Nixon and McCain vs. Obama

Posted by HC in Books / UK politics / US politics on 10 July 2008

In my earlier post on Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland I sort of conveyed the book’s message but I didn’t trouble to get across how good the book is, or tackle the way it describes how the voting went in the 1972 Nixon/McGovern election. It matters because Perlstein says some of the same factors are still at work, though plenty aren’t.

Nixonland is a vivid piece of work. It’s almost a film script. It sets scenes in the most deft way.

Perlstein describes the emergence of the hippie-straight split, as I said. Eggheads and hard hats were ranged against one another. Nixon managed to ride the massive, unpredicted surge of reaction, patriotism, religiosity, plain clean-ness with which so many Americans met the new world. Nixon experienced a new politics in which he could herd “hard-hat” natural Democrats into the Republican fold. Much of the anti-Vietnam war sentiment which McGovern expressed produced the effect that Nixon gained votes as the man who would most likely stop the war. Nixon could never actually have a victory, because he only really felt the defeat which nestled within it. In 1972, he had an enemy Congress. (“So that’s how they’ll piss on this thing”, he said, or words to that effect.)

This business of making the lower orders vote for capitalism has usually had an element of patriotism to it. That’s the ancient conservative game when it comes to making poor people vote against their own interests. or to be more subtle about it: conservatives have to persuade poor people that preserving the rich is the only way to banish poverty. The flag shoos in the waverers. Nixon succeeded by dissing the peace movement and offering peace.

The right often wins by seeming economically capable, even if it means the rich can’t be squeezed until the pips squeak. But they need populism to pull the rick off. Reagan did it by being a down home boy who offered economic vitality to all. Margaret Thatcher did it by being the anti-establishment provincial promising that she could snatch power for the people from the unions. David Cameron seems determined to go back to Peel’s old formula: a Tory delivering enough Whig policy to be very attractive.

So as we look at McCain vs Obama, do we think Perlstein’s thesis is at work? In all the endless discussion of Obama vs Clinton, Obama was more liberal-elite than Clinton, and had plenty of black appeal too. Wow. No-one could have predicted the first bit of that equation. That left Clinton, the entitlement, establishment candidate trying to look hard hat. It wasn’t easy. And then there was the internet, bringing cash and support from quarters no-one had ever tapped.

In all, it seems as though Perlsetin may be describing a politics which is largely dead. America’s choice is – as usual – tricky. The Republicans are offering experience, volatilty, courage and a big dollop of liberalism (that is, leftish policy). Oh, and a candidate the most active Republicans don’t like. The Democrats are offering blackness, youth, vigour, vagueness, the internet, inexperience and a big dollop of liberalism.

If that picture’s right, then Perlstein story of paranaoia, fear and one great cultural divide has shattered into a far more complicated and nuanced picture. But also a much more relaxed one.

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