Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
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During the 1956 campaign Adlai Stevenson turned to a fellow egghead, John Kenneth Galbraith, to write the candidate’s speeches against Nixon because the Harvard economist had, in Stevenson’s estimation, “no tendency to be fair.” Galbraith confirmed Stevenson’s judgment when he penned the scurrilous attack that is the text for Perlstein’s flawed history of the Nixon era: “Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.”
Perlstein embellishes Galbraith to establish “a more inclusive definition of Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.… Nixonland is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years.”
PERLSTEIN HAS THREE BIG IDEAS that constitute the framework for his narrative, all of which are wrong. The first of these big ideas Perlstein introduces in his Preface: “the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos… eight years later pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
Voters pulled the Democratic lever in 1964 for two reasons: first, President Johnson had come to office under traumatic circumstances, had performed satisfactorily, and had given voters no compelling reason to throw him out; second, Barry Goldwater, with the help of the Democratic attack machine, had been caricatured as a radical, a threat to stability and good order. There was in 1964 no fear of anything as grandiose as civilizational chaos; there was fear of defoliating the daisies. By the time voters went to the polls in 1972, any fear of civilizational chaos had long since been overcome.
The Vietnam War was ending, peace had been restored on the campuses, the streets were clear of demonstrators, all was quiet in America’s cities, and the economy gave the appearance of being on the mend. For some, a vote for Nixon was a vote of thanks for a job well done; for many, it was a vote against the perceived radicalism of George McGovern and the threat he represented to stability in our international relations. In 1964 Barry Goldwater was the gamble; in 1972 it was George McGovern. In both elections, the electorate chose to play it safe.
The second big wrong idea is that Nixon’s politics were “rooted in the anger and resentments at the center of his character.”
Building on earlier work in the area of class-based resentments by such eminent scholars as Anthony Summers and Chris Matthews, Perlstein divides the American electorate into two classes: the resentful and the resented. The resentful (Nixon was, Perlstein asserts, a “serial collector of resentments”) he tags as “Orthogonians,” the name of the fraternity of strivers Nixon headed at Whittier College, while the resented (of whom Adlai Stevenson is the classic exemplar) are the “Franklins”—Whittier’s fraternity of choice for the swells. According to the Perlstein model, to understand correctly the political history of the United States since 1946, all one has to do is distinguish the Ortho gonians from the Franklins.
An artfully selected trope may be conducive to understanding, but in the heavy hands of an author in a hurry it is more likely to become, as here, a cudgel with which to bludgeon the reader. Relentlessly deployed, “Franklin” and “Orthogonian” are trap doors through which the author conveniently disposes of men and ideas he is unwilling to confront on their own terms.
Leftists have a disposition to believe that conservatives could not conceivably believe what they say they believe if they were not impaired by some mental disorder such as “status anxiety” or old-fashioned paranoia. Perlstein trots down the path pioneered by Richard Hofstadter and dismisses Nixon and his supporters as just one Prozac pill short of lunacy.
Nixon’s political success was in large measure a result of his ability to identify with and position himself as spokesman for the middle class. Early on he recognized (and took personally) the escalating arrogance of the liberal establishment and its disassociation from the values of working people. His populism was rooted in his experience, personal and political, and his politics were a strange mix of visceral reaction to events and calculated action to influence events. Nixon succeeded in establishing the necessary preconditions for an electoral realignment as a consequence of his sensitivity to the cultural concerns of the middle and working classes, but he failed to maximize the political opportunities thus afforded by aligning his domestic policies with the political imperatives of those concerns. Deep character flaws ultimately overwhelmed his shrewd political judgment, but not before he prepared the ground for the subsequent Reagan Revolution.
Perlstein, however, doesn’t see in Nixonian politics anything sophisticated, complex, or tragic. For him it was all starkly simple: Nixon “saw that Alger Hiss was a pitch-perfect Franklin [and] everything followed from that.” According to Perlstein, Nixon’s politics were “a class politics for the white middle class” that reflected “his gift for looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath.” He succeeded because he understood that elections “were won by focusing people’s resentments.”
With this level of understanding of Richard Nixon and politics in America, it is no wonder that the heirs of Adlai Stevenson have been wandering in the wilderness for half a century.
THE THIRD OF Perlstein’s big ideas is that Richard Nixon won the 1968 election “by using [author’s emphasis] the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s.” His election set the stage for “a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light,” which resulted in a nation in which “two loosely defined congeries of Americans,” each of which was “convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end,” and this battle continues today with Americans hating each other “enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements.”
The decade of the 1960s was the most turbulent in America since that which began with John Brown’s Kansas raids and ended at Appomattox Courthouse. There was a lot of anger, a lot of goofiness, and an indecent amount of violence. It commenced on Lyndon Johnson’s watch, during the high tide of liberalism. Richard Nixon didn’t cause it; he inherited it. The deranged landscape of the 1960s was the product of a liberalism untethered from common sense and good judgment, which elicited a reaction that was often ill considered and ill advised but was hardly homicidal. There were, of course, extremists who resorted to violence and haters who, while less lethal, were nonetheless menacing, but these were outriders, not mainstreamers. The very notion that the mass of Americans were prepared to kill each other over their political and cultural differences is more than nonsense: it is a calumny.
Perlstein claims that Nixon “exploited” the angers, anxieties, and resentments that arose out of the Johnsonian chaos. What Perlstein means is that Nixon sided with those who were fed up with a failed liberalism. Nixon did what politicians do in contested elections: he sought to put together a majority coalition, and he did so by staking out the ground in the center yielded by the Democrats under pressure from the intellectuals. Perlstein seems to think it was the obligation of the Republican presidential candidate in 1968 to embrace ambivalence and cacophony, to minimize polarization, and, of course, to lose the election. Is this what Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Harry Truman would have done? No one who has carefully studied their campaigns could conceivably think so. Each of them was every bit as “polarizing” as Richard Nixon is said to have been.
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