Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Americans are waking up to a new nightmare. On top of a pandemic that has ravaged the country, killed more than 100,000 people so far and shut down much of our economy, there are now mass protests in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” as a white police officer kneeled on his neck. With President Donald Trump sending out tweets threatening violence against looters and police arresting reporters on air, it’s hard for Baby Boomers not to feel like this is 1968 all over again.
It was a difficult time then. The nation was stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam, with hundreds of thousands of troops fighting for their lives in a useless conflict. Meanwhile, every day seemed to bring more news of turbulence at home as the anti-war movement brought ongoing clashes between activists and police. The nation was still reeling from a series of devastating riots the year before, stemming from the police harassment of African Americans in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan.
Two of the nation’s most influential public figures, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, were tragically assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for reelection, while the Democratic National Convention in Chicago disintegrated into violent confrontations between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police.
With Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, running a third-party campaign that appealed to white ethnic anger in response to civil rights and the counterculture, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency by promising the country he would restore “law and order” on the streets.
Today’s situation is even worse. Covid-19 has killed nearly twice as many Americans than the 58,000 who died in almost a decade of fighting in Vietnam. Not only has Covid-19 wreaked immense havoc on the home front, it has imperiled core civic institutions, like schools and houses of worship, and forced us to live apart from friends and family. It’s unclear how long the virus will continue to cause severe illness and death. What is clear is that we will be forced to remake ourselves in profound ways.
We have a President who, unlike either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, doesn’t seem to care about governance. Our commander-in-chief is far less stable than either of these men and seems willing to say and do whatever is on his mind. He dismisses his own experts and turns to far-right media personalities for counsel. We’ve seen how he willfully spreads disinformation about Covid-19 and hesitates to bring the full power of the federal government to help us return to normal. Now he is tweeting out messages that instigate violence. As some cities burn, his response is to throw fuel on the fire.
Trump thrives in a partisan world that is in many ways more dysfunctional than what we saw in 1968. Whereas the tensions of that year revolved around specific issues, like the war and civil rights, we now live in a partisan world where our institutions perpetuate constant red-blue divisions over almost every issue, no matter how large or small they might be. Everything — even wearing masks to prevent a contagious, potentially deadly disease from spreading — instantly becomes part of this perpetual political struggle, making the resolution to key public questions almost impossible to achieve.
As if the fallout and the politics weren’t bad enough, the economy is more fragile today than it was in 1968. Toward the end of the Age of Aquarius, unemployment fell to about 3.5%. Although there were signs of inflation and slowdown as a result of Vietnam spending, the economy was in pretty good shape overall. It would take several years before the nation began the period of stagflation (inflation and unemployment) that defined the 1970s.
In 2020, we are already there. National unemployment is at 14.7% while 1 out of 4 American workers have filed for unemployment benefits. Entire sectors of the economy, including retail and service, are suffering blows from which they might not recover. Chains — from Hertz to Neiman Marcus — have filed for bankruptcy, while small businesses are shuttering. Meanwhile, our educational system, a key to advancement, will suffer from serious budget cuts. And the death of George Floyd, and so many others, have highlighted the extent to which racial inequality remains a searing issue in this country.
The unrest that we have seen this week has not been nearly as devastating as what happened in 1967, when Detroit and Newark were devastated, both in loss of life and property. But there are ways our current situation is even more desolate. Despite the passage of more than 50 years, it feels like little progress has been made. In 1967, LBJ set up the Kerner Commission, which documented police violence against African Americans and found that racism and police brutality were the primary causes in the surge in riots. The report, released in 1968, famously said, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Since then, the issue of criminal justice and racism has never gone away. In 1992, riots broke out after a grand jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers who had brutally beaten an African American man named Rodney King. During the Barack Obama years, smartphone technology allowed the public to see firsthand the risks that African Americans face just by going outside. Yet, even with that new tool to provide proof and the better possibility for justice, the abuse continues. “This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America,” Obama lamented in a statement on Friday. “It can’t be ‘normal.’ If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.”
For those of us who study the 1960s or lived through those troubled times, it’s hard to imagine things could be worse. But they are. The bad news is that things would get even worse in the 1970s, with an economic recession, social discord, an oil crisis, and more.
We need bolder leaders in Washington — the kind who have emerged in several state capitals — to help move us to a better place.