Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Book Review--Nixonland

Having finally finished “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein, I wanted to take some time to lay out my reaction to it. As I mentioned in my short blurb last week, “Nixonland” is the second part of a large project by Perlstein to describe the rise of modern conservatism. This project is extremely important, especially for those on the left, in that it presents a counter narrative to the accepted history of the era. For many liberals, the 1960’s were a time of ascendancy. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the rise of feminism, etc. have tended be portrayed in a triumphal light by many commentators. It was, for many, an era of progress. What Perlstein reminds us, however, is that this “progress” was not universally accepted or agreed upon. This was also an era of resentment and reaction. It is this backlash, and the politics it created, that is the focus of this work.

To get a sense of the political trajectory that is traveled, Perlstein bookends his study with two of the most lopsided elections in American history—1964 and 1972—and asks a simple question: How could a country that had first given Lyndon Johnson such a massive victory turn around and give Richard Nixon an even larger win eight years later? How could the country have swung so dramatically in such a short period of time?

The answer to this question, it seems, is that both of these victories were largely delivered by the same group of people. It is this group of people that are at the heart of Perlstein's work. In short, this turbulent period is defined not by who we would normally think of—the protesters, the rioters, the hippies, the baby boomer youth, the New Left—but rather by what Nixon identified as the “Silent Majority.” These were the millions of Americans who were, for the most part, most of the time, apolitical. They were working and middle class, and as such had an interest in stability, predictability, and order. They were the great center of the American electorate. As the 1960’s unfolds we see this group move perceptibly rightward in much of their voting.

For this to happen, however, something had to change in the American political system. While the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and other events certainly propelled this shift, I think that all of these were in many ways the product of a much larger systemic change beginning during this period. As I was finishing “Nixonland” and trying to put it into perspective, I came to conclude that the book is not just a story of the rise of conservatism, but perhaps more so it is the story of the collapse of New Deal Liberalism. One book that I came across several times in graduate school is Stephen Skowronek’sThe Politics Presidents Make.” In it, Skowronek argues that American history is characterized by periods of “political time.” By this, he means that politics at any given time is defined by a particular “regime”—namely a dominant coalition of interests, ideas, actors, and ideology. Over time, these regimes rise or decline in acceptance as they are more or less successful in solving problems and managing the emerging conflicts in society. Presidents are situated differently to these regimes and are sometimes, though rarely, able to replace one regime with another, or re-order the nature of politics. FDR is the classic example here. With the Depression, the old regime was in disarray and FDR was able to assume power and institute a new governing philosophy with the support of a newly organized coalition of supporters and ideas. It is this regime—New Deal Liberalism—that LBJ inherits some thirty years later. However, by the 1960’s, the ability of this Liberalism to manage the issues of the day is in doubt. As Skowronek explains, presidents like LBJ who seek to expand upon a regime and put their own stamp upon it are oftentimes unsuccessful. They try to do too much, they overreach, and the regime is subject to collapse. This is what we see in “Nixonland.” What the Great Society, the war in Vietnam, and the other policies pushed by Johnson do, in short, is create an unrealistic set of expectations among the public. When these expectations are inevitably not met, backlash is not far away. When this backlash is ripe, members of the dominant regime begin to turn on one another, setting the stage for the realignment of political and voting coalitions.

So, whereas the 1964 landslide is brought about through the votes of the older parts of the New Deal coalition (unions, farmers, urban whites) and newer groups (African Americans, the youth), by the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s these groups are splintering and turning on one another. While the newer members of the coalition are in the process of becoming more radicalized—the rise of Black Power, the balkanization of the anti-war movement, the emerging gay rights movement—those older members of the coalition feel abandoned and thus begin to gravitate rightward. This backlash is fueled by the inability of the old regime to solve the problems of the day. As crime and urban disorder become the top issue of concern to American voters, Liberalism provided no answer or solution. Another great discussion of this, parenthetically, focusing on New York, is provided by Vincent Cannato in “The Ungovernable City,” a biography of John Lindsay.

As this process unfolds, Richard Nixon rises to pick up the pieces. Throughout the book, Perlstein uses Nixon as a lens through which to view the period. Nixon, he argues, is just like those groups who feel abandoned or left behind. Throughout his life, he felt constantly slighted, underestimated, and condescended to. Thus, his political genius was his ability to read the mood of that great mass of Americans who simply wanted to return to a politics and a way of life they felt was under siege: “This was something Richard Nixon, with his gift for looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath, understood: the future belonged to the politician who could tap the ambivalence—the nameless dread, the urge to make it all go away; to make the world placid again, not a cacophonous mess” (p. 213). He uses the New Left as a foil, mocking their “pseudo-intellectualism” as opposed to his, and the Silent Majority’s solid values and patriotism.

While the story of “Nixonland,” as I argued above, seems to be more about the collapse of Liberalism, it is not necessarily the story of the final triumph of Conservatism. Rather, this is a period where things fall apart without necessarily being rebuilt. It would take Reagan (and this would seem to be where Perlstein will go next) to accomplish this. The Nixon we get in this history is one that is not terribly ideological and without a fixed governing philosophy. In fact, in domestic affairs he accepts many of the liberal assumptions and policies. Furthermore, if we look at other elections during the period, we see a Liberalism that still has some life in it. While Nixon is elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972, he has no noticeable coattails in congressional elections. The Democrats maintain large majorities in both chambers of Congress and gain seats in the 1970 midterm. So while the Silent Majority was beginning a process of moving rightward, they hadn’t moved wholesale yet. What John and I have spent a lot of time looking at on this site is where these voters ended up.

There seem to be several lessons that can be drawn from Perlstein’s work, especially for those on the left. The first of these is the danger of overreach. What we saw under Johnson, it seems, was an overestimation of the country’s appetite for massive change. Here, I’m reminded of my great professor at UW-Madison, Charles O. Jones. In his writings on policy making and the presidency, he always warned against what many call “the myth of the mandate.” Essentially, big electoral victories tend to be interpreted as a sign that voters are in agreement upon a wholesale policy agenda. The reality, Jones always taught, was that voters vote for candidates for a variety of reasons, many not connected to policy at all. When presidents act as if they have a clear mandate, they set themselves up for failure. Thus, we might look at this turbulent period and ask whether, in the future, a more “humble” or “incremental” approach to governing is warranted, lest we risk the fracturing and backlash that Perlstein describes.

A second lesson I would draw from this story is the need to avoid the temptation of ideological self-righteousness and self-absorption. The great value of Perlstein’s project is that he, as a progressive, is willing to look critically at the left. This period gives him plenty of fertile ground to explore. The fact of the matter is that many of the people he describes (and who have been lionized in many histories of the 60’s) would seem to have been pretty insufferable to deal with. The ultimate failure of people like Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd, Bobby Seale, and others was not so much that their positions were wrong, but that their tactics made them easy targets for the forces mobilizing on the right. What was lacking among those on the left—and this may have been a function of a Liberalism in decline—was anyone of stature who could put the brakes on the process that was unfolding. The irony of this is that as the war dragged on, and as Perlstein describes, more and more members of the “Silent Majority” were being drawn to the anti-war movement. Had the leadership of this movement been less dogmatic and less confrontational early on, they perhaps might have had more success.

Aside from the main themes just described, there were some sections and topics that I found particularly interesting. First was his discussion of how Nixon was able to implement the “southern strategy.” Here, the role of Strom Thurmond was instrumental. While I had originally read about this before, I think in “The Making of the President 1968,” Perlstein describes the relationship between Thurmond and Nixon in much greater detail. We see how these two were able to court each other and ensure that each's interests were being served. With the Wallace vote threatening to keep the White House in the Democrats’ hands, Nixon was able to convince Thurmond (on issues like busing, school desegregation, etc.) that he would embrace state’s rights and strict constructionism. With Thurmond’s blessing (and signals to other southern leaders and voters), Nixon was able to win enough of the south, including Thurmond’s South Carolina, to capture the presidency.

A second section I particularly enjoyed was his narrative on how Watergate came about. When thinking about this scandal, the conclusion that many draw is that Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign was unnecessary. The fault of this analysis, it seems, is that we tend to view Watergate with the hindsight of knowing how the 1972 election turned out. In other words, why would a president who won 49 states need to break into the Democratic headquarters as part of a systematic process of infiltrating his opposition? What Perlstein gives us is, I think, is more of the answer than we've gotten before. What we see is that going into the 1972 election, Nixon’s victory was anything but assured. His level of popularity fluctuated. Opposition to the war was growing. So after the 1970 midterms, Nixon’s fear of holding the White House intensified and reached a level of paranoia. It was out of this context that Watergate was spawned.

Finally, as should be no surprise to anyone who has read my postings, I was interested in Perlstein’s discussion of race. I’ve long felt that the period of the civil rights movement that has been understudied is the time when the movement came north. As Martin Luther King concluded that issues of race and poverty couldn’t be disentangled, not only did answers and solutions become much more elusive, but the collision of the movement with the entrenched segregation of blacks in northern cities became inevitable and tragic. Thus, we have large scale riots in dozens of northern cities (Newark, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland) and we are able to see how the reaction and backlash among many whites played out. So, in places like Cicero, Illinois, we see the large story that runs throughout “Nixonland” played out on a small scale. It was here that I found myself less certain about the culpability of those on the left for the backlash that emerged on the right. While its easier to question the tactics of those opposing the war, I find myself unable to say that confronting the poverty, segregation, and discrimination that existed in these cities head on was ill adivsed. It is perhaps because of the intractability of these issues that race continues to be the one cleavage described in "Nixonland" that endures stronger than the others to this day.

Updates to follow…

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