Measuring this historic moment: Is it a 1968, Redux?

America is sleepwalking into a political collision that is now all but inevitable: an electoral rematch of Joe Biden v. Donald Trump.

With the results of the presidential primary’s Super Tuesday now in, the national election is fully on. Trump offered a rambling list of grievances in a victory speech Tuesday night as he all but clinched the Republican nomination. Despite his big win and sweeping mandate in the Republican Party, Trump offered a dark vision of America as a “third world country” when it comes to its borders and its elections. 

And on Thursday night Biden delivered a spirited State of the Union address sounding an alarm that democracy is under attack at home and abroad, opening what was in essence a campaign speech with a reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s warning to Congress on the eve of World War II that the rise of fascism was “no ordinary moment in history,” as “freedom and democracy were under attack in the world.” Biden said he wanted “to wake up this Congress and alert the American people that this is no ordinary moment either.”

“Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today,” Biden added.

The competing visions could not be more stark, reflecting the fact that the divisions in the country are deeper than they have been in at least a generation. Biden went all the way back to the Civil War. So how do we measure this moment in history? How do we go beyond campaign rhetoric and give it context? 

It is safe to say that America hasn’t been this fractured since 1968. And that leaves me wondering if this current moment in American politics and the Summer of party conventions is 1968, Redux?  

Back then, the forces tearing the country apart were the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the draft as well as the struggle for civil rights and the slow pace of the march toward equality. The divisions had spurred violence, including the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. It was a time of dramatic upheaval but set against a backdrop of solid prosperity for the middle class and, notably, the challenging questions of the day were framed by robust and trusted journalism. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was named “the most trusted man in America” in a national poll. 

The polarization now is different. Yes, there is a war in Gaza that has caused bitter divisions, but there is no draft of young Americans to fight in that war. Yes, there is a fateful war in Ukraine, but no U.S. military units are serving there. The struggle now is more around immigration and women’s reproductive rights amid a smoldering reflection on injustices in civil rights that remain unresolved. Now it is a time of dread set against an age of inequity and widespread anxiety in the economy. Significantly, these struggles are framed by a weakened media amid a digital revolution powered by algorithms that foster division. Trust in journalism is at an all-time low.

So there are profound differences in the context in which the 2024 presidential election is unfolding. But, at least on the surface, the similarities are worth pondering. 

For one, the Democratic convention will take place in Chicago this summer as it did in 1968 and commentators will inevitably be making broad comparisons between these two different eras which are bound by the same deep division in the country and a menacing threat to democracy in the air. Back then, unrest in the streets turned to violence as police cracked down on protesters. These days young people are taking to the streets again in favor of gun control legislation and against Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, and in 2021 millions of people took to the streets to protest racial injustice in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. Time will tell what a long, hot summer in Chicago this year might bring. 

Another comparison is that both then and now an incumbent Democrat deeply unpopular within his own party is struggling in the polls to reclaim the presidency. Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation when he dropped out of the race as the Democratic nominee, and some commentators say Biden may be forced to do the same as he seems unable to shake questions around his age and capacity to lead. His speech on Thursday seemed to dispel that notion. But if Biden did drop out, it would prompt an open convention this summer just as there was in 1968.

It is notable that the drop in public support for the incumbent Democrat – then and now – centers around a foreign war. This time it is the war in Gaza, with polls showing Biden’s unquestioning support for Israel, as it indiscriminately bombs Gaza killing more than 30,000 Palestinian civilians, is prompting young voters in particular to turn against him. For LBJ it was his escalation of the war in Vietnam and the deployment of more than 500,000 American troops with nightly news footage of the barbarity of the war and images of caskets draped in American flags. Senator Robert F. Kennedy campaigned on a promise to stop the war and to do more to deliver on the promises of historic civil rights legislation before he was assassinated in June just after winning the California primary.

In this 2024 election, there is once again a maverick political force in another Robert F. Kennedy, the son of the slain candidate and nephew of president John F. Kennedy. RFK Jr. seems poised to be on the ballot as an independent in at least six crucial battleground states with a call to end the forever wars, to impose control on the confluence of big government and big business and to fight harder for impact on climate change. Like his father, he could emerge late in the race as a force in this election. But most of the comparisons to his father end there, and his position against vaccinations for COVID and statements perceived as anti-semitic have even his own siblings failing to endorse him.

Beyond these comparisons, Luke Nichter, in his new book The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968, indicates that  there is a deeper theme that cuts across both 1968 and 2024:

As he told TIME, “The thing about ‘68 that most resonates with our own time period is a lot of voter apathy. If you look at ‘68 and now, a lot of Democrats aren’t happy with their nominee or their supposed nominee. A lot of Republicans aren’t happy with their nominee. A lot of people are going to stay at home and not vote. And I think the election was, in ‘68, largely decided not by someone that people loved, but the least bad of the alternatives, which, for voters today, is a theme they’re familiar with.”

It’s a perplexing puzzle to try to figure out how to constructively explore the history of 1968 to help us better understand 2024. I called my friend Geoff Cowan, who is a leading journalist, intellectual, non-profit executive and civil rights activist, who was there in Chicago in 1968 working to reform the process to be more democratic. I figured there is no one who could offer more insight than him. We talked for a long time on the phone and in the end, he saw little productive comparisons. Instead, he shared a stark vision that America is struggling to save its democracy now, just as it was back in 1968. 

Here is what Cowan had to say: 

“We are in neither the best of times nor the worst of times, but we are in both.  We always have a struggle …And I do worry about confidence in the institutions, whether it is the press, the congress or the courts. It is not just the presidency, but there is a deep lack of confidence in the institutions. In 1968, we were in the struggle to make the institutions of democracy work. We had a lot of skepticism but we were committed to trying to make things better.” 

In the end, we agreed that the greatest concern these days is not so much the deep division in the country, but the collapse of institutions, particularly the weakened structure of a free press. Economic, technological and political forces have all served to undercut journalism in America, particularly local reporting. Half of all journalism jobs in America have been lost in the last 20 years, and local newspapers are shutting down at a rate of more than two per week. We have lost one-third of our local newspapers during this period, and the rate of decline is accelerating, leaving more than 200 counties in America as “news deserts.” We know three things happen in news deserts: a decline in voter participation, a rise in polarization, and a drop in the community bond ratings, as banks do not want to invest in communities where no one is watching the store.

Back in 1968, newspapers both national and local were just entering their heyday.  They were landing on the doorsteps of homes every morning and paving the way for communities to come together around shared sets of facts. They were asking hard questions and investing resources in helping the communities they served to find answers. And their message didn’t have to compete with thousands of others for the attention and trust of its audience. That is no longer the case and the collapse of local news organizations across the country creates even greater divisions. We no longer have the stories that bind us together and that may be the greatest peril of this moment in American history. 

Last month, the venerable Columbia Journalism Review wrote this dire prognosis for our democracy amid the erosion of local news: 

“The old saying “All politics is local” can officially be tossed in the dustbin of history. The local kingmakers and specific issues that used to dominate early-state primaries and caucuses don’t matter as much in an increasingly nationalized, polarized environment. And that’s because local news outlets have been hollowed out—leaving voters less attuned to local issues, and the stations and papers themselves with much less leverage to force candidates to answer questions important to the local audience.”

Support for local news organizations is our mission at GroundTruth, our way to counter this trend toward “hollowed out” newsrooms. Over the last five years, our Report for America program has placed some 600 reporters in more than 300 newsrooms across all 50 states. It is nowhere near enough to save American journalism, but it is an important calling to service for a new generation to join our fight to save local news and to be part of fighting to save our democracy.