The comparisons of the present moment with another year of great turmoil, 1968, I’m sure, can be found. But in my view, it is the differences that stand out.
The nature of the social crises are dissimilar, even though racism deeply informs and shapes the dynamics of struggle in 1968 as well as 2020. But back then, we weren’t in the middle of a deadly pandemic, a global economic collapse, a climate crisis that is at the doorstep of a new and more dangerous phase, and, ominously, the presence of right wing, white nationalist regimes here and on a global level.
Another difference is that the coalition of democratic and progressive organizations and constituencies is deeper and broader now than it was then. Organized labor, for example, while numerically smaller, is a force for progress now. Women and people of color leave a much larger imprint on the politics of the country. And young people today embrace in greater numbers progressive and social democratic politics, with a dollop less of the sectarian strain than the youth movement in that earlier time.
Meanwhile, the right, which was at the beginning of a long ascendant phase in 1968 (Nixon was elected at year’s end, thanks to the Southern strategy and a law and order message), is, notwithstanding the daily dose of incendiary tweets and threats to use martial law and impose dictatorial rule, shows signs of declining influence. This was evident in the midterm elections when Democrats regained control of the House and recent public opinion polls point to an uphill struggle for Trump et al in the November elections. A defeat were it to happen, would constitute a staggering blow to Trump and this political trend, while also triggering a new era of progressive reforms.
Another difference is that the depth of anti-racist understanding cuts across a much wider swath of white people today than a half century ago. Among the young, first of all, but also their mothers and fathers who are more likely to reject racism than was the case with my parent’s generation. Its material and structural roots and dimensions are better understood. And with that understanding comes a willingness to support anti-racist measures to address inequalities as well as a revulsion at the senseless death of George Floyd and so many other people of color.
What also stands in sharp relief is the status of today’s Democratic Party. In 1968, the party was riven by deep divisions. Now it is increasingly united, possesses a deep and diverse bench of leaders, and, like the broad democratic movement, is tacking in a progressive direction.
One thing that isn’t different when comparing 2020 and 1968 is that the popularity of both presidents is waning. But where one, Johnson, announced his decision to forgo a second term, Trump, laser like, is focused on securing one. And it isn’t hyperbolic to think that he might resort to anti-democratic, authoritarian means to make that a reality.
In short, 2020 isn’t 1968. The differences far outweigh the similarities. 50 years ago the future of our democracy, our way of life, and our planet didn’t hang in balance. Today they do, and only a vigorous response on every level with a special focus on the November elections can prevent such an awful turn of events. No time to shrink in the face of today’s challenges.