The strawman here is Perlstein's imagined claim that Nixon was responsible for the political polarization of the late 1960s and after, down to our own time. If this were actually Perlstein's argument, his book would be pure partisan hackery, not to mention boring and unoriginal. Plenty of people have blamed plenty of things on Nixon; nothing new in that.Where Perlstein scores, and scores big, is in accepting that many of Nixon's basic assumptions about politics (at least those not rooted in paranoia) were accurate. There really was a silent majority; there really was a widespread belief among middle-class whites and white ethnics that elite liberalism and civil rights were succeeding on the backs of their own suffering. This sentiment led to class and racial warfare and left white middle-class Americans ready to drop liberal causes in exchange for security and the maintenance of the status quo. It also made them racist, in the way that petit-bourgeois people often become racist in times of economic strain: in a desperate desire to maintain their status above the people and races in the class below them.
Thanks for your post and for linking to mine. It’s been a couple of years since I read Nixonland. I read it on Kindle, and I believe the author actually got the news from me that it had been Kindled. I mention this only because all my underlining is somewhere on Amazon’s server and therefore a little too difficult to get at. So my comments are impressionistic rather than specific, and I apologize in advance if I’ve forgotten something from Rick’s massive and entertaining narrative.
All that being said, I readily concede your basic point. I get that it wasn’t a Nixon biography and that Rick was saying that Nixon was superbly prepared by his upbringing and temperament to understand and exploit the fears and resentments of those you refer to as petit-bourgeois people. I’ll even go so far as to say that a better title would’ve been “Americaland,” seeing as — according to your own analysis — Rick was arguing that Nixon was the incarnation of our country at its worst.
Making Nixon seem like the target was the smarter move, since otherwise it would’ve been obvious that Rick was actually excoriating the tens of millions of fear-motivated, sometimes racist petit-bourgeois people who voted for him. Of course one person’s petit-bourgeois is another person’s indispensable GOP primary voter. That being said, as I recall, Rick showed that Nixon was exceedingly careful about what he said about so-called wedge issues during 1966-68. He eschewed the cheerful demagoguery of Gov. Reagan, for instance.
And then there’s the matter of what he did in office. The southern strategy is one thing, but telling George Shultz to get schools in the deep south desegregated is another. The law and order issue is one thing, but setting up methadone clinics in the big cities is another. I don’t recall that Rick seemed very interested in Nixon’s policy agenda. But his breathtaking foreign policy, and what Nixon library director Tim Naftali recently called his progressive domestic initiatives (from the EPA to national health insurance), would seem to have deserved at least equal mention alongside his political tactics.
If Nixon the politician was a reflection of America at its worst, what might we say about Nixon’s substance? Given that the petit-bourgeois masses gave the author of that relatively progressive agenda an historic landslide re-election victory, don’t both Nixon and all those angry, fearful Americans, thanks to his leadership, look like something far greater than the sum of their resentments?
I don’t say this to minimize Watergate. But as I assume Rick would be among the first to concede, Watergate’s biggest winner was the Goldwater-Reagan right. Did Nixon’s failure make RINOs an endangered species? It appears so, and I think that’s a devastating loss. You write that we need drastic action to solve our problems, whereas I, a committed incrementalist, get the willies just typing the words. I’m with Stephen Ambrose: When we lost Nixon, we lost more than we gained.
My principal beef with Rick’s book, having to do with the Ellsberg break-in, is here.
Thanks again. I tried to leave this at Daily Kos, but it wouldn’t let me sign up!