Sunday, April 4, 2021

Are We Still in Nixonland?

A prime example of Nixon's wedge-driving

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland might be my favorite entry in his mammoth four volume history of the conservative movement's rise from the days of Goldwater to the Reagan Dawn. His key insight is that Nixon intentionally made pre-existing divisions in America even starker, then won elections by making sure that the bigger chunk of the divided nation was on his side. Until Watergate, this strategy worked remarkably well, propelling him to a massive landslide in 1972.

The point of the book was that our politics have been stuck in Nixonland ever since. It came out in 2008, at the end of the Bush years. Karl Rove had used the Nixon strategy very well, incorporating homophobia to make gay marriage a wedge issue in 2004 and portraying anyone opposed to the invasion of Iraq as a hater of America. Those same tactics served Republicans well when they unleashed the Tea Party in 2010, effectively hobbling the Obama administration for its last six years. 

Nowadays, however, it seems that Republicans can only win by gaming the system and suppressing the vote. Bush's win in 2004 was the only time a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote since his pappy won back in 1988. That certainly explains efforts to manipulate elections in Georgia. 

However, it also emerged this week that the Republicans are planning a political strategy based on the culture war, as opposed to policy. Some have mocked this, but I see it merely as the continuation of the one reliable strategy Republicans have had for the past fifty years. Some are puzzled that they are calling themselves a "working class party" while failing to do anything to materially improve people's lives. They forget that the Nixon strategy depends on resentment, on saying Republicans are protecting good people against the elites. They don't mean the economic elite, whom they wish to shower with tax breaks, but the "cultural elite." Anti-university, anti-trans, anti-environmentalism, and anti-anti-racism all fit into this. 

I do not scoff at this gambit because it has worked in the past and also because it represents to much potential harm to vulnerable people in this country. The question I keep asking is whether it can still work after all these years. Will this be the time that Republicans intentionally drive the wedge, only to find themselves stuck with the lesser part? 

Demographic and political shifts seem to indicate that ground has shifted enough that Republicans just might play themselves. This is not the late 20th century anymore. Church attendance is dropping, making appeals to "traditional values" less effective. Younger people are far more progressive now than when I was young. The attacks on 1/6 have made it impossible for conservative reactionaries to pretend that opposition to democracy itself is not at their core. 

And that's what scares me, since the wedge-driving isn't happening in a vacuum. Republicans might be grabbing the smaller half of the population, but gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the electoral college mean that they don't actually need to win over the majority. In that sense we are no longer living in Nixonland, but in a place somehow far worse. 

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