23 September 2008

The Economist: Nixonian Politics (UPDATED)

"effete corps of impudent snobs"
- Spiro Agnew describing the media

The Nixon article in the Economist makes for an interesting read, but I disagree with pretty much all of the author's conclusions. William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan had far more to do with the development of modern conservatism than Richard Nixon. Those two essentially did the ideological heavy lifting for President Nixon.

I can't help but think that this author wants to taint impressions of conservatism by tying it--according to him, inextricably--with Richard Nixon. One can't mention his name and not raise the specter of Watergate.

Thus, this author would have you think: conservatism-->Richard Nixon-->Watergate.

Nixon is the Republican president Democrats love and love to hate. He was far less conservative than Republicans who preceded him (Eisenhower) and followed him (ignore Ford, Reagan, Bush, etc.). He employed all sorts of anti-market controls and expanded government in numerous ways.

Of particular interest is the author's observation on Nixon's use of populism:
Nixon’s great contribution to Republican politics was to master the politics of cultural resentment. Before him, populism belonged as much to the left as the right. William Jennings Bryan railed against the eastern elites who wanted to crucify common folk on a “cross of gold”. Franklin Roosevelt dismissed Republicans as “economic royalists”. Nixon’s genius was to discover that the politics of culture could trump the politics of economics—and that populism could become a tool of the right.

Nixon understood in his marrow how middle-class Americans felt about the country’s self-satisfied elites. The “silent majority” had been disoriented, throughout the 1960s, by the collapse of traditional moral values. And they had boiled with righteous anger at the liberal elites who extended infinite indulgence to bomb-throwing radicals while dismissing conservative views as evidence of racism and sexism. Nixon recognised that the Republicans stood to gain from “positive polarisation”: dividing the electorate over values. He also recognised that the media, which had always made a great pretence of objectivity while embracing a liberal social agenda, could be turned into a Republican weapon. He encouraged Spiro Agnew, his vice-president, to declare war on the “effete corps of impudent snobs” in the media, with their Ivy League educations and Georgetown social values.

If Nixon left a legacy of populism, he left it for both sides of the political aisle. Any honest, clear eyed look at the politics of Barack Obama* and John McCain would find that they both appeal to populist tendencies equally. Their response to the current crisis is instructive and illustrative of this point.

UPDATE 3:01pm MDT: RD, Pendulum Politics contributor, responds:
I must agree with your conclusions about the Economist's Nixon article. Nixon was anything but a straight-ticket Republican. Not only did he do the things you discuss, like price controls, but he very seriously considered and worked towards forming a third, centrist party for his re-election in '72. Obviously it didn't happen, but this is just another demonstration of the contempt Nixon often had for his own party. And, he greatly angered the GOP establishment (including especially Reagan and Buckley, who protested very vocally) when he went to China and Russia (though I hope the GOP has forgiven him by now - those were brilliant moves). There is no doubt that Goldwater, Reagan, and Buckley did "the ideological heavy lifting for President Nixon", as you rightly put it. I would add "intellectual" heavy lifting as well - though I believe Nixon had tremendous intellectual capacity, perhaps more than those other men, but when it comes to Republican platform construction, it was all Buckley et al.

I would make one point, however. The Economist said, "Nixon's great contribution to Republican politics was to master the politics of cultural resentment." I think this is true. However, I don't consider cultural resentment to refer to class warfare. For Nixon, it was all about anti-intellectualism (though, as I said, he had a powerful intellect). Countless times Nixon expressed anger towards intellectuals in private. He harbored and spread a resentment towards intellectuals that I believe still permeates the GOP today (despite the fact that it has powerful intellectual underpinnings and leadership). Hence the excitement for Sarah Palin, who represents the anti-intellectual. She's not well educated, and I think a lot of Republicans like that. The GOP likes candidates who they can have a beer with. Sarah Palin is a regular person like the rest of us.

Unfortunately, I would rather have people with intellectual tools running the country - I don't think regular people are qualified to do the job; our greatest leaders have been extraordinarily capable people. But that leaves us with nobody in this election.
(emphasis added)

RD raises an important point about what he perceives to be anti-intellectualism within the Republican party. I'm not entirely certain it's anti-intellectualism. It may be an anti-elitism sentiment or resentment of the political class. It is a tough thing to disentangle the one from the other and leaves us with a bit of a paradox.

I also don't think it is unique to Republicans. The same tendencies manifest themselves among socially conservative Democrats/blue-collar Democrats/Reagan Democrats/Catholic Democrats/whatever you want to call them.

Historically speaking, we can trace this sentiment in America back to Andrew Jackson, at least. He was a "man of the people." In fact, if there is a truly "American" political inclination, it is this one: A populist distrust of the elite, intellectual (if you will) political class. We can follow that intellectual thread back to the founding of the country.

One last point: Like you, I distrust and dislike much of populist politics. However, I prefer it to the 1960s era liberalism that seems to be represented by Barack Obama.

Personally speaking, as a graduate student in history, I understand the appeal and advantages of intellectualism, yet, at the same time, I like Sarah Palin. I won't concede that because she doesn't have a graduate degree, that she does not have the "intellectual tools" to run the country.

Plus, I'm sure you could find plenty of readers of this blog who don't think grad degrees mean much.

*Over-the-top performance, no real skill or experience.

(h/t Branden B.)

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