George Wallace’s ’68

For every American won over to radicalism in 1968, there was another captured by George Wallace’s right-wing populism.

Attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace stands defiantly at the door while being confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine / Library of Congress

Despite our nostalgia, the “Sixties” was a polarized time rather than a radical one. Nowhere was this clearer than in the 1968 presidential election. Richard Nixon won narrowly by portraying himself as a moderate between welfare-state Democrat Hubert Humphrey on his left and segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace on his right. Wallace got 9.9 million votes and came close to influencing the outcome.

Since the 1940s, Wallace had demonstrated considerable flexibility on economic policies and to some extent on issues relating to race. Alabama had a tradition of electing segregationists who nonetheless favored the New Deal-Fair Deal welfare state; in 1968 Senators John Sparkman and Lister Hill fit into this category. As a young legislator after World War II, Wallace allied with Governor “Big Jim” Folsom who tried to evade racial politics while improving public services and attacking Alabama’s economic elite colloquially known as the “Big Mules.”

Folsom’s acquiescence in court-ordered integration prompted Wallace to break ranks. Even so, Wallace lost the 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary because he seemed insufficiently racist. He vowed never to be “out-segged” or “out-niggered” again. Wallace won the governorship four years later as a staunch segregationist.

Whether or not Wallace became more fervent in his heart remains disputed. Undeniably, his public defense of white supremacy legitimated murder and mayhem. These actions also made him the foremost national symbol of the “white backlash.” Running against President Lyndon Johnson’s surrogates in 1964 Democratic primaries, Wallace averaged more than a third of the vote in Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin. To the initial obtuse amazement of liberal commentators, he drew support from white workers — including union members.

In 1968 Wallace got on the ballot in all fifty states usually running under the label of the American Independent Party (AIP). His donors and local organizers included anti-black bigots worse than himself, John Birchers, Ku Klux Klan members, and devotees of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Even Wallace and his Alabaman inner circle privately referred to their affiliation with “nuts” and “kooks.” Though Wallace generally avoided open appeals to white supremacy, especially in the North, his supporters overwhelmingly opposed integrated schools, civil rights demonstrations, and African Americans moving into their neighborhoods.

Wallace’s broader message had greater consequences for American politics. He incessantly assailed those who “look down their noses” at the “average” hard-working American. Identifying himself as a former (part-time) truck driver, he pointedly defended steel workers, cab drivers, and beauticians against a range of snooty critics: prominent editors and publishers, the Council on Foreign Relations, foundation presidents, “pseudo-intellectuals,” bearded government bureaucrats, “sissy-britches,” “pointy-headed professors,” and “intellectual morons” who could not park a bicycle straight.

Although Wallace moved friendly audiences with unusual eloquence, he certainly did not invent these themes. But because his most recent eloquent precursor on the Right, Senator Joseph McCarthy, had died a whole eleven years earlier, mystified journalists and pollsters belatedly set out to discover where this “backlash” had come from. Some of them could not get beyond Wallace’s slicked-back hair and shiny suits; the best discerned a genuine if inchoate grassroots and pavement movement. According to fairly reliable contemporary polls, one-third of Roman Catholics and a majority of manual workers approved of Wallace. More than half of Americans surveyed thought “liberals, intellectuals, and long hairs” exerted too much power and hailed Wallace for “saying it the way it really is.”

Organized labor, at a peak of its political power, campaigned to undermine Wallace’s claim to be a “friend of the working man.” No Jim Folsom, he had compiled a mixed record on taxation and public services as governor. Yet as a presidential candidate, he separated himself from “ultraconservatives” who were “conservative about just one thing — money.” The aip platform endorsed the minimum wage, speedier decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, and public works programs during an economic downturn.

Wallace’s support in the polls rose steadily during the first nine months of 1968. By late September, he stood at 21 percent. Nixon and Humphrey, among many interested observers, thought he might carry enough states to deny both an electoral college majority and thus relegate the choice to the House of Representatives.

Yet a split between the inchoate movement’s prejudiced mainstream and its out-and-out “kooks” affected Wallace’s worst tactical mistake, his choice of a vice-presidential candidate. Wallace initially picked A. B. “Happy” Chandler. Chandler refused to repudiate his decision as commissioner of baseball to allow Jackie Robinson into the major leagues or his acceptance of integration while governor of Kentucky. On the contrary, Chandler thought these actions would bring an aura of moderation to the ticket. Pressed by AIP “nuts” and “kooks,” Wallace switched to retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay in early October. The new vice-presidential candidate immediately began to criticize the national “phobia” about nuclear war. Humphrey described Wallace and LeMay as the “Bombsy twins.”

Ultimately, Wallace carried five Southern states and one North Carolina Republican defector for 46 electoral votes. Nixon beat Humphrey by 110 electoral and 510,000 popular votes. At least 15 percent of union members voted for Wallace. His fall to roughly 13.5 percent of the popular total reflected the disastrous choice of LeMay, organized labor’s efforts for Humphrey, and the electorate’s perennial hesitation to “throw away” votes on third-party candidates.

Even so, the outcome was closer than it seemed. With Happy Chandler — or just about anybody other than LeMay — as his running mate, Wallace might have drawn enough votes from Nixon to deny him an electoral college majority. The results in Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, and New Jersey ranged from very close to relatively close.

Anyone interested in the “Sixties” as a period longer than the ten-year mathematical minimum must pay attention to Wallace after 1968. According to polls, at least three times as many Americans admired Wallace as voted for him. President Nixon’s desire to attract this group influenced his appeals to the “silent majority.” An attempted assassination during the 1972 Democratic presidential primaries left Wallace paralyzed but he ran again in 1976 to the benefit of Jimmy Carter, an erstwhile ambivalent ally.

Carter won the Democratic nomination by presenting himself as the non-Wallace, the good white Southerner who had converted from segregationist — pro forma in Carter’s case — to proponent of affirmative action. Wallace was reelected governor of Alabama in 1970, 1974, and 1982. Starting in the early 1970s, he began to recant his racist past without admitting he had been racist. He owed his election in 1982 to Alabama’s African Americans.

In historiography, punditry, and partisan polemics, Wallace is typically left out of the standard story of the (predominantly Republican) Right since the 1960s that proceeds from (a usually soft view of) Senator Barry Goldwater through (a usually softer view of) Ronald Reagan and beyond. Conservatives themselves prefer to remember William F. Buckley Jr’s critique of Wallace rather than Goldwater’s praise. Furthermore, Wallace ended his political career as a conventional conservative Southern Democrat (though he supported none of his party’s presidential nominees after Carter).

Perhaps most important, despite their differences in social class and region, Wallace qualifies as a precursor to Donald Trump. He, too, received much free mainstream media coverage, courted law enforcement and veterans’ organizations, and brought crowds of supporters to the brink of violence — and sometimes beyond the brink. In 2016, mystified liberals began to ponder where this latest white backlash, now in favor of Trump, was coming from. After all, it had been two whole decades since Congress fell to Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America.

We need to consider long-standing working-class and lower middle-class suspicion of the other one percent — the cultural and intellectual elite that occasionally overlaps with but is generally distinguishable from the proudly capitalist billionaires in the original one percent. Professors and bureaucrats — pointy-headed, bearded, or not — may feel quite distant from Hollywood stars and New Yorker editors. But, as is the case with the explicitly capitalist one percent, prevailing attitudes filter down at least through the next quintile. Moreover, on a day-to-day basis, working-class Americans of all sorts are less likely to meet condescending billionaires than to deal with teachers and bureaucrats who look down their noses at the 2018 equivalent of slicked-back hair and shiny suits.

Explanations by way of catchphrases like “paranoid style,” “status anxiety,” and “anti-intellectualism” are worse than useless. If a single hyphenated word is required, anti-cosmopolitanism is the best bet. Nonetheless, latent working-class suspicion of the other one percent often mixes with curiosity and respect. The level of animosity is not constant. Neither is it unprovoked.