What 2020 does — and doesn’t — have in common with 1968 | Fletcher McClellan

June 18, 2020 6:30 am

The last few weeks have seen a countless number of comparisons between the events of 1968 and 2020.

For those like me who lived through the 1960s, the multiple crises of the current era are indeed a moment for reflection and sharing with the generations who came after us.

However, I do not blame students if – after hearing my contemporaries explain what we should learn from the past – they say, “OK, boomer.”

It might be more useful to see parallels among 1968, 2020, and other presidential election years engulfed in crisis.

In the last century, the years and events include 1932 (Great Depression), 1944 (World War II), 1968 (Vietnam, racial and campus unrest, political assassinations), 1980 (Iran hostages, stagflation, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), 2008 (Great Recession), and 2020 (pandemic, Greater Recession, racial unrest, impeachment).

Sudden economic downturns and U.S. responses to foreign attacks or threats triggered three of the five turbulent years prior to 2020. One year – 1968 – featured domestic social and political turmoil.

Arguably, 2020 is the most chaotic in that its catalytic events are economic, domestic, and international – the latter if you see Russian intervention in our elections as an assault on American democracy.

Next, there are similarities in the political consequences of crisis years.

Of the five past presidential election years mentioned, all but one resulted in the decisive defeat of the party occupying the presidency.

The exception was the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. At that time, five months after the D-Day invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe, Allied troops were making demonstrable progress.

Otherwise, the Democrats – under FDR and Barack Obama – took over the government from Republican administrations. Twice also, Republicans seized control from Democrats, Richard Nixon replacing Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan defeating Jimmy Carter.

Historically speaking, barring the political equivalent of D-Day (a coronavirus vaccine?), it doesn’t look good for President Donald Trump.

The only question is how deep and lasting the political damage will be for the GOP.

The election of 1932 led to party realignment. Democrats won eight of the next 12 presidential elections and dominated both houses of Congress for all but a handful of years until the Newt Gingrich-led Republican takeover in 1994.

Unlike 1932, as explained below, the Reagan Revolution produced more of an ideological transformation than a long-term partisan shift. Still, between 1980 and 2008, Republicans won five of seven presidential elections. Moreover, GOP appointees have constituted a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court since the 1970s.

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With less than 140 days to go before Election Day 2020, Democrats are poised to sweep the national elections. Not only that, further inroads at the state level will put the party in much better shape than it was in the 2010s to influence legislative redistricting.

The final point of comparison among crisis years in politics is the potential for durable, significant policy change.

Policy scholars recognize that elections in tandem with social movements are most likely to produce big domestic policy shifts.

In the 1930s, the combination of the election of FDR, the labor movement, and socialist agitation brought about the New Deal.

Nixon came to office in 1968 besieged by numerous progressive movements and the beginnings of a conservative reaction. As a result, many of his initiatives, which included environmental protection and the War on Drugs, defied ideological consistency.

A leader of the conservative movement, Reagan halted major expansion of the welfare state (until the 2010 enactment of the Affordable Care Act, debatably), prioritizing instead tax cuts, deregulation, defense spending, huge budget deficits, and religious fundamentalism. Through the 2010s, this remains the Republican playbook.

We are in the midst of a movement era that includes #MeToo, March for Our Lives, Fight for $15, Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, and the surging of Black Lives Matter.

Spreading nationally among people of all races, ages, and places, including 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties, the public response to systemic racism today marks a sharp contrast with the harsh reaction to antiwar and racial protest in the late 1960s, which led Nixon to promote law-and-order measures.

Though there is a long way to go, the political and social ingredients for major progressive change are coming together,

One remaining question is how will those on the losing side – plagued by unstable leadership, incompetence, favoritism, sycophancy, a bankruptcy of ideas, and reliance on lies, conspiracy theories, trolling, and suppression – come to terms with the outcome?

Will Donald Trump leave the political scene quietly, as he says he will? Or, will a succession crisis join all the other calamities 2020 has brought?

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter at @McCleleF.

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Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.