1968 & the Electoral Implications of the George Floyd Movement (1/2)
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
This article is part of a two-part series.
The ceaseless cycle of shocking stories in 2020 found a new chapter on May 25, when several police officers from the Minneapolis Police Department killed George Floyd, a 46 year old unarmed black man. Feverish tensions already high from the COVID-19 pandemic have heated up in recent weeks. Peaceful protests, police violence, and looting have swept the country as millions of Americans fight to address police brutality and systemic racism. In a year already filled with a lifetime’s worth of gut wrenching headlines, the once seemingly important presidential election in November seems lightyears away. The current civil unrest will be sure to play a crucial role in how voters cast their vote. A prior election year, 1968, in particular offers insight into what the outcome could be.
1968 remains a notable year in American history. It represented a generational cultural shift as post-WWII society dealt with large-scale changes to daily life. Rock and Roll and Soul music artists from Jimi Hendrix to Aretha Franklin brought music styles dominated by black artists to the forefront of American culture. The North Vietnamese Army began the Tet Offensive as the United States found itself more entrenched in the Vietnam War. NASA launched the first manned spacecraft, Apollo 8, to orbit the Moon and safely return back to the Earth. Arguably the most important turning point of the year fell on April 4. On that day, civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The assassination sparked outrage that soon turned into riots in over a hundred cities. Exactly one week following the death of Reverend King, President Lyndon Baines Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which targeted discrimination "on the basis of race, religion, nation of origin, or sex," especially in fair housing practices. The riots only lasted a month, but they marked the greatest social unrest the United States had seen since the Civil War. However, the atmosphere of protest continued throughout the year, with large anti-war demonstrations occurring with alarming regularity in cities across the country.
In an election year, voters took notice. President Johnson decided not to run for re-election due to concerns over his health, and following the jarring assassination of Democratic Candidate and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, Vice President Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination. In July, the Democratic Nomination Convention in Chicago was rocked by protests that turned violent in Grant Park and disrupted the convention. Pictures circulated of police beating college students with batons, many of whom expressed vehement opposition to Humphrey and the Vietnam War. The protests grew so large that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was forced to call in federal troops to control the crowds. Vice President Humphrey, already facing pressure for his commitment to the Vietnam War and nomination strategy, offered few suggestions to ease the violence. This inaction opened him up to wide criticism about his ability to provide leadership to America in an extraordinarily tumultuous time.
Enter Richard Nixon. A former California Senator, Vice President, and Republican Presidential nominee, Nixon’s extensive resume helped him secure the nomination of his party in a closely contested convention. With America at war both at home and abroad, Nixon portrayed himself as a strong leader who would ensure stability for the country. He campaigned heavily in Chicago and drew many supporters who had been disaffected by Humphrey’s apathy. He promised to restore “law and order” to the nation domestically and secure “peace with honor” abroad. Nixon wholeheartedly rejected the counterculture movement and the societal change they fought for. Instead, he catered to Americans he dubbed “the silent majority,” people who preferred to return to normalcy and their traditional lifestyles rather than accept a large transformation of their country. The American electorate bought into his message, and on November 5, almost exactly seven months after the death of Reverend King and five months after the death of Robert F. Kennedy, Nixon won the presidency in an electoral landslide, despite a difference in the popular vote under 1 percent.
The result of the election revealed a few things about American voters. Firstly, a strong leader is more desirable than a weak leader. Nixon’s obvious commitment to justice contrasted greatly with Humphrey’s weak response to violence at home and abroad. Voters chose someone they believed would take swift action instead of being a bystander. Secondly, voters looked for a dramatic change in leadership in the midst of unprecedented challenges. They broke with eight years of progressivism and opted for a conservative backlash that looked to restore a traditional past rather than embrace a progressive future. Major public figures had been assassinated, violent riots and protests had become the new norm, and political divisions over Vietnam were further deepened by the cultural shift of younger generations. 1968 was an incredibly uncertain and scary time for most Americans. Consequently, Nixon won the presidency as the man to bring America back to the way it was and firmly enforce the rule of law. Thirdly, voters made their voices on the racial divide heard loud and clear. Vice President Humphrey had been one of the architects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as influencing other legislation from Johnson’s Great Society program that sought to benefit the black community. Humphrey was criticized for being more conservative than some of his primary challengers, but he clearly demonstrated his commitment to advance the goals of the Civil Rights Movement in his presidency. Nixon offered a lukewarm message on civil rights. Despite championing various civil rights legislation during his career as a Senator, these achievements were palpably absent from the rhetoric of his campaign platform. Nixon instead pushed forward a more gradual approach to desegregation and walked back his support for other civil rights legislation. This sudden reversal was an attempt to increase his appeal with the racial conservatism of swing voters who felt uncomfortable with the significant racial restructuring of American society during the Johnson administration. The strategy paid off, and voters sided with Nixon’s cautious approach on the subject.
The parallels between 1968 and 2020 are not hard to draw. An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has shrouded the nation like a dark cloud. The threat of global war loomed over the nation in January as an escalation with Iran seemed imminent. The sudden deaths of NBA legend and activist Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna stunned the nation as they watched the video of a major public figure die in a tragic helicopter accident that killed several others. The COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March, and has gone on to claim the lives of over 100,000 Americans. 38 million Americans filed for unemployment in a nine week period which created unemployment levels unseen since the peak of the Great Depression. Travel domestically and globally reached a crawl, as the world appeared to be on pause. Pictures of empty city streets and historic monuments without visitors made people feel much further than six feet apart. In April, armed protestors stood inside the Michigan Capitol Building as protests erupted urging governors to lift the lockdown measures targeted at limiting the spread of the virus in order to revive the economy.
The disruption to daily life somehow entered a new chapter on May 25. A viral video emerged in Minneapolis of a Minneapolis Police Officer, Derek Chauvin, suffocating George Floyd, an unarmed black man, to death by keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The initial arrest had allegedly been made over a counterfeit $20 bill. Three other officers stood by as onlookers pleaded with Chauvin to stop, with Floyd’s last words repeated over and over again: “I can't breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Chauvin removed his knee from Floyd’s neck two minutes and fifty three seconds after he became unconscious and unresponsive. Still reeling from the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Arbery, two unarmed black individuals who had been killed by police in recent weeks and also caused national outrage, a new type of anger overtook the nation, one that had not been seen in decades. Millions of Americans in all 50 states took to the streets and marched to protest the murder of George Floyd. Sister protests broke out worldwide from New Zealand to France. They pushed to hold the officers involved accountable for their actions and reopened the greater conversation regarding the systemic racism that pervades society. Chauvin has since been charged with second degree murder, while the other three officers have also been charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder. Large peaceful protests in major cities were met by police force and tear gas. Violence has escalated dramatically, as looting and vandalism has taken place countrywide. Several protestors and police officers have already been killed. The National Guard was summoned by dozens of states to help control the violence. Videos show armored vehicles and troops protecting the National Mall like the warzone our country has become.
Lessons learned from 1968 give us a few clues on how this movement could affect the 2020 election. First, President Trump’s assertion as the candidate of law and order carries a double edged sword. Many voters will agree with his rhetoric that strong action must be taken to stop the violence. However, he remains the incumbent President and cannot lay his blame to the top, so Trump has attacked state governors as being “weak” and “foolish” in response to the protests and violence. He encouraged states to utilize the full force of the National Guard and United States Military, just as he had in Washington D.C. Actions speak louder than words, so voters will look to what measures the President takes rather than what he tweets. On June 1, he gave a speech on the South Lawn of the White House as he declared himself the “president of law and order.” The allusion to President Nixon was no accident, as he later alluded to the former President on Twitter. Like Nixon, he attempted to convince voters that he is committed to justice and can bring peace and stability to the country. However, his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, has the opportunity to play the same outsider role as Nixon in 1968. He can shift the blame to President Trump’s weak leadership for not de-escalating the violence and encouraging a stronger use of force. Voters might agree that the man in charge is responsible for maintaining law and order, so if he can not do so, a new leader should be elected.
Second, like in 1968, voters could demand a seriously different brand of leadership. Four years of conservatism might initiate a progressive backlash that rides the wave of the left-leaning nature of the current movement nationwide. While President Trump offers dreams from yesterday, Biden’s message has been centered on building a new future. This message could resonate with voters who view the current turbulence as a time to push for sweeping political changes at all levels of society.
Third, racial politics could again play a prominent part in the outcome of the election. Vice President Biden has enjoyed high electoral popularity among the black community, a key factor that helped him secure the nomination in a crowded primary field of Democratic challengers. His presidential platform promises to be the most progressive of any president since Johnson. Vice President Humphrey emphasized the accomplishments of his predecessor just as Biden has doggedly defended the work of former President Barack Obama’s administration. However, the Obama administration has still faced criticism for not supporting the black community enough, as many feel disappointed that the first black President did not do more to push for large scale racial reform on issues like education and housing. Additionally, several cringeworthy Biden gaffes have gone viral during his campaign, including a recent interview with Charlamagne Tha God in which he said “If you vote for Trump you ain’t black.” His record on race is a decidedly mixed bag, and many voters strongly support his positions while others remain more skeptical.
President Trump as well has an extremely complicated record on race. He has received allegations of racism numerous times from his renting practices as a landlord in New York City in the 1970s to his presidency. He has promoted the economic empowerment of the black community more than he has social and political reforms, so although he has achieved historic lows in the black unemployment rate, he has frequently sparked division and came under fire for his remarks and actions regarding race. This includes his 2011 conspiracy theory that President Obama was actually born in Kenya, dubbed "Birtherism," and his comments during the Charlottesville rallies in 2017, in which he declined to rebuke white supremacists protestors and instead pinned the hate and violence “on many sides.” Many voters are exceedingly convinced of the President’s bigotry while others will defend him just as passionately. In the midst of a movement to fight against racial injustices, both candidates will be appealing to win the support of the black community, which could be the deciding factor in battleground states like Michigan.
Their respective responses to the current movement could greatly influence the upcoming election. Public discourse has largely created two narratives: most Democrats are concerned by the violence and looting of the protests, but far angrier and more concerned about police brutality and systemic racism, while most Republicans feel the opposite. These two stances are by no means absolute, but this dichotomy best reflects the position of the two candidates. Trump has displayed grand showings of force to end what he believes to be out of control violence, while Biden has met with black community leaders and spoken to families of police brutality victims including George Floyd to better understand what solutions are needed to address police brutality and systemic racism. As a result, many voters may base their vote primarily off the two candidates’ actions and rhetoric to the movement in the coming months. In the year that has been 2020, it seems unlikely that our world won’t dramatically change several more times between the writing of this article and the election. This article could be rendered useless in the coming weeks by new developments. Regardless, the nationwide movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd will have significant electoral effects and reveal more about what we stand for as Americans.