How to Kill Nixonland

Okay, so maybe it’s a little early to pronounce Nixonland’s demise, but I think it’s fair to say that this past election demonstrated how much the tactics of that era have lost their potency. That has a lot to do with Obama, but it also has a hell of a lot to do with McCain, Palin and Bush.

See, general elections are very predictable beasts. It’s not too hard to determine which party is going to come out on top from year to year; what’s more interesting is looking at the unique styles of the individual candidates. Were Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee, she would probably would have still won the election. And if Mitt Romney were the Republican nominee, he still would have lost. But I don’t think we would have seen the sort of dramatic realignment we saw in this past election if those were the two candidates.

The thing is, counterfactuals like that are kind of pointless. Things happened the way they happened, and, in fact, I would argue that they happened the way they had to happen.

Here’s where it gets a bit meta, so just work with me here.

Imagine you have a time machine, and you decide that you need to go back in time and prevent the presidency of George W. Bush from ever happening. Where/when do you go? Maybe you could go back to 2000 and bribe a Supreme Court justice or something. But after 4-8 years of President Gore, we might still be dealing with Bush, or someone similar.

In fact, I’d argue that in order to prevent the rise of Bush, you would have to go back to the focal point of the last dramatic realignment in American political history–the rise of Richard Nixon, and the creation of Nixonland. Any historical shift after that, barring something really enormous, might send us slightly off the beaten path, but I think it all ends with Bush. Well, not really; it ends with Palin, or a Palin-like figure, losing a national election.

What I’m trying to get at is that Bush and Palin both fit into broad archetypes, representing a rough composite of different political interests, and by pioneering Orthogonian-style campaign tactics, Nixon made the ascension of those archetypes decades after his fall inevitable. His tactics laid the groundwork for the marriage of culture war-based messaging and corporate interests that led to not just the rise of Ronald Reagan, but also the neocons, and even center-right Democratic organizations like the DLC.

I think the result was sort of an uneasy center-right equilibirum in the political sphere the started to shift as the most successful leaders perfected Nixon’s tactics in what can best be thought of as a fucked-up form of political Darwinism. Suffice to say, barring some other type of earth-shattering event, the only thing that could end this was when the people who not only sold Nixon’s kool-aid but also drank vast quantities of it finally rose to prominence. It took the efforts of those good people–the Bush administration and Sarah Palin among them–to destabilize the country so much that the political equilibrium self-corrected with another big realignment.

That’s one long-winded Philosophy major’s way of looking at it, anyway. Maybe I’ll try to get Rick Perlstein to do another 800 pages on this.

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2 Responses

  1. Ned, it’s been a while since I’ve picked a philosophical fight with you. I’m in the middle of yet another f*ing Kafka paper, so I thought it might be the time. First of all, with your hypothetical time machine, there are grandfather paradoxes, etc. to deal with. But pointing that out is petty, so I will move on. If you establish the inevitability of certain pendular rhythms in politics, or indeed anything in general, picking a point at which you could disrupt the cycle is fruitless. To argue that the last decade, or two, had to happen the way they did because of the events of forty years ago is to ignore the inevitability of Nixonland. After a large social upheaval, a fist cracks down, be it from the left or right. In America, it had to be from the right. The particular traits of that fist linger long after the threat has demolished, until some figure heralding glasnost emerges from within the establishment. And as for the particular insidiousness of Nixon/Bush tactics, well the rhetoric was there with Aaron Burr, and the Darwinism is inevitable once you do away with patronage. Have a nice semester!

  2. […] 5, 2009 by Ned Resnikoff In the comments for my most recent bout of Nixonland-inspired navel gazing, Jackson writes: If you establish the inevitability of certain […]

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