing the election, when he withdraw for the race and claimed that he was doing so in order to be able to work for peace in Vietnam full time. In this way, Johnson stole the fire of the peace movement and claimed for mainstream, status quo politicians the cause of peace. The proof is in the pudding and here the proof is that Richard Nixon, as mainstream a candidate as can be imagined, built his campaign around his assertion that he had a “secret plan” to achieve “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Against all odds then, Nixon ran as a “peace candidate, thereby co-opting the most powerful appeal of the insurgents. And as a peace-seeking president, Nixon could continue persecuting the war, even expanding it, because he was, allegedly, working for “peace with honor.”
In this way, LBJ and Nixon, almost as if they were working together, managed the election in a way that preserved the status quo in the face of significant popular dissatisfaction and even civil unrest. And they did this without actually responding by means of change to the popular dissatisfaction abroad in the land. The degree to which they were successful was illustrated by the fact that Nixon was not hamstrung in his conduct of the war, which he kept going for four years, and by the fact that the goal of US policy in Vietnam became withdrawal, a withdrawal disguised as “peace” and as “honorable.” That is, the main issue was no longer the character of the American political order; rather, the main issue was bringing the troops and the POWs home. Or, put differently, the issue was reframed as rectifying “the mistake” of Vietnam, and “mistakes” are quite common, require correction, but don’t require fundamental or regime changes. Those who had sought such changes had been co-opted and rendered inert.
Not to lose sight of the argument here, let me reiterate that Johnson and Nixon treated the 1968 election, not as a means of seeking the kinds of changes that the popular unrest seemed to warrant, but rather as a means to avoid such changes in order to preserve the prevailing regime; that is, to preserve the regime which took the nation into Vietnam in the first place. Johnson was perfectly willing to withdraw from the race for the sake of peace and even willing to have the Democrats lose the election insofar as those eventualities would help to preserve the status quo and the power of mainstream politicians, even if these politicians were Republicans. In fact, insofar as the insurgency’s home was in the Democratic Party, mainstream Republicans would be preferable to mainstream Democrats. And Johnson knew that Nixon would make a far stronger president than Humphrey and, therefore, would be far less likely to cater to the insurgency.
As far as 2016 is concerned, the question is how are the two parties, that is, the establishment members of the two parties, dealing with, managing the pervasive popular discontent abroad in the land? I believe the establishment Republicans are as content as Johnson was in 1968 to lose this presidential election, especially as the nominee of that party will be from the insurgency. And if the candidate loses in a landslide, all the better for the establishment members of the Republican Party. In this way, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz “works” for the mainstream Republicans as both have been painted as extremists unfit for the White House. And as in 1968, there is an establishment candidate waiting in the other party, the Democratic Party, and one that establishment Republicans need not fear insofar as Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences are, for the most part, in sync with the Republicans. So, it would appear that the Republicans have little to lose by losing this election and, in fact, they seem to have much to gain by doing so. It is not the establishment members of the Republican and Democratic parties that will lose in 2016. Rather, it is the American people who will lose, as another chance for significant change passes by. And while this may be less than horrible, it cannot be said to be characteristic of a genuinely popular government.