In the recent months, I keep hearing conservatives Republicans talk about the inevitable “liberal overreach.” Essentially, the logic goes, liberals will allow their power to go to their heads, and they’ll pass all manner of social programs that undermine the very fabric of capitalism, Christianity, and privilege that America was founded on. Eventually, conservatives will once again be asked by the nation’s citizens to restore order and intelligence to what has developed into a hedonistic pleasure factory of a country. The evidence for this position seems inevitably to be drawn from the late 1960s, when Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 in a landslide over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. The message of that election, at least according to the conservatives I’m talking to, is that liberal excess was a burden on Americans and they used their ballots to correct the liberal slide.
But let’s get historical for a second, shall we? First, Nixon won in an electoral landslide, not a popular one. He did get the most votes—I’m not trying to take that away from him—but, he only took .7% more votes than Humphrey (equaling a little over half a million votes). It’s not unsubstantial, but it’s not exactly a landslide win that communicates a message to liberals about their “excesses.” The events surrounding Nixon’s election, though, stand in direct contradiction to the idea that Americans were sending a conservative message to politicians. Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, the sitting Vice President, to be sure, but Humphrey was not exactly a tool of far-left liberalism. In fact, it was as a result of Humphrey’s nomination that anti-war Democrats (the most liberal liberals) rioted in Chicago and took famously televised beatings at the hands of Mayor Daley’s police force. Humphrey was much more of a centrist than Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, or Robert Kennedy—all of whom ran significant campaigns for the Democratic nomination.
Humphrey’s candidacy is itself suggestive that the country probably wasn’t sending a message to liberals. Lyndon Johnson declined the candidacy in early 1968, so Democrats were left with a field of anti-war candidates and sitting-VP Humphrey. Humphrey got the lion’s share of Johnson’s supporters (labor unions, etc.) when Johnson backed out, and he still faced a serious challenge from McCarthy and almost got run out of the nomination by Kennedy (sadly, much of McCarthy’s support was drawn off by Kennedy, making him a less serious contender over the course of the primary season). Humphrey had money, Johnson’s organizational structure, and incumbency in his favor, and he still almost got booted by his party for his conservative stance on the Vietnam War. Humphrey’s nomination was not a vote of confidence for him; it was a vote of “Oh crap! All our other options dried up!” by the Democrats.
Many historians have suggested that Humphrey would have been booted by Democrats but for one thing: Robert F. Kennedy, far more liberal a candidate than Humphrey, was shot and killed in early June of 1968. The DNC where Humphrey was nominated did not take place until the end of August 1968. In other words, Humphrey’s biggest challenger was killed two months before the Democrats had to choose their nominee (there is some suggestion that Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s support galvanized Humphrey’s nomination, but Daley was close to the Kennedys, and had RFK still been alive, it seems unlikely that Daley would have supported Humphrey over Kennedy). So Humphrey needed Johnson to drop out of the race, he needed all of Johnson’s supporters, AND he needed a lunatic fringe terrorist to kill his most prominent opponent to earn the Democratic nomination. Humphrey was ultimately nominated by his party because he was the best alternative available to beat Nixon in a national election—in spite of his politics, not because of them.
Chances are good that if Lyndon Johnson had actually run for office, he would have beat Nixon. Americans just don’t tend to vote out incumbent Presidents who are wartime Presidents—witness the election in the fall of 2003. As well, Kennedy would probably have bested Nixon in the Presidential election because his nomination would likely have changed the vote significantly in key states like California, Oregon, and Illinois (a total of 72 electoral votes which could have swung the totals in Democrats favor by a margin of 263-229). And even though his nomination splintered the Democratic party, Humphrey still posed a significant challenge to Nixon in November.
This is all to say, the idea that Americans sent a message to liberals about their excesses and overreach by electing Nixon in 1968 is not just a myth—it’s an outright fantasy. There were a bunch of unpredictable, improbable events that aligned in just such a way as to make Humphrey’s nomination possible and which probably also made Nixon’s election possible. There was no message; there was chaos.
Similar conclusions can be drawn about many of the elections that followed 1968. Nixon was re-elected in 1972 as a sitting wartime President—not exactly the first time that happened in our nation’s history. In fact, the only wartime President in American history not re-elected was LBJ, and he withdrew his nomination before people could vote for him. In other words, Nixon’s re-election was no more a message about liberal overreach than his 1968 election was. He would have had to work really hard not to be re-elected if history is any guide.
The next Republican President was Gerald Ford. Following Nixon’s ouster for significant (and highly illegal) excesses and overreaches, Ford became President with the dubious distinction of being the only President to serve who was never elected to the Presidency or the Vice Presidency. Ford was chosen by Nixon to replace VP Spiro Agnew, who resigned because of his own illegal activities (bribery, tax evasion, money laundering); and Ford became Prez. when Nixon vacated the post before he was brought up on charges. Ford was never elected to begin with, and he was defeated for re-election by Democrat Jimmy Carter (it was a close vote, with Carter beating Ford by just over 2% of the popular vote, but it was not as close as 1968).
Carter didn’t last because frankly he wasn’t a very good leader, but Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 was again not a reaction to liberal overreach. Carter was faced with fiscal crises, foreign policy crises, and domestic crises and he simply did not handle them well. There has been much speculation in conspiracy theory circles that Carter would actually have won re-election if not for an alleged (but to my mind, plausible) secret deal between Reagan and Iran in which American hostages would be kept by Iran until after the election (conspiracy theorists call it the “October Surprise,” and the literature on it is interesting, whether it’s convincing or not). Reagan allegedly believed that the hostage crisis showed how ineffectual Carter was as a leader; Reagan was elected, and the hostages were released on the same day as he was inaugurated. Whether Reagan bartered a deal with the Iranians or not, it does not seem to me to be reasonable to conclude that Carter was voted out of office because he promoted excess or liberal overreach. In fact, one of the nails in his coffin was that he told Americans to turn down their thermostats and wear sweaters to save energy—not exactly the kind of message easily equated with hedonism and overindulgence.
1984, Reagan is re-elected in the midst of an economic boom, and though he crushed Walter Mondale in the biggest electoral landslide in history, 525-13, Mondale still took over 40% of the vote, suggesting that at least 40% of voters weren’t afraid of liberal overreach. In 1988, Republicans were elected again. It may be said, of all the elections since 1968, this one was the most likely to be a result of voters’ fear of liberalism, but mostly because George H.W. Bush, who benefited significantly from being VP under Reagan, one of the most popular Presidents in American history, did an expert job of painting Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as elitist, out-of-touch, and weak—all of which he attributed to Dukakis’s liberalism. In effect, Bush took Dukakis’s repeated miscues not only as evidence of Dukakis’s inability to be a good leader, but he also attributed those miscues to Dukakis’s liberalism. Voters may have been afraid of liberal overreach, but they elected Bush to prevent what Dukakis might do as opposed to putting Bush in because of any actual excesses on the part of liberals.
Bush couldn’t get re-elected. Democrat Bill Clinton took over in 1992, and he got re-elected in 1996 spite of wide-ranging charges of “liberalism” on the part of people like Newt Gingrich and other hyper-conservatives throughout his administration. George W. Bush then beat out sitting VP Al Gore for the Presidency in 2000, but he lost the popular vote to Gore. Regardless of what the electoral votes may indicate in terms of seating a President, it seems like a mistake to attribute a popular win to fear of liberal overreach. Bush was re-elected in 2004, continuing the streak of wartime re-elections. And in 2008, Barack Obama won the election.
Obviously, I have belabored the point, but nowhere in the last 40+ years does it seem to me that there is a defensible demonstration of liberal overreach against which the masses have lashed back in Presidential elections. If anything, Democrats have gotten more conservative since 1968, and while there is always the opportunity for overreach and excess, the certainty of rampant liberalism that conservatives keep citing as inevitable doesn’t seem to me to have much historical evidence.