1968 was a pivotal year in which a confluence of seismic events permanently altered America’s social-cultural-political landscape. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Bobby Kennedy in June. On Christmas Eve, Apollo astronauts transmitted the “Earthrise” photo, an image of our green-and-blue swirled planet. Lyndon Johnson doubled down on the Vietnam War, while “Hey Jude” topped the charts.
In March, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection after being embarrassed in the New Hampshire primary by Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey entered the race. Kennedy would die at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan and Humphrey went on to become the Democratic Party’s nominee at the Chicago Convention, forever remembered for the tumult in the hall and violence in the streets.
In November, Richard Nixon defeated Humphrey in a three-way contest that saw the rise of George Wallace, the last Dixiecrat. The Democratic coalition in place since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dominated by anti-communist, pro-Vietnam War labor leaders like George Meany and Peter Brennan, shattered.
In May 1970, Hard Hats for Nixon, with Brennan’s blessings, unleashed their fury in New York City on anti-war protestors marching in solidarity with their fallen Kent State brothers and sisters. Shortly after, Archie Bunker caricaturized them on CBS. Thus, the clash between class and culture within the Party.
The Party’s emphasis shifted from class, from its blue-collar, New Deal economics foundation to culture: anti-war, environmentalism, racial equality, privacy, and rights for women, LGBTQ, and immigrants. In 1980, culturally conservative Democrats set economic self-interests aside and voted for Ronald Reagan, their protest to the prevailing winds in the Democratic Party. An uneasy alliance between the two strains has held sway since.
In that time, as economic stagnation and dislocation have set in for the working class and the disparity in wealth between the uber-rich and the other 99 percent has grown greater than it was during the Gilded Age, enormous gains have been made in advancing the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. But we are realizing that work will never cease because of inbred hostilities in certain groups causing resistance and pushback.
Similarly, though environmental consciousness has increased, it’s a never-ending battle. It baffles the mind about why a large segment of the population insists on denying the reality playing out before their eyes. Unfortunately though, denying truth and reality is a human condition.
A telling statistic from the last election challenges the myth of monolithic voting blocs: 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, the same man who berated them vis-à-vis his brutal demeaning of Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, and Carly Fiorina. The 53 percent voted for the man who bragged about his sexual predatory habits and accused of walking into a dressing room in which young women were in various stages of undress, something for which a high school male teacher would have been fired and prosecuted. Yet, none of that mattered.
While that too boggles the mind, our task is to understand why. One theory is those women hold a paternalistic view in which a strong father dominates and women naturally suborn themselves to men. A related notion is that while those women might consider Trump’s behavior gauche, they feel that’s the way men are and women are helpless to resist in this male-dominated society. Then there might be those who simply love being sexual objects.
But there’s another that’s none of the above: Women who voted for Trump, while appalled and disgusted by his behavior, suborned that contempt to other closely held values and fears.
It comes back to class and Bill Clinton’s maxim: It’s the economy, stupid. Survival trumps human dignity. Class trumps culture. It’s the reason many stand on street corners begging for help. It’s the reason desperate people flee war-torn and squalor conditions and risk it all to find a better life in America or Europe. It also explains why Trump’s boorish behavior didn’t and doesn’t matter to working and middle class Americans. What mattered and matters is that he spoke and speaks to their fears and survival needs.
And unless Democrats begin to address them in a dispassionate but respectful manner and listen to urban blue collars and rural everyday folks, 2020 might be déjà vu all over again.