50 years after 1968, can the young change politics? A striking new poll says yes

“When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

SOURCECampaign for America’s Future
Image Credit: Jacques Marie/AFP/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, in the dust and fire of global youth activism, everything seemed possible. The political world was a cloud filled with chaos and opportunity, pain and promise. The young were a powerful force, even a world-changing one.

Could they become that force again?

As many Millennials vote for the first time today in state primaries from New Jersey to Iowa and California, a new poll of their views offers some intriguing glimpses into the future.

The survey finds that most Millennials want “a strong government” to manage the economy, and that most millennial Democrats have a favorable view of socialism.

What do this poll, and the past, say about our political future?

The young left

It’s more than a truism to say Millennials are this country’s political future.  As Pew’s Richard Fry has noted, “Baby Boomers and other older Americans are no longer the majority of voters in U.S. presidential elections.” Fry thinks millennial votes could well surpass those of Generation X in 2020. He adds: “Millennials are likely to be the only adult generation whose number of eligible voters will appreciably increase in the coming years.”

A new survey from the University of Chicago’s GenForward project suggests that these voters could pull the Democratic Party, and American politics, sharply to the left. The survey of 1,750 respondents found that “Majorities of Millennials across race and ethnicity believe a strong government rather than a free market approach is needed to address today’s complex economic problems.”

What is this growing group of voters likely to make of Democrats like the three senators – Heitkamp, Tester, and Donnelly – who recently cosponsored a bill to loosen the Volcker Rule’s safeguard provisions on America’s banks?

In the survey’s most striking finding, 61 percent of Millennial Democrats polled – nearly two-thirds – expressed favorable views of socialism. The report notes that 32 percent of independents and “only” 25 percent of Republicans say they are favorable toward socialism.

“Only?” t’s fascinating to ponder the prospect of a Republican Party that’s one-quarter socialist.

The study also shows that the “rising Democratic majority” of black and brown voters isn’t very fond of capitalism, for understandable reasons. Only 45 percent of Latinxs and 34 percent of African-Americans hold favorable views of capitalism.

These results suggest that Democratic leaders are ill-advised to insist, as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton both did recently, that theirs is a strictly capitalistic party. Clinton’s dismissive tone toward socialist-leaning Democrats seemed especially counterproductive.

This young, black, and brown rejection of capitalism is consistent with a recent Harvard-Harris poll, which found that a majority of Democrats (again, of all ages) “support… movements within the Democratic Party to take it even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders.”

Support for the left was greatest among female voters (55 percent), Hispanic voters (65 percent), and African-American voters (55 percent). The Harvard-Harris poll also found that 69 percent of young voters supported these left movements. How do these findings about today’s Young Left square with the experience of 1968?

It was fifty years ago today

Polling data from 1968 on the young is hard to come by. But youth activists – roughly defined as those aged 30 or under – had an enormous global impact that year. In the United States and Europe, as an ongoing wave of antiwar protests that started in 1967 carried over into the New Year.

In January of 1968, the election of reformer Alexander Dubcek to head the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia prompted hopes for peaceful decentralization and democratization in the Eastern Bloc, and the youth protests of the Prague Spring.

In March of 1968, antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy stunned the political world with his near-defeat of President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Youth volunteers, many of them veterans of the peace movement, received much of the credit for McCarthy’s results.

Robert F. Kennedy launched his campaign the following week. His move split the student left. Some saw Kennedy as a carpetbagger. Others were drawn to his anti-poverty and civil rights stands, which seemed to be backed by greater passion than McCarthy’s.

RFK’s charisma, and his long hair, didn’t hurt. “Get a haircut,” a rally goer shouted. “You sound like my mother,” Kennedy jokingly responded.

Other young people rejected the prevailing set of electoral choices altogether, pushing for more radical change through third parties or movement organizing. Protests at Columbia University began in early April and quickly became an occupation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been preparing a multiracial and multi-cultural Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C., was gunned down on April 4. Riots quickly broke out in ghettoes across the country, as the pressurized forces of poverty, racism, and hopelessness were ignited by the murder of a black man who represented the finest in the human spirit.

Kennedy announced King’s death to a crowd in Indianapolis, saying, “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort.”

“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States,” Kennedy said, “it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.” Kennedy called on his audience to “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard gunned down unarmed and peaceful student demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine. On April 11, German student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot by a right-wing gunman after a concerted media campaign from the right-wing Axel Springer group. One headline in the Springer-owned Bild newspaper read, “Stop Dutschke now!”

In May, an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist student uprising in France began with the occupation of university buildings. It quickly spread to other corners of society, as massive street demonstrations led to the occupation of factories and nationwide strikes. Between 10 and 11 million French workers – more than 20 percent of the population – went on strike. Many people believed the government of Charles de Gaulle might fall.

But the fires that engulfed many American cities after the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. continued into the summer. On June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on the night of the California primary. On August 20, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, crushing the Prague Spring. One week later, Chicago police viciously attacked antiwar protestors outside the Democratic National Convention.

To many people, it began to feel like a surging wave of violence that would never end.

Protests to polling booths

There are those who say that the promises of spring died quickly in 1968, and that the youth movement’s hope for change in that year was an illusion.

It certainly didn’t lead to electoral victories. After fleeing France in apparent confusion and fear, De Gaulle returned and won an overwhelming electoral victory. In the United States, the chaotic Democratic convention showcased the worst of the party’s internal corruption.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley oversaw the violent police attacks on demonstrators, which a commission later deemed a “police riot,” and Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the party’s nomination under a cloud of bitterness and recrimination.

Richard Nixon eked out a narrow victory over Humphrey that year, after claiming to speak for a “Silent Majority” of non-demonstrating Americans. Nixon won 43.42 percent of the vote, Humphrey won 42.42 percent, and the racist George Wallace won 13.53 percent as a third-party candidate.

The outcomes of 1968

These results have been used to argue that the protests of 1968 were a political failure in the United States. In one sense, that’s clearly true. Hamstrung by media coverage, the two-party system, internal conflict, and the transformative nature of its agenda, the left failed to build an electoral majority in 1968.

Its social and cultural impact was undeniable, however. The youth movement changed music, language, style, and the arts. Its embrace of what was then called “women’s liberation” helped give rise to feminism, one of the most transformative political and social movements of modern times. Its multiracial and multicultural orientation reinforced black and brown alliances with the economic left.

In April, a higher court upheld Muhammad Ali’s conviction for refusing induction into the military over the war in Vietnam. Controversial and banned from fighting, Ali traveled the country, developing what would become a long, ground-breaking, and distinguished career as an activist and advocate for social justice.

At the Summer Olympics in October 1968, winning athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith gave the black power salute from the podium. As Carlos later explained, he had unzipped his Olympic jacket as a show of solidarity with “all the working-class people – black and white – in Harlem who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.” Carlos and Smith had one pair of black gloves between them, so Carlos raised his left fist and Smith raised his right.

These struggles live on today – in Black Lives Matter, in the NFL protests, and in the intersectional fight for class justice. But can left-leaning gestures and movements ever turn into an electoral force in this country, as they once promised to become?

The future primary

The political challenge is clear. More than one poll has affirmed that our country’s rising political demographic group wants to see more government intervention in the economy. Young Democrats lean socialist, and people of color are disillusioned with the capitalist system.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they will become activists. They may simply become alienated from the political process.   In fact, it’s already happening. “(L)ess than 26% of Millennials of any racial or ethnic background,” the study says, “have favorable views of the political parties or Congress.”’ Democrats are in danger of losing their core voters.

Still, there are hopeful signs. There is a rising wave of activism among Millennials. They are running for office, organizing political actions, and taking other steps to become involved in the political process. Members of the generation that follows them have organized against school shootings, and have done so in an intersectional way.

Activism, whatever its form, is a precursor to change. According to these polls, the “leftism” of today is poised to become the political center of tomorrow. And a new generation may be prepared to rediscover the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”


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