Tricky Dick’s Legacy: A Review of Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland”

Joshua Freeman in Dissent:

Perlstein can avoid grappling with how much did not change under Nixon because he devotes very little attention to domestic policy during that administration, to what the federal government actually did. He rightly points out that Nixon himself found foreign affairs and politics far more interesting. But what Nixon did on the domestic front suggests that his administration had more in common with the postwar liberal consensus than the neoliberal conservatism that followed. Nixon had no problem with expansive government, supporting or at least acquiescing to a domestic agenda far to the left of not only the current Republican Party but arguably today’s Democratic Party as well. Nixon supported the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed a guaranteed national income to replace the degrading and dysfunctional welfare system, accepted indexing of Social Security benefits to the cost of living, signed into law one environmental bill after another, supported using the previously sacrosanct Highway Trust Fund for mass transportation projects, made affirmative action a major weapon in the federal antidiscrimination arsenal, and even went so far as to use wage-and-price controls—a horrifying notion to free market ideologues—to check inflation. During the eight years Nixon was elected to serve as president (including the period when Gerald Ford finished out his second term), federal social spending, adjusted for inflation, rose at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent, compared to just under 8 percent during the Kennedy-Johnson years. Rather than a period of right-wing change, the Nixon administration represented the last great moment of liberal rule, even down to its fanatic, immoral pursuit of that horrifying project of postwar liberalism, the war in Vietnam.