Could history serve as a guide in the 2020 election? With headlines about racial violence, protests and riots, 2020 seems reminiscent of 1968. Racial strife and division of 1967 and 1968 set the stage for the law and order candidacy of Richard Milhous Nixon.
President Trump, who recently reaffirmed his claim to being a “law and order” President, is looking to benefit from the same momentum that propelled Nixon into the White House. Could an appeal to the past, even from a century ago, become a theme of the 2020 campaign?
A Look Back
The mid to late 1960s were a time of contrasts in the U.S. The country appeared to make historic racial progress by outlawing segregation in public places and ensuring the right to vote in 1964 and 1965. But racial clashes in the streets, especially with law enforcement, led to demonstrations and race fueled riots. Following the Watts riots in 1965, there were an estimated 150 riots in 1967 and 100 in 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two hundred and fifty riots is hard to fathom. There have been nearly as many peaceful protests following the killing of Floyd George this year as there were violent riots between 1967 and 1968. Amid this chaos Nixon saw a path to victory for his “law and order” candidacy which included his Southern Strategy emphasizing “state’s rights.” His choice of running mate, Spiro Agnew emphasized this strategy. Agnew, the first term Governor of Maryland had made his name by emphasizing law and order themes in a racially polarized state.
To understand the Southern Strategy, it is important to understand what made the South valuable to Republicans. After the Civil War, the Democratic Party was dominant in the South. However, as the Democrats became the party of civil rights progress, Republicans believed they could win over Southern whites by criticizing civil rights.
Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman explained the Southern Strategy when he argued, “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” In this environment the code words “law and order” and “state’s rights” were used to reassure white voters that Nixon would prioritize their interests.
A Look Ahead
Could the election of 1968 have any lessons for this year?
It would be easy to dismiss the scale of the unrest of the late 1960s with the mostly peaceful protests today. What could make it more similar is the accelerated feedback loops, advances in communications technology, 24/7 news outlets and social media outlets which make it easy to sensationalize even minor events.
It’s also possible the population is far easier to scare. Much of the population in the late 1960s had lived through Pearl Harbor, World War II, the Korean War and a number of years in Vietnam. Much of the black population of the late 1960s had lived through these events, as well as, years of Jim Crow terror and countless setbacks. As Will McAvoy, in Aaron Sorkin’s, The Newsroom lamented about today’s voters, “We didn’t use to scare as easy.”
Economically, working and middle class voters are stressed as never before. In the 1960s there was a belief that a rising economic tide lifted all boats and everyone had a chance to improve their financial station. In the modern economy, income from financial assets (property, securities) exceeds income for labor. In such times, the income available to those with only their labor to offer becomes close to a zero-sum game. Therefore, the more one person earns for their job, this less there is available for the next worker.
This year Americans have lived with the spreading of a deadly virus and an economic implosion. This has added considerable economic suffering, as millions have been fired, and extensive social distress as the disease continues to kill. The broken social safety net has sent millions more into poverty, while fatigue with social distancing rules has led people to congregate across the state and the county. Not surprisingly, new cases have begun climbing again.
In this environment swing voters may crave a candidate offering something close to the status quo ante. One century ago, Senator Warren G. Harding promised a “return to normalcy,” after World War I, and was elected.
A Donald Trump’s Presidency can be considering many things, but “normalcy” is not among them. However, if Biden promises more change at a time when the pace of change has accelerated from Mach 1 to warp speed, his appeal may be limited. In this environment, Biden will likely promise to return the country to a pre-Trump America.
Will appeals to nostalgia, in a time of chaos and change, carry the day on November 3rd?