Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Reading Obama through Nixonland

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is a magnificent recounting of the dramatic, exhilarating, painful madness those who lived it and those who are glad to have come after it call "the Sixties." The book's 881-page length suggests something of the scale of Perlstein's project.

Here's the author's summation:

I have written of the rise of two American identities, two groups of Americans, staring at each other from behind a common divide, each equally convinced of its own righteousness, each equally convinced that the other was defined by its evil. ... I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of incommensurate visions of apocalypse; two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.

Those days were part of my political youth. I was present or near some of the book's high and low points.

Perlstein brought back to me what I had forgotten (repressed?) -- just how very violent that period was. A housemate of mine who was beaten and jailed for trying to hitch hike through Wyoming with long hair was no rarity. A fellow running next to me was shot with police birdshot during one of Ronald Reagan's demonstrative repressions of University of California students. Yet this very ordinary violence against white "hippies" was nothing on what went on in communities of color. Perlstein resurrects the long buried history of the repressive forces of the state reveling in random murder in the Newark black ghetto -- and of the media's complicity in teaching us these crimes were the prototypical "urban riot." The other side (my side of the divide) could be destructive also, though did not usually have the weaponry and social sanction to do as much physical damage to our opponents -- at worst, my folks usually burned property, not people.

I don't know whether our oh-so-forward looking President has read Nixonland, but I have no doubt that his "bipartisanship" twaddle is about hoping to move beyond the divide chronicled by Perlstein.

To some extent, Obama's election suggests we have moved to a new social configuration, new dividing lines. Communities of color make up more of us and are more part of the political class than in Nixon's time. (Perlstein is nowhere near as good a chronicler of those communities as he is the doings of mostly white, insider political participants, but they are not really his subject.) What's left of the labor movement, especially its leadership, works to make common cause with the progressives. (White "creative" progressives are not so good at making common cause in return, but we're working on it.) Except when scared to death, very few of us have much tolerance for far-flung wars. (That's a problem for a Democrat trying to look tough.) The momentary circumstances of the 2008 election -- financial collapse and a monumentally failed Republican incumbent -- helped paper over the remaining Nixonlandian gulf.

And obviously this summer's eruption of birthers, tea-baggers, and townhall screamers shows how close fear of apolcalypse remains.

If Obama wants to govern, rather than simply endure the next three years as a punching bag, he is going to have to defeat reaction before he can try to heal our Sixties-era brokeness. Has he got it in him? This is what the health care fight will show.

And it will also show whether the potential emerging progressive coalition yet has it in it to take charge. I initially thought Obama's run was too early -- that the forces that might put him in office were not yet ready to coalesce. We're in for a nasty time if that proves correct now that he faces legislative hurdles. The risk of a bad health care reform is that progressives will get tagged with being unable to deliver for yet more years.
As great a piece of work as I think Perlstein's Nixonland is, I am not sure I agree with two of its central premises.
  • In my memory and anaecdotal experience, the 50s and early 60s consensus was nowhere near so firm as he seems to posit.
  • I have to wonder whether Nixon's personal demons were so central to cementing the divide. Absent this particular damaged man, wouldn't other political figures have exploited genuine social conflict? I tend to think so.
But those are topics for other times. Nixonland is such a rich text, I'll be mulling it for years.

The photo is from a pro-health care reform demonstration last week. Some of us old timers are still at it.


Darlene said...

I have not read the book, but so I don't know if he touched on this, but the divide in the country goes back before Nixon. FDR was reviled and hated by conservatives and they made their feelings known. To my knowledge nothing as bad as Kent State happened then, but there were so called race riots in the South. I was in a Muskogee, Oklahoma during WWII when one erupted.

I do believe that the Nixon era coalesced the division because since that time it has been 'tit-for-tat' in Washington and the nation.

Darlene said...

Oops! I need to proofread my comments. I edited the first sentence and left in a word (but) that should have been deleted.

janinsanfran said...

I agree Darlene, having grown up in a context where FDR was "that man" and where the election of Kennedy meant that the country had been turned over to the Pope.

That's my argument with Perlstein's consensus premise. I should read his earlier book that makes the case for his ideas: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

One of these days ...

Rick Perlstein said...

Jan, I've enjoyed your Nixonland blogging--and agree that my work can be misread as overplaying the "consensual" nature of the 1950s. What I really mean to imply is a FALSE sense of consensus at the time--that it really was a powder keg ready to blow (and often, during the 1950s, did blow). I think I may have underplayed that for dramatic emphasis; and overplayed the role of Nixon's personality--these things make a long book more accessible.

Civic Center said...

Wow. The author not only left a comment on your blog, but agreed with your mild criticisms. Hope you enjoy the mountains.