As the Clinton and Obama campaigns hit the homestretch in their neck-and-neck race for the Democratic nomination, it's becoming increasingly likely that, barring compromise, the party's superdelegates—elected officials and party leaders who aren't bound by the choices of primary voters—will decide the winner. Not surprisingly, this has caused an epidemic of hand-wringing among political experts, who worry that this state of affairs is dangerously similar to 1968, when a furious battle within the Democratic Party over two popular candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, spilled from the Democratic National Convention onto the streets of Chicago.
Next week, a group of scholars are gathering in New York to begin sorting out this historical comparison. In a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, seven history professors specializing in everything from Black Power to foreign policy will participate in a debate called "Rethinking 1968," where they will try to make sense of the year the Democratic Party imploded. In a period of only five months that year, the party's incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, announced that he would not run for re-election; its two most iconic leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, were assassinated; students angrily protested against the war in Vietnam—and the political establishment—from Berkeley to Columbia; and in Chicago, at the party's convention, a frustrated youth movement took to the streets, clashing violently with police for four days.
Humphrey, LBJ's chosen successor, ultimately won the nomination, with the support, experts point out, of the types of party leaders who make up today's superdelegates. He lost to Richard Nixon a few months later. Young voters, especially, were left disillusioned. "Obviously, there's a chance the Democrats could self-immolate again," says Peniel Joseph, a professor of history at Brandeis University, who organized the panel. "Everyone's holding their breath about that."
Still, the historians on the panel who spoke with U.S. News don't seem to think that the Obama-Clinton race is likely to end the way the race did in 1968. For one thing, the party's organization was substantially different at the time. Even with today's superdelegate system, the primary elections carry much more weight than they did in 1968—largely, historians point out, because of the outcry following that election's outcome. "The party was still a machine then," says Jeremi Suri, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who is on the panel. Party leaders and delegates were largely insulated from the voting public. (This year, many superdelegates have felt the need to vote for the same candidate their constituents have supported.) That wasn't true in 1968. The lack of transparency in the process is part of what motivated the antiwar McCarthyite protesters to take to the streets.
McCarthy and Humphrey were also very different candidates—from each other, and from Obama and Clinton, who agree on almost every issue. In particular, they had widely divergent views on the war in Vietnam. McCarthy opposed the war vehemently and wanted to pull American troops out; Humphrey, as LBJ's vice president, was forced to toe the party line, maintaining the war was winnable for much of his campaign. "He was really hamstrung by that," says Joseph. "He has to stick to Johnson's Vietnam policy right up to the end." That split between pro- and antiwar candidates—which most historians believe ultimately led to the chaos in Chicago—doesn't exist in the Obama-Clinton race, where both candidates maintain that they want to pull troops out.
Several historians believe that Obama-Clinton is less likely to end up like 1968 than like another campaign a few years earlier. "I think it's 1960," says Suri. That was the year John F. Kennedy appeared as an insurgent candidate, in a wave of charismatic speeches and questionable foreign policy credentials. Adlai Stevenson, a former Illinois governor who had run for president twice in the 1950s, represented the party's establishment, opposing Kennedy briefly at the convention. "Stevenson was the standard-bearer of the party. No one had more governing experience. He was ready to go the next day," says Suri. "The debate was about whether Kennedy was qualified. The Catholic issue was there, the issue of youth and lack of experience. He was a one-time senator." Kennedy was also operating in a similar political atmosphere: He was campaigning to replace a lame-duck Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who was widely viewed as being short on ideas, genial but unpopular. "That's the moment we're in now," says Suri. (In 1968, by contrast, the Democratic candidates were forced to grapple with a war a member of their own party had started, while also debating civil rights—both of which had raised the political temperature to a boiling point.)