Tuesday, 21 October 2008

An end to Nixonland?

If Barack Obama wins the presidency, he may put an end to one of the most significant and malevolent political phenomena of our lifetime.

In his brilliant book, Nixonland, Rick Perlstein explains how Richard Nixon came "to power by using the anger, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s." 

He defines Nixonland as the state of total political warfare over class and cultural conflicts.

A disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House in 1974. But Nixonland, pitting the “silent majority” vs. the “liberal elites”, ramming racial and cultural wedges through the electorate, remained a staple of American politics for thirty-odd years. Ronald Reagan told stories about welfare queens. In 1988, George H.W. Bush used convicted rapist Willie Horton as a metaphor to depict his Democratic rival as soft on crime.  John Kerry was swiftboated in 2004.  In each of those cases, Nixonland worked.  And conservatives have set the American political agenda for the last four decades. Democrats have occupied the White House only three times since 1968. Bill Clinton worked with this grain, not against it, especially on big policy issues like welfare reform.

Let’s not be too morally superior over the Americans. Nixonland has also oozed its way into the politics of other countries with which I am familiar. Margaret Thatcher shrewdly played the immigration card in the late 1970s. Later, she used crime and defence as wedge issues. (The Conservatives’ 2005 campaign was a case study in dog whistle politics.) 

Another long-serving prime minister, John Howard, tapped into Australia’s cultural divides. These tactics came to a head with the Tampa election of 2001. False reports that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard in an attempt to blackmail their way into Australia, prompted Howard's notorious campaign slogan: "We decide who will come into this country." 

New Zealand readers may recall the National Party’s 1975 election campaign. For part of their tv ad on the cities (really about immigration), click here. The Nats’ (narrowly unsuccessful) 2005 campaign was also made in Nixonland.

Back to the US election. Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries marked another signpost. Nixonland cannot be separated from the politics of her 1960s baby boomer generation. It takes two sides to fight a culture war, after all. And Hillary Clinton played with the fire.  She told 60 Minutes that Obama was not a Muslim, “as far as I know”. Her “3 a.m. phone call” ad reframed the Texas primary as being about national security. 

Now Obama gets to take on the real thing. The New Republic’s Howard Wolfson says:

"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 [sic] to question Obama's patriotism by linking him to terrorists. Nixonland 101 -- and if its rules still applied, Senator Obama would be in trouble."

Wolfson argues that the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic turmoil have shattered the foundations of Republican dominance. America’s demographics are very different from Nixon’s time. 

"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."

With American conservatism in retreat and the baby boomers seeing their time passing, Barack Obama could have a unique opportunity to change the face of American politics. His speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention gave some early clues as to what his new politics may be about:

"there's not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the United States of America." 

So did his major speech on race in March. Writing during the summer about Obama’s victory over Senator Clinton, Gail Sheehy said:

"Hillary’s campaign had failed to understand that America was in the midst of a national passage from the old-style confrontational politics of the boomer generation—a divisiveness perfected by both the Clinton and Bush administrations—into a new style of Netroots politics, open-sourced and inclusive, multi-racial and multicultural."

We can but hope.

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