When Moral Hygiene Becomes A Lethal Political Mistake

Students protesting Israel's war in Gaza at Columbia University

Historical analogies rarely carry much weight, especially in a time when so much about politics has changed so rapidly. To compare what is happening in 2024 to events that occurred over half a century earlier hardly seems useful.

It mostly isn't. And yet the election of 1968, whose outcome proved disastrous for America and the world, looms over the coming months like a foreboding specter.

Despite all the obvious differences in personalities, issues, technologies and ideologies, there is a haunting parallel between then and now in the increasingly fraught debate among Democrats and progressives over a divisive war — and the alienation of younger and minority voters from the party they would otherwise support.

By the spring of 1968, the movement against the Vietnam War had sparked a sense of furious frustration among young Americans who saw it causing tens of thousands of pointless deaths with no justification or end in sight. Massive antiwar protests swept across the nation's universities and colleges, sometimes resulting in conflict with authorities. Dissent within his own party had inspired not one but two insurgent candidacies against President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declared in late March that he wouldn't seek a second term.

The assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy snuffed hopes for a fresh Democratic ticket. The nomination fell to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson's personally anointed successor, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While the antiwar movement was generally peaceful and orderly, the student left had spawned a revolutionary wing whose leaders aimed for confrontation in the streets. The Windy City's conservative mayor, Richard J. Daley, was only too eager to answer them with billy clubs and tear gas.

Chaos and violence outside the convention, instigated by a rampaging police force, deepened the party's split and left millions of young voters vowing to support a third-party candidate or simply abstain.

Flash forward to the lawns and quadrangles of American academia today, where laudable protest over Israel's long, bloody incursion into Gaza is giving rise to a movement against the very existence of the Jewish state, marred by an undertone of antisemitism as well as anti-American ferocity. Leaders of this movement are poised to bring a rerun of 1968 to the streets of Chicago, which will again host the DNC this summer. They're vowing to shun President Joe Biden as retribution for his support of Israel in its war against the Hamas terrorists, who brutally murdered more than a thousand innocents last October 7.

Although I was too young to vote in 1968, I still recall my own passionate revulsion against the Vietnam War and how bitterly I argued with my father — an Army veteran who also opposed the war — over his determination to vote for Humphrey. The consequence of any alternative, he warned, would be the election of Richard M. Nixon, a perfidious character who could never be trusted with the presidency.

He was right and I was wrong, as history revealed all too starkly. Nixon lied about a phony "peace plan," won the election and rapidly escalated and expanded the war to a degree that could rightly be deemed genocidal. To win a second term, he embarked on a crime spree the nation had never seen in the White House — at least until the advent of former President Donald Trump. Nobody thinks Humphrey would have perpetrated those atrocities and felonies.

Whether or not one agrees with Biden on Israel versus Palestine — and I don't — he has done nothing that remotely approaches the criminal destruction of the U.S. war against Vietnam. Indeed, he has sought to mitigate the reckless and murderous approach of the Israeli government while recognizing its right to defend itself. Refusing to vote for him as "a message" is an act of purist vanity that could lead to consequences as dire as the Nixon victory. Rather than the "lesser of two evils," Biden is a good president coping with a world of difficult and sometimes terrible choices.

The alternative is Trump, a dictator in waiting who has already mounted a coup and openly aspires to locking up his adversaries. He is an exponent of extremism on every front, including the Middle East, where he can be expected to endorse the most vicious repression of Palestinians and may well lead us into war against Iran — a catastrophic error that Biden has successfully resisted. He is reasonably suspected of betraying the nation to hostile authoritarian powers. On every other issue, from abortion rights to climate change, his retrograde views are repugnant to young voters.

A democratic election is not an opportunity to display moral hygiene or an audition to join a cool club. This year, as always, voting will be an exercise of choices that are never perfect — but may just allow us to escape doom.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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In 1984, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, a lifelong Democrat stood up to denounce her former party. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had switched parties to serve as Reagan's U.N. ambassador, lambasted her former party for always "blaming America first."

Today, it is the Republican Party that — despite its MAGA slogan — is trafficking in dark, anti-American ideas and imagery. The party that claims to put "America first" is led by a man who describes the nation as "failing" or "corrupt" a hundred times for every one mention of an American virtue. Our cities, according to Trump, are crippled by "bloodshed, chaos and violent crime." Our courts are corrupt. Our press is the "enemy of the people." Immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our nation" while committing countless murders and rapes. Our military is "woke." Meanwhile, those who gave the last full measure of devotion are "suckers" and "losers." We are a "failing nation" whose free elections are actually rigged by a stealthy and unaccountable "deep state." Far from a global leader, America is a "laughing stock" around the world.

The Republican Party has traded patriotism and uplift for an apocalyptic cult. This presents Democrats with an opportunity — if they can seize it.

Most people are patriots. In June of 2023, 67% of Americans said were extremely or very proud of their country. If you add those who say they are "moderately" proud to be American to those who are extremely or very proud, you arrive at 89% of the adult population.

For Democrats to scoop up the banner of patriotism will require rejecting the approach of progressives. I'm a devoted listener to NPR, and they do excellent work. But their progressive bias results in a seemingly endless litany of American sins and shortcomings past and present. Some self-criticism is a sign of maturity. Too much can be demoralizing.

Most Democrats are not progressives though, and they have a golden opportunity to uphold true patriotism in contrast to the nativist nationalism now proclaimed by the Republicans.

What is there to love about America?

Let's begin with the Declaration of Independence. Though written by a slave owner, its stirring words inspired not just colonists along the Atlantic coast of the new world, but all of humanity.

The Constitution enshrined a republican form of government, checks and balances, and rights like freedom of speech and worship, the right to trial by jury, and the right to be secure in your home from government intrusion that were practically unheard of in the 18th century and remain too rare today. And where those rights are honored, it is often due to the example and influence of the United States.

Seventy-four percent of Americans believe that, on the whole, America has been a force for good in the world. I'm with them.

There are countless examples of American benevolence to those in need, but one that has disappeared from our national consciousness is the story of American relief of Europe after World War I. Had he never had the misfortune to be president when the Great Depression hit, Herbert Hoover would be remembered as one of the most consequential humanitarians in history. When tens of millions in Europe faced starvation, Hoover was tapped to lead the American Relief Administration and saved tens of millions from starvation.

The United States offered similar humanitarian relief after World War II. After bitter warfare, the United States administered Japan without vengeance or plunder and put that nation on the road to democracy and prosperity.

In recent years, the United States has underwritten peace between Egypt and Israel, provided the lion's share of funding for the U.N.'s humanitarian missions and undertaken to save Africans from the scourge of AIDS with the PEPFAR program.

On the home front, with all of our flaws, the United States has provided a haven for generations of immigrants from war-torn, despotic or impoverished nations. Among them were my grandparents.

This nation has been guilty of slavery, ethnic cleansing (of Native Americans), discrimination, religious bigotry, and always and everywhere racism. But this is also the nation that passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and many more. It is the nation that, imperfectly but steadily, implemented Brown v. Board of Education.

The American genius for innovation gave the world many of the most significant inventions of the past two centuries. Americans invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell was an immigrant to the United States), the lightbulb, anesthesia, the airplane, the elevator, the skyscraper, the polio vaccine, air conditioning, the cellphone, the internet, nuclear power, GPS (with key work by an African American woman from rural Virginia), and mRNA vaccines. Americans landed on the moon and established the first national parks.

America's capacity to absorb and blend cultures from around the world led to the flourishing of music and art. Tap dancing originated here, along with jazz, the blues, movies, hip hop and, of course, blue jeans.

The MAGA vision of a woke, corrupt, crime-infested hellscape is not patriotism but its opposite. Speaking up for the goodness of America is just — and may also be politically potent.

Reprinted with permission from Creators.