Nixonland: The Panel

by Henry on October 30, 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, I organized (a fancy word for inviting a number of people who did all the talking) a panel on Rick Perlstein’s recent book Nixonland for the American Political Science Association in September. The commenters were Paul Krugman, Paul Pierson, Nolan McCarty and Eric Rauchway – Rick provided a response. I’ve now written up the transcript of the panel, editing it lightly for style. The PDF of these transcripts can be found here. The panel’s content is licensed under a Creative Commons license – those who want to roll their own can find the .tex file here.

As I’ve said before, I think that this was a great panel which really shows how both history and political science can speak to contemporary issues. While it’s worth reading in its entirety, these two pieces can give a flavor of its current relevance. First, Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat have been engaged in a debate over whether or not McCain talk of redistribution does or doesn’t have racist undertones. September-2008-Eric-Rauchway steps out of his time machine to say that even political scientists who discount the role of race are really saying that Matt’s side of the argument is right.

Even one of the political science books most associated with the `it’s class not race’ theory – The End of Southern Exceptionalism by my friend and former colleague Byron Shafer and his co-author Richard Johnston points out that although among whites (and you have to leave blacks out of the picture for this class story to make sense) class is the determinant of partisan voting in the post-Nixon era, racial attitudes are also highly correlated with partisan voting in the South. What do Shafer and Johnston mean by racial attitudes? They mean willingness or unwillingness to have the federal government use its authority to help African-Americans. Republican voters – richer voters – are less willing to see the federal government act that way; Democratic voters – poorer voters – are more willing to see the federal government acting that way among blacks. So you look exclusively at income inequality in the South and you say aha! – it’s rational politics. If richer whites are more likely to vote Republican, it’s because they don’t want their taxes raised. They don’t want their money taken away; they’re strictly protecting their economic interest. That’s an incomplete story. You have to say they don’t want their money taken away because they are afraid that it will be given to black people.

Perhaps Republican spinmeisters are unaware of this pattern of attitudes among racist Southern voters when they craft messages about distributing our wealth away, or perhaps they merely don’t think that it’s relevant to their political strategies. Or, perhaps, not.

Second, Paul Pierson makes a really useful distinction between electoral politics and policy regimes, pointing out the former don’t necessarily correlate all that well with the latter, and that the latter are really, really important.

I think that here are two critical things that ought to be integrated in a core vision of what modern politics is about that are pushed to the side here. One is policy, and the other is interest groups. … I think there’s a puzzle for those who see the Sixties as a crucible. If you were to look not at elections, but at what the government was actually doing, the role that government was playing in the lives of Americans, especially with respect to domestic policy, would 1968 or 1972 be seen as a turning point? I think the answer is clear – absolutely not. 1968 and 1972 come right smack in the big bulge of government activism, the rise in government activism that takes place rougly between the early 1960s and the late 1970s; I would say 1964 to 1978. If anything, all this {textit{accelerates} while Nixon is in the White House. Social spending increases more rapidly under Nixon than it does under Johnson; you get a massive expansion in Social Security; you get the nationalization of food stamps; you get the nationalization of old age assistance. There are lots of other examples. …

When does it stop? It doesn’t stop in 1981. Roughly, it stops in 1978. The defeat of key domestic initiatives like industrial relations reform and health care reform; the passage of a completely different kind of tax bill, much more oriented towards business and the affluent than the tax bills that had come previously, but a tax bill that would look very familiar to more recent discussions in American politics. You see also the beginnings of a deregulatory push that would eventually remake government and the connection between government and the economy. And all this comes after the huge Democratic electoral victory of 1974, and the recapture of the White House in 1976.

This makes it quite clear that a Democratic victory on its own, doesn’t mean much, unless there is a consequent or simultaneous shift in basic assumptions about government and the role of policy. It also presents an interesting way of thinking about the questions that Chris raises below. The ‘circumstances’ that politicians and policy makers face aren’t set in stone – they are the result of politicians’ beliefs and expectations. If Obama wins, as seems very likely, do we (as some libertarians, such as Ilya Somin fear) face a substantial increase in the role of the state, and in the willingness of politicians to use political power to redress economic and social inequalities? Or should we expect a more cautious managerialism? The kinds of factors that Paul highlights suggest that the answer will depend both on the willingness of external groups to push for serious ideological changes, and on the willingness (or lack of same) of Obama and the people around him to use the current crisis as a way to remake basic understandings about the role of government in American society.



Ben Alpers 10.30.08 at 7:30 pm

The latest McCain ad plays off the link that Eric Rauchway makes above. (h/t TPM)


Martin Bento 10.30.08 at 8:37 pm

Maybe it’s all “Nixon goes to China”. Nixon can afford to betray the hawks, and Carter can afford to betray the progressives, Reagan can afford to run debt through the roof and make peace with Gorbachev, Clinton can afford to dramatically push free trade and globalization, and end welfare as we know it, etc Lil Dubya may be the first President is long time who actually danced with those that brrung him. This fits the model of a partisan elite that sees elections are ways of neutralizing various constituencies – chiefly the victorious ones.


MarkUp 10.30.08 at 9:12 pm

“Or, perhaps, not.”

Of course they are, and they also are aware it’s not just southerners and “[giving] to black people.” We got Californians too. Odd though how the Greenwich Conn seems to escape so much. Even nowadays.


Phil 10.31.08 at 12:23 am

Is there an mp3 of this session?


John Emerson 10.31.08 at 12:58 am

Some of the old-style racists would defend themselves by saying that they didn’t like white trash either. It seemed to be associated with a voluntary affiliate with the aristocratic planter mentality, and also with the practice of playing poor whites off against poor blacks (both of which are now Democrats.)

It was a two-level prejudice from their perspective, whereas poor whites would have a different pattern, resenting poor blacks for one group of reasons and resenting the better off for a different group or reasons. At the gut personal level, where the rubber meets the road, it’s a politics of resentment either way. And it’s certainly spread from the South.

I’ve met old New England Republicans who felt about the same way, who reflexively assumed that anyone who had ever received public assistance of any kind was a worthless cheater. All in all, a fairly widespread attitude in pre-New Deal America.


Witt 10.31.08 at 1:08 am

The area where I see this played out most explicitly these days is in educational funding. There is a small, loud constituency arguing that paying for schools based on local property taxes is unfair to many students, not to mention that society as a whole loses out. And there is a large, grumblingly resentful constituency that thinks this is all just a big trick to take money away from white suburbs and give it to black cities. And then there are the rest of us, who mostly try to ignore the debate entirely.


LFC 10.31.08 at 2:03 am

Paul Pierson says that the trend toward expanding govt stopped in 1978, after the Dems recaptured the White House in ’76, ergo this is a piece of evidence that electoral politics and policy regimes are disconnected. To which I say: *which* Democrat recaptured the White House in 1976? Not Mo Udall, not the resolutely redistributionist — and I *mean* redistributionist — Fred Harris, whose whole Dem primary campaign in 76 revolved around the need for a more equal distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity. No, the candidate who won was Jimmy Carter, non-ideological, utterer of pablum, “I’ll never lie to you” Jimmy Carter. I remember the 76 campaign very well, and I doubt very much that the fact that Carter won and the fact that progressive legislative initiatives were defeated shortly thereafter are incompatible facts, as Paul Pierson wants them to be. Rather, the whole point of Carter’s campaign, as I recall it, was that he was not a standard-issue liberal Democrat but a new kind of Democrat, less wedded to ‘old’ assumptions and more willing to consider and even push things like deregulation. One of his economic advisors was Alfred Kahn, a leader in the push for airline deregulation, if I recall correctly. Even Ted Kennedy, perhaps sensing where the winds were blowing in this period, supported deregulation of the trucking industry, IIRC. So maybe Pierson’s general point is well-taken, but his specific example of 1976/1978 as evidence of an electoral politics/policy regime disconnect is, to me, quite unconvincing.


Henry 10.31.08 at 2:05 am

Phil – I have it as a WMA (that’s what my Olympus does), but can’t put it up cos it would trash my bandwidth – it is 20 odd megs. I thought about trying to seed it via BitTorrent, but that’s above my pay grad/technical competence …


LFC 10.31.08 at 2:27 am

And as an addendum to my point, Martin Bento @2 above is I think wrong to suggest that Carter “betrayed the progressives,” b/c the large majority of progressives didn’t support him in the first place. They held their noses and voted for him as the lesser evil compared to Gerald Ford, and that was it. Yes, there were exceptions, and yes, some liberals/progressives did serve in his administration (e.g. in the human rts bureau at State Dept), but for the most part, progressives were not Carter fans. Indeed, this was one of the factors that pushed Kennedy to make his ill-fated 1980 primary challenge to Carter.


Phil 10.31.08 at 3:05 am

Henry, what about uploading to mediafire? That’s relatively simple. You do have to set up an account. Thanks again.


Martin Bento 10.31.08 at 8:07 am

LFC, I don’t think that contradicts my point. Progressives may not have liked Carter, but they voted for him, in the General, because they had no choice. And he betrayed them, as they thought he would. The thing is that Carter has been painted as the ultimate liberal President, when, from what I gather, a lot of Democrats and, yes, even progressives backed him because McGovern had fallen so hard that they thought a real liberal could not win. I don’t think that fair, as McGovern had his own party stabbing him in the back, but so it goes. Carter could screw the liberals at the last time liberals were strong in this country, and what could they do? OK, they tried a primary challenge, but that just ended up helping Reagan. The structure lends itself to this kind of screw-the-base activity on both sides.


Martin Bento 10.31.08 at 8:19 am

All that said, I am being flippant here. I do think there is such a dynamic and it is a serious problem, but it is one of many factors.


MarkUp 10.31.08 at 12:43 pm

I am glad we still Carter around to whip and revise around. Did you know Judas and Jimmy both start with “J”?

Comments on this entry are closed.