Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, reviewed by Eric Kroczek

Official White House photo of President Richard Nixon NARA National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

The most remarkable thing about Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is that it was published four and a half years ago, before Barack Obama was elected president, before the Tea Party, before Occupy. Otherwise you might be forgiven for thinking that Perlstein was drawing meaningful parallels between our era and the 1960s and early 1970s of Richard Nixon’s heyday. There’s no way he could have been, of course. But it sure feels that way.

It is easy to forget that our current toxic “red state/blue state” opposition is nothing especially new, even if it has taken on a novel geographical aspect—a “big sort,” as Bill Bishop has it. We neglect to trace our current divide back through the Reagan era, through the Nixon era, to 1965, which is Perlstein’s starting point. The United States has been two oppositional yet intermingled nations for nearly fifty years, and Perlstein sets out to find out where it started and who stood to profit from exploiting that tension.

Nixonland is about Kulturkampf, American-style, and about Richard Nixon’s manipulation of it for political gain. Perlstein’s thesis is that the future president’s worldview was formed at Whittier College, where young Nixon was shut out of the world of the Establishment swells, known there as “Franklins”; Nixon formed his own social club for the lower-class strivers, which he called the Orthogonians. For the rest of his life, Perlstein claims, Nixon saw the world as divided between the Franklins and the Orthogonians. (This is an interesting tack for Perlstein to take, given that he prefaces every psychological insight he borrows from other sources—that is, virtually all of them—with “The psychobiographers might say that…” or something similar; more on that below.) What’s more, he had a gift for sniffing out these socioeconomic oppositions and using them to further his political career. Paradoxically, Nixon positioned himself as the champion of the traditional values of the working class in spite of his membership in the party of business and wealth, and he was the first to bring many blue-collar voters into that party, which so disdained their economic interests. Before there was What’s the Matter with Kansas? there were the Reagan Democrats, and before the Reagan Democrats, there was Nixon’s “Silent Majority.”

How did he do it? The answer is obvious to us, because it’s the political air we now breathe: cultural wedge issues. It wasn’t so obvious at the time. Nixon pioneered the alchemical transmutation of fear of change and class resentment (where class is a cultural category, rather than strictly an economic one) into virtues, a subtle manipulation that Perlstein calls “political jujitsu.” How dare those artists and movie stars, those pinko professors and Establishment liberals, that liberal-biased media sympathize with the Communists we’re fighting in Korea and Cuba and Vietnam, the druggie degenerates who are tearing apart the moral fabric of our great nation and perverting our children, the civil rights activists and Yippie political agitators who want to change our venerable Constitution and overthrow our government? How dare they throw their “tolerance” and “experimentation” in our faces? We just want economic stability and peace and quiet in the streets and the kind of life our parents had, only more prosperous.

And so, after a quick summary of Nixon’s boyhood, education, and early political career—including the all-important “Checkers” broadcast, in which Nixon gave an early virtuoso performance of his uniquely passive-aggressive brand of moral suasion—Perlstein throws us into the Watts riots of 1965, where the era of Great Society peace and prosperity promised by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory (the 1960s equivalent of Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 premature prediction of the “End of History”) immolated itself before a shocked television audience. Nixon took in the violent cultural fault lines created by desegregation and protest against an already unpopular war. He understood that once equal rights became a statutory reality, oppressed blacks would not tolerate anything but the full and immediate fulfillment of that legal promise, which most whites, especially Southern and working-class whites, would not abide. He saw that the traditionally Democratic South was appalled by LBJ’s liberal turn on civil rights and desegregation, and that in the North, traditional Democratic stalwarts such as labor unions and big-city machines felt as though their interests were being ignored in favor of rights and privileges for blacks and the non-working poor. And in all this he saw opportunity—opportunity for a traditional-values based Republican party, led by Richard M. Nixon, to make inroads into perennial Democratic strongholds. Nixon was always a hard worker, and he put all his energy, stamina, cunning, and political influence to work.

Perlstein goes into great detail as he traces the disintegration of the Democratic party—first at the notorious 1968 nominating convention in Chicago and then at the less-infamous, but perhaps even more damaging, 1972 convention in Miami Beach—and the implosion of George McGovern’s presidential run. Perlstein rightly sees McGovern’s campaign as doomed from the start: though his ill-advised choice of Thomas Eagleton as his running mate was the coup de grace, it was the Committee to Re-Elect the President’s sabotage, the internecine skirmishes and philosophical contradictions between rival candidates and factions, and the neutering of the once-powerful bosses, capped off by a three-ring circus of a convention that showcased the party’s divisions and apparent frivolities, that preordained the Democrats’ failure. Simultaneously, he follows the rise, and the beginning of the political demise, of Richard M. Nixon.

Perlstein’s talent (at least here) is not with original research (Nixonland contains little, if any), but with sifting through secondary sources and collocating and analyzing his finds. He arranges his facts to speak for themselves, and his style of analysis is subtle and unobtrusive, interwoven into the narrative so well that the reader sometimes fails to notice that the story has taken a didactic turn. He is also an astute student of politics and a political realist, with a deep respect for the compromise, the coalition, the power play, and even machine politics to a degree (for an excellent short-form example of Perlstein at work, see this recent piece on Barack Obama’s roots in Chicago machine politics). It is here that the lessons he takes from the history of Nixon’s era differ from the usual partisan fare—even when he’s using source material written by partisan observers—and where his analysis of the politics of that time provides unsettling insights into our current situation. He stresses how radicals’ chronic aversion to compromise and coalition-building, and their incorrigible overestimation of the majority’s tolerance for rapid change and novelty, nearly always dooms their efforts to effect reform, and how the top-down reforms they are able to institute so often meet with resistance from the rank-and-file. The radicals’ fetish for open discussion and equal and democratic representation in all decisions, especially in combination with the aversion to compromise and coalition, creates deadlock and endless delay and forecloses any possibility of quick executive decision-making and nimble response—a lesson that the Occupy movement has yet to take to heart. And all too often, there is a Richard Nixon figure, an adept of Realpolitik, to capitalize on the chaos that ensues.

And about Realpolitik: an argument that Perlstein seems implicitly to make is that Nixon’s downfall was at least partly a function of his transformation from a sort of Manichaean figure, the scourge of State Department crypto-Communists and hippies and champion of the “Silent Majority,” to a disciple of Henry Kissinger’s amoral power-worship. His manipulations vis-à-vis the Vietnam war—of facts, of the lives of POWs—and his brute, naked lust to gain a second term as president, his increasing paranoia, his stonewalling of the press, his abandonment of principle in the economic realm as stagflation and competition from Japan and the Common Market created trade imbalances and degraded the value of the dollar, his need to surround himself with venal yes-men who would do literally anything to get a leg up on the president’s “enemies”: these were distortions and exaggerations of Nixon’s character flaws that only grew the more power he amassed. It is an interesting theory, if it can even be called a full-fledged theory, but it smacks of the kind of armchair psychoanalysis that Perlstein claims to disdain.

Nixonland is a big book, a sprawling history, given its seemingly narrow focus of a seven-year period, and its epic scope and accumulative nature have the virtue of presenting the reader with a wealth of trivial information and glimpses—foreshadowings—of things and people that will become important only later. We meet a young Karl Rove, a campus Young Republican who ingratiated himself into the Committee to Re-Elect the President by bringing to the ’72 campaign a bag of political tricks garnered in college elections. We meet a newly-divorced Senator Bob Dole on the prowl, sporting bell-bottoms and a fake tan. We see early abuses of the Political Action Committee in John Connally’s Democrats for Nixon, which produced one of those tasty if vapid statistical coincidences that really make reading history fun: the specious claim, in a TV ad, that George McGovern would make 47% of the population eligible for welfare. But the agglomerative method also has its drawbacks: one finds repetitions of unfortunate words and phrases—near-comical overuses of the phrases “slow, soiling humiliations” and “man bites dog,” and of the words “solons” for legislators and “exuberants” for conservative die-hards come immediately to mind—as well as the sort of minor factual errors that have the effect of calling into question the veracity of more important claims: the film Straw Dogs is not a western; Richard Nixon’s father was born in Ohio, not Indiana; and the chief official of a Nazi political district was a Gauleiter, a German word, not gauletier, a real-sounding but imaginary French one.

On a more macro level, while one shudders at the possibility of seeing scores more instances of “slow, soiling humiliations,” it might have been interesting had Perlstein lent his skills to taking the book all the way through Watergate to Nixon’s actual resignation, rather than leaving off shortly after the 1972 election. But that could well be an entire 900-page book in itself, and Perlstein succeeds admirably in proving his point in the period he allotted himself. What remains to be seen is whether American politics continue to exhibit—as in Nixon, in his pupil Ronald Reagan, and in Reagan’s student George W. Bush—the pattern of ruthless power-seeking by the Right, and rudderless floundering and fissile factionalism within the Left. The human cost of such recurrent dysfunction is higher than ever.

How Did We Get Here? Politics in the Age of the Koch Brothers and #OWS

Here’s a video shot at the University of California-Davis. It shows Lt. John Pike of the UC-Davis police sauntering up to students associated with the Occupy movement and pepper spraying them, before backing slowly away in a heavily armed phalanx while demonstrators and onlookers chant “shame on you”:

I take this moment as emblematic of our current political situation. It is a situation in which about 2/3 of Americans sympathize with the Occupy movement’s call for greater economic equality, but only half that number approve of the protests themselves, and no political party does anything to address the growing inequality. It’s a situation, too, in which administrative leaders at all levels seem happy to tolerate police violence, which the right-wing media, led as ever by Fox News, presents as necessary and even heroic.  The people are angry, but they’re wary of those who demonstrate on behalf of their interests, and the political elites prefer to address the situation with violence rather than reforms. How did we get to this sad state of affairs?

The answer, I think, has to do with changes in the attitudes of our various elites over the past few decades.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when elites from various fields — politics, business, finance, labor, journalism, religion, academe — would gather together and attempt to ameliorate whatever social and economic problems seemed of pressing importance. And they would gather in something like a spirit of enlightened self-interest, if not exactly of disinterest, trying to take a look at problems from a point of view other than that of immediate self-advancement. This, anyway, is what George Packer claims in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Knowing a little bit about the history of social elites and their relation to the notion of disinterest or impartiality, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what Packer says about the various American elites in the postwar era:

…the country’s elites were playing a role that today is almost unrecognizable. They actually saw themselves as custodians of national institutions and interests. The heads of banks, corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, and media companies were neither more nor less venal, meretricious, and greedy than their counterparts today. But they rose to the top in a culture that put a brake on these traits and certainly did not glorify them. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Ford Foundation did not act on behalf of a single, highly privileged point of view — that of the rich. Rather, they rose above the country’s conflicting interests and tried to unite them into an overarching idea of the national interest. Business leaders who had fought the New Deal as vehemently as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now fighting health-care and financial reform later came to accept Social Security and labor unions, did not stand in the way of Medicare, and supported other pieces of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They saw this legislation as contributing to the social peace that ensured a productive economy. In 1964, Johnson created the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to study the effects of these coming changes on the work force. The commission included two labor leaders, two corporate leaders, the civil rights activist Whitney Young, and the sociologist Daniel Bell. Two years later, they came out with their recommendations: a guaranteed annual income and a massive job-training program. This is how elites once behaved: as if they had actual responsibilities.

This establishment really does represent an accommodation of different elites to one another: business and finance came together with leaders of what Chris Hedges has called “the liberal class”: a group consisting of “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic party, the arts, and labor unions” (his book on the fate of these elites, The Death of the Liberal Class, makes chilling reading). Together, the moneyed elite and the liberal class worked out ways of sharing wealth and solving social problems that, however imperfect, kept the fabric of society together. The liberal class could feel it had delivered some justice to the disempowered, and the moneyed interest could rest assured that, with enough soup in every bowl, radicalism had been headed off (indeed, as Hedges notes, one function of the liberal class has been to “discredi[t] radicals within American society who have defied corporate capitalism and continued to speak the language of class warfare.” With the great mass of people placated, radicals discredited, and the position of business and finance secured (at a moderate cost) a social compact was maintained. This is not to be sneered at: the years prior to the war had shown the world (especially Europe) what the failure of social compacts, and the legitimization of certain kinds of radicals, looked like. No one wanted to go back to those days.

The postwar arrangement, Packer notes in passing, didn’t delivery for everyone: if you were African-American, or a woman, you’d probably find those postwar years something less than Edenic. I’d add other groups to Packer’s list, especially gay people, who are only now beginning to gain something like equality and something like a public voice. But for many people, the establishment seemed to deliver a decent life, with relatively secure employment and relative egalitarianism, with inexpensive public universities, and wealth far less polarized than it is today (we’ve gone from a postwar 40:1 CEO-to-worker pay ratio to a ratio of more than 400:1).

(If you are interested in the first modern instance of an amalgamation of different elites and their cultivation of an ethos of relative disinterestedness, you might want to read the bits about Addison, The Spectator, and the class dynamics of eighteenth century England in this post).

In Packer’s view, the old establishment, with its alliance between moneyed and liberal elites, came to an end for two reasons: the “youth rebellion and revolution of the 1960s” and the economic troubles of the 1970s, brought about by “stagflation and the oil shock.” Here, I think, he’s only partially right, and very light on detail. It’s certainly true that the student and New Left movements of the 60s (and, I would add, the 70s) challenged the old establishment. But Packer neglects to say why: it was the draft and the war, certainly, but it was also the coming into the public sphere of all the social groups the old establishment had left out: African-Americans, women, gay people, and others. They rightly questioned the representativeness of the old elites, and they rightly saw that, whatever degree of disinterest informed elite decisions, it masked a preference for whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. The demands of repressed groups for representation, though, led to a backlash, as the established elites, and many of the non-elites benefitting from the old social compact, felt threatened. The moneyed elites that already felt they’d been asked to share a great deal resented being asked to share with even more people (“What! First the G.I. bill and now urban renewal on top of that?!”), and the hard-working white male non-elites sensed that their small privileges were under threat. This, I think, is the nature of the undermining of the old establishment during the 60s and 70s. When the oil shock came along, further undermining confidence in the old compact, it simply presented an opportunity for already existing cracks to widen.

As the fissures in the old compact widened, elites lost faith in the process of working together in relative disinterest for the good of all, and America began to resemble something more like the Hobbesian state of nature, with the war of all against all. Here’s how Packer describes the oil-shock era and the subsequent end of a relatively disinterested establishment:

[The oil shock] eroded Americans’ paychecks and what was left of their confidence in the federal government after Vietnam, Watergate, and the disorder of the 1960s. It also alarmed the country’s business leaders, and they turned their alarm into action. They became convinced that capitalism itself was under attack by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, and they organized themselves into lobbying groups and think tanks that quickly became familiar and powerful players in U.S. politics: the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Their budgets and influence soon rivaled those of the older, consensus-minded groups, such as the Brookings Institution. By the mid-1970s, chief executives had stopped believing that they had an obligation to act as disinterested stewards of the national economy. They became a special interest; the interest they represented was their own. The neoconservative writer Irving Kristol played a key role in focusing executives’ minds on this narrower and more urgent agenda. He told them, “Corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested.”

Among the non-disinterested spending that corporations began to engage in, none was more interested than lobbying. Lobbying has existed since the beginning of the republic, but it was a sleepy, bourbon-and-cigars practice until the mid- to late 1970s. In 1971, there were only 145 businesses represented by registered lobbyists in Washington; by 1982, there were 2,445. In 1974, there were just over 600 registered political action committees, which raised $12.5 million that year; in 1982, there were 3,371, which raised $83 million. In 1974, a total of $77 million was spent on the midterm elections; in 1982, it was $343 million. Not all this lobbying and campaign spending was done by corporations, but they did more and did it better than anyone else. And they got results.

If you remember the Carter administration, you remember what the end of the establishment looked like: bipartisanship came to an standstill in Washington, and it remains stuck in that mode today. And the moneyed elites ceased to see their well-being tied to that of the nation as a whole: their interest was self-interest plain and simple, without the amelioration of any enlightenment. There’s a sad irony to all of this, in that the break-up of the old elites, and the airing out of their smoke-filled rooms, didn’t lead to greater egalitarianism. “Getting rid of elites…” says Packer, “did not necessarily empower ordinary people.” Indeed, when “Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and Walter Wriston of Citicorp stopped sitting together on Commissions to Make the World a Better Place” and began “paying lobbyists to fight for their separate interests in Congress,” says Packer, “the balance of power tilted heavily toward business.” And there it has stayed, as indexes of wealth distribution and worker productivity and tax policy make plainer and plainer every day.

The massive, well-organized deployment of enormous sums of money by the business and (especially) the financial elites have in large measure made American politicians, regardless of party, into the tools of the wealthy elites: Bush cut taxes on the very rich to near-historic lows, and the right-wing Roberts court more or less legalized political bribery in the Citizens United decision, but it was Bill Clinton who began the deregulation of Wall Street that led first to massive profits for the few, then to an terrible crisis for the many, and it was Democrat Chuck Schumer who kept capital gains taxes so low that most hedge fund managers pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. The Koch brothers and those of their ilk don’t consider themselves stewards of national well-being, not really: they consider themselves people who have a right to buy the means to rig the system ever-further in their favor. For them, this is simply their prerogative. Acting on this presumed prerogative has made them very wealthy, but it has also made their whole class less and less legitimate in the eyes of the public, despite the constant drumbeat of political advertisements and the far-from-disinterested vision of events presented on Fox News and other corporate media platforms.

The liberal elites — mainline churches, universities, elements of the media, labor leaders — have been complicit in these sad developments. Unable to ameliorate the naked self-interest of financial and corporate elites, they have clung to their own small privileges while no longer serving a useful role.  They simply do not deliver for the broad population as they used to do, and in failing to do so they have become despised by many in the working and middle classes. As Chris Hedges puts it,

The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as corporate power pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded. The death of the liberal class means there is no check to a corporate apparatus designed to enrich a tiny elite and plunder a nation…. It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.

That’s a difficult pill for many of us to swallow, but it does explain some of the most notable political developments of our time. It explains the urges behind the Tea Party (which saw itself as an outsider movement, at odds with all elites, but was co-opted almost from the start by the moneyed elites). And it explains what’s been happening these past two months in New York, in Oakland, in Chicago, and in towns and cities across the country. The Occupy Wall Street movement can be seen as several things. It can be seen as a desperate move for political expression by those who see the failure of all elites to even try to stop the erosion of the social and economic position of the vast majority of Americans. It can also be seen as an attempt to wrest the old liberal classes away from their complicity with the now-completely-dominant moneyed elites — to revitalize a liberal class on its deathbed. It can also be seen in a less charitable light: I recently saw a nephew of mine and his friends disparage the Occupy movement as “a hipster convention” of people who looked like they were “in line for the latest iPhone.” I think this is wrong, but I see where it comes from: it comes from the correct perception that the old liberal elites (“a hipster convention” signifies this class) have been more concerned with their petty privileges (“the latest iPhone”) than with delivering for the millions of Americans whose relative position has been steadily degrading for decades. I like to hope that the Occupy movement can both give expression to the political needs of the many, and can give the old liberal class the backbone it needs to stand up to the ever-expanding domination of American life by a tiny financial elite.

If we don’t have this hope, what’s left?