Composite photograph of an elevated view of an anti-Vietnam War protest at the intersection of Lake and State Streets looking east up State Street. Circa 1968. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

By Caroline Kubzansky for

It’s hard to say whether there are more similarities or differences between the tumultuous year 2020 and the historic election year of 1968.

Madison historian and radio host Stu Levitan sees similarities.

“2020 and 1968 are the same because the party in power is presiding over a calamity of catastrophic proportions,” he said, noting 1968’s incumbent president, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. “In 1968, it was LBJ presiding over Vietnam. Now it’s Trump presiding over coronavirus.”

Along with the anti-war protests, 1968 saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, plus protests in American cities like Chicago, site of the Democratic convention, and on campuses, like UW-Madison. The unrest escalated into violence over the course of the year, rocking cities like Washington, D.C., Detroit and Milwaukee and spurring white flight to the suburbs. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon won that election, partly on the basis of his law-and-order pitch to voters. Wisconsin voters were receptive to that pitch, giving Nixon about 48 percent of the popular vote in the state compared to Hubert Humphrey’s 44 percent despite the vice president’s appeal as a fellow Midwesterner from Minnesota.

This year has seen similar law-and-order messaging from President Trump and Republicans in the wake of violent protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the shooting by Kenosha police of Jacob Blake. It’s also seen a rise in the Black Lives Matter movement, spikes in white supremacist activity, a health care crisis stemming from COVID-19, and a recession.

Other journalists, historians, and public officials who spoke to were less sure of the parallels between the two years.

To journalist Jeff Greenfield, a UW-Madison graduate and former editor in chief of The Daily Cardinal, 2020 can’t compare to what he remembers from 1968. While the U.S. military is involved abroad, the shapes of those conflicts are far removed from the Vietnam War. And although a third-party candidate is running in this election, Libertarian Jo Jorgensen isn’t the same kind of candidate as 1968’s American Independent candidate George Wallace, the Alabama governor and segregationist.

“It’s not historically valid to say this is like 1968,” Greenfield said. “It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples and bowling balls.”

Wallace and Jorgensen: Third parties in 1968 and 2020

Wallace pulled 7.6 percent of the Wisconsin vote in 1968 and 13 percent of the vote nationwide, carrying five Southern states. In comparison, a recent Marquette University Law School poll found Jorgensen with 4 percent of the Wisconsin vote.

Robert Booth Fowler, an emeritus professor of political science at UW-Madison, writes in his book “Wisconsin Votes”:

“Wallace believed he could have a real impact as a candidate in Wisconsin. He deliberately based his campaign to capitalize on anger over social disorder and his sense that a tough crackdown was needed. With this orientation in mind, he believed that Wisconsin looked like a place where he could gain traction. Tremendous racial turmoil shook Milwaukee in 1968, and that same year serious campus unrest and disorder hit the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison. Wallace did all he could to exploit the unrest, talking and acting tough while, ironically, arguing for the need for smaller government so that people could be left alone. As studies show, his greatest appeal was among young men of the lower-middle and working classes who were angry over their uncompromising situation in life …(D)espite his considerable efforts, Wallace got only 9.4 percent of the vote in working-class Milwaukee, where he had placed his greatest hopes. After Milwaukee, Wallace did best in German ethnic rural towns and villages and in German Catholic (9.1 percent) and German Protestant (8.2 percent) areas, suggesting that much of Wallace’s appeal lay with conservative voters who ordinarily voted Republican.’’

Greenfield noted that if Nixon hadn’t carried California, it could have come down to the U.S. House of Representatives to decide the election.

“In the presence of George Wallace, the American Independent Party got one of the largest votes of any third party candidate,” he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, a Republican who represented Wisconsin’s 6th CD, thinks people who backed Wallace in 1968 were largely Democrats concerned with the party’s leftward shift on social issues.

“I think that that opened up an opportunity for people like George Wallace and (Ronald) Reagan later, and now, even to some extent Donald Trump, to get a vote from people who are worried about the liberal elements of the Democratic coalition,” he said.

Levitan characterized the Wallace voter in blunter terms.

“It was whites without college degrees,” Levitan said. “Primarily, I think from the south side of Milwaukee. It was the racist underbelly of Wisconsin.”

Asked about third parties’ roles in previous elections, civil rights activist and former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller looked back at a more recent contest.

“Take a look at the number of voters the Green Party siphoned off in Wisconsin [in 2016],” he said at a recent Milwaukee Press luncheon. “It could be different in Wisconsin this election because you’re not going to have that same third-party apparatus.”

Disorder on State Street: A deciding factor?

One former Republican official, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled the unease on Madison’s State Street at the height of the tension in 1968. He was working in the statehouse when unrest broke out, and what he saw downtown on an errand for Republican Gov. Warren Knowles has stayed with him.

“There’s National Guard guys with guns, German shepherds,” he said. “I never forgot the German shepherds. People walking around, milling around. Some students.”

But for this official, the unrest in 2020 surpasses even 1968.

“[In 1968,] State Street was not destroyed,” he told “The Capitol wasn’t boarded up. Capitol Square didn’t look like a warzone. … Martin Luther King was assassinated, the campus exploded, the governor called out the National Guard on the campus for the first time.

“He didn’t stand down law enforcement. He didn’t permit the Capitol and the Square to be trashed. Very different leadership.’’

Frank Tuerkheimer, a retired UW-Madison law professor who helped prosecute a case tied to Watergate, thought increased approval around activism for racial equity was one major difference between 1968 and 2020.

“No one who has seen that video of the George Floyd killing can forget it,” Tuerkheimer said. “And I think that’s given a broader dimension to the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Tuerkheimer said that candidates like Wallace and Nixon were able to run on law-and-order rhetoric because of the visible chaos in cities.

“The themes of the campaigns of both George Wallace and Richard Nixon were premised on the very real fact that violence was out of control in many American cities,” he said.

But Tuerkheimer noted that the same pitch 52 years later from Trump doesn’t seem to be landing the same way with swing voters. In his view, the same people who might have voted for Nixon in 1968 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 were the difference-makers for Democratic campaigns in 2018.

“There’s this constant reference to moderates, suburban housewives, who have tended to vote Republican, who the 2018 election showed switched,” Tuerkheimer said. “And apparently [law-and-order] doesn’t resonate with them very well, either.”

Trump has centered much of his Wisconsin campaign pitch on this demographic. He frequently riffs on the theme while campaigning in the state. At his first Wisconsin swing of the COVID-19 pandemic in August, he told rally goers that his administration would help them “preserve and protect their American Dream in the suburbs.”

Levitan thought that despite widespread support for Black Lives Matter in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, voters’ approval of the movement was beginning to decline in the wake of property destruction and continued protests in cities. Unrest came to Wisconsin after Floyd’s death and flared again in Kenosha at the end of the summer after the Blake shooting. As of Sept. 1, the AP was reporting that the city had suffered about $2 million in damage.

Trump visited Kenosha in the wake of the protests and said it had been “ravaged by anti-police and anti-American riots.” He recently told a Janesville rally “if I hadn’t gotten involved, there would be no Kenosha.”

Levitan said continued unrest may make people more receptive to the law-and-order messaging from Trump.

“All people see is ‘oh, Kenosha is burning, Portland is burning,’ and ultimately, that has to stop real soon,” Levitan said.

Petri said he didn’t think that Black Lives Matter will play a deciding role in the 2020 election—not on its own terms or for candidates deploying law-and-order rhetoric. Overall, he said the unrest of the summer could push people from areas like the 6th CD to vote Republican, but he thinks those voters have other concerns.

“To the extent it’s a factor, it will make people I represented support Trump,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re going to. Trump himself will be more of a factor.”

From social media to Vietnam, 1968 and 2020 lack crucial parallels

University of Chicago historian Jane Dailey said although she sees significant anxiety around the election, it’s not the same kind of worry that permeated 1968 and its two major political assassinations.

“I think it’s hard for people of a different generation to understand what it felt like to lose Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the space of two months,” she said.

Dailey studies African American history and the American South. She characterized the mood of 1968 as a feeling of dissolution and seismic shift, particularly among liberals.

“To people who put their hopes in Bobby Kennedy, [it wasn’t] just that he was dead, but it seemed like everything he stood for was suddenly dead,” Dailey said. “And then in November, they’re standing there watching Richard Nixon become president.”

In her view, 2020 has different problems, like election integrity.

“In 1968, for example, people weren’t worried that the election wasn’t going to work,” she said. “They were worried that their candidate had been assassinated, for example, for the Bobby Kennedy supporters. But I think people didn’t have this great distress and anxiety about the election itself.”

Greenfield agreed with Dailey’s description of the national outlook in 1968: “The world seemed to be spinning out of control,” he said.

First among the things that seemed to be tearing at the nation’s civic fabric in 1968 was the Vietnam War.

“[The war] was taking 500 American lives a week, and it was totally dividing the nation,” he said.

As far as Petri was concerned, Vietnam has no analog in 2020.

“If we’d had the draft during the wars we’ve had in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it would be quite different,” Petri said. “But with people going voluntarily, quite different than buses leading from little towns in Wisconsin, filled with high school kids being hauled off to military bases” to serve in Vietnam.

Tuerkheimer said that the changed news media landscape is another differentiating factor between 1968 and 2020.

“In 1968, you had basically three TV networks that provided information to the public,” he said. “But by and large, the facts that people gathered came from these sources. So you had a sort of a broad consensus among the American electorate as to what was going on.”

In his view, that agreement has evaporated.

“Facebook and Twitter have created an entirely new dimension, so that you can’t really say that the policy of the United States in the year 2020 broadly agrees as to underlying facts,” he said.

In 2020, a different path

As Election Day approaches and voters make their final decisions, the question is whether Trump will win Wisconsin again or whether Joe Biden will win back the state for Democrats. Since Nixon’s victory in 1968, Wisconsin’s electoral votes have only gone to the GOP four times in 12 elections.

Howard Fuller pointed out that Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss in 2016 could be attributed to low turnout in Wisconsin’s most diverse areas.

“Hillary Clinton lost by 22,782 votes,” Fuller said. “She had about 39,000 less votes in wards of Milwaukee that were 50 percent or more black than Obama had.”

He thought Dems’ attention to the Badger State could change its outcome in 2020.

“It seems like Biden and Kamala Harris actually know Wisconsin exists,” he said, referencing Clinton’s failure to campaign in the state last election cycle.

Petri also saw potential for a different result this year, and issued a cautious prediction.

“I don’t think Trump’s going to carry Wisconsin this time,” he said.

If Petri is right, that alone could make 2020 a departure from 1968.

Poster from Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential bid. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Poster from Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential bid. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Composite photograph of an elevated view of an anti-Vietnam War protest at the intersection of Lake and State Streets looking east up State Street. Circa 1968. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
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