Rick Rick Perlstein on Richard Nixon and the Politics of Division

Interviewed by Aaron Sarver
In 2001, Rick Perlstein released his debut book, Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Praised by both the left and right the book announced Perlstein as a credible historian of the Conservative movement. A self-described New Deal Democrat, his second book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America received similar praise from pundits across the political spectrum. I spoke with Perlstein, a University Of Chicago graduate and Hyde Park resident three weeks before the Presidential election.

Aaron Sarver (AS)   Can you define what you mean by the term Nixonland?
Rick Perlstein (RP)  Nixonland was the term Adlai Stevenson used to describe the land of slander and scare, basically the dirty politics associated with Richard Nixon. But I point out in the book that Adlai Stevenson’s campaign wasn’t innocent in that regard. Basically Stevenson said if the Republicans were elected, Eisenhower would die and Richard Nixon would be president and we can’t afford to have Nixon’s finger on the button. So I reworked the word Nixonland to mean the condition in which two sets of Americans believe the other guy, if they prevail, will destroy civilization. Nixon is a great figure to organize that idea around because, of course, Nixon and the people who supported him believed he was saving civilization against the barbarians. By the same token, those who opposed Nixon thought that everything that was good and dear and true about America would collapse too.
AS   How did things shift so radically from 1964 to 1972?
RP   Let me start with an example from 1968. June of 1968 was the assassination of RFK. Bobby Kennedy won this resounding victory in the California primary and was possibly on his way to winning the Democratic nomination. None of the 1968 memorial issues of Time or Newsweek will talk about that as the cataclysmic event that it was. The real harbinger of the shift in American politics to come was the fact that an incumbent liberal Republican, Congressman Tom Piccolo got his hat handed to him on primary day by this far, far right guy who was against teaching evolution in the schools named Rafferty. Eventually Rafferty went on to lose, but the reason I tell this story is it really is an allegory. And it’s an allegory about how there were these subterranean energies against the dominant liberal order that the mainstream media wasn’t really noticing at the time.
On Election Day in 1964 all the pundits pointed to the results in California, where Lyndon Johnson won by a million votes and they said that America had accepted the Civil Rights movement, accepted the fact that we’ve ended segregation; this is a mandate for liberalism in America. What they didn’t notice was that on the same day, on the same ballot, a referendum against open housing won by a million votes; even within the apotheosis of liberalism there always were these conservative crosscutting forces.
The shift was always latent, it became manifest when in 1965-1966 there were riots in city after city, especially the Watts riots in L.A., which was seen live on TV because of the first news helicopter. The first Civil Rights bill that would have impacted the north as much as the south was the 1966 bill, which had an open housing provision, and it attracted the most negative mail of anything the Senate had ever seen. As the world seemed less stable in 1967, ‘68, ‘69 a politics that appealed to people’s innate longing for order and stability became more and more attractive. To the point that Richard Nixon in 1972 was able to win just as big a landslide arguing against liberalism as Lyndon Johnson did in 1964 arguing for liberalism.
Nixon didn’t care what was best for the country, he cared what was best for Richard Nixon and for what would help Republicans win elections, hence his politics of division.
AS   Can you talk about how Nixon exploited those divisions in America?
RP   Nixon welcomed disunity when it advantaged him politically. My favorite example is right after his inauguration in 1969, he got a memo saying that there would be violent campus protests this upcoming spring and he wrote across the face of the memo, “good”. He welcomed this because he could then kind of pose as the savior from all this violence and division. It wasn’t far from that point to Nixon and his team recognizing politically that by stoking division they could exacerbate their own political power. So by 1970, on the campaign trail for congressional candidates they’re intentionally letting into rallies violent foul-mouthed anti-war protestors, so that Nixon could turn that into the subject of his address, “look at that, that’s what we’re fighting. That’s why you need to elect Republicans.”
The division and anger becomes politically addictive, had Nixon been able to tamp down the anger and the passions that were indicative of Nixonland he would have an incentive not to do it. By 1972 it became more and more obvious that what Pat Buchanan labeled the “strategy of positive polarization”, the active conscious attempt to divide the country in two, on the bet that the Republican half would be bigger, had come to define Richard Nixon’s political strategy. So you have Richard Nixon watching the ‘68 Democratic Convention on TV and basically cheering, this is great, this is an opportunity. Which is a very poor position from which to lead the country.
Nixon didn’t think up this playbook on his own, he learned a lot from Reagan’s 1966 campaign in California. When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 it was amazing to see how unbelievably condescending the press was towards him when he won the nomination, Esquire magazine said, ‘well the Republican party isn’t that hard up, at least they haven’t nominated Lassie.’ We remember him as the sunny optimist who was smiling all the time, but in 1966 he was this figure who harvested the rage of the California middle-class, at these ungrateful college students who were spitting on their privilege and taking over buildings.
In 1966 Reagan mid-wifed this whole political vocabulary of backlash. Politicians didn’t even really see these things as opportunities. Reagan’s pollsters told him to stop mentioning the uprisings in Berkeley. They said it didn’t show up in their polls as something people cared about. Reagan said, ‘I don’t care, every time I mention it I get a standing ovation.’ It was Ronald Reagan who got people thinking about it as casting a vote against student uprisings. When Reagan won against a previously popular incumbent liberal Democrat, by quite unfairly tying him to the uprisings at Berkeley, he brought a new thing into the world; this idea of the politics of backlash against social change could win elections. Reagan was the pioneer, but Nixon who didn’t campaign that way in 1966 when he was campaigning for congressional candidates, went all in on that strategy and by 1968 his slogan was ‘vote as if your life depended on it.’ His slogan was ‘the first civil right of every American is to be free of domestic violence.’
AS   So as we fast forward to 2008, McCain is literally campaigning against the same people Nixon did in 72, one example is Bill Ayers.
RP   Right, but it’s not working. As we hold this interview Barack Obama is a good ten points ahead in the Gallup poll. I have a bunch of conservative friends who email me all kinds of things, and one emailed me about a supposed tie Obama had to a supposed Communist. And I said great, ‘if you can just slowly and patiently explain to every voter under the age of 35 what a Communist is maybe you’ll win the election.’ They’re talking about what Bill Ayers did during the 70s, if you can explain to voters under 35 what the New Left was, and why they were bad then maybe you’ll win the election.
They’re tried to squeeze the juice out of an orange that’s been pretty well dried already. It worked in 2004; they were able to harvest the surplus rage at John Kerry for having been an anti-war activist who pointed out the atrocities of the soldiers in Vietnam. The question is whether we’re still living in Nixonland? There’s two ways you can go with that, one is the game is up. But Nixonland campaigns have failed before. Republicans lost in 1970 and the reason people voted for Democrats was the economy was so bad and people thought Democrats had a better message on the economy. Maybe Democrats can prevail in 2008 because people are focused on the economy instead of their cultural resentments. Or maybe it’s the case that the old cultural resentments no longer signify anymore and Republicans have literally reached the end of road.
AS   Why aren’t the Ayers attacks working? Is it just because as you mentioned earlier that people under 35 or 40 don’t understand the ‘60s?
RP   Sure. There’s a saying in politics, ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing. It’s just not a clear message for most people and the people for whom it resonates, that proportion of the electorate is smaller than ever before, we just have a younger electorate.
Also, the connection is pretty tendentious, if Barack Obama was so eager to hang out with radicals why did he only hang out with one? There were lots of radicals he could have hung out with. Also, people are focused on the economy. It’s a cliché, you can turn on the TV any time and that’s what you’ll hear. And quite explicitly McCain and his surrogates have said they don’t want to talk about the economy.
AS   Your point about Obama hanging out with only one radicalis significant because there’s a lot of 60s people in Chicago and in Hyde Park …
RP   It’s amazing that they could only find one connection; it shows how assiduous Barack Obama probably was in avoiding 60s radicals. It shows that at heart Barack Obama is temperamentally a very moderate person. He built his career very carefully and he made as few associations as he could. To a certain extent this election is a referendum on the declining significance of the 60s. ◊