Why the Democrats Need to Embrace Blue Collar Populism
Many Democrats still don't appreciate how the GOP ever made itself into the champion of"average Americans." Not long ago most people saw the Democrats as standing for the common man and the Republicans, the minority party, as protectors of wealth and privilege. Why the turnabout?
The parties' reputations and fortunes reversed for many well-known reasons: racial politics; the activism of evangelical Christians; a growing resentment of taxes. But here's one that's often overlooked: Richard Nixon.
This explanation may seem unsurprising coming from the author of a new book about Nixon's role in American politics. But my research convinced me that Nixon has been denied his place in the story of the rise of conservative populism.
According to standard accounts, post-World War II conservatism was an elitist and dated doctrine of the rich. Then, thanks to F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and William F. Buckley's National Review, the right fashioned a cogent challenge to the New Deal orthodoxy. By the 1960s the GOP was loosening the grip of its Eastern liberal wing and rallying behind Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. And although Goldwater lost, the story goes, the grass-roots organizers he inspired went on to harness popular frustration with taxes, big government, and liberalism, eventually electing Ronald Reagan president in 1980.
These narratives assign Nixon a peripheral or detrimental role in conservatism's transformation. The liberal slant of his policies as president led historians to view his administration as a continuation of the Great Society rather than the start of its undoing. The short-term damage that Watergate inflicted on the GOP lent a certain logic to the decision to write him out of the story—and to see his presidency as an interruption of the right's postwar ascent.
Yet before Reagan, before the"backlash" against the liberal 1960s, and even before Joe McCarthy spoke for Americans resentful toward the New Deal,it was Nixon who pioneered the use of populist language and imagery in the service of free-market economics and anti-government conservatism. He drew the blueprint on which successors relied.
The hallmarks were there in Nixon's first campaign for Congress, in 1946, against the patrician New Dealer Jerry Voorhis. It's often claimed that Nixon began his infamous red-baiting during this race. But although Nixon did distort Voorhis' record, he did so in the context of a coherent, compelling critique of the New Deal.
A Gallup Poll that year showed that just one-fifth of voters thought the Republican Party cared about"men and women of average income." Nixon tried to rid the GOP of this reputation."The Republican Party has been labeled the party of big business and privilege," he said at one of his first big speeches."Republicans live on both sides of the tracks."
Throughout the campaign, he developed a conservative populist philosophy: a fusion of old-line anti-statist tenets with symbols and language meant to identify with the common man. Conservative populism rewrote the New Deal equation. Instead of protecting the citizen from the depredations of business and safeguarding individual rights, the government itself, piloted by decadent liberal elites, had become the oppressor. Free-market economics and a minimal state would be the people's salvation. Nixon's speeches analyzed how big government (" creeping socialism")—rent control, price controls, overregulation, over-taxation—was depriving young couples and returning veterans of the chance to create a good life in the once booming but now precarious economy of Southern California.
Nixon also spoke about"the forgotten man"—a favorite phrase of FDR. Nixon reclaimed it for the conservative cause. And he identified himself personally with struggling middle-class voters, noting elements of his background that made him seem like an American type: his Navy service, his churchgoing, his family. When Pat gave birth to baby Tricia, Nixon praised a staffer for spreading the news and photographs of the birth to local papers, calling it"the most effective piece of publicity which has been sent out."
Throughout his early career, Nixon's triumphs similarly rested on linking conservatism with"the common man" and liberalism with out-of-touch elites. He established the pattern in his pursuit of Alger Hiss and in his 1950 Senate race, and he solidified it with his Checkers speech. In September 1952, Nixon was trying to save his place as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate after it was revealed he kept a secret $18,000 expense fund. His televised speech—to an audience of 60 million, the largest ever—was, as Garry Wills once wrote, Nixon's" classic attempt" to show that"He is just like all the rest of us, only more so."
In the speech, Nixon spoke of his hard-luck beginnings, his efforts with Pat to make ends meet, her"Republican cloth coat," and his daughters' cocker spaniel, Checkers. Remembered today as a sentimental exploitation of his biography, the speech at the time succeeded spectacularly, solidifying his profile as a hard-working family man and the epitome of Horatio Alger values.
Nixon lost his 1960 presidential bid partly because he was trying to shed his fighting populist persona and style himself as more mature. But he made no such error during his 1968 campaign—another brilliant exercise in conservative populism.
His"law and order" motto that year spoke to a public sense that permissive liberal leadership during the 1960s had encouraged campus protests, urban riots, and street crime. He again invoked"the forgotten man," that elastic category that could include workers, the bourgeoisie, and even the well-to-do who felt powerless to alter Washington's liberal drift.
Lastly, conservative populism defined Nixon's presidency itself. He celebrated his"Silent Majority" of supporters who backed his commitment to the Vietnam War and shared his scorn for the left. He catered to what analysts Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg called the"47-year-old Dayton housewife"—the Middle American voter who felt that venerable values such as religion, duty, and patriotism were being jettisoned. He slammed liberals who promoted busing and tolerated drug use, and he deputized Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack pointy-headed intellectuals and journalists. Agnew's florid description of them—"an effete corps of impudent snobs"—forever linked"effete" with"liberal."
Nixon's victory over George McGovern in 1972 crystallized the GOP's populist message. In every presidential race since, victorious Republicans have touted their plainspoken American values while casting their Democratic rivals as effete. For some, like Reagan or George W. Bush, these populist appeals have come naturally. (George Bush Sr. relied on such contrived gestures as munching pork rinds, but he beat Michael Dukakis by casting him as un-American and weak on crime and defense.)
After Bill Clinton's 1992 race, some Democrats caught on. Notwithstanding the allure of the McGovern-Bill Bradley-Dean elite constituency, many today are playing the populist card, too. John Kerry underscores his veteran status, John Edwards serenades his father the mill worker, Dick Gephardt extols workingmen, and Wesley Clark heralds a"new patriotism"—with uncertain results so far.
To win, someone will have to recapture Clinton's ease in speaking to what he called the"forgotten middle class." Like Clinton, they'll have to grow comfortable using words and symbols that mobilize a little resentment, that tap into Americans' core values, and—unpleasant though it may be to swallow—that crib from that longtime champion of"the forgotten man," Richard Nixon.
This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.
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mark safranski - 10/8/2003
I agree, Nixon was no principled conservative. Nixon's core values were machiavellian and realist - he wanted to perceived as " tough" and being a " gut fighter" and accumulate power to advance America's interests in the world. Public policy was a series of tactical moves to placate domestic interests which was why he employed moderate liberals like Moynihan and social conservatives like Pat Buchanan.
If the temper of the time had been more conservative, Nixon might have had more conservative policy proposals but deep down domestic policy issues and economics were an irritating chore for him and he preferred to spend his time on foreign policy issues and grand themes ( or scheming). So mostly Nixon tried to push programs that would be liberal enough to split the Democrats and divide moderates from liberals and radicals. A generally effective strategy except it left him with no core base of supporters when the chips were down.
Alec Lloyd - 10/7/2003
Was not Nixon responsible for such arch-conservative creations as the BATF and EPA? And did he not also resort to price controls to curb inflation?
Of his populism there can be no question, but trying to cast him as a conservative seems quite a stretch.
Jesse Lamovsky - 10/7/2003
Mr. Greenberg, like most left-leaning historians, is wrong about the genesis of mainstream conservatism after World War II. The "standard accounts" of which he alludes, are correct.
Richard Nixon was not an extension of any postwar conservative revolution, least of all one with roots to Hayek or the National Review. Rather, he was the product of a coup that took place within the Republican Party in 1952. That year, liberals within the party succeeded in overthrowing the anti-New Deal, Old Right, represented by Robert Taft, and got their man, Dwight Eisenhower, the presidential nomination. Eisenhower went on to not only not dismantle the New Deal, but expand it, along with opening up the space race, forcibly integrating Little Rock schools, and other policies no Taftite conservative would have ever dreamed of enacting. The National Review, in fact, was founded in hostility toward Eisenhower and the liberal, pro-New Deal Republicans who handled him (and of course, Nixon was Eisenhower's vice-president).
Also, how can Mr. Greenberg suggest, or even imply, that the election of Nixon signaled the beginning of the "dismantling of the Great Society"? Nixon expanded the Great Society, took the United States all the way off the gold standard, pushed affirmative action... he was basically a tough-talking liberal whom liberals despised, not necessarily for his actions, but for just being who he was. Not unlike our present situation, where we have a liberal in conservative clothing serving as the President. As for the dismantling of the Great Society, that hasn't exactly happened. If it has, why was George Bush on TV not too long ago, asking for more money for Head Start?
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