FROM DEJECTION TO ELECTION: 1968, 1974 AND TODAY
In hindsight: The concerns of activists in the late 1960s became the legislative priorities of Congress in the mid-1970s.
by John Lawrence
Few years can match 1968 for the mark it left on American history. The divisive war in Vietnam (including the devastating Tet Offensive beginning in January), the surprise withdrawal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in March, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the nightmarish violence in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, the polarizing candidacy of segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, the razor-thin election of Richard Nixon: these and other developments at home and around the world created an indelible sense of uncontrollable change that exhilarated some and frightened many.
But it did not take half a century for the transformative spirit of 1968 to leave its mark. Within only a couple of years, new faces began to appear in the U.S. Congress, and they traced their activism to anti-war and civil rights demonstrations, campus politics, and other movements outside the traditional electoral system. As a result, issues that had been simmering since the turmoil of 1968 — from Vietnam to consumer protection to energy innovation — moved to the top of the priority list for the 94th Congress.
In 1969 an early symbolic change occurred in Wisconsin, where the House seat long occupied by Nixon’s new Defense Secretary, Melvin Laird, was captured by the reformer, Dave Obey. The following year in California, self-professed Berkeley radical Ron Dellums ousted a liberal pro-war incumbent in the Democratic primary and went on to win election in November. In Massachusetts, the anti-war Jesuit priest Robert Drinan also ousted an incumbent Democratic and narrowly won his general election.
Many of the members of the Class of ’74 traced their decisions to seek public office to the chaotic events of 1968.
Two years later, additional activist voices were added to the House. The young attorney Elizabeth Holtzman in New York defeated the longest serving House member who chaired the Judiciary Committee. In California, Pete Stark, who hung a gigantic peace sign on his bank, ousted another aged Democratic chairman. Outspoken women activists including Patricia Schroeder in Colorado and Bella Abzug won seats as well.
Once ensconced in office, these new members joined forces with longtime reformers to energize an ineffective institution that had deteriorated into “The Sapless Branch” of government, as one critic described. They challenged power centers and rules that had concentrated power in the hands of conservative Democrats who often voted more reliably with the Republican opposition. But it was not until the infusion of 76 new Democrats, 49 of whom replaced Republicans, in the election of 1974 that the reformers succeeded in implementing reforms that checked the power of the Conservative Coalition that had dominated the House.
Many of the members of the Class of ’74 traced their decisions to seek public office to the chaotic events of 1968. “More than anything, [Robert] Kennedy’s death [in June] had propelled us into politics,” recalled a “profoundly saddened and changed” Tim Wirth of Colorado, who watched Kennedy’s funeral train pull into Washington’s Union Station. “How could we be wasting our time when there was so much to do?”
In their new roles as members of Congress, activists became advocates for minorities, students, the disabled, the environment, and consumers.
The youth and activism of many in the ’74 class seemed reminiscent of the vigor and enthusiasm for public service summoned to political activity by the Kennedys, King and other younger leaders. “We were young, we looked weird,” marveled Toby Moffett of Connecticut, a former Nixon Administration bureaucrat who joined up with consumer activist Ralph Nader. “I can’t even believe we got elected!” Moffett of Connecticut had quit a post in the Nixon Administration to become a consumer activist. His Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd and Massachusetts’ Paul Tsongas were Peace Corps veterans. They brought with them a different style of politics — less formal, more innovative in communicating with constituents, often assertive and even confrontational, as befit young activists — in their new role as congressional advocates for minorities, students, the disabled, the environment, and consumers.
Many anticipated their stay in office might be short-lived, and they exuded impatience with the sluggish pace of the House. “We all had a sense of urgency,” California’s Jerry Patterson declared. “By its very nature,” Moffett observed, “advocacy and reform [are] rough around the edges, and so were we.” But the 1974 reformers did not disrespect the institutions of government, as have subsequent classes of anti-Washington conservatives. Rather, they sought to open them to broader participation by newer House members and to greater receptivity to cutting edge issues in order to achieve their policy goals. Jim Blanchard, a Class member from Michigan spoke for many when he observed, “We believed government could be a force for good.”
The new class of incoming legislators— should they win in November — may find it useful to study the lessons of past reformers, finding the right balance between activist, candidate and lawmaker.
The scandals and controversy surrounding the Trump presidency, continual school shootings and gun violence, and the #MeToo movement have dismayed minorities and younger voters, and propelled a similarly unconventional slew of candidates into congressional races in 2018. Many of these neophytes are women and several are veterans and activists lacking prior experience as candidates. Some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, harken back to those in the early ’70s who ousted incumbents of their own party. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico party official, could become the first Native American woman to serve in Congress. Others have prior electoral experience like Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who will almost certainly be the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress. If the wave materializes, a significant number, like Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor in New Jersey, are likely to assume seats formerly held by Republicans. This new class of incoming legislators in 2019 — should they win in November — may find it useful to study the lessons of past reformers.
Should Democrats reach the magic 218-vote majority, these new faces will have to make the same kind of transition as their 1974 counterparts from activist outsider to savvy legislator. How much will they insist on reflecting the views of their grassroots base? How will they fashion their relationship to the leadership, including committee and subcommittee chairs? How much energy will they invest in attempting to find bipartisan solutions that might please voters but disappoint their most fervent supporters? Their struggles to find the right balance between activist, candidate, and lawmaker will look familiar to those who study Congress and its history.
John Lawrence is Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington Center.