The Nixon Legacy of Resentment Lives On

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.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.