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The Age of Richard Nixon – a study in cultural power

That said, however, I think that counter-factuals can be not only fun but, sometimes, illuminating.  I suspect that one of the reasons you ask whether Nixon today would be a Republican or a Democrat is an implied premise that many of Nixon’s policies were well to left of anything viable in the Republican Party today.  That is true enough.  Indeed, a few of his policies were arguably to the left of the Democrats today:  for instance, the health-care bill he proposed as president, which may have been more progressive than Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  Nonetheless, and in spite of all that, it’s not really possible to imagine Nixon as anything but a Republican:  simply because, for most of his career, his party affiliation was absolutely fundamental to his whole political identity.  He was the ultimate Republican partisan.  If he sometimes seemed a bit difficult to pin down ideologically, that was because he strove–quite successfully–to encompass the whole range of Republican opinion.  Early in his career, he maintained good relations with both the Midwestern isolationists whose natural leader was Robert Taft and the East Coast internationalists who supported Eisenhower.  Later on, he managed to convince both the Goldwater and Rockefeller factions of the party that he was “really” on their own side, though of course he had to make deals with the other side too.  In the 1940s and 1950s, he led the right-wing charge to convince America that Communist China was hell on earth.  As president in the 1970s, he adopted a Kissingerian “realistic” foreign policy and traveled to Beijing to open American relations with the People’s Republic.  If our imaginary young Richard Nixon were trying to establish himself as a major Republican politician today, he would certainly have to adjust or abandon a good many policies that the real-life Nixon advocated at various times.  But doubtless he would do so with consummate Nixonian skill.

Once culture has changed–and this is the problem that has been frustrating and infuriating the American right wing since the 1960s–it is even more difficult, and sometimes virtually impossible, to change it back again.

I should add one footnote, though, to what I’ve just said.  I said that Nixon was the ultimate Republican partisan for most of his career.  But in 1972 he pretty much abandoned his party. I suppose he reckoned that, as this would be his final race, he would not need the GOP again.  In any case, he marginalized and even humiliated the regular party machinery of the Republican National Committee, while concentrating resources in his own Committee to Re-elect the President (which Senator Robert Dole, the chairman of the RNC, promptly dubbed CREEP in retaliation). When faced with the choice of helping a Republican candidate in a tight race or just rolling up a bigger margin for Nixon in a state he was certain to carry anyhow, the Nixon campaign again and again chose the latter.  This policy turned out to be rather short-sighted during the depths of Watergate—not only because the Democrats had retained secure control of both houses of Congress, but also because many Republicans in those bodies began to doubt that they owed Nixon any greater loyalty than he had recently displayed toward them.

TMO: Let’s talk about “cultural power” and what it means, and more particularly about the cultural power of the presidency.

Freedman: One point I make in the book is that cultural power is the most diffuse and impalpable form of power.  Of course, I’m using the term “culture” not in the narrow sense of high culture–i.e., the fine arts–but in the big anthropological sense, a sense that encompasses the totality of intellectual and emotional frameworks that groups and individuals use to orient themselves toward the world.   Culture is not only something that happens (for instance) in art galleries and opera houses and classrooms.  It is equally something that takes place in churches and shopping malls, on baseball diamonds and in movie theaters.  Culture speaks in the sort of sexual desire we feel, in our preferences for casual television viewing, and in the impulses that move us in raising children.  We provide clues to our culture in the food we eat, in the games we play, and in the design of the houses in which we live.  Our culture is, in the end, very nearly the same as our way of life in general—or, more precisely, the conscious and unconscious ways that we adapt ourselves to our way of life and our way of life to ourselves.  Culture is therefore very difficult to change, and rarely does change in truly radical ways.  But sometimes it does.  And, once culture has changed–and this is the problem that has been frustrating and infuriating the American right wing since the 1960s–it is even more difficult, and sometimes virtually impossible, to change it back again.

The further main complication here is that cultural power, though distinct in nature from other forms of power–economic, political, legal, military–is by no means hermetically sealed off from them.  On the contrary, the different forms of power are constantly operating in relation to one another.  I believe that, when we think of power, we often have a military model unconsciously in mind:  a powerful person orders that something be done, and the less powerful subordinates carry out the order.  But this is a gross oversimplification even of how things happen with regard to real-world military power, not to mention the other, even less straightforward varieties of power; and one reason, though perhaps not the only one, is that cultural power is always interacting with the other kinds of power.  Culture is always making things less cut-and-dried, more difficult to pin down.  Nobody was more acutely aware of this than Nixon.  For instance, the functionaries of the executive branch of the federal government were, politically and legally, Nixon’s servants when he was president.  But he felt, strongly, that they weren’t actually operating in that way because the federal bureaucracy was dominated by a culture of Roosevelt-to-Kennedy liberalism.  To be sure, Nixon’s feelings on the matter were often exaggerated and sometimes nearly paranoid.  But they weren’t entirely wrong, by any means.

My book is mainly about cultural power as it interacts with political power. One of its major themes, as we’ve already discussed to some extent, is how Nixon helped–to a greater degree than any other single individual–to organize the cultural power of white racism in order to reconfigure partisan politics in America and to construct a fairly stable Republican majority for the first time since the 1920s.

Your question about the cultural power of the presidency is particularly interesting, because the answer seems somewhat ambiguous.  In one way, the cultural power of the presidency appears very limited.  After all, the White House cannot issue executive orders that regulate what kind of music Americans like to listen to, or the kind of sexual desire we feel.  Yet it is a commonplace of American political science that the main power of the presidency (leaving aside, perhaps, the power to order US troops into action) is the power to persuade, to use the “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt famously put it.  And is this not to say that the president has the opportunity to affect American culture to a degree that few other individuals can?  Not all presidents do so very efficiently, though.  Eisenhower was a popular president who did some important things; but, culturally, he exerted very little influence on the country.  Culturally–and to a considerable extent politically too–Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were ciphers.  On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan really did have an important impact on the culture of political and other life in America.  And Barack Obama?  That remains to be seen.

TMO: It’s interesting that you skip George W. Bush in your list of Presidents, listing him neither as a cipher or someone exerting cultural power. Isn’t it the case that American culture has changed radically in the short period of his two presidential terms? Obviously it has been as a result of 9/11, but surely also because of that straight-talking, underwhelming Texan’s response ushering in torture, detainment, wire-tapping, and kill lists – all of which have found tacit approval from Hollywood (24, Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty) through to Obama’s Oval Office.

Freedman: I suppose I’m a little reluctant to talk about Bush–or Obama–the way I talk about Nixon, because I feel it’s a bit too soon.  I prefer to have more historical perspective before attempting historical analysis of anything as tricky as cultural change.  But I can offer some preliminary impressions.

Bush made some extremely destructive economic, political, and military decisions: the tax cuts, the assaults on civil liberties that you mention (which, however deplorable, were by no means as unprecedented as the Bush-haters often claimed), and, by far the worst of all, the invasion of Iraq.  But culturally, I don’t see that he made much of an impact.  Though his approval ratings rose temporarily during periods of war hysteria, he never had any great enduring popularity:  remember that he lost the popular vote in 2000, and won it by a pretty slim margin in 2004.  I just don’t think that he ever really connected with the American people in the deep cultural way that Kennedy and Nixon–and Reagan–did.

One cultural aspect of the Bush Administration that has always fascinated me, though, is the degree of personal hatred he inspired.  You know, there’s a moment in The Godfather, Part Three when Al Pacino as Michael Corleone advises his nephew, “Never hate your enemies.  It affects your judgment.”  The late, great left-wing journalist Molly Ivins–who went to high school with Bush–tried to warn her fellow progressives about this.  She pointed out that, personally, Bush was a perfectly amiable guy, but that his personality was not what they should be focusing on:  that people should concentrate instead on his disastrous policies.  But the fact that Bush-hatred has proved almost as transient as his artificially inflated popularity tends, I think, to support my feeling that Bush had little profound cultural influence.  Not many people hate Bush today the way Nixon was hated–as well as loved–years and even decades after he left the White House.

With Obama, the problem of perspective is of course much greater.  After all, his presidency is ongoing as we speak.  But there is one thing I feel pretty certain of:  that no aspect of his presidency can be understood at all without due consideration of the most obvious thing about Obama, namely that he’s the first black president.  Race has been the most important cultural division in America from the beginning, and the most durable political division since at least the 1840s.  Whatever good or bad can be found in Obama’s presidency, whatever responses he’s inspired from right or left, have necessarily been deeply racialized.  Obama clearly wishes that this was not so, but I trust he’s intelligent enough to understand its historical inevitability.  Some of the racial aspects of the Obama presidency are very seldom discussed.  For instance, Melissa Harris-Perry, the African-American political scientist and journalist, caused quite a stir when she pointed out the racial feeling among the white leftists who judged Obama far more harshly than they ever judged Bill Clinton, say, or moderately progressive white Democrats in general.

TMO: The standard American political histories and biographies take for granted that individual presidents exert a direct control over the state during their terms of office. Reading a book like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States gives a different view, where in Nixon’s case, for example, Zinn suggests that the President’s resignation changed little in terms of domestic or foreign policy – in short that it was business as usual for the infamous military industrial complex. Would it be fair to say that the direct political power wielded by modern presidents has been over-rated, whilst their cultural power has been under-rated?

Freedman: I think that’s probably a pretty fair generalization, though of course there will always be many qualifications and complications to add.  You raise an interesting general problem.  Marxist historians–and, more generally, left-wing social historians like Zinn–have always taken issue with the cult of the “great man” and the old nineteenth-century historiographical emphasis on politics in the most narrow sense (e.g., what the president was doing).  Fair enough.  But it’s possible to carry the de-emphasis of the role of individuals in history too far; and any Marxist certainly ought to recognize that (as the great British Marxist historian and theorist Perry Anderson has insisted) the political dimension has its own relative autonomy and its own irreducible importance.

Now, of course no individual can truly bend history to his will in the sense of overriding the basic configuration of class forces.  But fundamental class forces can express themselves on the political level in various different ways; and these differences are by no means necessarily trivial–on the contrary, they can exert a major impact on the lives and deaths of millions.  Here individuals can sometimes have a real impact.  Let’s take the two most consequential US presidents (most consequential on both the cultural and political levels, I’d maintain) of the twentieth century:  Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  If Roosevelt had not been elected president in 1932 (and one can imagine that Herbert Hoover might have been re-elected, despite the Great Depression, or, alternatively, that the Democrats might have a nominated a much more conservative candidate, like John W. Davis), I see no reason to suppose that anything like the New Deal would necessarily have come to pass anyway.  Presumably, American capitalism would have found some way to reconstitute itself and weather the crisis of the Depression. For the forces that would have been required for successful socialist revolution do not seem to have been in play.  But we might have seen, for instance, the overthrow of electoral democracy itself, and the salvation of capitalism through a kind of American fascism.  Of course, even on the strictly political level, the New Deal was not Roosevelt’s achievement alone.  But it’s quite arguable that his leadership was indispensable to that particular solution to the capitalist crisis, which was perhaps the most humane solution attainable short of successful anti-capitalist revolution.

Now let’s fast-forward from the 1930s to the 1980s.  As Robert Brenner has quite brilliantly written, the international–mainly, at that point, Japanese and Western European–pressure on the profit margins of American capital required the end of the postwar settlement built atop the New Deal.  Clearly, a much harsher regime of exploitation was on the way.  Indeed, moves in this direction began during the Carter Administration.  But, if Carter had been re-elected in 1980–a perfectly conceivable scenario and one that seemed more likely than not during the summer–there is no reason to think that the attack on the living standards of working people would have proceeded in quite the same ferocious way that it actually did under Reagan.  For instance, it seems relatively unlikely that Carter would have smashed the air-traffic controllers’ union as Reagan did, a move that contributed mightily to the decline of the trade-union movement that continues to this day and that bears such a large share of the responsibility for the increasingly surreal levels of economic inequality in the US.

TMO: Margaret Thatcher is on my mind this morning, and in particular the complex reactions displayed by the British public to her death; these are obviously generalisations, but I wonder if the American public shows itself as more tolerant or forgiving, more respectful in relation to powerful political figures than the British or European public, if we contrast Thatcher’s death to Nixon’s (or Ronald Reagan)? When Nixon died, despite Watergate, despite his role in Vietnam, despite the violent divisions of the country during his presidency, with some notable exceptions (like Hunter S. Thompson) few took the time/energy to revile him (or similarly Reagan). He may not have been forgiven, but – from an outsider’s viewpoint – it seemed as if few wanted to hold him still accountable.

Freedman: Yes, the response to Thatcher’s death has been remarkable:  “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” and all that–though what really impressed me was Glenda Jackson’s brilliant speech in Parliament.  You’re quite right, of course, that the level of revulsion against her was quite unlike what we saw in America after the deaths of Nixon and Reagan.  I’d make two points about this discrepancy, one cultural and one more narrowly political.

The cultural point is simply that an American president, unlike a British prime minister, is a head of state.  Americans, I think, tend to be more respectful of their presidents, especially after they’ve left office and are no longer actively engaged in policy-making, because a president symbolically represents the country as a kind of walking flag.  True enough, this tradition of respect took quite a battering during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies–the era of the Vietnam War and of Watergate–and has never fully recovered.  But it’s by no means completely dead, either.  In the UK, of course, the monarch is the walking flag, and so it’s much more difficult for a prime minister to present himself–or herself–as representing the nation as a whole.  And if any prime minster could have done that, it surely wouldn’t have been Thatcher, with her wild unpopularity in Scotland, Wales, northern England, and the inner cities.   Indeed, my sense–correct me if I’m wrong–is that she was never much liked even by many of the people who voted Tory.

But the more specifically political point is probably the more important one here.  I think that Thatcher was much more deeply hated in Britain than Nixon or Reagan were in America simply because she was able to do much more damage than they were to the social fabric of her country.  An American president has enormous political power in foreign and military policy, but, domestically, his power is really quite limited by the standards of a British prime minister.  In the first place, much–arguably most–domestic governmental power is not exercised at the federal level at all; each of the 50 states remains for many purposes sovereign.  Moreover, even at the federal level the power of the White House is checked by Congress–even, often, when the same party controls the presidency and both the House and the Senate–and sometimes by the federal courts as well.  In Britain, by contrast, a prime minister with a solid majority controls Parliament in a relatively unproblematic way, and Parliament can do pretty much anything it wants to do.  During the 1980s, I often reflected that Reagan would doubtless have liked to do many of the things that Thatcher was doing–for instance, to the higher-education system–but just couldn’t, because political power is so much more diffuse in America.

Carl Freedman is the James F. Cassidy Professor of English at Louisiana State University. In addition to The Age of Nixon, he is the author of many other books and articles, including, most recently, Versions of Hollywood Crime Cinema: Studies in Ford, Wilder, Coppola, Scorsese, and Others. Contact and other information can be found at his website,

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