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Exchange: 'Nixonland' or 'The Age of Reagan'?

Nixon would've been the most important president of the last 40 years--but then Watergate happened, and he became a political hiccup.
In this debate, two powerhouse political historians--Sean Wilentz, the author of The Age Of Reagancontributing editor for and Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland--try to figure out which president continues to have the stronger hold over our political culture.

From: Sean Wilentz

To: Rick Perlstein

Dear Rick,

Congratulations on your fat and sassy new book. Because you thoughtfully sent me a galley, I got to have an advance look--and have been going through it again with renewed pleasure. I’m particularly taken with how the book interweaves events: always with the problematic serial resenter Richard Nixon at the center, but with much more than Nixon moving in and out of the frame. The book helps brings coherence to a chaotic and splenetic time.

I suppose, though, since it’s you and I talking here, that we should start off considering the book’s major hook, or at least the one that present-minded editors and reviewers keep bringing up. (It’s not enough to be a historian--we have to be relevant, too, right? A conceit from the ’60s that hasn’t died. But I digress.)

Are we still living in Nixonland? Or are the decades after Watergate better thought of as what I’ve called it, The Age of Reagan? And whether it’s Nixon or Reagan, are we still entrapped by the politics that emerged out of the ’60s, or are those politics dying?

There certainly have been continuities from Nixon’s presidency to later years, down to our own time--including, above all, the figures of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Through their service with Ford, these men carried forward the Nixonian theory and practice of the imperial presidency--and with it the Nixonian penchant for secrecy and the resentment of liberals, the press, and political adversaries of all kinds as potential killers. America owes William Safire, Patrick J. Buchanan, William Rehnquist, Robert Bork, and even Karl Rove mainly to RMN. Much of the phenomenon now glibly called the rise of the “Reagan Democrats” started off with Democrats for Nixon (although, as you show in your earlier book, some of it goes back even further, to the appearance in 1964 of what Walter Lippmann called the “Goldwater Democrats.”) So Nixonism, and particularly the vengeful divisiveness and culture war politics which you emphasize, has long outlived Nixon.

Except for Watergate, I’ve written somewhere, I might have called my new book “The Age of Nixon.” But Watergate happened, and here’s where you and I begin to part ways. Watergate badly battered the Republican establishment and deluded the Democrats into thinking that “new politics” liberalism was the wave of the future. Neither party could fill the gap where the center of American politics used to be, but that had been blown out as a result of Vietnam, black power, and Watergate. Enter the once-humiliated but tenacious Republican right, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, of course, actually accomplished a great deal of what Nixon gets the credit (or discredit) for accomplishing. Take the so-called Southern strategy, which originated with the Dixiecrat revolt in 1948, became a large part of Goldwater’s “duck hunting” strategy, and then fell into the hands of George Wallace. It’s usually asserted--with ritual citations to Kevin Phillips--that Nixon (who had been fairly liberal on civil rights) invented or at least perfected the new Republican solid South. But, at least in presidential politics, the phenomenon only became real in 1980. People tend to forget that although Nixon swept the South (as he did the rest of the nation) in 1972, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale snatched it back almost entirely in 1976. (Carter won every state in the old Confederacy except Virginia, which he lost by less than two percent of the vote. Carter even beat Gerald Ford in Alabama--by a whopping margin of 55.7% to 42.6%.)

Reagan also diverged greatly from Nixon in all kinds of ways. There are the obvious profound political differences--détente vs. rollback; “We are all Keynesians now” vs. supply-side (and monetarism); affirmative action vs. Edwin Meese and William Bradford Reynolds; and I could go on and on. These are important matters, and I gather that some reviewers have pointed them out. But they are also beside the point of your book, which is, as I see it, that Nixon introduced the political polarization which Reagan and others exploited down the line.

But I’m not persuaded of the latter point, either. Nixon may have refined the dark arts of political polarization and adapted them to the circumstances of the late 1960s, but he hardly invented those arts (see above on the Southern strategy). And Reagan’s coalition formed, unsteadily, in 1980, not as a reaction against Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society but as a reaction against the failures of Jimmy Carter and the haplessness of the deluded Democratic Congress, amid stagflation and the crisis in Iran.

Of course, Reagan was happy enough to enlarge his coalition by taking on, and paying lip service to, the culture warriors, right-wing evangelicals, and neo-conservatives (who were only dimly in evidence as of 1972, or not in evidence at all). He was also happy to consolidate the Republican white South. So to that limited extent, we can say that Reagan enlarged on Nixon’s example. But Reagan built a coalition of his own, and succeeded in 1980 chiefly because of economic and post-Vietnam national security issues, not the cultural resentments of Nixon’s “silent majority.”

Moreover, in political style as well as ideology, Reaganism was entirely different from Nixonism. Reagan could be callous and demagogic on the stump, but nowhere near to the extent Nixon was. Nixon, unlike Reagan, played political hardball in a paranoid way that turned into lawlessness. (There was no Donald Segretti or G. Gordon Liddy in Reagan’s entourage; and while Reagan had his Oliver North--certainly a polarizing figure--North did not emerge out of Reagan’s quest for the presidency, or for re-election.)

Whereas Nixonism lived on resentments, fear, and even cynicism, Reaganism was sunny and outwardly open-hearted, blending futurism and nostalgia in wholly new ways, putting a warm, even sensuous face on right-wing Republican politics. Reagan’s mean-spirited side did show when it suited his political purposes (as in his notorious Philadelphia, Mississippi, “states’ rights” campaign speech in 1980), and he certainly could be conniving. But that was not the essence of Reaganism as it was of Nixonism. And it was in Reaganism that the Republican Party found the means to achieve long-term political dominance, once Reagan’s pact with George H.W. Bush in 1980 made the GOP Establishment almost a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Right.

Let me, for the sake of enlivening the conversation, restate all this more boldly. Nixon captured the Republican Party between 1966 and 1968, but he proceeded nearly to ruin it. (The Capitol Hill Club almost went bankrupt; some party officials mused over changing the party’s name.) Gerald Ford tried his hardest (and succeeded more than most give him credit for) to clean up the mess, but the center of the GOP would not hold. Neither would the center hold for the Democrats. (Ecce Jimmy Carter.) Instead, the precariousness of the political center--indeed, its disappearance--has defined American politics from then until now.

Richard Nixon certainly tried to turn political polarization to his own purposes--but it was his downfall, more than his successes, that truly contributed to the center’s demise, and to the politics of the following 30 years. He brought the New Deal/Great Society era to a close and then tried to shred the Constitution--but wound up being a political hiccup.

Something very different--a polarized politics, but very different in style, substance, and even political allegiances--emerged in 1980. And from then until now, despite efforts to fight back, we have been living in that political universe--not Nixonland at all, but the Age of Reagan.

Except, of course, that this year marks the definitive end of that era, no matter who wins the White House.

So: I’m eager to hear what you think.

My best,


By Sean Wilentz and Rick Perlstein