American Maelstrom captures the full drama of the watershed election of 1968, establishing this year as the hinge between the decline of political liberalism, the ascendancy of conservative populism, and the rise of anti-government attitudes that continue to dominate the nation's political discourse. This sweeping and immersive book, equal parts compelling analysis and thrilling narrative, takes us to the very source of our modern politics of division.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson announced the most ambitious government agenda in decades. Three years later, everything had changed. Johnson's approval ratings had plummeted; the liberal consensus was shattered; the war in Vietnam splintered the nation; and the politics of civil rights had created a fierce white backlash. The National Committee for an Effective Congress warned of a "national nervous breakdown".
The election of 1968 was immediately caught up in a swirl of powerful forces, and the nine men who sought the nation's highest office that year attempted to ride them to victory - or merely survive them. On the Democratic side, Eugene McCarthy energized the anti-war movement; George Wallace spoke to the working-class white backlash; Robert Kennedy took on the mantle of his slain brother. Entangled in Vietnam, Johnson, stunningly, opted not to run again, scrambling the odds. On the Republican side, Richard Nixon outhustled Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and George Romney, by navigating between the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kennedy seemed to push the country to the brink of chaos, a chaos reflected in the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a televised horror show. Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged as the nominee, and nearly overcame the lead long enjoyed by Nixon, who, by exploiting division and channeling the national yearning for order, would be the last man standing.