On the first night of the Democratic National Committee Convention in the summer of 2016, comedian and actor, Sarah Silverman, in an unscripted moment on stage, said “to ‘Bernie-or-Bust’ people: You’re being ridiculous!”
After thinking about this for a short time, her words brought me back to the 1968 DNCC in Chicago. I became very angry as I imagined how I would have responded if she had said something similar to those of us who were fully committed to Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, even after it was apparent he wouldn’t become the Democratic Party’s standard bearer that year.
So I wonder now how Silverman resonated with Bernie’s supporters around the country.
I turned 21 in May 1968, and could vote for the first time since back then, the legal voting age was 21. However, at the age of 18, I, my friends, and classmates were old enough to be eligible to fight and die in Vietnam – a war I actively protested and worked vigorously to bring to an end.
Many like myself viewed the war as an unjustified invasion that brought misery and death to our military and the people of Vietnam.
As an undergraduate student, I joined the Students for a Democratic Society to oppose the war. I helped organize and led demonstrations. I joined in activities to challenge racism on our campus.
Though I became involved in my Young Democrats group in high school in 1964 and was elected secretary of our group, my deep political education took off in college. I remember much more of what I learned outside the classroom than in my studies, for those were truly exciting and terrifying times of war, riots, and political assassinations.
While we lauded President Lyndon B. Johnson on his courageous leadership in the realm of his domestic policies, especially in his active and enthusiastic support for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act one year later, we saw how his military ventures had torn apart the country.
Stepping into the political void left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party after Hubert Humphrey’s capitulation to the administration’s hawkish military policies, a fresh and dynamic voice articulated the feelings and visions of a younger generation of concerned activists.
Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota courageously challenged a sitting President of his own party, and along the way, he captured our imagination, our hearts, and our minds.
Running in the first state primary in New Hampshire that year, he garnered 42% to Johnson’s 49% of the vote. Four days later, seeing that Johnson could possibly lose his small lead in the primaries, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy threw his hat in the ring. Though I and many of my peers liked Kennedy’s politics, the timing of his entry into the primary process smelled of pure opportunism rather than courage.
We were all completely thunderstruck watching Johnson give a televised address on March 31, 1968, when he announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” Less than one month later, on April 27, Humphrey announced his candidacy.
The Democratic Party placing its thumb on the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, but this pales in comparison to the machinations to assure Hubert Humphrey the nomination.
Eugene McCarthy won the largest percentage of the popular vote in the primaries (3,000,000 to 161,000) in a crowded field of candidates and Humphrey didn’t enter some of the state primaries.
Still, party officials gave Humphrey the right to carry the Democratic banner as its presidential nominee. The Party awarded Humphrey the vast majority of overall delegates in non-primary states, giving him the number of delegates needed.
By the time the election came around, I was so angry and discouraged by the political process, I decided that if I were going to maintain any sense of integrity, I couldn’t vote for either candidate, despite knowing Humphrey was the least reprehensible relative to Richard Nixon.
The day before election day, two friends and I drove south down Highway 1 along the beautiful California coastline. We camped and played our acoustic guitars and violin beneath tall ancient redwoods overlooking crashing waves at Big Sur. Two days later, as we returned to San José. We remained unaware of the election outcomes.
At the time, I didn’t regret my decision to opt out. My integrity remained intact – until I reflected on the consequences of a Nixon presidency.
For five additional years, the body bags carrying the fallen continued to pile up. The people of Vietnam continued suffering the horrors of incinerated flesh and scorched forests from massive airdrops of Agent Orange.
Race relations worsened, as did the large gap in wages and accumulated wealth between the socioeconomic classes. Nixon’s involvement in Watergate and his eventual resignation further divided the country.
In retrospect, by failing to vote for “the lesser of the two evils” in 1968, did I really maintain my sense of integrity and did I serve the best interests of the country?
In 1968, I was functioning on a binary cognitive development level. I perceived the world, people, and events as either “good” or “bad,” and pragmatism as “surrender.” Viewing both Humphrey and Nixon as “bad,” I couldn’t vote for either without surrendering my ideals.
I now understand the cosmos more in its multiplicity and nuance as a continuum rather than a binary. I often consider pragmatism not so much “surrender,” but as a necessary give and take.
When Silverman reprimanded “Bernie or Bust” enthusiasts, I surprised myself by shouting “You go girl!” with a finger snap toward the TV.
In you’re considering staying out of the voting booths because you don’t believe your vote will matter or because candidates don’t conform to your idea of a “perfect” political leader, think again. That rationale – by a mere total of 80,000 votes – has brought our nation to a state of crisis under the Trump administration.
Anyone thinking of sitting out the election or voting for a minor third-party candidate this year, you’re being ridiculous.