How the Israel-Gaza Protests Could Hurt the Democratic Party


It’s a nightmare scenario for Democrats: Protesters disrupt their convention this summer; they clash with the police; chaos seems to take hold.

It may not be imaginary. As protests over Israel’s war in Gaza continue to intensify, especially on college campuses, activists are preparing to be in Chicago this summer for the Democratic National Convention.

The very idea sends some Democrats right back to 1968, when their convention, also in Chicago, was overshadowed by infighting and violence between the police and antiwar protesters. Back then, many voters watching the nightly news got the impression that the party could not control its own delegates, never mind a country that was wrestling with an unpopular war.

Protests over the Israel-Hamas war could also complicate this year’s convention and the Democratic messaging for President Biden, whom Republicans have eagerly cast as too indulgent of chaos and disorder in American society. Last week, Fox News and other conservative outlets repeatedly showed demonstrations that made the country seem on the edge: Columbia University sending in the police to arrest students on campus; protesters shouting “genocide!” at President Biden at a campaign stop; demonstrators chaining themselves to cars to block traffic, creating gridlock.

“The whole Republican message is, ‘The world is out of control and Biden is not in command,’” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist and adviser to former President Barack Obama. “They will exploit any images of disorder to abet and support it.”

Certainly, there are differences between now and 1968, starting with how conventions are run. They are much more tightly programmed, with fewer, if any, floor fights.

And the United States has a long, vibrant history of embracing raucous political protest, toward idealistic ends.

But the 1968 convention stamped Democrats with a legacy that is hard to shake.

The convention was preceded by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hubert Humphrey had won the Democratic nomination after President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to run, knowing he could not win.

Antiwar protests, too, had the country on edge. By the late 1960s, a majority of Americans were opposed to the Vietnam War. But the antiwar movement had alienated many voters, as some demonstrations became violent.

“A majority of Americans by 1968 were actually opposed to the war,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University. “But they were even more opposed to the antiwar movement. Many antiwar protesters were peaceful, but many were not.”

Outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention hall, protesters mocked the proceedings. Some threw red paint to simulate blood; others occupied major thoroughfares to shut down traffic. The Yippies nominated a pig for president.

When demonstrators set up camp at a local park, the police were called in. The ensuing violence shook the country and ultimately helped Richard M. Nixon win election.

What Americans took away from those scenes of the police and protesters fighting in the streets was not that civil disobedience was a healthy part of American democracy — but that they’d had enough, said Timothy Naftali, who teaches public policy at Columbia University.

“Its debatable whether they achieved anything other than ensuring Richard Nixon was re-elected,” Mr. Naftali said.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is a chaotic scene that resembles the 1968 convention.

“We’ve got a big antiwar movement, lots of tumult, a convention in Chicago. What could go wrong?” asked Mr. Axelrod, only half-jokingly.

For months, protesters have interrupted campaign events for Mr. Biden and other Democrats. They have glued their hands to a wall and disrupted speeches, including one at a high-profile fund-raiser for the president at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan last month. At one point during that event, Mr. Obama challenged one heckler, admonishing, “You can’t just talk and not listen.” He received a hearty round of applause.

Donald J. Trump has never shied away from portraying his political adversaries as too coddling of unruly demonstrators. During the 2020 campaign, Mr. Trump tried to cast himself in the tradition of Republicans like Nixon, who championed themselves as the guardians of law and order. Mr. Trump even declared himself, “your president of law and order.”

He was borrowing a page from the playbook of former President Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California ordered the National Guard in 1969 to disperse student demonstrators at the University of California, Berkeley. That event, which became known as “Bloody Thursday,” led to more than 1,000 arrests as some 2,000 guardsmen moved in. And Reagan’s political stock rose.

What worked for Reagan may not for Republicans today, if only because of Mr. Trump’s support for the rioters who assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“That really muddles what Republicans were known for,” Mr. Naftali said.

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