NEW YORK—Biking from the Upper West Side down near Washington Square Park on Saturday I was struck by how it felt like a journey back in time. Earlier that day, we’d seen a pioneering space launch; on the sidewalks, people were hanging out, having impromptu block parties, drinking openly; and every 20 blocks or so there were spontaneous riots and baton-wielding police. Police cars were screaming down the streets at random intervals. The blue CitiBike I was riding, unlocked with an iPhone, was very much a 21st-century phenomenon, but the landscape around it felt like 1968.
In the past days, 1968 has emerged as a meme, a way to understand what we’re living through right now. On CNN.com, historian Julian Zelizer wrote that “it's hard for Baby Boomers not to feel like this is 1968 all over again.” And not just “like,” but considerably worse. At The Atlantic, James Fallows, who has been covering American politics and policy for decades, eulogized our world today by reflecting on how until 2020, “The most traumatic year in modern American history was 1968.” He glumly suggested that with this weekend’s violence coming on top of a deadly pandemic and Depression-level unemployment, all overseen by disorganized leadership, 2020 may have caught up—and there are still seven months left in the year for things to go wrong.
The echo of the late 1960s is undeniable. With life strangely slowed by the pandemic, and lock-ins now bizarrely alleviated not by a cautious reopening but by mass protests of police brutality and racial inequities, it is all too understandable that the mood is bleak and backward-looking. The country is split by Trump and race the way it was split back then by the Vietnam War and race. The temptation to see today as a darker recapitulation of the darkest years of the late 1960s is hard to resist.
But resist we should. Now isn’t then. It’s far better, even though it may not feel that way.
By the middle of 1968, 45 American soldiers per day were being killed in Vietnam—a war that, unlike the fight against Covid-19, we’d chosen to wage. It would be the most lethal year of the war for the United States, with more than 16,000 killed, and many times that for Vietnamese casualties. The war had radicalized university students across the country, who were also stirred to action by continued racial injustice, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965. In New York, students occupied administration buildings of Columbia University and the school canceled the remainder of the term. The protests ended only after 1,000 New York City police stormed the campus and arrested and beat up hundreds of students. And that was just one of multiple student occupations on campuses across the country, followed by more that fall and into the year after.
The dual assassinations of Martin Luther King on April 4 and Robert Kennedy on June 6 rocked the country. Riots in a hundred cities after King’s death led to 1,000 buildings burned in Washington, D.C., alone. In Chicago, 11 people were killed in 48 hours; hundreds of buildings were destroyed; and nearly 20,000 police and National Guard were sent in. The year before, known as the “long hot summer of 1967,” dozens of cities had seen far more destructive riots, with both Detroit and Newark, N.J., decimated. Just as the post-King riots receded in the spring of 1968, Chicago, which was the scene of a bitterly divided Democratic Party nominating convention, witnessed 10,000 protesters march through the streets to surround the convention hall. The convention was tumultuous enough, with President Lyndon Johnson declining to run again and RFK already gunned down; only after a bruising fight did Hubert Humphrey emerge as the candidate, while Chicago Mayor Richard Daley ordered the police to clear the streets, arresting thousands and injuring hundreds.
And that was the Democrats, who were the ones speaking for urgent social reform, better race relations and ending the war. On the other side were not just the Republicans but a powerful third-party movement led by George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who had announced in 1962, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” and who had stood in the door of a building at the University of Alabama to block the entrance of the first African American students. By 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Act, his racism didn’t make him a relic—it made him the leader of a movement. Wallace promised resistance to desegregation and a restoration of states’ rights to beat back the voting rights of black Americans; he got 10 million votes.
And then there was Richard Nixon. In 1968, of course, Nixon’s worst years were ahead of him, though his reputation as a redbaiter second only to Joe McCarthy was well-established, as was his questionable performance as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Unlike Trump, President Nixon’s racism and intemperate screeds against enemies were expressed mostly in private, recorded for posterity by secret taping systems, but not evident to the American public at the time. Listen to those tapes, however, and you will be hard-pressed to elevate Nixon above Trump. As a campaigner in 1968, he was a master dog-whistler, willing, eager and able to play on racial divisions, calling on “the silent majority” of Americans he believed were disgusted by the lawlessness of major cities, by the eroding sense of America as the greatest country on earth and by coddled students spitting on the country, figuratively and literally.
Economically speaking, after years of a postwar boom, the U.S. was also beginning to crack in 1968, with strains on the financial system because of international runs on American gold reserves and the immense pressure of escalating war spending, combined with costly new domestic programs created by Johnson’s Great Society reforms Only a few years before, Johnson had ushered in the first major government health programs, Medicare and Medicaid, but by 1968, those were still reaching only a fraction of the poor and elderly. Unemployment was rising, and so was inflation. And the vaunted U.S. space program, which would put a man on the moon the following year, was also calling for billions of federal dollars.
Today, we know the litany of what is ailing us all too well. But as badly as we have structured our employment safety nets—which at the moment are encouraging unemployment rather than keeping workers on payrolls during the pandemic—more than 40 million people are receiving unemployment benefits that, for many, match their pre-pandemic income. There were state unemployment benefits in the ‘60s, but those expired more quickly and barely kept up with average incomes when the downturn hit. Wealth inequality is far greater today than then, which surely fuels resentment, but standards of living for even the poorest among us are far higher than they were then in terms of nutrition, housing, education and access to health care. All of those are acute structural problems still, but it is hard to fathom how poor “poor” was in 1968—how many Americans were malnourished, illiterate and destined for early graves even without a pandemic threatening.
Police forces in 1968 were restive after years of protests and riots, willing to break skulls and bones, for which they paid zero price. The past weekend of police violence has been terrible, but is not on par with what we saw in the Baltimore riots in 2015, and nowhere near the scale of the destructive unrest of the late 1960s. The spectacle of militarized police rolling Army vehicles through city streets would have seemed terrifying to citizens in the ’60s—but at the same time, a lot of police departments genuinely learned lessons from the failures of Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and are trying out community-focused deescalation techniques, and in some cases even marching with protesters, which would have been unthinkable in the 1960s.
The structural racism that drove the weekend’s protests, and decades of high incarceration of young African American men in particular, remains a weight on our world, but there has been progress. In 1968, the South was still almost entirely segregated, in fact, if not by law. Many more white Americans still favored continued segregation, discrimination and second-class status for blacks. Police violence was ubiquitous—and rarely filmed or documented, never mind shared online. What made the protests in Chicago that summer of 1968 so shocking was that the violence of the police was on national TV, exposing millions to the casual brutality of Daley’s police force for the first time.
Now, we see everything. Perhaps we see too much, but denial is not really an option.
And yes, the president in 2020 echoes the language of Nixon and Wallace; with his recent tweet about shooting and looting, he recalls the words of the segregationist Miami police chief of the late 1960s. But he cannot run, as Wallace did, on a platform that would explicitly relegated tens of millions of American citizens to second-class status based on the color of their skin. He might wish to, but he cannot.
What 1968 did have that we don’t are some glimmers of hope—hope that a corrupt system could be changed, that racism could be ameliorated, that an unjust war could be ended, that bad politicians would be voted out. Today is so much better than then in many measurable ways, but the hope deficit looms large.
Former governor of California and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger got at this in an essay in which he poignantly recalled how he emigrated to the United States in 1968, a year of turmoil—but still one of hope for immigrants like him who “thought I was coming to the greatest country in the world.” With the country in 2020 seemingly shutting its doors on immigrants and the mood distinctly sour about the future, that hope seems in peril—although there, too, it’s important to look at how much has changed since then. The number of immigrants America accepted last year, even under Trump, dwarfs the annual immigration figures during the late 1960s.
But in moments like this, feelings can matter far more than numbers, and that is why so many people right now feel that things are so much worse: with the pandemic, economic duress, riots and our fractious politics, few of us have much conviction that there’s still room to improve, that things can be made better. The midterm elections of 2018 suggested that many believe that elections matter, but that fervor seems to have faded, giving way to a grim bipartisan conviction that everything needs to change and that nothing will as Americans head to the polls, in person or by mail, in November.
Thankfully, hope does not require the action of others, and it costs nothing. It can be cultivated, and it can surge as surely as despair. No one can say whether the next months will get worse. Perhaps 2020 will indeed take the ignoble crown as the worst year ever for the United States. But that story, unlike 1968 and unlike the past, is not yet written. The story of the past is set, though our understanding of it changes always. Our story today is unfolding; it is a choice. Let’s try to write it well.