Nixon and the Conservative Ascendancy

With the completion of his forthcoming Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick Perlstein (personal | blog) has really outdone himself. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus was a mere 671 pages long. Nixonland will be in tomb-territory at just short of 900 and it sounds like it is approaching a grand theory of contemporary American politics level of analysis.

Not being a member of the advanced copy, galley proof gravy train, I am relying on Ross Douthat’s very interesting review in the current Atlantic (“E Pluribus Nixon,” vol. 301, no. 4, May 2008, pp.83-86). He has a lot to say but his last few column inches sum up are the chewiest morsels:

And yet one doesn’t have to excuse Nixon’s many sins to wonder whether his mix of ruthlessness, self-interest and low cunning might have been preferable to some of the alternatives on offer. … It was a political moment when the old order could no longer govern, and the new order wasn’t ready. The kids who screamed for Goldwater and McGovern would grow up to be responsible Reaganites and Clintonians, but back then they had only idealism, not experience, and Nixonland is an 800-page testament to the dangers of idealism run amok.

In this climate, the voters didn’t choose Nixon over some neoconservative or neoliberal FDR; no such figure was available. They chose Nixon over an exhausted establishment on the one hand — nobody seems more hapless in Nixonland that figures like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller — and the fantasy politics of left and right on the other. They chose Nixon over the abyss.

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. A cynic in an age of zeal, a politician without principle at a moment that valued ideological purity above all, he was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny-ante; and his spirit too cowardly, too self-interested, too venal to make him truly dangerous. And he was a bridge, thank God, to better times. Could America have done better? Perhaps. But on the evidence of Nixonland, we could have done far worse as well.

In a certain sense I imagine this as of a piece with Sean Wilentz’s also forthcoming The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, which incidentally picks up where Mr. Perlstein’s story leaves off. Both books seem important analyses of the most outstanding fact of the present political era: the ascendancy of the right. But are there really any structural forces at play here? Nixon’s victory owes as much to contingency as to any deep forces of the American psyche. Consider how differently events could have played out had Sirhan Sirhan’s aim been a little off. Nixon would have disappeared into history as merely a McCarthyite coat-tail rider, Vice President and two-time Republican also-ran. Reagan killed Carter in the electoral college, but he only won 50.7 percent of the popular vote. If Paul Volcker had been less bold as Federal Reserve Chairman and the Sea Stallion been a more reliable helicopter, perhaps Carter would have been a two-term president.

This passage may be too sweeping to be a useful analysis. Perhaps I post it more for reason of appreciating its tone than its incisiveness. Ringing speeches by American politicians aside, I think that often the best thing about modern liberalism is that it minimizes the damage of human perfidy rather than serving as a forum for the realization of “our potential.” And that is about the best for which we can practically hope.

My inclination is to lump those who see Nixon and his coconspirators as a catastrophe as the other side of the same coin with the fascist sympathizers of the 1930s a lá Carl Schmitt and that strain of neoconservatism that persists today — the Straussian strain — who worry that democracy isn’t a system of governance up to the challenges or that it will fare poorly in the competition of international politics against stronger state types. The robustness and fault-tolerance of liberalism is consistently underestimated. A couple of teapot totalitarians, domestic or international, will hardly spell the end for our way of life. As a political-philosophical conservative and a liberal, I don’t have exalted hopes for democracy, but neither do I see it as really imperiled by either its mediocrity or its excesses.

But then I think again and wonder if I have castigated too quickly, and it is confidence, not fret that is misplaced. A wayward politician every few election cycles is one thing, but an assault sustained over a prolonged period may be something else. The thing that makes U.S. liberalism robust is that politics is founded in the fundamental life of the people and in the United States there is a long tradition — stretching back to our British cultural antecedents — amenable to such a system of government. But such characteristics aren’t our only ones. A militarism, paranoia, religious absolutism and that old saw whose penetrating insight has been dulled from having become a cliché, the sense of manifest destiny are as much a part of the American character as the democratic ideal and each can serve as a basis for an attack on the latter. Under the relentless pressures of the military-industrial complex and its attendant right-wing tendencies, has the U.S. character has started to distort? Perhaps the democratic ideal was something that could only flourish under the conditions of splendid isolation (the name for the British version of the same; out name, “divine providence,” obscures the geopolitical reality in a haze of latter-day theology). I believe that the remove of the United States from the corrupting necessities of realpolitik was a part of the original formulation of the notion of “the city on the hill.” Could it be that the democratic ideal is simply not something that can survive into the age of the ICBM and jet aircraft? In this sense, perhaps what makes Nixon unique is his excessive focus on foreign policy, to such a detriment to domestic issues, that his domestic program became but a withered appendage to foreign policy ends, hardly the place to invest precious principles.