Event Recap | How the 1968 election affects politics today

Michael Cohen opens his talk at the Tower Center discussing his book “American Maelstrom” with Tower Chair Joshua Rovner and Center for Presidential History’s Thomas Knock.

Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen visited the Tower Center Oct. 6 to discuss his book, “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division,” and the 2016 election.

Introducing Cohen, Thomas Knock of the Center for Presidential History said understanding what happened in 1968 holds “inestimable importance to understanding the politics of our time.”

George Wallace set the stage for Donald Trump

George Wallace ran as an independent in the 1968 election. Comparable to today’s GOP nominee Donald Trump, he capitalized on the fears of the people and blamed the government for the unstable environment the country was facing at the time of the election. Cohen pointed out that Wallace’s ideology was not conservative as much as it was reactionary. Wallace was a liberal on every issue except for race. True conservatives hate and fear Trump for that same reason, according to Cohen.

“The root of Trump’s success is that he appeals to nativism and racism,” Cohen said.

Though Wallace only won 13 percent of the vote, Cohen wrote in his book’s introduction that “his campaign rhetoric depicting an out-of-control federal government and his outreach to alienated white working-class Americans would within four years become the idiom of Republican politics.”

Changing demographics

The 2016 primaries proved that a Republican candidate cannot win the party nomination without first winning over the nativist crowd mentioned above. However, demographics are changing, and they could force the GOP to shift its strategy to appeal to a wider portion of the electorate. “I had hoped we’d get to the end of ’68 politics this election because the demographics would demand it,” Cohen said. Though this wasn’t the case, he says eventually it will be.

Anti-government sentiment

One of the most harmful repercussions of 1968, according to Cohen, was that it changed how Washington works. People are more hostile toward government, which makes it more difficult for anything to be accomplished. He wrote that voters began “fostering an almost reflexive resistance to any new government initiative.”

This idea of anti-establishment has been especially effective for the Republican party, as seen by the ‘Tea Party Takeover‘ that gained momentum in 2010 with candidates like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson winning seats. Cohen said that while it is surprising that Trump, the man, won the nomination, it’s not surprising he won on an anti-establishment campaign.

The importance of social issues

Are we stuck with the politics of 1968 forever? Maybe not. Social issues have played an increasingly important role in the election. Voters are increasingly motivated by issues of identity. Cohen sited a 15-point shift in college educated women who moved away from supporting the Republican nominee. “This has nothing to do with economics,” he said. “This is the Trump effect.”