The Nixon Years
THE CONSERVATIVE MAJORITY that went on to determine five of the six following presidential elections was forged in 1968 in a three-way competition between Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, and George C. Wallace, with Wallace running as the nominee of the American Independent Party. That election in many respects defined the structure of American politics for the next twenty years.
Race, the Vietnam War, student protests, the rights revolution, and what was seen by many as a rapid disintegration of the traditional social order, had produced deep fissures in the Democratic coalition, making the party vulnerable to challenge from the right. The 1968 election produced for the Republican party the basic strategies, not only for capitalizing on new schisms within the Democratic party, but, equally important, strategies for forging into a conservative alliance groups and interests that before 1968 had found little or no common ground.
Nixon and Wallace, who together collected 57 percent of the vote in 1968, established the framework for the success of Republican presidential candidates through the 1980s. Wallace, with increasing skill, defined politics in terms of populist conflict, pitting an elite Democratic establishment against working men and women struggling to make a decent living and decent lives for themselves. Nixon, for his part, developed strategies essential to capitalizing on the issue of race, while avoiding the label of racism.
Nixon in 1968 was among the first Republicans to understand how the changing civil rights agenda could be made to offer a politically safe middle ground to candidates seeking to construct a new conservative majority—or what turned out to be, in 1968, a plurality. The Nixon strategy effectively straddled the conflict between growing public support for the