Political Animal


January 09, 2013 11:43 AM The Nixon Legacy of Resentment Lives On

By Ed Kilgore

As an add-on to the last post, it’s worth emphasizing that while the policy legacy of Richard M. Nixon has been discarded and implicitly denounced as Satanic by contemporary conservatives, the cultural politics he pioneered is more popular on the Right than ever. One of the major themes of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland book is how the man was driven by resentment of elites, and more specifically, of people he thought looked down on him as a self-made man. This attitude, which echoed ancient right-wing “populist” forms of “producerism” distinguishing between productive and unproductive forms of wealth accumulation (manufacturing and farming good, finance bad), was concentrated by Nixon and the conservative theorists of his era into a diagnosis of America’s problems as flowing from a toxic coalition between “new class” elites and a dependent “underclass.”

You can obviously see that same theory of virtuous working folk, ranging from honest (non-union!) proles to the Koch Brothers, being despoiled and looted by “liberal elites” in cahoots with those people everywhere on the Right. One prominent conservative writer, Victor Davis Hanson, has made it the obsessive centerpiece of endless jeremiads about the portentous decline of California, in which wealthy (but unproductive!) environmentalists on the Coast have conspired with undocumented workers, public employees, and beneficiaries of transfer payments to ruin the lives of Central Valley small business owners, farmers, ranchers and suburbanites.

Millions of words have been written about Nixon’s “southern strategy,” but it’s often underappreciated that his broader scheme for building a durable Republican political majority involved the the detachment of Catholic working-class voters (later labeled “Reagan Democrats”) and others discontented with snooty professors and those people from the party of the New Deal. The very same vision, based not on economic interest but on cultural resentment, remains extraordinarily central to Republican politics today. From wherever it resides, Nixon’s ghost must be smiling at the general spirit of latter-day conservatism, mixed with dismay at the clumsiness with which successors like Mitt Romney have pursued the presidency.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on January 09, 2013 12:09 PM:

    The very same vision, based not on economic interest but on cultural resentment, remains extraordinarily central to Republican politics today.

    And given how thoroughly those politics have demarcated (and alienated) itself from the majority of Americans, its all the more amazing it continues to endure.

  • c u n d gulag on January 09, 2013 12:12 PM:

    I don't think where Nixon is, that he's doing much smiling.

    It's kind of hard to smile, when an incubus is occupying every orifice, pleasuring themselves on Dick with their white hot, trident-tipped ______'s.

    I wish I really did believe in Hell.
    Because then, I would feel better that W, the other Dick, Cheney, and Rummy, among others, would join The Trickster for an eternity of suffering.

  • Anonymous on January 09, 2013 12:13 PM:

    It should not be forgotten that the man was also clinically certifiable.

    The most precise psychiatric diagnosis of Nixon was given by Hunter Thompson who noted that when Nixon appeared on TV to defend his Watergate actions "The American people gazed deep into his haunted eyes for the first time and saw bats flying around inside."

  • Ron Byers on January 09, 2013 12:51 PM:

    Perhaps Nixon's greatest legacy were his followers most of whom remained in Washington working hard all their professional lives to promote is distopic imperial American vision. The lesson people like Dick Cheney and Roger Ailes learned from Dick Nixon was Nixon's hatred of his enemies didn't go far enough.

  • bigtuna on January 09, 2013 12:52 PM:

    I think there are good data to indicate the trickster had some real issues in terms of emotional or personality disorder. The meme of a "self made man" who was looked down on is one that always made me wonder. What exactly did he make himself into? He was basically an opportunistic, dishonest pol. He was never success ful in biz, academics, etc. Perhaps there was an element of self loathing also?

  • Ron Byers on January 09, 2013 12:54 PM:

    "his dystopic . . . vision" is what I thought I typed, but again my fingers let me down.

  • reflectionephemeral on January 09, 2013 1:58 PM:

    Holy cow, I write about this like five times a day over at my blog. You have to read about Pat Buchanan's 1971 memo on the Southern Strategy, "Dividing the Democrats", to understand how GOP allegiance became a matter of pure identity politics without any policy content whatsoever. That appeal began as a tactical gambit, but now accounts for substantially all GOP rhetoric and policy proposals.