Nixon the Populist
The Democratic presidential candidates are falling into the trap Nixon set 50 years ago.
Democratic activists worry that their party is marching toward a McGovernite debacle. By staking out the most anti-Bush stands and courting the highly educated, antiwar voters who have rallied to Howard Dean, the Democratic presidential candidates risk affirming the worst stereotypes of their party as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Unless they shake their highbrow image, the Democrats could revive the losing strategy that guided them from 1968 until 1992, in which Republican populism triumphed over Democratic elitism.
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.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.