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By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs
Come gather ‘round people/Wherever you roam/And admit that the waters/Around you have grown/And accept it that soon/You’ll be drenched to the bone/If your time to you/Is worth savin’/Then you better start swimmin’/Or you’ll sink like a stone/For the times they are a-changin’.
Songwriter and iconic folk performer Bob Dylan penned those lyrics more than 50 years ago. And they became an anthem for young people who felt increasingly alienated from their government, disillusioned with their leaders, and powerless to effect change by any conventional means, especially in the Vietnam War that eventually claimed the lives of 55,000 Americans and more than 10 times as many Vietnamese. Many young Americans simply dropped out, but others took to the streets, as Dylan lyrically exhorted them to do.
We might be on the verge of another revolt, but this time not driven simply by a disaffected youth cohort but also by a disaffected shrinking white middle class. I’ll return to the shrinkage in a moment, but first a historical synopsis of how we’ve gotten to where we are today politically. It holds some significant lessons for candidates in the upcoming elections.
The year 1968 is a good starting point. Buoyed by thousands of anti-war college students, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly upset President Lyndon Johnson in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on March 12. Within days, sensing Johnson’s weakness, Robert Kennedy, then a New York senator, announced his candidacy as well. Two weeks later, after Johnson unexpectedly announced he would not stand for re-election, Hubert Humphrey, his vice president, jumped in.
By the time Democrats convened in Chicago that August, Kennedy had been assassinated and the youth vote was in full revolt. Inside the convention hall the scene was far from serene, but it paled by comparison with the rioting outside. But establishment leaders ignored the anti-establishment fracas on the streets and anointed Hubert Humphrey the Democratic standard-bearer.
Voters craving change, especially young anti-war voters, saw Humphrey as Johnson-lite, and without their support, he lost the election. Richard Nixon, his opponent, easily captured the Electoral College 301 to 191 (segregationist George Wallace received 46), but Nixon eked out only a narrow 0.7 percent victory in the popular vote.
Earlier that year Republicans had been split, with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller leading the East Coast liberal wing and popular California Gov. Ronald Reagan leading a rapidly growing conservative movement. But at their August convention in Miami the party easily united around Nixon, who accepted his nomination with these words: “When the strongest nation in the world can be tied down for four years in Vietnam with no end in sight, when the richest nation in the world can't manage its own economy … then it's time for new leadership … .”
Eight years later, after Rep. Gerald Ford had been appointed under the 25th Amendment to fill a vice-presidential vacancy in 1973; after Nixon had resigned on the eve of a 1974 House impeachment vote; after Ford had been sworn in as Nixon’s replacement without ever having run for either vice president or president; and after Ford had pardoned Nixon for any crimes he had might have committed in the Watergate Scandal, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer who had become a nuclear engineer, captured the White House for the Democrats. Many political historians today attribute Ford’s narrow 1976 loss to his pardon of Nixon two years earlier.
Carter’s success was short-lived. In 1980 Ronald Reagan capitalized on the realignment of the South’s racially driven politics and the Rust Belt’s disaffected working class voters, and trounced Carter in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. For another 12 years Republicans held sway in national elections.
Finally, in 1992, businessman Ross Perot’s independent candidacy provided an opportunity for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to defeat incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush. He did so with only 43 percent of the popular vote.
In truth, it took Democrats until 1996 to regain their national footing. Even though Perot again played the role of Republican spoiler, Clinton did not really need much help, as he ran his popular vote total to just shy of 50 percent and captured the Electoral College 379-159.
As the balance of the 2016 election year unfolds, the political landscape has a whiff of 1968. Young voters, once again, have lost faith in the establishment, as they rally around the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders. This time it’s not because they are opposing a war, but because they see Washington policies as unfair to the average American, and the status quo offering them little hope for a better future.
As two Pew Research Center studies, one in 2015 and one this May, have documented, the portion of U.S. families classified as middle class has shrunk from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2014. The shrinkage has been widespread, with 203 of 229 metropolitan areas surveyed between 2000 and 2014 showing that pattern. In 53 areas the decline was at least 6 percent.
For the average American, wages have stagnated for more than 30 years. And since 1999, the median household income, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For these voters Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has particular appeal. I spoke to one of them yesterday — I’ll call him Fred — who told me “Any change is better than more of the same.” He said he knows that Trump is not well versed in foreign policy, military matters or economics, but he believes that someone who has been successful in business “will know how to shake up the system and make things work.”
As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve met many Freds. Their stories differ in specifics, but they are eerily the same in their general perceptions.
Any candidate for public office this year who ignores the growing disaffection, disillusionment, and despair of young and middle class voters does so at his or her own peril. At the presidential level, the danger is greatest for Hillary Clinton, whom most voters see as the embodiment of the establishment they have grown to distrust.
But the peril is also there for anyone running for Congress. As Dylan wrote in 1964:
Come senators, congressmen/Please heed the call/Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall/For he that gets hurt/Will be he who has stalled/There’s a battle outside/And it is ragin’/It’ll soon shake your windows/And rattle your walls/For the times they are a changin’.
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