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nixon’s revenge

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to articulate an observation about post-war Republican politics – Nixonites have been the dominant group in elite GOP politics since the early 1950s until the present. I don’t consider this to be an original observation, but I do think that it’s been underestimated in its importance.

If you buy my argument about the importance of this observation, you might believe that it is a mistake to view the modern GOP as the party run by free marketers and social conservatives. Instead, these two factions have been subordinated to a third faction – the Nixonites – who endorse a different agenda focusing on foreign interventionism, national security, and increasing executive power. In other words, the narrative about Goldwater as the guiding light of the post-war GOP is wrong. Nixon, and his allies, have driven the agenda since the late 1940s. Other Republicans (Eisenhower, Goldwater, Reagan) represented factions who, at most, were allowed a seat at the table created by Nixon.

First, consider the following facts about the elite Republican leadership:

  • Nixon and his coalition were able to put themselves on the national ticket in 1952, which displaced earlier liberal Republicans.
  • Nixon and his personal friend Gerald Ford were in office in 1969-1975.
  • Regan – who had a different base than Nixon – had to accommodate another Nixon appointee – GHW Bush – as VP in 1980.
  • Bush (a Nixon appointee) was president from 1989-93 and brought in more Nixon/Ford appointees (e.g., Cheney) to run things.
  • Bush II’s campaign was run by a mix new folks (Rove, Hughes) and assisted by more old Nixonites (James Baker).
  • Bush II’s administration, until about 2006 or so, was lead by Nixon and Ford appointees (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell).

The Nixon network (him and former staffers/appointees) have been in control of the presidency or vice presidency every time the GOP has won the national election. Furthermore, this network has controlled key national security positions very often in GOP administrations.

How does play out in policy? First, cultural conservatism and market economics are occasional pay-offs to coalition members and talking points for the media, not core agenda items. These issues will be quickly sacrificed to win general election contests, though they might still play a big part inside the party (e.g., GOP politicians bow to pro-lifers in the primaries, but run away from the issue in the generals). In the 1970s, Nixon was notorious for pushing extremely liberal policies, just to drive a wedge in the opposition. Similarly, the last Bush administration was happy to drop cultural or economic hot button issues if they threatened to interfere with policy initiatives related to the War on Terror (e.g., faith based org subsidies, social security privatization).

Second, the consistent theme, going back to the late 40s, is that the Nixon wing has been, almost without major exception, in favor of international interventionism. The GOP seems to have approved of nearly every American projection of power overseas, no matter which party is behind it. It’s fairly rare for policy makers in this orbit to call for pull backs in military interventions or to admit that any significant projection of force was a mistake. This view, of course, requires continual expansion of the executive branch’s power.

My colleague Hans Noel pointed out that the Nixonites occupy a niche found in every party: the people who like institutions of power and who are interested in getting more of it. From this view, it makes sense that national security and executive power, not markets or culture, form the basic worldview of the Nixon wing. National security is more compatible with sustained control of the party and state than cultural politics (which can alienate people outside your cultural group) or radical free market politics (not the majority view of most Americans).

If you believe this story, then conservative politics was not “reborn” after the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and cemented by Reagan. Instead, the Nixonites allowed this new ideological trend to be the face of the party, but they retained control over the institutional functions of the party, as evidence by Nixon’s resurgence. This observation explains a lot of other puzzling feature of Republican politics. This is not the party of small government, it’s the party of national security. The party of individual liberty and self-reliance is actually the party of “enhanced interrogation.” The idea tying it together is national security, with superficial appeals to whatever helps win the election.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 3, 2009 at 12:29 am

24 Responses

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  1. […] Read Fabio Rojas’ illuminating post on the centrality of Nixonite networks and their priorities within the GOP for well over a half-century. Highlights: [T]he narrative about Goldwater as the guiding light of the post-war GOP is wrong. Nixon, and his allies, have driven the agenda since the late 1940s. Other Republicans (Eisenhower, Goldwater, Regan) represented factions who, at most, were allowed a seat at the table created by Nixon. […]

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    The Party of Nixon

    June 3, 2009 at 3:23 am

  2. Wow, I didn’t expect a post as accessible & political as this at orgtheory. Hats off, Fabio. I was reminded a bit of this from Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings.

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    teageegeepea

    June 3, 2009 at 4:07 am

  3. […] don’t have to regularly read orgtheory (as I do, despite my disdain for sociology) to like Fabio Rojas‘ elucidation of the dominant faction in the GOP since the 50s. It’s message of […]

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  4. Between 1952 and 2008, there was only one presidential election year (1964) when the Republican ticket did not include Richard Nixon, Bob Dole or one of the two George Bushes.

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    Kieran

    June 3, 2009 at 12:47 pm

  5. You just broke my heart.

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    Josh

    June 3, 2009 at 3:48 pm

  6. This article ignores the fact that Nixon was not a “foreign interventionist” but a realist on foreign policy who championed policies like detente that the interventionist neoconservatives (who have since taken over the party on foreign policy after 9/11) explicitly rebelled against.

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    Erik

    June 3, 2009 at 5:23 pm

  7. Erik: You raise a valid point, but I’d argue that 70s detente was an exception of a life long pattern. Nixon was a hawk in the 50s; he advocated further action in Cuba during the 1960s; only withdrew the US from Vietnam in his second term; expanded the war into Cambodia.

    For ex, from the Columbia encyclopedia:

    “In the Senate, Nixon denounced President Truman’s policy in Asia, supported Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s proposal to expand the Korean War, and attacked the Democratic administration as favorable to socialism.”

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    fabiorojas

    June 3, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  8. Very thought-provoking. I agree that Nixonian foreign policy has been dominant in the Republican Party, but I’m not sure that cultural conservatism is simply a pay-off to the far right. I think this ignores the extent to which cultural conservatives have become the backbone of the Republican Party in the past 25 years. Cultural conservatism and Christian right ideology was deeply ingrained in the Bush administration — prayer sessions in the White House, the global gag rule, stem cells, etc. And what is interesting to me about Nixon is that, as much as I loathe the guy, his administration had some fairly progressive domestic initiatives (especially with regard to drug policy) which would have a hard time passing in the current cultural and political context.

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    bedhaya

    June 3, 2009 at 7:17 pm

  9. That’s an awesome post. Fascinating stuff.

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    toddh

    June 3, 2009 at 7:28 pm

  10. I am surprised that you did not mention Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, nor Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex.

    I think you’re correct, by implication, that Nixonland — the resentments Nixon fanned, exploited, and exemplified — benefits the MIC, which is why the Nixonian GOP is more consistently wedded to militarism and interventionism than any other single issue.

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    Doctor Science

    June 3, 2009 at 11:01 pm

  11. Its a really interesting thesis Fabio.

    I guess I’d ask–in true academic fashion–whats the null hypothesis?

    One is certainly that the Nixon era gave way to Goldwater which begot social and fiscal conservative wings that have been in an uneasy truce ever since.

    But another is that the Bush Administration was ambushed by the spawn of the Ford Administration. I think its an important distinction. I would say that the understanding I came to of Cheney and Rumsfeld was that their views on the balance of power and the role of the presidency and the role of war was shaped out of the experience of watching Nixon go down so dramatically and from watching the War in Vietnam — the war they became responsible for — take such a dramatically bad turn. So, rather than being captured by Nixon’s philosophies, they forged a new philosophy out of the failures they experienced when they were in power.

    It doesn’t necessarily contradict your point, but I think its an important if subtle difference in the mechanism that gets you there.

    It does still suggest that there was basically a split after the Ford administration. Rebuilding the party, one side went toward free market principles and, eventually, toward an alliance with social conservatives; largely southern democrats who were alienated by the drift of the Democratic party. Neither of these were connected to the Nixon/Ford faithful. The Nixon/Ford crowd — which began and ended with Cheney and Rumsfeld — was never as ideological. They were political pragmatists. Nevertheless, I would say my prior assumption on this would be that Bush II was a resurgence of the faction rather than the tail end of a consistently dominant faction.

    If we want to take the psychologizing a step further, its not too far a stretch to see why Bush II would cast his lot with that crowd. There was (and remains) a strong desire to right the mis-steps of a previous generation–whether that’s the Nixon, Ford or Bush I Presidencies.

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    Sean Safford

    June 3, 2009 at 11:04 pm

  12. The GOP did, by and large, oppose US intervention in the former Yugoslavia back when Clinton was President. For whatever that is worth.

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    EngineerScotty

    June 3, 2009 at 11:17 pm

  13. […] Swinging, Bay-bee 2009 June 3 by C.S. Stieber Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, peep this good theorizing from one fabiorojas at […]

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  14. I read this post this way:

    The Nixonites = Moe;
    the Libertarians = Larry;
    and the Theocrats = Curly.

    So sure, Moe’s in charge!

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    paradoctor

    June 4, 2009 at 12:50 am

  15. I’m also reminded of the Iron Law of Institutions.

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    teageegeepea

    June 4, 2009 at 3:25 am

  16. You’re forgetting one of the most enduring of Tricky’s Time Bombs: the War on Drugs. This has been used to garner ever more power to the Executive Branch courtesy of ‘drug exceptions’ to the Bill of Rights, in order to use it as a culture war weapon against those the Right has always hated and feared: ‘libruhls’ in general and minorities in particular. The Nixon Tapes and the diary of his right hand man HR Haldeman make that quite clear.

    It is the War on Drugs, with those ‘drug exceptions’, that poured the foundation for the so-called ‘PATRIOT Act’ and the subsequent MCA. Tricky’s Juggernaut is still trundling along, destroying lives and liberties, every day. That may prove to be his most lasting – and destructive – legacy.

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    kaptinemo

    June 4, 2009 at 3:36 pm

  17. And dont forget the “China deal”.We have shipped our industrial base and technology to them.China now will be building GMs electric car {remember the one they killed here?}What did we think the China deal was about….freedom?

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    truthynesslover

    June 4, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  18. Nixon’s role shouldn’t be overlooked, to be sure. Cheney and Rumsfeld formed much of their approach in response to Watergate – Cheney tried to excuse Iran-Contra – and then we had the Bush administration.

    You’ve read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, I imagine?

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    Batocchio

    June 4, 2009 at 4:40 pm

  19. […] month, Fabrizio Ferraro’s post on his blog, orgtheory, theorized that Nixon policies, especially foreign policies continue to drive the agenda of both […]

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  20. I totally disagree with this post. Firstly, your definition of “Nixonite” is faulty. Everyone who served in the Nixon administration was not a “Nixonite”. The Nixon administration, like every GOP administration from 1952 to 1988, was a coalition of liberal Republicans (the Rockefeller-Kissinger wing of the party) and conservatives (e.g. Nixon). It is the liberal Rockefeller / Kissinger faction that has been the dominant group in elite GOP politics from the early 1950s until the present.

    Nixon, Reagan, and Goldwater were in the same faction: conservative cold Warriors who supported containment.

    Eisenhower, Ford, and Bush I were members of the liberal faction.

    It would be more accurate to say that the liberals allowed conservatives like Nixon and Reagan a seat at the table than the other way around.

    “Nixon and his coalition were able to put themselves on the national ticket in 1952, which displaced earlier liberal Republicans.”

    Nixon was not “dominant” from 1952-60, Ike was.

    “Nixon and his personal friend Gerald Ford were in office in 1969-1975.”

    But Ford was not a conservative like Nixon, and Ford in any case was the Emperor to Kissinger’s Shogun. Calling it the “Nixon-Ford” era obscures the fundamental policy changes after Watergate (liberal Republicans in power, conservatives out), which was a silent coup by the Kissingerites against Nixon.

    “Reagan – who had a different base than Nixon – had to accommodate another Nixon appointee – GHW Bush – as VP in 1980.”

    Reagan had the SAME base as Nixon – conservative Cold Warriors based in the South and West.

    “Bush (a Nixon appointee) was president from 1989-93 and brought in more Nixon/Ford appointees (e.g., Cheney) to run things.”

    Bush and all the people he appointed were Kissingerite liberals, not conservatives like Nixon.

    “Bush II’s campaign was run by a mix new folks (Rove, Hughes) and assisted by more old Nixonites (James Baker).”

    Again these people were all from the Kissingerite liberal faction for all that they served in the Nixon administration.

    “Bush II’s administration, until about 2006 or so, was lead by Nixon and Ford appointees (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell).”

    Yet more Kissingerite Republicans.

    Now, if you wanted to argue that the Kissingerites had been the dominant faction in the GOP since 1973, you’d really have a coherent, correct post.

    “the consistent theme, going back to the late 40s, is that the Nixon wing has been, almost without major exception, in favor of international interventionism”

    The actual consistent theme is that the Nixon wing (i.e. the conservatives) favored containment of the USSR while the Kissingerites favored detente with the USSR and later, China. Yes, detente started under Nixon – but only to give him some breathing room to restructure containment. The Kissingerites hijacked detente for completely different purposes (to destroy containment).

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    Tarl

    June 5, 2009 at 1:59 am

  21. […] orgtheory.net: nixon’s revenge […]

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  22. […] via nixon’s revenge « orgtheory.net. […]

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  23. […] least that’s the case made in this very interesting post by Fabio Rojas over at orgtheory (via Will Wilkinson): …[I]t is a mistake to view the modern GOP as the […]

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