Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is a terrific book. It’s a fascinating history of American society and politics from 1965 to 1972, woven together in a compelling and exceptionally well-written narrative. I had such a hard time putting the book down it nearly spoiled my recent family vacation.
Nixonland aims at more than a historical recounting. Perlstein suggests that during these years Americans increasingly divided into two political groups, and these groups’ opposition to one another grew more intense and passionate. Here’s how he puts it on the book’s penultimate page (p. 747): “I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.”
It’s difficult to read the book and not be at least somewhat convinced. The 1960s brought enhanced government support for economic security and opportunity via Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, civil rights legislation that opened economic and social doors for racial minorities and women, and massive cultural liberalization among young Americans. Yet it also brought a backlash. Hence the remarkable contrast between the 1964 and 1972 presidential elections — two of the most lopsided in American history, the former yielding an activist-government Democratic president, the latter a law-and-order Republican. And stunningly, given the seemingly inexorable liberalization of the mid-to-late 1960s, Republicans have won seven of the ten presidential elections since 1964.
Perlstein is at his best in providing insight into the motivations behind the backlash: the overwhelming sense of chaos, disorder, violence, insecurity, change — urban riots by frustrated African Americans, widespread drug use, disintegration of authority on college campuses and in public spaces, the seeming impotence of the American military in a poor Asian nation, unruly protesters at the Democrats’ 1968 political convention, exploding crime rates, horrific murders in once-calm suburban neighborhoods. The changes were fast, furious, and, to many ordinary Americans, frightening.
It isn’t only the historical facts that persuade. It’s also Perlstein’s telling of them. He steps quickly from one aspect of change to another, digs deeply into a particular event, such as the Newark riots or an antiwar rally, and then jumps abruptly to another and another. The prose is vivid and punchy. Without going overboard, it conveys the feel of growing chaos.
Is Perlstein right about what happened during these years? Did America harden into two warring camps? I think an argument can be made that something very different occurred: the developments of the 1960s coupled with (and accentuated by) Nixon’s political tactics opened up new fissures that left the political landscape not more crystallized, but more clouded. Instead of shifting from (more or less) one America to two, the shift was, arguably, toward a greater multiplicity of political identities that the two political parties had to struggle mightily to try to shape into manageable coalitions.
After the New Deal, economic policy was the chief fault line between Democrats and Republicans. The political legacy of the 1960s is the diminution of one incongruous aspect of American party politics, the Democrats’ dominance in the conservative south, but simultaneously the growing importance of issues that cut across the economic divide:
Race. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Democrats became not only the party representing the economic interests of the lower and middle classes, but the champions of economic opportunity for black Americans — and soon of integration of neighborhoods and schools.
Cultural norms about authority, sex, drugs, appearance, and public behavior
Gender relations in the home and at work
Separation of church and state
Socio-political status. One of Nixon’s chief contributions to altering the fault lines in American politics, according to Perlstein, had to do with social and political status. Nixon always felt himself an outsider. In college he formed a club, the “Orthogonians,” composed of self-perceived commoners, hard-working strivers excluded from the well-bred, elitist, condescending “Franklins.” Beginning with his 1952 “Checkers Speech,” in which he invoked his family’s humble financial circumstances and his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth [as opposed to mink] coat,” Nixon played up the seeming incongruity of rich Ivy-league-educated Democratic politicians claiming to speak and govern on behalf of working- and middle-class Americans.
It’s widely recognized that these issues increasingly fractured the Democratic coalition. But they also, if perhaps less dramatically, created new rifts among Republicans.
This isn’t much explored by Perlstein, in part because the second half of the book, covering the period from 1969 to 1972, focuses heavily on Nixon and Vietnam. In the book’s Preface, Perlstein writes (p. xiii) “The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name — but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.” I think that’s accurate for the first half of the book. But in the second half the story is much more about Nixon himself than about those voters.
Throughout this latter part of the book I wanted to hear less about what Nixon was thinking and what he and Abbie Hoffman and the Weathermen were doing (though that’s plenty interesting) and more about what those voters were thinking. For instance, were they still, in 1970 and 1972, concerned about the urban riots that are front and center in Perlstein’s discussion of 1965 and 1966? His description of post-1968 developments focuses almost entirely on Vietnam and the counterculture, with very occasional and brief mentions of crime and busing. Notwithstanding the book’s considerable virtues, I finished it feeling just as uncertain as before about the political sensibilities of the “switchers” that Perlstein sees as his protagonist.
Were they, by 1972, committed Republicans? Or was their vote for Nixon largely a function of the perceived extremism and stumbling campaign of the Democratic presidential nominee? After all, as Perlstein notes, in the same 1972 election in which McGovern was pummeled, the Democrats lost only twelve seats in the House, maintaining a majority of more than fifty, and gained two in the Senate.
Were there really two Americas in 1972, or had political views and allegiances instead become, like the events of the preceding years, increasingly chaotic and confused?