Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

On Labor Day weekend, I finished reading the book by Rick Perlstein called Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.    I had been listening to an Audiobook version of the book during the summer and completed the last CD during the weekend–I decided to do a blog post today based on my impressions of the book.

1.   My Childhood through the Looking Glass of History

For someone who grew up in the 1960s, it was interesting to hear a history of the times one lived through in the hazy, distant memory of childhood.    The Cuban missile crisis, the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the 1968 Democratic Convention, the various cultural movements (the “women’s lib” movement, the gay rights movement), the beginning of the ecology movement, Nixon’s visit to China and the opening of US-China relations, the beginning of negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union (SALT I), the Six-Day War in 1967 war between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and the NASA’s Apollo Program, culminating in the visits by 12 American astronauts to the surface of the moon starting with Neil Armstrong in 1969, were all formative events of the 1960s that I remember reading about in the newspapers.     My father was a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and he bequeathed to me his interest in world events and in history.

Now being able to see those events with the 20-20 hindsight that history affords, I can see that there are links between those times and the world we live in.    Nixonland is a book that really brought this truth home to me.    In 7th grade, our social studies teacher Mr. Siegel did an experimental summer camp on the subject of history where over a series of 6 weeks, he took the events of the Vietnam war and went back in increments of 5 years to show how we got into the situation we were in.    Since we were in 1970, this involved explaining how the war in 1965 had been ramped up by President Johnson after the Gulf of Tolkin had given him the ostensible reason for getting the military involved openly and not just in an “advisory capacity.”   Then we went back to 1960, where were introduced to the political players in North and South Vietnam,  Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, respectively.    Back to 1955, we learned the French had been booted out the previous year, and that there was a battle to create an “independent” South Vietnam at the Battle of Saigon, where Ngo Dinh Diem ended up taking control.    On and on we went back to World War II, where the liberation from the Japanese led many Vietnamese to believe that they were going to be a free country, only to find out that the victorious Allies had “rewarded” their country to France as part of French Indochina.   By playing the tape of history backwards, we gained an understanding of the conflict that few 7th graders (or indeed few Americans at that time) were afforded.    Mr. Siegel even had a “pro-war” and “anti-war” debate between two veterans, one from World War II and one from the Vietnam War.    

He insisted we hear both sides of the debate, and although I remember siding with the Vietnam veteran in the debate, and, although I suspected Mr. Siegel sympathized with the anti-war side of the debate (he refused to give his opinion on the war openly), I was impressed with two things:   first, the respect that Mr. Siegel showed the other side of the debate, and second, the fact that wanted to arm us not with weapons of war, but with weapons of knowledge so that we would at least be making an informed decision when it came time for us to vote (which for us was 5 years in the future).

His enlightened approach to the teaching of history has stuck with me for the rest of my life.    History is not about the past; hell, it’s not even past.    We’re living with the results …

2.   The Fracturing of America

Rick Perlstein’s book was like taking the present red state-blue state divide and playing the tape of history backwards to see where a lot of the “fracturing” started.   His thesis is that Richard Nixon was at the forefront of the manipulation of social and political forces between 1965 and 1972 which reshaped the political landscape from a liberal-leaning consensus at the time of the Kennedy assassination (culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), into two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.     The two main forces that led impetus to this “counter-revolution” against this liberal consensus were a) the backlash against the gains made by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and b) the backlash against the anti-war movement.    Nixon him able to make political headway out of these two forces because of his ability to tap into the resentments of various constituencies that felt that their concerns were being marginalized by the civil rights and/or the anti-war movement.    How was he able to tap into these populist pressures?    Because he shared them.    He styled himself as an “Orthogonian”, one of the names of the social clubs at Whittier College that was composed of the social strivers, as opposed to the privileged elite, the so-called “Franklins”.    Growing up poor gave him an empathy with the common man which he never forgot, and which he used to great effect throughout his political career.

The fracturing of America went along two lines as mentioned above, with Nixon shepherding the exit of the southern Dixiecrats who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Republican Party, and the bolstering of the cultural backlash against the anti-war movement and the progressive social movements of women’s lib, gay liberation, etc.    You can see those movements playing out in the Republican Party of today.    However, the gerrymandering of various states’ election districts has made a kind of right-ratcheting effect so that there is more pressure for the Republican Party to move to the right (due to fear of primary challenges from the far right) than there is to move to the left (due to challenges against the Democratic party in the general election).    So what we see today is a Republican party that, while it would welcome Nixon’s views in the area of race and culture, would be so far to the right that it would see him as a liberal president.

3.   The Last Liberal President

Let’s take the five areas of the Global Risk report of 2013 as produced by the World Economic Forum:    economic, environmental, geopolitical, social, and technological.     In the “social” arena, as mentioned above, his support of those forces that opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the various social progressive movements engendered by the energy behind the anti-war movement, would have put him firmly in the Republican camp of today.

Let’s look at the other 4 areas, however.    In the economic arena, he was certainly not a “free market fundamentalist” like Reagan or Thatcher; in fact, he was willing to use wage & price controls to slow the growth of inflation, which was anathema to Milton Friedman at the time.    He would have been judged a liberal in the economic arena by today’s standards.    Also, the budgets of his administration had domestic spending exceeding military spending for the first time since World War II.   Liberal again!

In the environmental arena, Richard Nixon championed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and subsequent regulatory efforts by that agency to reduce pollution, despite the protests from various manufacturers.   Liberal again!

In geopolitical terms, yes, he was a military hawk on Vietnam in order to get the U.S. to the point where it could end the war on favorable political terms.   However, rather than exacerbating the US-Soviet tensions to drum up support for military expenditures, he actually started creating the groundwork for a detente between the two powers, a temporary lessening of tension, that culminated in the signing of the anti-ballistic missile treaty SALT I.    And there a reason why, in Star Trek VI, the character of Spock is heard to say, “On Vulcan, we have a saying:  only Nixon can go to China.”   He was pragmatic and not as ideologically driven as later Republican Presidents such as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and was therefore able to create an opportunity that I think no Democrat before him and certainly no Republican after him would have been able to accomplish.    Here he would have been considered a liberal by today’s Republican standards for “appeasing” our Communist rivals.

In the technological arena, he insisted on dismantling the American Space Program after the Apollo Program completed in the early 1970s.    The original plan by NASA was to have a permanent Moon base by the 1970s, and to start a mission to Mars in the 1980s.    That was the future that never was …   Here, I think he would have been more at home with the Republicans of today, who are if not anti-technology, certainly anti-science in some of their pronouncements.

Therefore, in 3 out of the 5 areas I have mentioned, economic, environmental, and geopolitical, Nixon would have been considered a Liberal president by today’s Republican party.    Nonetheless, the social arena is the one area where the beginnings of the fracturing of America are the most apparent, and for that reason, I agree with Rick Perlstein that, in terms of politics, we still live in Nixonland.    However, the current political situation with the far right Tea Party is such that it is increasing that fracturing, not decreasing it.

I sometimes wonder what it would take to create any consensus in this country, liberal or otherwise.    I honestly don’t know… as the blogger Driftglass who podcasts at The Professional Left once said:   human beings are the prisoners of our imaginations.  We grieve for the future we can imagine but not touch, or for golden ages that are no more–and never were.


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