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No, the 2024 Election Won’t Be Anything Like 1968

The election will be a challenge for Joe Biden. But looking to the past won’t help him—or us—understand what lies ahead.

The dominant headline on The Wall Street Journal’s home page at midday Wednesday was “Chaos on Campus, in Gaza, Threatens Biden’s Campaign.” The article is emblematic of a theme that will grow omnipresent as we move closer to the mid-August Democratic convention in Chicago.

Parallels to 1968 are irresistible both because of the locale of the Chicago convention and because Democratic disarray over Vietnam did help Richard Nixon win the presidency. It fits a long-standing media motif that when the Democrats lose the White House, it is usually because they brought it on themselves.

But the closer you look at the turbulent history of 1968, the more it reflects the 2024 presidential race with the accuracy of a funhouse mirror.

For all the horrors in Gaza, that war is a distant echo for most Americans—unlike Vietnam where nearly 17,000 U.S. soldiers died in 1968. Moreover, young men, unless they had the resources to obtain a deferment by going to college, were subject to the military draft.

Few presidential candidates have been as hapless as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee after Lyndon Johnson abandoned his reelection campaign in late March of 1968. Historian Luke Nichter’s recent book on the 1968 election, The Year That Broke Politics, reveals that LBJ preferred Nixon over his own vice president—and undermined Humphrey at every turn. It wasn’t until late September that Humphrey, who kept begging for Johnson’s approval, had the temerity to call for a bombing halt in Vietnam without preconditions, which was a minor dissent from the administration’s position.

Nixon did make an inflammatory speech attacking the 1968 turmoil on the Columbia University campus as the beginning of a “revolutionary struggle to seize the universities.” Nixon also ran a series of TV ads decrying “the problem of order in the United States,” but almost all of the imagery appears to have been taken from the urban rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But Nixon, who ran a clever campaign, also broadcast a TV ad with a rock-and-roll soundtrack in which the excessively square GOP nominee solemnly declared, “American youth today has its fringes but that’s part of the greatness of our country. I have great faith in American youth.”

The violence at the Chicago convention was devastating for Humphrey. But it had its roots in Lyndon Johnson’s decision, when he assumed he would be the nominee, to hold the convention in Chicago because he believed Mayor Richard Daley could keep order. After King’s assassination, Daley had ordered the Chicago police to “shoot arsonists and looters—arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.”