By Robert A. Vella

From 1932 to 1968, the Democratic Party was basically synonymous with American politics.  With few exceptions, it controlled the White House, Congress, state governorships and legislatures, and all the way down to the local governmental level.  The progressivism espoused by Democrats was so pervasive that even the rival Republican Party was moderated by it.  Not coincidentally, the greatest expansion of middle class prosperity the world had ever seen resulted from it.  Near the end, it had begun to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problems of racial, ethnic, and gender injustice.

But, it did end.  The turning point came during the 1968 presidential election campaign.  The powerful Democratic Party was already fracturing along a north-vs-south division which had emerged over the civil rights movement;  although, the fatal blow was delivered by a disastrous split over the Vietnam War.  In March of that year, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy ran a close second to President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.  Four days later, civil rights hero Robert F. Kennedy entered the presidential race.  With the war going badly, challengers rising from within his own party, and a deep sense of personal despair over the unexpected turn of events, Johnson sorrowfully informed the nation he was withdrawing his reelection bid.  In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  In June, RFK was assassinated.  Vice President Hubert Humphrey then became the successor to Johnson.  By August, the Democratic Party was in shambles.  The national convention in Chicago erupted in violence, and Humphrey limped towards his eventual defeat to Richard Nixon in the November general election.

Fast forward to 2016.  While the Democratic Party never did regain its former prominence, it has managed to win 4 of the last six presidential elections including the last two by Barack Obama.  Concurrently, however, the party has suffered an onslaught of defeats just about everywhere else.  The Republican Party, despite its recent foray into right-wing extremism, holds more political power now than it has consistently held since the Roaring Twenties.  The fundamental problem facing Democrats is the precarious tightrope they are trying to walk between corporatist, status-quo, establishment politics and the growing populist discontent spreading through their progressive base and through the nation at large.  This tightrope is very similar to the one Dems fell from in 1968.

Last night, establishment candidate Hillary Clinton and populist insurgent Bernie Sanders split the two primary contests.  Clinton squeaked by in Kentucky, while Sanders won handily in Oregon.  Both of these state elections were closed primaries – meaning that only registered Democrats could participate.  Look at the Democratic race map to date.  The establishment/populist divide is quite apparent, and it also appears to be geographical as well:

Democratic Party Primary Election Results - 20160518

Curiously, the mainstream news media had focused instead on the so-called “GOP Civil War” which ended with a whimper after Republican leaders acquiesced to their populist insurgent candidate Donald Trump.  And, while a competitive Republican race never really materialized, a Democratic civil war looks to be heating up fast.

From NPRBernie Sanders Defends Supporters After Rowdy Protests In Nevada:

The Sanders campaign says that in Nevada on Saturday, “the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place.” It is alleging that the chair of the convention incorrectly ruled on a voice vote, unfairly deeming 64 of its delegates ineligible, ignored floor motions from his supporters and wouldn’t accept any petitions to change the rules.

“If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November, it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect that they have earned,” the Sanders statement continued.

Rival Hillary Clinton won the state’s caucuses back in February by five points, and the 23 delegates were split proportionally between the two, 13 to 10. The remaining 12 were set to be awarded last Saturday at the state convention. The Sanders campaign had worked to make sure many of its loyalists were at that gathering, where they hoped to win a majority of the delegates and narrow Clinton’s lead to 18 to 17 delegates out of Nevada.

But chaos followed after Sanders supporters allege they were denied being seated at the convention and that the state party chairwoman, Roberta Lange, was slanting the rules in favor of Clinton. In the end, Clinton ended up with 20 delegates out of the state to Sanders’ 15.

From Mother JonesBernie Sanders Refuses to Apologize for Nevada Democratic Convention Chaos:

His response follows multiple reports of angry Sanders supporters flipping chairs at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel event and growing evidence of violent texts and voicemails that targeted Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange and her family. (A few of those disturbing messages, which include calling Lange a “corrupt bitch,” can be heard here.) Some supporters even talked about “guaranteed fires” taking place at July’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

From The New York TimesBernie Sanders Facing Pressure Over Supporters’ Actions in Nevada:

“You are going to see a variety of tactics,” said Elizabeth Arnold, 32, a former staff member for the Sanders campaign in Philadelphia who said she planned to demonstrate. “I personally don’t like being arrested. But it’s essential that we speak our minds and assert our First Amendment rights. Our system is terribly flawed and terribly unjust — so very just actions often end in arrests.”

Ms. Arnold, who helped found EDGE, an environmental justice group based in Philadelphia, said she did not condone violence and hoped that people would find a way to voice concerns peacefully. But she said that Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic leaders attending the convention “should worry about what is going to happen.”

Nina Turner, a prominent surrogate for Mr. Sanders, said that she had seen several emails from people planning acts of civil disobedience, and that talk of dissent in the Republican ranks over Mr. Trump masked the searing divisions among Democrats.

“People are talking about the Republicans having a brokered convention. I think we are sleeping on the Democrats,” Ms. Turner said. “And if Democrats believe that that’s not going to happen, they are just sadly mistaken. They have blinders on.”

Further reading:

The Test of Leadership as Sanders Rolls in Oregon

32 thoughts on “Primary Elections update: It might be 1968 all over again for the Democratic Party

  1. We need unity here folks. It’s not 1968, but the propensity of the Democratic Party to let the perfect be the enemy of the good is kinda a big deal. I voted for Sanders, but I’m beginning to regret it seeing what’s happening to the party. The polls are heading in Clinton’s direction and if she wins we all need to rally behind her. She offered Sanders a VP slot and I think that Sanders, if he does lose, could graciously accept an opportunity to give some of the key issues he supports six months more spotlight.


    • I agree the Dems need to unify, but that unity must be based on something tangible, something shared. With economic inequality/institutional corruption at the forefront of the national debate, and with Clinton (status quo) and Sanders (fundamental change) on opposing sides, all the other issues combined struggle to even achieve parity.

      This is precisely what party leaders fail to understand – the profound philosophical nature of progressives. If they don’t find a way to accommodate it, they will damage their electoral prospects in November. And, that is exactly what happened in 1968.


      • Philosophical? What I see, Bob, is a lot of agitation coming from people who claim to be progressives but aren’t. In other words, I think it’s pretty clear that differences are being inflamed. Hillary Clinton is being portrayed as something she’s not — a republican. And there’s a lot more commonality between her positions and Sanders’ than there is between either and Trump. Sanders has lost some of my respect by pulling tricks out of the republican playbook and stating that ‘Clinton isn’t qualified.’ Utter nonsense that’s damaged both campaigns and is now hurting our chances in November. Someone, in my view, needs to start acting like an adult.


        • In 1968, I was a teenager and – as typical for that age – quite ignorant of politics. However, I do remember Democratic and Republican politicians, as well as most folks of my parent’s generation, denigrating us irreverent youths as “agitators,” “idealists,” “childish,” “communists,” “pinkos,” “peace-lovers,” “n****r-lovers,” “filthy hippies,” “fags,” “long-hairs,” and a whole lot of other such names. They refused to listen to us, refused to even acknowledge that what we were fighting for had any merit at all. When communication breaks down that severely, social upheaval must result – and , it certainly did back then.

          Ten years later, I had opportunities to calmly discuss those turbulent times with my parents. Both had supported the Vietnam War, denounced civil rights, and ridiculed the notion of equality. But in 1978, their opinions on these issues and many others completely flipped. It was a huge moment for my family, a time of reconciliation and re-convergence after so much pain and anguish had been suffered.

          If you don’t see any parallels to today, then by all means you should continue to characterize Sanders supporters as you have. I doubt you’ll get any positive responses from them; but, who knows? Maybe it’ll work this time!


        • Wow, Bob. And no, you completely missed the point. By agitators I meant people who are preying on division within the Democratic Party. Not young people with new ideas. In any case, it looks like I hit a raw nerve here.

          I don’t know what else to say other than that it looks like you’re pretty determined to drag everyone through the dirt. And that’s more than just a little sad. If people can’t overcome differences and unite behind the candidate (which unfortunately will probably be Hillary), then we’ll get Trump and that will be far, far worse. I’m surprised you can’t see this clearly. And it’s sad that an otherwise rational person would behave so viciously.


        • On the contrary, it is you who isn’t seeing clearly. And, it is my failure to enlighten you which is at fault. But, I’ll make one last effort.

          The Sanders campaign represents a group of millions of progressive-minded Americans who feel betrayed by the Democratic Party. That’s why many of them switched to Independent status and why they are so passionate about their political beliefs. It also reveals their desperation to hold on to some part of the political system which many of their friends and family members have already abandoned. What matters here is that perception, not the underlying reality.

          Therefore, the onus to keep Trump and Republicans out of the White House falls to Clinton and the Democrats because the Sanders group feels: 1) that they have already lost, and 2) no philosophical kinship with either party. This feeling is so strong that some Sanders supporters believe Obama/Clinton would rather hand over the presidency to Republicans than to a progressive like Bernie.

          So, here we are… breaking into factions and battling amongst ourselves. If my words are still unconvincing, perhaps words from Clintonite Senator Chuck Schumer and The New York Times might help (from America’s political left is fracturing):

          Following the Democratic Party’s shellacking in the 2014 elections, punctuated by the lowest midterm voter turnout in 72 years, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) opined about a future apocalyptic America:

          “Different racial, religious, ethnic, and economic groups will turn on each other in a way we haven’t seen in almost a century. The grand optimism that is America will be extinguished and we will become a sour, angry people as the flickering light of the American dream dwindles and the America we know and love no longer exists.”

          The New York Times also offered an ominous assessment of 2014’s dismal voter turnout, saying that was:

          “… bad for Democrats, but it was even worse for democracy.”


        • Bob —

          I think you over-emphasize differences and underestimate commonality. The democratic party is a party made up of progressives. The party cannot exist without its progressive base. Bernie Sanders plays not to a faction of the party — but to its heart. On the basis of issues, he’s the perfect candidate for what most of us believe in.

          He’s absolutely a leader that people believe in. And for good reason. But he’s losing in the primary — by 3 million in the popular vote so far. And he’s not likely to win.

          So the onus is on him — as the leader of the party’s heart and sentimentality — to snatch victory from the jaws of failure. Not just for his campaign. But for the party itself.

          There are clear issues that democrats can put forward that will enliven the progressive base in this election. Bernie can go to the convention not as a defeated candidate, but as an enlivened leader of a strong progressive constituency.

          How does he do this? He plays above board. Wrangling for delegates when he’s behind in the popular vote is counter-productive.

          And, sure, there is absolutely an onus on Hillary to do quite a lot too. She should absolutely welcome Bernie and work at the convention to put together a power-sharing arrangement between progressives like Bernie and her more moderate constituency. In my view, she should also continue a trend of moving back toward the progressive base of the party.

          In any case, 2014 was bad for a number of reasons. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that mid-terms favor republicans in the current state of play. The general election is an opportunity for us to go mainstream again. Corporate media can’t put a complete lid on a general election and we should be pushing to give our issues light and take back Congress as well as the Presidency.

          There is so much at stake — the supreme court, meaningful action on climate change, the maintaining of the US as a healthy democracy that we shouldn’t allow what are relatively minor philosphical differences within the democratic party to splinter it.


          We have an extraordinarily strong party affiliation advantage. With either Clinton or Sanders we have a far better candidate than Trump. And there are a thousand reasons why democrats will appeal more to voters than republicans if the real issues are debated in the public sphere.

          I think, my friend, that you’ve lapsed too far into doomerism. Sorry to see it. But the differences within the party are nowhere near too great for wise heads to overcome.


        • A strong party affiliation advantage? Those Gallup numbers show in January 2009, just before Obama took office, Democrats = 36%, Independents = 33%, Republicans = 30%. In April 2016, Independents = 44%, Democrats = 31%, Republicans = 25%. The trend I see is moving away from party affiliations.

          The voter turnout decline in 2014 reflected comparison to other midterm elections, not to general elections which also declined from 2008.

          Not doomerism, realism.


        • Yeah, doomerism Bob.

          If you count leaners, Dems are at 49 percent vs Republicans at 41 percent.

          Progressivism is an opportunity for democrats to reinvigorate the party. And we should see it as such. Republicans have no opportunity of this kind. Bernie is a huge gift to the Democrats and Hillary should realize that and take advantage to the fullest.


        • Independents, however they might “lean,” are by definition not affiliated with any political party.

          I agree Hillary should realize how progressives could reinvigorate the Democratic Party. We’ll see in the coming weeks and months if she will.


        • OK. Split hairs as you like. But Independents must vote in an election dominated by a two party system. So where they lean absolutely matters. Five point advantage among affiliated voters, 8 point advantage among leaders. We’re still better off than republicans and we still have every opportunity to make the party more progressive.


        • I mean, Bob, think about it. Who are Independents mostly made up of?

          1. Tea Party people who don’t want to be ID’d as republicans that are still mostly republican.
          2. Progressives and socialists who are still mostly democrats who don’t want to be identified as democrats.

          Why has this happened? You’re a smart guy. You tell me.


  2. As a distant observer, and in as much as I could agree with some of the sentiments of Sanders, I think if one feels the party ain’t working for him just when he wants to be president, he is being hypocritical. Maybe he has challenged the party before, I don’t know. But if he hasn’t, then he is whining for no reason other than to appear as a victim.
    But if he has challenged the nominations rules even as senator with no presidential ambitions, then his complaints should be treated by the party seriously.
    My two cents


    • Sanders is not a Democrat, he is a progressive Independent running for the Democratic Party nomination. His political and philosophical consistency has been so stalwart over such a long period of time that even his arch-rival Republican opponents admire it. Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump made statements to that effect. That’s the problem with distant observation, it’s hard to see more than two cents worth. But, thanks for your interest.


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