Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Are the Democrats Facing 1968 Redux?

The current crop of antiwar protests should have Biden and co. worried.


A question that has occasionally tickled political scientists’ brains is whether antiwar protests prolong the wars in question or hasten their end. Mass student demonstrations certainly signaled widespread opposition to the Vietnam War among people who were of fighting age, though many had deferments that kept them from serving. 

But the countercultural flavor of those protests made them as unpopular in some circles as the war itself. Hardhats punching hippies became the culture war on the homefront, with the silent majority’s sense of patriotism offended by what ought to have been a question of foreign policy. 


“B-1” Bob Dornan, the longtime conservative congressman from Orange County who was reprimanded by the Republican-controlled House in 1995 for saying in a floor speech that Bill Clinton “gave aid and comfort to the enemy during the Vietnam War,” later drew this distinction in a radio interview. He said some protesters were like folk singer Joan Baez, a genuine peacenik with whom Dornan had no quarrel, while others were like actress Jane Fonda, whom he described as “pro-Hanoi.”

Antiwar voices have often been treated as fifth columnists in league with the enemy. Commentators as sensible as Andrew Sullivan described some early opponents of the Iraq War, which he would later decry as a “catastrophe,” as “objectively pro-Saddam.”

“I was distracted by the internal American debate to the occlusion of the reality of Iraq,” Sullivan admitted in 2008, citing the excesses of the far left and “boomer nostalgia,” adding, “I allowed myself to be distracted by an ideological battle when what was required was clear-eyed prudence.”

There is no question that while Iraq was a foreign-policy blunder of the first order, many of the antiwar protests were consumed by radicalism and nonsense. ANSWER was hardly the answer for Middle America. With a few exceptions—a née Dixie Chicks CD here and there—even the music was much worse than in the 1960s. From Buffalo Springfield to buffalo chips in a generation or two.

Lefty antiwar organizers also have a tendency to use opposition to unpopular wars as a recruitment tool for unrelated progressive causes. Abortions for all pregnant people, from Afghanistan to Palestine. It is a bizarre and obnoxious tactic, but understandable given the motivations of the most committed placard-wavers. 


I nevertheless lamented the lack of antiwar protests as Barack Obama, avowed foe of “dumb wars,” commenced his “kinetic military action” in Libya. The lesson appeared to be, as his former vice president seems to have learned, to intervene as much as desired but try to keep American boots off the ground. 

The one thing these protests can do in the cases of what Bob Dole might grumpily call “Democrat wars” is enhance the fissures within the Democratic coalition. So it is with the encampments creeping up on college campuses across the country in protest of Israel’s war in Gaza. 

Replete with all the unpleasantness and excesses of the aforementioned demonstrations of past decades, the current college movement contains an even bigger dollop of fetid identity-politics nastiness. The intersectionality is the point: there is nothing comparable going on with respect to Russia–Ukraine. While many of the participants are undoubtedly horrified by Gazan civilian casualties, Hamas is a bad source of antiwar slogans.

And yet as President Joe Biden tries to thread the needle between condemning the worst of the protests and massaging the political sensitivities of young, Squad-adjacent progressives, he has to wonder what is going to happen to his Democratic convention in Chicago as well as his electoral prospects in Michigan.

While the U.S. is not a direct combatant, the wars overseas and convulsions in response to them at home contribute to a sense of deepening chaos that is bad for any incumbent, much less one who ran to restore a sense of normalcy. Judging by the polls, many voters—or at least enough to swing the seven battleground states—no longer think Donald Trump is the reckless choice.

The Democrats have seen unpleasantness at their Chicago conventions before. Biden wasn’t yet a senator, but he is old enough to remember 1968, even if most of the protesters aren’t. 

That’s why they may not realize that the civil disorder they unleash can produce electoral outcomes that might be the opposite of what they really want.