On February 27, 2024, voters in the Michigan Democratic primaries sent a resounding message. Although President Joe Biden garnered approximately 80% of the overall vote, over 100,000 people voted for the ‘uncommitted’ option on the ballot. This show of discontent with Biden was spearheaded by Listen to Michigan, a group committed to seeing the Biden administration end aid to Israel and pursue an immediate and permanent pause in the fighting between Hamas and Israel, which has so far claimed the lives of what is estimated to be tens of thousands of people in Gaza. 

As protest voters celebrated their sizeable showing, Michigan State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, a vocal advocate of the effort, declared that the movement was “going to Chicago… we’re going to be at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), pushing and growing this anti-war movement.” In a moment of potent historical coincidence, whether intentional or not, Aiyash’s statement serves as a stark reminder of another moment in American history, one that might augur what this year could bring to American politics.

Historical Precedents 

In 1968, like in 2024, the DNC had decided to convene in Chicago to determine the party’s presidential ticket. Yet that presidential nominating process was overshadowed, mainly by external events. Violent clashes between police forces and thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters in the streets around the venue illustrated the deep divides that America’s involvement in Vietnam had created within the Democratic Party’s traditional voting coalition. Indeed, the divisions ran so deep that despite multiple impressive domestic policy achievements, the first-term Democratic incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson opted not to run for re-election. Although Johnson had legitimate concerns about his health to serve a second term, it was primarily his handling of the Vietnam conflict that drove his approval ratings and his re-election chances into the ground.

With Johnson out, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey stepped in, barely winning the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform that alienated many anti-war Democrats by essentially adopting Johnson’s approach to Vietnam. On Election Day, Republican candidate Richard Nixon beat Humphrey by a small margin, elevating the belief that anti-war Democrats, upset with Humphrey, either withheld their vote or voted for Nixon. Nixon promised a vague plan to end the conflict even as he secretly undermined Johnson’s peace attempts. 

History in the Remaking?

Although it is impossible to directly equate the Vietnam War with the conflict in Gaza, one could claim that, like Vietnam, the Gaza conflict is opening deep rifts in the Democratic Party’s coalition. Beyond the ‘uncommitted’ vote in Michigan, protesters have voiced their demands for a policy change at nearly every Biden appearance this year. 

These rifts threaten Biden’s re-election in a manner that could be devastating given how close the election’s results will be. Most early polling data indicates that, just like the last two previous election cycles, 2024 will likely be decided by only a handful of states and tens of thousands of voters, regardless of who wins. This prospect makes the results in Michigan even more worrisome. Yet, in response to Biden’s myriad of problems, it is unclear how much change he could produce. 

The Limits of Influence

Part of the issue Biden faces is that the conflict is exposing how little influence the United States has on its ally. In a recent interview with MSNBC, Biden answered that an invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza constituted a “red line.” Shortly after, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly responded that an invasion of Rafah was necessary to achieve the country’s strategic aims. This exchange alone, simmering tensions between the two leaders aside, is illustrative of the more significant fact that the United States’ influence seems insufficient in forcing Israeli leadership to back down from its offensive in Gaza or even change their behavior in the conflict. 

That said, it remains unclear if even adopting harsher measures, including rumors that the United States could condition aid to Israel if it invades Rafah, would be enough to force a change. Some U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Israel would shrug it off, given that the conflict remains broadly popular within Israel and Israel has enough supplies to continue fighting even in the extreme scenario that the United States cut aid to Israel completely.

This creates a complex scenario for the Biden administration. Biden seems to attempt to repair the fractures emerging in his Democratic coalition by altering an increasingly untenable foreign policy position. That said, Biden’s apparent inability to influence Israel’s actions regarding the conflict in Gaza raises questions about whether his attempts to pivot will be enough to mend his coalition’s fences. Some voters may view his administration’s efforts to change course on the conflict as a welcome step, others could see it as insufficient, and some are already saying too little too late. Therefore, even as Biden seeks to avoid the mistakes of the Democrats in 1968, it could be out of his control.

Edited by Killian Magdelaine

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Tommy Japan.