I came of age politically in 1968, when the nation was embroiled in a bitter presidential campaign. Though I was only in 4th grade my political senses had been sharpened by the civil rights movement, political assassinations and the raging war in Vietnam. By 4th grade I had already written to President Lyndon Baines Johnson (“LBJ”) twice and recently received copies of my letters from the LBJ Presidential Library. I still have my Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy campaign buttons from that election, as well as posters from the Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns.
The 1968 election, like the one currently in sight, was deemed one of the most critical the nation had ever faced. An incumbent Democrat in the Oval Office, LBJ, was saddled with a war America was losing and a growing anti-war movement; including the vocal opposition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition, King was relentless in his calling on the Johnson administration to address the problems of the nation’s poor and was planning a Poor People’s Campaign. Against growing public dissatisfaction with his administration, Johnson opted against seeking re-election. His decision prompted a political slugfest within his own party, a fractured party convention, the rise of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and an independent run by the face of Jim Crow, the fiery segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Throwing the country into further turmoil was the assassinations of King and presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy, with the nation grieving Kennedy’s death just five years after the killing of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
In other words, 1968 was a hellish election year and our current contest for the nation’s highest office does not even come close to the breaking point we were at almost 50 years ago,
Still, the issues that confront this nation and those that are particularly relevant for African-Americans have been cast to the side for the pettiness on display by the major party candidates and many media outlets. If the old saying “garbage in, garbage out” has any truth, it accurately describes this campaign and the state of American politics today. From the cat and mouse games of who is going to run for president, contingent mostly on money, to internal party rules and processes that stifle democracy and the corrupting nature of big money and its influence, our national interest has been hijacked. The public now plays at the margins, hoping to get a glimpse of a candidate at a theatrically staged rally, is inundated with slickly produced commercials, and listens intently for any semblance of substance in televised debates that have become social media battles and nothing more.
I can’t help but think back to 1968 and the seriousness of the issues that were being debated and the sense that Americans were tuned in. Yes, demagoguery was present with Nixon using coded messaging in his “law and order” theme to appeal to whites resentful of the civil rights movement and opposition to the war, and Wallace making a blatantly racist appeal to blue collar whites and conservatives. Still, I do not recall and my review of news coverage of that year, does not indicate that campaign was plagued by the sophomoric and infantile behavior we are witnessing during this present campaign. We have truly reached a new low.
So, while we are fed a steady diet of Donald Trump’s gross sexism and Hillary Clinton’s contempt of transparency, we are a nation adrift with no lifeline in view.
For African-Americans the stakes are high and not simply because we are witnessing the end of the first Black president’s tenure. Whatever is the true record of the Obama years, that objective assessment will come at some later point when the emotionalism behind his years in the White House die down. For the time being, all we can do is make the case that our status in America is tenuous and demand that the next occupant presents a plan to address the issues that most impede our progress. We must also realize that we must bring our collective strength to the table and not rely on our elected representatives to make the case for us. Many forget that in 1980 the Congressional Black Caucus revolted against President Carter because members felt he was unresponsive to the Black community, and the Caucus did not extend an invitation to Carter to speak at the dinner during its annual legislative conference. This was a major show of strength by Black Democratic members of the House of Representatives against a sitting Democrat in the White House who was seeking re-election. That type of accountability no longer exists. We saw that first-hand during the vote to authorize the use of military force after 9/11 when only Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) voted no and stood out among House members as the lone dissenter. It is also now forgotten that the Caucus overwhelmingly did not initially support the candidacy of a young senator from Illinois who went on to make history as the nation’s first Black president. They only turned to Obama after he had disposed of Hillary Clinton and secured the Democratic nomination in 2008.
On November 8th we need to do whatever we individually think makes sense, and for most that will likely mean voting for Hillary Clinton, but make sure we also cast votes down-ballot because state and local offices will have a far greater impact on our day-to-day reality. Then, we need to adopt a November 9th mentality because in the days and months following this debacle of an election the Black community must be clear with its expectations of the next president and Congress. Speaking of Congress, if Black voters deliver a Democratic victory and the House reverts to a Democrat majority, we should demand the party select an African-American as the next Speaker. We can’t get caught up in who gets appointed to whatever position without understanding what we need from the federal government. This also includes a focus on the federal budget and taking on discretionary spending that in no way serves our interests.
For once we need to make self-interest and reciprocity the guiding principles for our political engagement. The celebratory practices of the past and the emotion laden sentimentality we exhibit after presidential elections needs to give way to a cold-blooded and calculated confronting of a political system that habitually comes up short for our community.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.