Even with one week to go–had enough of the infinite but intensifying demolition derby of cash-infused calumny that our electoral campaigns have become?
It’s our fault, you know. We, the voters–more specifically, we who exercised the franchise long before 2008.
By mid-July 1968, I was 20 years old–which meant, at the time, that I couldn’t yet vote in any election. (The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wasn’t ratified until three years later.) Oh, I wanted to–desperately. The war in Vietnam raged on, after compelling President Johnson to decide not to seek a second full term. Dr. Martin Luther King, who galvanized my generation around the issues of racial and social justice, had been murdered in Memphis in the spring. Sen. Robert Kennedy, another champion for the young, was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Los Angeles the night of his primary victory in California and on the cusp of his summer surge to win the Democractic nomination in Chicago in late August. Our country was literally and figuratively on fire, and fear and frustration were found everywhere.
That left Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Minnesota’s “Happy Warrior” and former Democrat Farm Labor Party Senator who had been Johnson’s Vice President, to become the party’s standard bearer in the fall. His Republican opponent was Richard Nixon. Sen. Eugene McCarthy ran as the independent “Peace” candidate, and George Wallace, the pro-segregation former Governor of Alabama, actively campaigned in the South and Rust Belt for the American Independent Party.
Nixon won the election, beating Humphrey by a half-million votes out of 73 million cast–00.007%. His margin in the Electoral College was comfortable, 301-191. Wallace got a little more than 9 million votes and carried five southern states with 46 electoral votes. McCarthy didn’t move the needle. Nixon’s campaign theme was “restoring law and order” and was entirely reactionary, built on those fears and frustrations–a toxic brew of the continuing Vietnam War, civil unrest, and white, working class antipathy toward civil rights gains.
I’d already been active in politics for almost five years by then and understood its basic proposition: winner takes all. To my consternation, too many of my slightly-older peers, who weren’t otherwise racist and who’d made some kind of personal commitment to peace, justice, and social transformation, didn’t seem to get that. (I’m bound to confess here that in the 60s “true believers” varied wildly by degrees. For too many of us, especially those unburdened by cradle-Catholic baggage, antiwar or pro-civil rights demonstrations were the most attractive and highest-percentage opportunities to get laid. Add to that the burden of recreational chemicals. I never understood exactly how sitting in a corner, toking and listening to “Revolver,” was going to bring the Revolution, Man. These are the types who in no particular order later publicly renounced their Hippie/Yippieness, were born again, and voted for Reagan.)
Here’s the point: if more of us had been mature enough to vote for Humphrey instead of indulging our hubristic “meaningful protests” by writing in “Clean Gene,” the Yippies’ “Pigasus,” or other mythical creatures, he might have won the election. And–
- The Vietnam war would have ended much sooner–if only because McNamara and Ellsberg would have had a sympathetic, inside audience.
- There would have been no Watergate and no impeachment proceedings.
- The GOP’s vaunted “Southern strategy” would have failed, at least for the first time.
- The entire realm of public discourse would have been different–more progressive than reactionary.
The rest, as they say, is history. For men and women of a certain age, we’re staring back at a 40-year legacy of political nihilism. The ardor for public service created in Camelot and made manifest by LBJ’s personal courage and parliamentary skill was pronounced dead in 1980, replaced by self-interest and opportunism. We profess disgust at negative campaigning and profligate, manipulative polling; nonetheless, those of us who continue to vote appear to be influenced by it. Our elections, which are supposed to be job interviews, have become cage matches, staged by proxy through advertising and in the media, between candidates whose highest apparent qualifications and ambitions are to govern least, if at all.
Which is why we owe special props to the 20 million young adults–your kids, my kids, and their younger cousins–who breached those torrents in 2008 and gave inspiration and hope a chance. If my own are any indication, they’re more grounded and knowledgeable than we ever were, anyway. (Look at the mess we’re leaving them!) We owe it to them to do better or just stay home, clinging to our shopworn anxieties.
What to do? Here’s my three-point plan for November 2:
- Quit whining about what hasn’t happened and think about what might happen, if for whatever reason you fritter away your franchise.
- If you have access to any of the 15% who voted for the first time two years ago, please encourage them to do it again. By whatever means necessary.
- Please consider having the good sense to do what our parents and grandparents did for Franklin Delano Roosevelt: sustain President Obama’s working majority in both houses of the Congress. The years after FDR’s first mid-term election, 1934-1936, marked the “Second New Deal,” which included passage of the Wagner Act, promoting labor organization; Social Security; and the Works Progress Administration.
Two years ago, I told my sons that that election was likely the most important of their lifetimes. Now, I’m telling them it’s in second place.