From Nixonland to Obamaland

A thorough and absorbing account of how Richard Nixon took advantage of shifting political dynamics in the 1960s sheds new light on that era, and also on American politics today.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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When we think of America in ‘the Sixties’, a certain set of images comes to mind. The counterculture: hippies, drugs, Woodstock. Social upheaval: the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam war protests, feminism, the ‘sexual revolution’. Political assassinations: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy.

Yet one of the apparent paradoxes of the Sixties as an era of radical reform in the US is the fact that the president during most of that period was Richard Nixon, a Republican who expanded the Vietnam War and was dead-set against the counterculture. What we refer to as ‘the Sixties’ actually began around the mid-1960s and ended in the early to mid-1970s. Nixon was first elected in 1968, and then – even more confounding for those who trade in clichéd Sixties images – re-elected by a landslide in 1972.

Historian Rick Perlstein tackles head-on the question of the relationship between Nixon’s ascendancy and the changes occurring in American society in Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Indeed, putting Nixon’s name in the title might be slightly misleading: the book is really a broad review of society and culture as well as politics in this period, and for long episodes Nixon virtually drops out of the picture. Weighing in at a hefty 748 pages, Nixonland is as sprawling, noisy and character-full as was the era itself. While uneven at times, it is a riveting read.

Given the fact that much has already been written about the Sixties, it is to Perlstein’s credit that he provides fresh insights and unearths important but oft-neglected events. He reminds us just how violent the Sixties in America were, marked by riots, assassinations and bombings. But while it may not come as news that America was a brutal country in those days, Perlstein’s graphic account of the police shoot-to-kill squads responding to the Newark riots in 1967 will still blow you away. He also takes advantage of declassified information, such as FBI and CIA reports, and these reveal, among other things, how Cold War paranoia raged on. Nixon sought to find Moscow paymasters behind virtually every high-profile antiwar protester, and after he demanded the FBI pursue John Lennon, the agency reported back: ‘Lennon appears to be radically oriented; however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics.’

Perlstein’s story begins with an account of the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965. Nine months prior, Democrat Lyndon B Johnson had been elected president by an overwhelming margin. That election was meant to mark a strong national consensus behind liberalism. Following his election, Johnson said: ‘These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.’ He later added: ‘We have achieved a unity of interest among our people that is unmatched in the history of freedom.’ But soon enough, the Watts riots – along with bloody scenes from Vietnam and protests at home – were the first signs that the consensus was unravelling.

Perlstein’s innovation is to focus his Sixties narrative on the rise of a conservative backlash, particularly among the white working class. A New York Times headline after Republican Barry Goldwater was defeated by LBJ in 1964 read ‘White Backlash Doesn’t Develop’, but, says Perlstein, ‘backlash was developing’, the pundits just didn’t see it. Perlstein then sketches the rise of a ‘politics of resentment’, which takes off after Watts and other riots in ghettos around the country, and becomes evident in the response to Ronald Reagan’s campaign for Governor of California in 1966. By 1969 this backlash would provide a striking counter-image to the standard Sixties tableau: 200 construction workers and Wall Street stockbrokers ganging up to clobber hippies in lower Manhattan.

A particular focus of concern for this backlash was the rise of the civil rights movement; for example, some argued that the riots showed that blacks were ungrateful for the reforms introduced under Johnson. The traditional liberal story about Sixties partisan politics is that it was all about Republican race-baiting. Racism was a strong component, but as Perlstein shows, there was more to the fearful reaction than simply anti-black sentiment. More and more of the populace over time felt that the country was out of control, threatening their beliefs and traditional way of life. Various issues were increasingly seen as having their roots in one overarching problem – moral decay.

Moreover, Perlstein breaks new ground by highlighting that the backlash was in no small measure a response to the condescension of the liberals. He notes that liberals had ‘developed a distaste’ for the more-prosperous working class: ‘The liberal capitalism that had created this mass middle class created, in its wake, a mass culture of consumption. And the liberals whose New Deal created this mass middle class were more and more turning their attention to critiquing the degraded mass culture of cheap sensation and plastic gadgets and politicians who seemed to cater to this lowest common denominator.’

Perlstein illustrates his argument about liberal arrogance via a discussion of changing views of morality. When a poll in 1969 found that lower-income people had more traditional notions of law obedience and sexual mores, Time magazine – a voice of mainstream liberal opinion at the time – wrote that there was ‘a huge gulf between the old verities and life as it is actually lived by the American people today’. Perlstein calls this interpretation ‘patronising’: it is ‘as if the non-professionals lived in simple denial of social reality. As if their objections were not really moral ones at all.’ Another example is how liberals insisted upon introducing sex education in schools, and dismissed objections as outdated prudery. Perlstein writes: ‘What liberals did not understand was that the hysterical anti-sex-ed crusaders were not without reason… Sex, people were realising once they had suddenly been given the opportunity to give it thought as a public policy issue, was intimate.’

At numerous points in the book Perlstein notes how liberals were blind to the emerging backlash. Nixon, however, noticed: ‘This was something Richard Nixon, with his gift for looking below the 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.’

Perlstein portrays Nixon as the consummate opportunist, shifting as the wind blows. Nixon was not original, but he knew who to rip-off: Reagan, for one, who as governor in California sounded these themes sooner than him. Moreover, Nixon was able to give a new language to trends and use them to his political advantage. Reagan, it is claimed, was the first to use the term ‘liberal elite’, but it was Nixon who in practice turned the tables and wrested the mantle of populism away from the Democrats. Nixon referred to middle America as a neglected mass constituency that did not have a voice. He formulated this idea in various ways before hitting upon the winning one in 1969: ‘So tonight, to you, the great – silent – majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support.’ The ‘silent majority’ were Americans who did not join the counterculture or protest against the Vietnam War, and who were looked down upon by the liberal elite. Nixon’s use of that phrase was a code that said to people that it was acceptable to stand fast against change in society (including black civil rights) and the sophisticates who held them in contempt for doing so. Nixon and Republicans after him would go on to utilise the ‘silent majority’ strategy to great advantage.

Speaking of majorities, Perlstein highlights that indeed there were some surprising ones that received little attention: such as the fact that 58 per cent of Americans blamed the four Kent State University students who were shot in cold blood by the National Guard in 1970 for their own deaths (only 11 per cent blamed the National Guard); or the fact that during the 1972 election race, 57 per cent of those under 30 thought Nixon (who is generally regarded as a shifty figure) was more sincere than his Democratic opponent, George McGovern. Perlstein argues that Nixon won support not despite his anxieties and insecurities, but because of them; he became ‘the cross-bearing embodiment of a Silent Majority’s humiliations’. An attack on him was seen as an attack on them.

In electoral terms, Nixon was able to turn this into a new Republican coalition that combined voters from the south (which was traditionally Democratic, but were moving to the other side in response to Johnson’s civil rights reforms) and the north, including sections of the working class.

In stressing the emergence of a conservative backlash, Perlstein seeks to redress the balance of the discussion about the Sixties, which has mainly focused on the liberal and radical left. He is critical of both the left and the right in this period, and shows how they were locked in a bitter conflict. At the same time, he argues that both needed each other; he concludes that the outcome of a Columbia University protest was: ‘The cops got the confrontation they wanted. The revolutionaries got the confrontation they wanted. Lo, a new crop of revolutionaries, lo, a new crop of vigilantes: Nixonland.’

But in attempting to restore balance, Perlstein goes too far. In his account the left is just a joke, a ‘burlesque’. It is true there were many aspects of radical politics that were silly and juvenile, like the stunts tried by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the other Yippies. But the initial impulses to stand up for civil rights and against American imperialism were idealistic and positive ones. Over time these movements degenerated into the politics of the personal, but Perlstein’s account empties the radical movements of any progressive content, and they end up appearing like cartoon characters.

Perlstein also misses an important point about the disarray of the Sixties: namely, how the crisis of confidence among the ruling elites was at its root (1). While radical youth were mocking establishment values, the elites could not hold the line. Perlstein describes, for example, how inept were the authorities at Cornell University in responding when black students took control of a building. While Nixonland contains other examples of the authorities being unwilling or unable to assert control, Perlstein does not spell out the inability of the elite to defend their values. Similarly, the book rightly acknowledges that the anti-war activists and hippies were always a minority, but Perlstein does not directly challenge the prevalent idea that this minority was to blame for bringing down traditional values.

Perlstein writes that the legacy of Richard Nixon was ‘the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans’. Conservatives versus liberal, silent majority versus cultural elite, red state versus blue state. This culture war is one that Nixon ‘gave us the language for’.

The question today, after last year’s election, is whether this conflict will continue. Perlstein, writing in 2008 but before the election results, says the ‘war’ has ‘ratcheted down considerably’ since the violent Sixties, but ‘still simmers on’. Nixonland ‘has not ended yet’. Certainly some antagonisms persist, but it appears that, at least for now, the liberal side has won and the Nixonland dynamics are not in play. Very few, especially younger people, uphold traditional views, and much of the steam has been taken out of the culture wars. Consequently, as the last election showed, the Nixonian silent majority strategy no longer works for the Republicans (2). But the new political, media and celebrity elite that are in the ascendancy along with Obama hold anti-populist views on a range of issues, including pro-green behaviour, diet and health, and materialism. Perlstein’s history of the Nixon Sixties shows that populist backlashes do happen, catching the elite unaware. But let’s hope that the battles of the future focus on the fundamentals, rather than dead-end culture wars.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein is published by Scribner. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) My 1968, Frank Furedi, 2 May 2008

(2) Obama and the fall of ‘the silent majority’, Frank Furedi, 5 November 2008

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