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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America


[Welcome author, historian, Rick Perlstein, and host, Eric Rauchway, Professor, University California, Davis – bevw]

Greetings, FDL book salon members, and welcome to Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland.  It’s a bleak place, an America broken into pieces, cracked apart by disagreement over war and the method of prosecuting war; over race and racism; over whether you can dissent from official opinion and still count truly as an American citizen.  It’s not at all like the country we live in, thank goodness.  Rick’s written a powerful narrative here about how those cracks appeared in the American landscape, and about who started and widened them, and to what purpose.  It’s a great read, rich in vivid, often chilling illustrations of the era.

Metaphors aside, in the late 1960s, something did break apart in the American political landscape.  That something was the New Deal coalition:  an agglomeration of voters who’d assembled to support Franklin Roosevelt and who stuck with the Democratic Party — with some notable exceptions — until sometime around 1964.  The New Deal coalition included, broadly speaking, working-class white Americans, especially those in unions; black Americans; a substantial portion of the farm vote; immigrant and ethnic Americans, particularly Jews; Catholics; and southern whites.  And you can throw in a few thousand university-educated middle-class liberals if you like.

Just looking at that list, you might well wonder what could possibly hold that coalition together.  Because really, blacks and southern whites?  Farmers and union labor?  Getting those groups together took first of all a Great Depression, which persuaded them they shouldn’t be backing the Republican talk of endless prosperity for all (but later for some than for others) and second of all the political deftness of Franklin Roosevelt and other Democrats who managed to do some small (though real) things for African Americans without alienating southern whites.

That latter trick was the tougher one.  Every time the Democratic Party took a few halting steps in the direction of racial or ethnic minorities, the white South defected from the Democratic national electorate.  It happened in 1928, when the Democrats ran Al Smith, a Catholic; it happened in 1948, when Harry Truman supported civil rights, however tepidly; it happened in 1960, when the Democrats ran John Kennedy, a Catholic who supported civil rights, however tepidly.  And it happened in 1964, when the Democrats ran with Lyndon Johnson at the head of the ticket as the party of civil rights.

Race split apart this coalition.  But it wasn’t the only thing.  Remember I mentioned the necessity of persuading Americans to stop buying the idea of endless prosperity for all (but later for some than for others)?  As the Depression receded in memory, Americans had less and less reason to remember the insupportability of that view.  Particularly, as white southerners grew richer — ironically, in large measure because of New Deal programs to modernize the South — they began to wonder whether they needed the Democratic Party quite so much anymore.  As they had more money, they chafed at the idea the federal government might take it away — especially if the federal government took it away to give to black people.

The Johnson administration did a fair bit to weaken the New Deal coalition as well, sapping faith in liberalism with the crusade to modernize and democratize Vietnam and exhibiting an inability to push beyond voting rights in reckoning with racial inequality in America.

Further, George Wallace running as a frankly racist candidate for President, unelectable but damaging to the Democratic party, helped peel white working-class voters away from the New Deal coalition.

So by 1968 a variety of historical figures had helped set the stage for someone to deliver a crushing blow to the old Roosevelt bloc.  That someone turned out to be Richard Nixon, who didn’t create Nixonland, though he came to rule it.

Nixon and his allies brought all kinds of wedges to split the electorate.  Race, used deftly, was only one of the obvious ones.  There was worry about hippies, drugs, and rock and roll.  There was anger at the liberal elites who’d led us into a mismanaged war.  There were anxieties galore to exploit, and Nixon’s men set out to exploit them quite deliberately, crafting a strategy of “positive polarization” or, as Pat Buchanan put it with famous arithmetic imprecision, “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

One of Nixon’s characteristic ways of splitting the electorate, and one that fit perfectly with his personality, was the division into the unworthy privileged and the hardworking majority or, as Perlstein dubs them in Nixonian code, the suave Franklins and the rough-hewn Orthogonians.  It’s an excellent way of creating a story that resonates deeply with Americans — we don’t like elites of any kind, don’t truck with ’em, never have — and creates ressentiment.

Which is a key point in Perlstein’s book:  every American politician has to put together a majority coalition, and often they do it by demonizing a group that can’t or won’t be in it.  But there’s a case to be made that there’s a peculiar toxicity and dishonesty in encouraging ressentiment of blacks and liberals as if they were an economic elite responsible for the suffering of the white working class.

More, even if we view Nixon’s positive polarization as merely another chapter in a book that includes Roosevelt inveighing against “economic royalists,” we face the question of what Nixon did with the power he’d gained.  Not much of note, it seems, on the domestic front; on the foreign side one could argue that he did eventually end the Vietnam War (though rather later than he should and after further escalation) and seek détente.

Most notably of course, Nixon used his power to cling to power, much too tightly for his own good, which led to his downfall after his landslide reelection in 1972.

Indeed, Perlstein brackets the book between two ill-starred land-slide winners:  Johnson in 1964 and Nixon in 1972.  What did it say about Nixonland that its two great rulers undid themselves so speedily?  Was the fragmented country fundamentally ungovernable, or just ungovernable given the world situation at the time?  Do we yet live in Nixonland, or have we at last moved on to another country?  I look forward to Rick taking us through these and other exciting issues.

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Eric Rauchway

Eric Rauchway