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Chicago 1968: The Night the Democratic Party Died

Arthur Herman

Fifty years ago tonight, a great American political party was murdered by its own children and closest friends.

The party in question was the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and JFK, which perished during the riots in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night of Aug. 28, 1968, in the midst of the party’s national convention.

Its children in this case were the rioters from the anti–Vietnam War Left. After killing off the traditional liberal Democratic party they despised, they would go on to take over the corpse and make it the host of America’s radical Left, from Jerry Brown to Bernie Sanders — with George McGovern, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama as their front men.

The friends who joined in the kill were the mainstream media. Their coverage of the riots, that night and later, would make the SDS demonstrators and their violent cohorts — the predecessors of today’s antifa — into martyrs of “police brutality” and Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s “Gestapo tactics,” as one Democratic senator from Connecticut put it in a speech to the convention that night, when they had in fact been — like today’s antifa — the deliberate instigators of mayhem and bloodshed. Starting that night the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC and CBS News would become the enablers of America’s radical Left, even at its most violent — and in the process cut themselves off from the millions of ordinary working Americans who had made the Democratic party their political home.

Some background is in order. In August 1968, Democratic delegates swarmed to their national convention in Chicago to try to heal the wounds left by a divisive war in Vietnam, riots and assassinations at home (first Martin Luther King in April, then Robert F. Kennedy in June), and a bitter three-way race for the presidential nomination between Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Vice President Hubert Humphrey (the eventual nominee), and the now-dead Kennedy, after an increasingly unpopular President Lyndon Johnson had withdrawn from the contest.

Also descending on Chicago were thousands of anti-war demonstrators, determined to make the city the scene of confrontation over Vietnam and if possible to spark a violent confrontation with Chicago’s police. “Make sure that if blood is going to flow, it will flow all over the city,” Tom Hayden, one of the demonstration’s principal organizers and a future husband of Jane Fonda, declared to the crowd.

There had been a preliminary clash between protesters and police in Lincoln Park. But it was in Grant Park — a block or so from the Hilton Hotel, where the convention was being held — that the real battle was joined on the night of August 28. Protesters threw bottles and rocks until the police finally fired tear gas and waded into the crowd with billy clubs, while every TV camera and news reporter watched.

The media had shown sympathy earlier with rioters in places such as Watts and Detroit and Washington, D.C., but those rioters had been black, poor, and arguably living under the yoke of white racism. This was America’s privileged white youth attacking the police and shouting “f*** the pigs,” and even threatening to put LSD in the Chicago water supply. But in the glare of TV camera lights as liberals watched their youngsters being beaten by working-class cops, a new media paradigm was born. Left-wing rioters, black or white, urban poor or Harvard grads, became “protesters”; their violence would be downplayed or ignored while underscoring the justice of their cause. At the same time, the police now became the villains of any confrontation, to be portrayed as having a tendency to overact violently to challenges to their authority — and to the oppressive system they defend. A direct ideological line runs from that night to Black Lives Matter a half century later.

More immediate was the damage the riots, and their negative coverage, did to the Democrats. They destroyed Humphrey’s chances in the 1968 election, and Richard Nixon won instead. But the damage ran deeper. Humphrey would be the last Democratic presidential nominee to represent the values of Truman and JFK: compassionate big government at home, and resolute anti-Communism abroad. Instead, a new Democratic party was born, one that increasingly reflected the radical views of the Chicago protesters: that America, not Communism, was the real force for evil that needed to be contained and transformed. That Democratic party would nominate George McGovern in its 1972 convention and become a party obsessed with social justice, identity politics, and America’s past sins — essentially the party it is today. Meanwhile mainstream Democratic voters began their flight to the Republican party, “Reagan Democrats” who would enable the GOP to win four of the next five presidential elections and who later became the foot soldiers of the Trump insurgency.

In the end, the main ideological battle lines of American politics were drawn that night, and the shadow of Grant Park still hangs over all of us 50 years later.