Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) is the best book I have ever read about American politics. Perlstein sets out to explain how the nation went from a landslide for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to a landslide for Richard Nixon in 1972. His answer is the reaction to the 1960s, and Nixon's ability to ride it. I am going to set aside Perlstein's analysis of Nixon himself for a second post and focus in this one on the broader question of how American politics changed.
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson got 61% of the vote and carried 44 states on a platform that featured Civil Rights, Workers' Rights, and a raft of new programs to combat poverty. Coastal pundits crowed that America was united as never before; everyone but a few "extremists" was on board with the liberal program. In his first State of the Union address Johnson said that Americans were more unified than any other people in the history of freedom.
It wasn't true. Goldwater was a strange, cranky man and a weak candidate, but he still got 38% of the vote, and his supporters included an army of energized young conservatives determined to stop those changes that so excited liberals. As Richard Nixon among many others saw, the position of mainstream liberalism was actually weak. Reforms had already gone too far for many Americans but not nearly far enough for a noisy minority that began to command increasing attention through street protests and riots. Looming in the background was Vietnam, a war few American leaders wanted but almost all were afraid to give up on.
Perlstein begins his narrative of the reaction with the Watts Riots of 1965. On August 11, 1965, a fight between a black motorist and two white policemen ignited an explosion of rage that ran for six days, leading to 34 deaths, more than a thousand serious injuries, and fires that destroyed dozens of buildings. Fire fighters trying to put out the blazes were attacked by rock-throwing mobs who seemed determined to let their own neighborhoods burn to ashes. Eventually 4,000 National Guard troops were deployed to support 1,600 police officers enforcing a strict curfew. Historians estimate that at least 30,000 adults participated in the riots. All of this was broadcast every night into American homes using a new innovation, the news helicopter.
In Perlstein's narrative, the Watts Riots was the first in a series of events that fed fear of chaos in "Middle America." Crime was surging, partly but not entirely because the huge baby boom generation was entering the prime mischief years. New drugs spread, and with them drug abuse. Bombs were set off by a dozen kinds of extremists, of both the left and the right; Puerto Rican nationalists bombed the House of Representatives. More riots broke out, especially after the assassination of M.L. King in 1968. Protests against the war led to repeated confrontations between demonstrators and police, and the mass of the public was not on the side of the protesters; a poll taken the day after National Guard soldiers shot four students at Kent State found that 78% of Americans thought the protesters were to blame.
The country seemed to be spinning out of control. The hippies, the yippies and the radicals were not really very numerous, but they got outsized attention both from those excited by the prospect of change and those horrified by what looked like squalor and barbarism. Fear of communism had eased since 1962 but was still a powerful force, and that some on the left embraced Maoism enraged millions. Families broke up over long hair and beards.
One result of all this, says Perlstein, was a new kind of politics in America. Instead of economic issues that divided the workers from the bourgeoisie, elections would now be fought over cultural issues that divided the hippies from the squares. One of the famous events of those years was the Hard Hat Riot in New York, when 200 construction workers attacked anti-war protesters and were joined by a few dozen Wall Street guys in suits; the workers and their bosses were uniting to fight the revolutionaries. Some Americans these days seem to think that our politics of identity and culture are something new, but Perlstein produces dozens of statements from both the left and the right that could have been made today. In fact one is tempted to say that although the issues have changed, the parties and their attitudes toward each other are exactly the same now as they were in 1968.
What makes the events of the 1960s more tragic than those of our own time is the Vietnam War. All the smart people in America knew by 1966 that the war was an unwinnable mess, including Nixon and his top diplomat, Henry Kissinger. It went on because no way could be found for the US to exit without its tail between its legs. Millions of Americans believed that the war was a test of our resolve as crucial, for us and the world, as World War II; millions of others believed it was a crime and a blunder. The division ran through the whole society, including the military; the prosecution of William Calley for the My Lai massacre led to fist fights in officers' clubs. Vietnam was so big, so important, that it made sensible centrism impossible; you were either for the war or against it. To those who supported the war, those who opposed it were traitors; to those who opposed it, its supporters were murderers. Not that politicians didn't try to fudge the issue; Hubert Humphrey ran for president in 1968 with positions so muddled that nobody really knew what he thought, and Nixon ran by proclaiming that we had to fight the war harder to get to peace faster. But the war was one issue that could not be finessed or swept under the rug, and it kept boiling up to upset any attempt at compromise.
So the stage was set for 1972. The Democrat was George McGovern, a midwestern liberal who came out wholeheartedly against the war. McGovern was for women's rights, Civil Rights, and peace. Nixon was for order and the flag. Nixon was a widely despised figure with few real supporters, and key news about the Watergate break-in and his army of dirty tricksters was breaking throughout the campaign. But in an atmosphere of riot, protest, sexual liberation, and rapid social change, order and the flag won easily.
One of the interesting things about Nixonland is that although it is a book about politics, it says very little about political ideas. This was the criticism made by George Will when he reviewed it in 2008; the conservative movement, he said, was rich in ideas, not just some gut reaction to hippiedom. And that is true. But Perlstein, who wrote a whole book about Barry Goldwater, knows this very well; he simply isn't very interested. He feels, as many people feel about the politics of our own time, that ideas don't seem to matter. What matters is emotion, especially the hate and anger that American factions pour out toward each other.
Which brings me to this question: what did the revolutionary years of the late 1960s and early 1970s accomplish? It is easy to argue that they accomplished nothing. After all the immediate result was a landslide for Nixon, whose downfall only set the stage for Ronald Reagan. Electorally the radical spasms of those years were a disaster for Democrats. What's more they spawned or at least intensified the division of the nation along cultural lines that still bedevils us, making some question whether our democracy can survive.
But I don't think that is the whole story. Politics, as someone once said, is downstream from culture. And culturally, the radicalism of the 1960s had gigantic effects. Women's rights, gay rights, environmentalism, sexual liberation, no-fault divorce; these things have moved into the mainstream and become major parts of our world.
This seems, I guess, to be the modern condition: on the one side the lovers of strangeness and change, and the other those who long for stability and order. On one side the mixers who revel in the multicultural and the multiracial, on the other the people only comfortable when everyone around them is the same. And maybe these things are really ancient, going back to two genetic types that must be mixed in every successful population. But if so, the rapid changes of modernity have brought this to a boil, and we are all living with the consequences.
Nixonland is a great place to read about how all this has happened.