John Martin's Reviews > Nixonland: America's Second Civil War and the Divisive Legacy of Richard Nixon 1965-72

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
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Jan 11, 11

Read in December, 2010

If you're looking for a thorough explanation of the American political landscape in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, buy this book. Then read it (which I finally did, after staring at it for six or seven months as it sat on my bookshelf).

I've never been satisfied with the labels used to try to explain how we're divided. Conservative and liberal, red state and blue state, and even Republican and Democrat all miss the mark, and all seem to mean different things to different people. Conservatives say they're for smaller government, but then support government expansion when their candidate is in office. Liberals say they're for the little guy, and then favor giving unaccountable bureaucrats power to experiment with the lives of millions. The contradictions are everywhere.

This books lays out the true story of what actually separates (most of) us into our two camps, and what has divided us since Nixon emerged on the scene. On one hand, you have those who feel they are smarter than everyone else, and therefore should be trusted with power. On the other hand, you have everyone else-- those who feel they are being taken advantage of and told how dumb they are by the first group.

Nixon was the first major candidate that made a career fighting (exploiting?) the second of these two types of voter. He and his "silent majority" we're sick of being kicked around by those with the fancier upbringing (think JFK), and for the first time, they were going to make a political issue of it. First Nixon went after alleged communists and Hollywood types (they're not like us-- they hate America). Then he went after those pushing the Great Society programs (they're not like us-- they're lazy, or enable those who are lazy). Then he went after hippies and students (they're not like us-- they're privileged and can afford to skip class to protest a war they'll never have to fight). Nixon was the candidate for the other people-- those who felt the world changing and leaving them behind, and who resented that they were never consulted.

Today, Nixon's followers are still with us, and have been with us since Dick gave his final double-victory sign upon leaving office in '74. They voted for Reagan after he made Carter and Mondale look like wimpy elitists. They tried (unsuccessfully) to label Clinton as a out-of-touch liberal. In 2000, they supported George W., after he successfully convinced the country that he was a simple-spoken everyman who understood them, despite the Ivy League pedigree and the aristocratic upbringing. The fact that Bush Jr. promised more government barely seemed to matter to self-proclaimed conservatives; Bush's opponent was Al Gore. Gore was the quintessential elitist, and didn't deserve the support of regular people.

Today, Nixon's legacy lives on, through Sarah Palin and the increasing numbers of Republican candidates who run from any position that might make them seem too smart for their own good. The death tax, environmental legislation, healthcare reform and a slew of other initiatives that Nixon himself either did or could have supported are now complete non-starters for Nixon's descendants. If a conservative candidate can label an issue as the brainchild of the liberal elite, it doesn't matter how much sense it makes-- no candidate hoping to get the Nixon voter will go anywhere near it.

Goldwater may have given a voice to pure conservatives, but it was Nixon who expanded what it meant to be a "conservative," and therefore made it possible for a Goldwater candidate to get elected. By the time Reagan ran in 1980, millions of working-class Democrats and independents abandoned their roots and began voting against their economic self-interests-- not because they necessarily agreed with what Reagan stood for, but because he made them feel that he was on their side, and wouldn't talk down to them.
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Larry Buhl It's funny - not haha - how Nixon would be considered too liberal by his party now. But his legacy for divide and conquer lives on.


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