U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Our Present and The Past

At times of great political upheaval, people suddenly start paying attention to history, grasping to find past events that might provide a kind of road map for what the world is going through in the present.  The last several months and weeks feel extraordinary in so many ways. The steady stream of mass killings around the world, many of which are connected to ISIS. The nomination of Donald Trump, whose candidacy is clearly unusual and seems to many unusually disturbing.  Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party nearly becoming the first candidate of the far right to win a western European presidency since World War II … and getting a second bite at the apple when the election results get thrown out.  The Brexit vote and the apparent meltdown of UK politics.  Cops caught on video killing African Americans in this country with seemingly little cause.  The shooting of five cops in Dallas. And today an attempted military coup in Turkey. On and on it goes.

1968 seems to have emerged in recent months as the go-to historical analogy for our current global political upheavals.  In the spring, it was often raised by Democrats made nervous by the Bernie Sanders candidacy who wondered if this year’s convention in Philadelphia might fall apart like their party’s 1968 convention in Chicago did.   Donald Trump, too, brought back memories of 1968, though more of third-party candidate George Wallace than of Republican Richard Nixon.

As things seem to have fallen apart around the world, the ’68 analogy has been extended beyond the presidential race itself, though most Americans who lived through that year remember it as much worse.  “What’s happening now is terrible. 1968 incomparably worse: RFK & MLK assass, 17k US deaths VN, LBJ steps down etc,” tweeted James Fallows last week.

Over the weekend, Vox published an interview with the journalist Michael Cohen, who wrote a recent book on America in 1968.  Acknowledging that the political unrest we’re experiencing leads to the analogy, Cohen, like most others who have tackled the question in recent weeks, thinks that 1968 was much worse, both because it was significantly more violent and because we have made so much social progress since then.

But what fascinates me about this whole debate is that it misses half of what 1968 was about.  1968 is such a painful memory because it was a year of dashed hopes.  Johnson’s stepping down was a triumph for the anti-war movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. began the year planning a Poor People’s March that would broaden the scope of his movement.  RFK emerged as a candidate who seemed potentially capable of bringing America together and end the war in Vietnam. Of course none of these things worked out.

1968 was a year of dashed hopes around the world, as well, The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Student movements in France and Mexico.  The sense of political defeat that set in by the end of the year was so strong precisely because the hopes had been so high.

For 1968 to stand only for things falling apart, for political promises unfulfilled, is something that could really only entirely emerge in hindsight.  And there’s nothing particularly unusual about this.  In fact, that’s why we do history.  In the middle of a string of events, one simply doesn’t know how things are going to turn out.

And that’s very much the case for our experience of 2016. So far at least, if the political violence and despair, at least in the U.S., seem less acute this year than they did then, so too do the hopes for change.  But we really don’t know, can’t know, how 2016 will turn out, let alone how we will remember it.   There is an odd comfort in reaching for analogies, even when those analogies are very negative. If 2016 is 1968 redux, if Trump’s movement is fascism, then at least we know what we’re dealing with.  But history never really repeats itself. We can certainly learn from the past. But this year, however it turns out, will end up being something new.

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