Former Nixon aide, now nice and thoughtful guy (yes, true story), John Taylor has a new blog post about Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland (2008). (H/t Maarja Krusten for the link.) In his post, Taylor takes issue with Perlstein's portrayal of Nixon. Taylor writes:
In Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein argued that Richard Nixon's class resentments inspired him to bait the privileged elites he hated (plus win a whole bunch of elections) using wedge issues such as anti-communism, race, and law and order, igniting the hyper-partisanship that roil our politics today.
That was and remains hard for Nixonites to swallow, since today's mainstream conservatives are far to Nixon's right.
I haven't presented much of Taylor's argument here, because my disagreement isn't with his argument, but with his portrayal of Nixonland. I think a lot of readers of the book have missed its point, and constructed a strawman Nixonland to agree with or to attack.
I feel bad about picking on Taylor here, since his description of Nixonland is more nuanced than most, and because, as a Nixon guy, he has a valid reason to focus on the book's portrayal of Richard Nixon to the exclusion of everything else (and admittedly, the book's portrayal of Nixon is not flattering). Here's a far worse example by George Will:
In Perlstein’s mental universe, Nixon is a bit like God — not, Lord knows, because of Nixon’s perfect goodness and infinite mercy, but because Nixon is the explanation for everything. Or at least for the rise of the right and the decline of almost everything else.
And here's another one, by Ross Douthat:
Perlstein sometimes seems to suggest that Nixon was the abyss, and that by choosing him we vanished into it. But this misunderstands contemporary America, and it misunderstands Dick Nixon.
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. (See Philip Nord, The Politics of Resentment: Shopkeeper Protest in Nineteenth-Century Paris, as a comparison.)
Certainly Perlstein's Nixon was a canny operator in this world, all the more because his own life experiences led him to feel like an outsider kicked and beaten by upper-class liberals and lower-class minorities alike. But Nixon is more important as a symbol of this sentiment than as an instigator of it. Remember that the book is called Nixonland, not Nixon. As Perlstein acknowledges, the most iconic display of silent-majority sentiment was the 1970 Hard Hat Riot, which had nothing to do with Nixon. Nixon was Johnny-on-the-spot for this white middle-class resentment, but a judicious reading of Nixonland cannot lead to the conclusion that he was anything more.
Part of what Perlstein is arguing against, and I wish he'd done it even more explicitly than he does, is what I'll call the "Nixon myth": the notion that Nixon is responsible for the entire cultural formation that was, and is, the silent majority. Nixon's his enthusiastic participation in that cultural formation, plus his Watergate crimes, make him a convenient scapegoat, one that absolves us from everything we Americans did to bring about the dissatisfying world we live in today. The redlining of neighborhoods to preserve racial segregation, the forcible failure of school busing, the systematic dismantling of the welfare state over the past thirty years -- none of these is our fault, because Nixon lied and obstructed justice. The Nixon myth allows us to externalize all our own prejudices onto Nixon, while naively imagining that we, unlike Tricky Dick, are pure as the driven snow when it comes to racial and class prejudices. Ironically, Perlstein's critics misread his book as committing the very fallacy he is criticizing; they have him say that "Nixon is the explanation for everything" rather than that Nixon was merely the reflection of white middle-class America, with a little added paranoia thrown in. And yes, I can see how that seems to Taylor as if Nixon's class resentments are being blamed for everything liberals don't like about modern America, but that's not Perlstein's fault, because it's not his position.
Perlstein's greatest insight is that in Nixonland, we are all Nixon, and when we condemn him, we condemn ourselves. The strawman only perpetuates the Nixon myth; as Perlstein recognizes, Nixon didn't create Nixonland; we did. Similarly, saying that Perlstein's Nixon "is no more than a caricature," as Dominic Sandbrook does, misses the mark. Of course Perlstein's Nixon is a caricature -- that's the whole point of the book. Nixon, a complicated man, has been reduced in our collective imagination to the part of our national character he reflected in the 1960s and 1970s; we then try to exorcise our own demons by claiming it was all Nixon's fault, because he broke the law. Perlstein knows better, and after reading his book, so should we.
(Cross-posted at The Crolian Progressive.)
[Update] Here's John Taylor's response, from the comment thread at The Crolian Progressive:
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!