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From Nixonland to Obamanation

The most disturbing thing about reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is how little has changed. Even the names of the players themselves–some are still around, like Charlie Rangel, Donald Rumsfeld, Pat Buchanan, G. Gordon Liddy, and Jerry Brown. Others, like George Romney, George H.W. Bush and Birch Bayh, bequeathed us their progeny. A few more recently passed away but leave long shadows over the Senate—Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond.

If Nixonland is to teach us anything, we have to stop focusing on the names and look at the style, the techniques, the recurrent themes and tropes in U.S. political discourse that never quite go away even when the (white) talking heads on national TV pretend to be shocked, shocked that racism still exists. It doesn’t matter whether it’s George Wallace or Sarah Palin, whether the question is busing or health care reform, whether the war is Iraq or Vietnam and the spillover is into Pakistan and Iran or Laos and Cambodia. We don’t need McCarthy to have McCarthyism—Perlstein even points out that Nixon did McCarthy first. But as was the luck of Richard Nixon, someone else got the glory and the verbing of his name.

The grand myth of Nixon is that he was a conservative ideologue that everyone hated. The truth is far more complicated. My parents, committed Fox News-and-National-Review Republicans now, won’t admit to voting for Nixon. No one likes to. But it’s not because of his politics, certainly not his domestic policies. He got caught breaking the law for his own political gain. Meanwhile, Bush and Cheney repeatedly broke the law and called it a matter of keeping the country safe, and they still get to defend themselves.

But Nixon’s goal, according to Perlstein, was simply to become president and stay president. To that end he would bend any way that worked for him. He just happened to come up with a strategy that worked not only for him, but later for far more ideologically-minded candidates—Reagan, Bush.

Perlstein wrote:

“When the people who felt like losers united around their shared psychological sense of grievance, their enemies felt somehow more overwhelming, not less…Martyrs who were not really martyrs, oppressors who were not really oppressors: a class politics for the white middle class.” -pg 23

Nixon politics: splitting the class resentment and aiming some of it below as well. People feel squeezed from both sides, as if those below and those above have teamed up in some sort of twisted version of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, clawing away everything that people’s families struggled for. This is the world of the “middle class” in Nixonland, where the rich and the poor were equally cooler-than-thou and you had to fight them both off.

Now we have a president who would very much like to heal the scars of Nixonland, to bring its two sides back together. He ran on that promise, and even while the Republicans refuse to support any of his policies, they bash him over it. But because of his very body, Barack Obama is not allowed to heal those wounds. The first black president is the focal point for all that rage and blame stoked and fomented over and over again, from Nixon to Reagan to George W. Bush to the current tea party movement.

Perlstein implies that race and the resentment of cultural elites brought Nixon to the fore much more than any confusion over Vietnam, and that the split in the Democratic party over the war (and race—George Wallace ran in ’72 in Democratic primaries—and polled near 20% across the country, not just in the South) allowed Nixon to stay in power. As we saw in 2004, John Kerry’s switch to opposing the war wasn’t enough to put him in the White House, and it took the economy’s nosedive to sweep in Barack Obama. If the economy doesn’t get better soon for average people, it will sweep him back out again.

Nixon, with his neverending political calculus, knew enough to know that. Perlstein noted:

“Conservative talk about silent majorities was one thing. He wasn’t about to become a fiscal conservative—not in an election year.” -469

And yet now everyone wants to be a fiscal conservative, and fiscal conservatism is the new cover for racism. Social spending has been tarred since the sixties as something that benefits only people of color, branded as lazy, as taking something away from the white people who worked for it. As Perlstein notes, the New Deal generation had become safely middle-class, and their children (and children’s children, now) are focused on keeping that wealth rather than getting more. And to keep it, the Nixonites remind in stealth whispers, you have to keep that underclass from rising and taking it away just as much as you have to keep those Wall Street types from grabbing it from above.

And so we get a country where health care reform passed in the House while outside thousands of people marched for immigration reform. To get to the Capitol building, certain congressmen ran a gauntlet of angry tea party protesters spitting and hurling epithets—n***er, f***ot. Windows have been shattered in offices across the country and members of Congress get death threats.

The tea partiers have their rage at least in part focused on the right people—Wall Street is a key point of anger; it’s just that Obama has become more associated with the Wall Street bailouts than the party that really orchestrated them. In the person of Obama, cultural elitism and scary black men converge and provide the ultimate object of anger for the remnants of Nixonism, for that longstanding streak in U.S. politics that feels both insecure and convinced of the perfection of their country. The one that is sure that if it wasn’t for all those Others coming in to take what’s theirs, if it wasn’t for Government handing it off to people who don’t deserve it, America would be doing just fine, thanks.

There’s an element of absurdity in this, like in the signs that people love to mock—“Keep the Government out of my Medicare!”—but that mockery just stokes the flames of resentment higher. It draws those lines stronger. We ARE laughing at them—again, they’re right about it. It’s not helping.

Of course, certain things are very different now than in the 60s. The kids were fighting to some degree against schools back then, aiming antiwar protests squarely at universities’ government contracts. Now the kids protesting on university campuses are fighting for the right to be educated without massive debt. It brings together the split that Perlstein noted on 60s campuses—kids called conservatives back then were simply trying to get the education their parents aspired to. Now those values themselves have been radicalized.

As for the desire to calm down and quiet the burning of the social movements, could that backfire on the tea party movement? In the 60s it was the left in the streets. Now progressive protests—which certainly still exist, witness the 200,000-strong immigration march—are largely ignored by the media, while the tea parties are everywhere. Could the new Silent Majority be a population that realizes that hey, that health care reform stuff is sort of all right, and what are those people screaming about, anyway?

That would be nice, but how do we keep things from growing ever more bloody and polarized? Giving in is not an option. To give in on immigration reform would mean ever more violence and intimidation of families. To give in on health care already has tossed immigrants and reproductive choice under the bus.

Giving in is endorsing a status quo that has already been broken by years and years of antigovernment rhetoric made possible by the failures of government in the 60s. Richard Nixon’s personal foibles made the arguments of Ronald Reagan even stronger. In FDR’s time people thought government could be wrong but rarely thought it was acting in bad faith. Now we—even those of us who believe in government solutions—find it impossible to imagine good faith.

The only options left are proving good faith over again. Not by caving in on core issues in the name of some bipartisanship that no one really cares about, but by sticking to issues. Mock those in power, sure, but reach out to those without power. People are joining tea parties because they don’t see any other options just as often as they are joining out of rage at a black president. There’s another story to tell beyond mocking confusion and fact-checking Glenn Beck, and it’s our story.

We have come far from Nixonland—could the U.S. of 1968 have ever elected Barack Obama president? But we’ve also seen things get drastically worse. Our goal should be to make things better for everyone who is struggling, and to do that we’re going to have to get beyond polarization.


Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.