A potential political bloodbath at this summer’s Democratic presidential convention, along with Bernie Sanders supporters’ “establishment versus Bernie” campaign motif, shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers 1968. Back then, like today, the Democrats faced a showdown between their left and center wings—and that confrontation led to violence in Chicago, site of the Democratic Convention, where anti-Vietnam War protestors fought with police in the streets. Inside the convention hall, New Left activists focused their ire not on Republican candidate Richard Nixon but on Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee. Ironically, Bernie Sanders is old enough to have been part of that movement. Today, he inspires a movement that echoes it.
In the winter of 1967, the New Left, its ranks swelling since the founding of the radical Students for a Democratic Society five years earlier, found its Sanders-style hero in Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, who had taken a bold stand against the war in Vietnam. McCarthy’s supporters stayed “Clean for Gene”—a reference to cutting one’s hippie-inspired long hair—and the candidate, thanks to a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary in early 1968, convinced President Lyndon Johnson not to pursue a second term. But as winter turned to spring and then summer, the Left’s more radical impulses began to surface, culminating in the unrest in Chicago that helped elect Nixon, who campaigned on “law and order.”
Then as now, leftist activists denounced Democrats whom they deemed “not revolutionary enough.” They applied that judgment to Robert Kennedy, now remembered as a progressive hero, whom they denounced as an “opportunist” for entering the race only after McCarthy had forced Johnson out. They condemned Humphrey, too, as “Johnson’s war salesman” and a “killer of babies.” It was all part of their “Dump the Hump” movement.
The young leftists themselves embodied the intergenerational, liberal-versus-radical tension. Many were raised by parents who embraced old-fashioned progressive values. They were scions not of the Communist Party but of Americans for Democratic Action, an organ of the anti-socialist, anti-Communist Left. A prominent example is Kathy Boudin, who joined the Weather Underground and, years later, helped stage a bank robbery in which a policeman was killed. Boudin was the daughter of civil-liberties lawyer Leonard Boudin, who represented Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers; Benjamin Spock, in his trial on charges of encouraging draft avoidance; and the Catholic priest-turned-military-base protestor, Phillip Berrigan.
In 1970, Boudin survived an explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse, where she was part of a group building a bomb intended to detonate at a military-base dance—an effort to “bring the war home.” Among those killed was Ted Gold, a so-called red-diaper baby, son of a physician and Columbia mathematician. Jerry Rubin, a leader of the Chicago convention protests, was the son of a Cincinnati union leader. Rennie Davis—who’d be charged, along with Rubin, in the trial of the “Chicago 7” for their role in conspiring to disrupt the Democratic Convention—was the son of a father who had served on Harry Truman’s Council of Economic Advisors.
The political anthems of the time served as a window into the anti-establishment character of the 1968 election—another theme repeating in 2020. Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” captured some of it: “Don’t wear sandals/Try to avoid the scandals/Don’t want to be a bum/You better chew gum.” The song also provided the totemic line that came to represent a generation’s iconoclasm: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” And so, the Weather Underground—the radical group, not the weather app—was born.
But no song better represents what is now called the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon—with its contempt for moderate liberalism—than the now-obscure lyrics of “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” from protest balladeer Phil Ochs:
I vote for the Democratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I’ll send all the money you ask for
But don’t ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
The madness in 1968 Chicago, of course, didn’t result in the election of a Democrat, progressive or otherwise. Instead, Nixon, longtime bête noire of the Left, prevailed that November. Sanders supporters should take note.
Photos: WikiMedia Commons (left), Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (right)