There are real lessons to be learned from the 1964 presidential election that can be applied to the 2016 campaign. In 1964 both major political parties were at a crossroad and had to determine the direction it would choose for the long-term. The choices to be made were driven as much by external factors as internal party politics, and the consequence of those choices reverberate today.
When Democrats gathered in Atlantic City for their convention, the party faithful were caught in a vortex of emotions. It was only months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his death loomed large over the party platform. The convention also became a battleground over civil rights and Blacks demands for equal rights, symbolized by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its challenge to the seating of an all-white delegation from the state. Fannie Lou Hamer’s powerful appeal on behalf of Black Mississippians to the party’s Rules Committee is appropriately remembered as a defining moment in party politics.
In San Francisco in 1964 the Republican Party was facing its own moment of truth. Still reeling from Richard Nixon’s razor thin loss to Kennedy four years earlier, the GOP was in search of an ideological framework. Few remember that Nixon won 32 percent of the Black vote in 1960 against the Massachusetts senator and the Republican Party still had a healthy dose of support in the Black community despite the post-F.D.R. shift in party allegiance. It was also in 1964 that a Hollywood actor switched parties and came to San Francisco to declare the virtues of conservatism. Four presidential elections later that actor, Ronald Reagan, would win the White House and become the standard bearer for the conservative cause in America.
In many ways the candidacy of the GOP candidate in 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater, and the current candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, seeking the Democratic nod, have similarities. Goldwater represented a dissatisfied faction among Republicans who felt the party was too moderate. At the time the GOP was more moderate in its tone and policy than today’s Republican Party; evidenced by President Dwight Eisenhower sending federal troops to Little Rock to aid in the desegregation of public schools and his appointment of the first African-American in the Executive Office of the President, E. Frederic Morrow. The Eisenhower administration had also advanced the first federal civil rights bill since Reconstruction though it was limited in scope. And many Blacks still had Republican loyalties dating back to the post-Civil War period. For many white rank and file Republicans, the party had lost its way and Goldwater was the messenger of the moment to change its course.
In similar fashion Bernie Sanders speaks to a dissatisfied faction within the Democratic Party. It is the new ‘Silent Majority’ of the left. These are individuals who feel the party has shifted too far right. These Democrats have grown weary over appeals to the middle, exemplified by the politics of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council in which Bill Clinton had a major role. In Senator Sanders they see a truth-teller as much as they do an electable candidate for the presidency in the same way many conservatives viewed Goldwater. The 1964 election was practically a non-starter for the Republicans with the symbolism of President Kennedy’s death weighing on the electorate. What conservatives saw in Goldwater is the same thing liberals see in Sanders – a path to a different construction of their party.
In 1964 as is the case in this election, youth are prominent in the debate on a party’s direction. Though never given the credit of the 1960’s young liberals, conservative youth had a major role in moving the Republican Party rightward in 1964 after Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide. For youth of that era there was a bigger prize than a singular presidential election. They were focused on a cultural shift in party politics and were willing to take a hit at the polls for success over the long-term. Goldwater then and Sanders now, two unconventional white males, attracted young voters who believed the candidates were sincere in their critique of the nation and saw them as the future of the party despite their age.
For the Democratic Party of current day, the ghost of 1964 is haunting them. The candidate of the establishment and pre-ordained nominee, Senator Hillary Clinton, is facing a Goldwater type undercurrent from the left in her party among Sanders supporters. The Vermont senator has caught the right political current – rising student activism, a reenergized and youthful Black base fueled by outrage over police brutality and eager to confront racism, and white youth and young white women who do not associate their civic standing with the appeals for gender solidarity from the Clinton camp. Moreover, white males, who might be Democrats but lean conservative, likely don’t align with Sanders but also see Clinton as a less viable option than not voting or voting Republican.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Bernie Sanders cannot win this presidential election. It is a point being hammered by Clinton supporters and the Democratic Party establishment, and reinforced by the media in thinly coded messages implying Sanders is not viable in a general election. Yet, it is that very critique that will likely fuel Sanders campaign. And every attack on his candidacy will reinforce the notion among his supporters that the Democratic Party is in the pocket of powerful special interests, wealthy elites, and needs to be reconstructed. Like Goldwater in 1964, true believers in Sanders message might be looking beyond November as the goal. Reagan showed up in 1964, again in 1968 when Nixon won, again in 1972 and 1976 – and became the Republican nominee in 1980. Much of his support, and the conservative faction within the GOP, was forming in 1964, saw some success in Nixon’s victory four years later, but claimed not just the presidency but the ideological high ground in 1980.
Despite all that we know to be at stake in the November election, there is a growing sense among a sizeable contingent of the Democratic Party of something far more important than this singular election that can’t simply be achieved with the status quo.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.