Perlstein's book focuses on Richard Nixon's runs for the White House, beginning in 1966. Democrats, facing a voter backlash over rioting, crime, and the Vietnam War lost 47 House seats in 1966. Nixon rode that revolt into the White House two years later and exploited it while in office to win re-election in a landslide in 1972.
Perlstein correctly states that Nixon came "to power by using the anger, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s," and defines Nixonland as the state of total political warfare over class and cultural conflicts.
Nixonland, the book, ends in 1972, but Nixonland, the place, endured, through the 70s and 80s, up until George W. Bush's re-election in 2004. Welfare queens, Willie Horton, Swiftboats; all Nixonland tactics, all designed to cleave Americans along racial and cultural lines. Perlstein writes, "What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: the notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side the "Silent Majority"...On the other side are the "liberals."
The politics of Nixonland proved very successful for the Republicans, if not for America. Of the ten Presidential elections between 1968 and 2004, Republicans won 7. The only two term Democrat elected in that period was hamstrung for three-quarters of his Presidency by a Republican Congress. In Nixonland conservatives mostly set the agenda and framed the debate. When Bill Clinton famously declared "the era of big government is over" in 1996 he was conceding the obvious -- in fact it had ended at least a decade earlier.
Nixonland was fought over by World War Two Veterans, and their children, the baby boomers. Among Bill Clinton's talents was a particular ability to understand Nixonland's rules, and in 1992, to win despite them Running as a "new kind of Democrat," Clinton grasped the need for Democrats to move to the center on crime and welfare. By the time he was re-elected in 1996, they had.
In retrospect Clinton's ability to take two of the hottest button issues away from Republicans began to signal the end of Nixonland, but it was not until 2006, when Democrats won 31 seats in the House and six in the Senate that the period that began with a Republican rout 40 years earlier came to an end.
Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, where he proclaimed that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the United States of America" was a direct challenge to Nixonland and demonstrated an early understanding that its politics were waning.
John McCain, raised in Nixonland, calls Senator Obama a socialist, trots out a plumber to stoke class and cultural resentments, and employs his Vice-President to question Obama's patriotism by linking him to terrorists. Nixonland 101 -- and if its rules still applied, Senator Obama would be in trouble.
But they don't.
Between the Iraq War, and Katrina, and the collapse of Wall Street, the underpinnings of Republican dominance have been knocked away. Pre-emptive war and deregulation have been discredited. Republican bankers are practicing socialists, begging for direct government intervention in their businesses. The most popular General since Eisenhower has endorsed Senator Obama.
And America looks different: in 1970 84% of Americans were non-hispanic whites -- today that percentage is 68%. The nation is more diverse and more tolerant.
The old tactics aren't working and the American public is ready for change. Senator McCain seems old, and tired, as if he is speaking an ancient language.
Barack Obama is headed for a big win, and he will be able to work with large majorities in the Senate and the House. Nixonland is dead. Obamaland, anyone?
Howard Wolfson also blogs at GothamAcme.