It happened today - August 26, 2015

August 26 is the day the Democratic National Convention in Chicago kicked off back in 1968, surrounded by angry protesters who quickly turned the event into a left-wing riot. Which didn’t work out too well for them in the short run but certainly changed their party over time.

The backdrop to the rioting, and its targeting of the Democrats, is that in “the Sixties” many agitated left-wing types felt that the real obstacle to change in America wasn’t the openly conservative Republican Party. It was supposedly liberal reformers who co-opted discontent and subtly blocked genuinely radical alternatives.

It may sound like typical fringe nonsense. But they had a point. It incensed these protesters that the Democrats were waging the Vietnam War. And it sent them right round the bend that, after anti-war protests led President Lyndon Johnson to declare that he would not seek another term in 1968 and John Kennedy’s brother Robert was assassinated, the Democratic backroom boys foisted VP Hubert Humphrey on the party as its presidential nominee without his entering a single primary.

They were able to do so because enough states still chose their delegates to the party’s national convention in tightly managed “caucuses”. And thus Humphrey defeated the anti-war candidate Senator (and poet) Eugene McCarthy of Maine, and the convention itself voted down a key anti-Vietnam War resolution even though 80% of delegates chosen in primaries supported it.

Rage boiled over, and into the convention hall by August 28, where Dan Rather of CBS got manhandled and Mike Wallace got punched in the face… by guards not protesters. Indeed, the general reaction of the press was that it was the police who were out of control at the convention.

The public begged to differ, and their hostile reaction to the protesters at the DNC helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon was not, by more modern standards, much of a conservative even on economic issues, let alone social ones. But he was a law and order man and people wanted law and order not rampaging smelly punks with beards. And they felt, with some justice, that the soul of the Democratic Party was with the radicals not the squares in white shirts, narrow ties and horn-rimmed glasses who were on the verge of losing control of the party.

The party wound up agreeing. In 1972 the Democrats nominated the far left peacenik George McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, by the way, but ideologically a dangerous man, and in 1976 Jimmy Carter. And the party certainly conceded much of the protesters’ case in other ways too. For instance it would be unthinkable now to nominate someone who had not won in competitive primaries of various sorts.

A series of presidential electoral debacles including 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988 led to a faction within the Democratic party trying to pull it back to the centre, a major reason they picked the Ozark Casanova in 1992. And so the aftermath of the 1968 DNC might seem a salutary lesson about the political hazards of listening to your radical base. But the protesters had been right about where the heart of the party lay even if they were wrong in their tactics and the level of their paranoid rage even by the standards of 1968. And in the long run, their influence on the party has not been especially harmful electorally.

The radicalized Democratic party had trouble in presidential elections from 1968 through 1988 because the American people did not share their views. Democrats did better in Congressional contests because the looser party American system leaves much more room for openly expressed ideological diversity; indeed although the Democrats have by now purged their ranks of pro-lifers they still have more than a few Senators and Representatives with fairly sensible foreign policy views. But over time Democrats mostly kept true to their beliefs, and concentrated on pulling the public toward their views instead of sneaking into the White House by pretending they believed things they didn’t. And by now it’s working pretty well.

Since 1988 the Republicans have won only two of six presidential elections. The current two-term incumbent, Barack Obama, has Dalton McGuinty’s gift of seeming like a boring moderate while espousing extreme ideas. And yet pundits are convinced, with some justification looking at recent Electoral College patterns, that the GOP now faces a stern uphill battle even against as flawed a nominee as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So there’s much to be said for being true to thine own self politically as well as personally. Win or lose, the Democrats have been true to their radical inclinations for most of the period since 1968. And the Republicans have done much better when they listened to their base and nominated Reagan than when they went squishy with Mitt Romney or Bush Sr.

None of it justifies rioting, of course. But when the radicals in 1968 insisted that their party had been stolen from them and they just wanted it back, they had a point. They ditched the rioting, mostly, but kept the beliefs. And in the past half century they’ve shifted their country dramatically to the left by doing so.