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Will Today’s Riots Spur Electoral Backlash Like 1967’s?

A policeman stands guard in a Detroit street on July 25, 1967 as buildings are burning during riots that erupted in Detroit following a police operation. Photo: -/AFP via Getty Images

Protests against racial injustices with a tinge (or more than a tinge) of violence haven’t matched the long history of white-mob outrages against African-Americans, but they are better known, augmenting old stereotypes of “roving bands of youths” burning buildings and police cars after initially peaceful protests were mishandled by authorities and spun out of control. It’s happened as recently as 2015 in Baltimore, 2014 in Ferguson, and 1992 in Los Angeles. But those “race riots” were too isolated to exert any large effect on American politics.

For a possible analogy of the current nationwide explosion of unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, you have to go back to the 1960s, particularly to the “long, hot summer” of 1967, when civil unrest occurred in 150 cities (most violently in Detroit and Newark) and the National Guard was called out in 34 states, and then the sometimes-violent protests in 1968 in more than a hundred locations (the most destructive occurring in Chicago and Washington) following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. These large waves of riots were preceded by the spectacularly destructive Watts Riot of 1965 in Los Angeles and smaller but intense 1964 uprisings in Harlem, Rochester, and Philadelphia.

In the riots prior to 1968, racism in its many forms (particularly outside the South) contributed to the waves of rebellion, but more often than not the violence was triggered by incidents of police misconduct, at a time when police forces in most major cities remained overwhelmingly white.

Another notable phenomenon in American society could be nicely bookended by 1964 and 1968: a radical decline in public support for the Democratic Party, which was the national political party associated with the interests of African-Americans. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson (and running mate Hubert Humphrey) won 61.1 percent of the national popular vote. In 1968, Humphrey won 42.7 percent — the lowest percentage of the vote won by a major-party nominee since Alf Landon, FDR’s victim in 1936.

This dive in support (which continued through the 1972 presidential election) cannot be attributed directly or exclusively to white reaction to “black” riots. The Deep South’s long-developing alienation from Democrats was clearly more the product of peaceful protests, successful civil-rights legislation, and court decisions and was offset partly by the steady enfranchisement of African-Americans following the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in other parts of the country, where white people were used to viewing civil rights as a drama confined to the South, riots were a shock to the political system.

And while many other disturbing things were occurring during those years — most notably the rapid expansion of the Vietnam War — the sights and sounds of inner cities becoming “war zones” with helmeted white cops and National Guard troops battling black protesters amid burning buildings and looted shops were indelible images of the era. Without question, many regular white Democratic voters were frightened or infuriated by all this chaos and began listening to conservative law-and-order politicians like Richard Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew (who rose to fame after a tough-talking response to disturbances in Cambridge, Maryland), third-party 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan (who made white and nonwhite student protesters the main object of his law-and-order demands).

Then and now, the question arose as to whether backlash-prone white Americans really distinguished between peaceful civil-rights demonstrations and violent rioting, or between the civil-rights movement’s pacific, universalistic goals and the disruptive and divisive means sometimes utilized to advance them. After the Baltimore riots of 2015, my colleague Jonathan Chait looked into the historical evidence and cited some convincing research that violence really does speed backlash:

[T]he question is not whether rioting ever yields a productive response but whether it does so in general. Omar Wasow, an assistant professor at the department of politics at Princeton, has published a timely new paper studying this very question. And his answer is clear: Riots on the whole provoke a hostile right-wing response. They generate attention, all right, but the wrong kind.

Wasow uncovered a very direct link between awareness of violent racially tinged disturbances and a decline in Democratic vote share in 1968 and 1972 — in sharp contrast to the impact of peaceful civil-rights demonstration:

Wasow finds that nonviolent civil-rights protests did not trigger a national backlash but that violent protests and looting did. The physical damage inflicted upon poor urban neighborhoods by rioting does not have the compensating virtue of easing the way for more progressive policies; instead, it compounds the damage by promoting a regressive backlash.

The Nixonian law-and-order backlash drove a wave of repressive criminal-justice policies that carried through for decades with such force that even Democrats like Bill Clinton felt the need to endorse them in order to win elections. 

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes, riots weren’t the only types of “urban violence” that fed a racial backlash in the 1960s and beyond; violent crime rates were rising rapidly, as well. Current crime rates are relatively low in most cities, but conservative race-baiters have become adept at using selective crime spikes to conjure the specter of terrifying “waves.”

Nixon and Reagan were shrewd manipulators of white racial fears and deft deployers of racist dog whistles, but both were arguably pikers compared to Donald J. Trump.

That a wave of “race riots” has broken out as Trump is in the throes of an existential fight to stay in power has to be looked on as a gift from heaven by many in his camp. That today’s Democrats are (to their credit) feeling much more pressure to identify with the victims of racial injustice than were their forbears over a half-century ago is just fuel for the backlash fires. Perhaps the current protests will subside or be channeled constructively, or they will be overshadowed by the daily violence of coronavirus cases and families and lives torn apart by the collapse of the economy. But when push comes to shove in October, you can bet that Republican campaign ads and social-media messaging will be aflame with images of rioters along with their alleged Democratic allies, the criminal illegal aliens.

But as the brilliant chronicler of law-and-order politics Rick Perlstein points out at Mother Jones, that there’s nothing inevitable about the success of racial-backlash appeals, particularly if they are unsubtle:

Unlike any Republican president before him, Trump is risking the consequences of being openly racist. Nixon—and even, in his 1968 and 1972 presidential runs, George Wallace—at least paid lip service to the goal of racial justice. That’s because even white people who regularly said and did things harmful to Black Americans didn’t want to believe that association with a particular candidate marked them as racist.

If Trump goes overtly racist, he may not only squander the effort he has put into peeling young African-American men away from the Democratic Party but could do himself damage among white supporters who are embarrassed by white identity politics.

Either way, it could be a long, hot autumn.

Will Today’s Riots Spur Electoral Backlash Like 1967’s?