Tuesday, March 15, 2011
In Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, he proposes that Richard Nixon, as a young man, based on his own personal sense of exclusion, had an insight that would help to define American politics for the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.
Nixon first marshaled a politics of resentment when he ran for Congress against Helen Gahagan Douglas, who he labeled the “pink lady,” and criticized as a celebrity. He deployed the same principle in his crusade against Alger Hiss, who he accused of being an effete intellectual and a traitor.
Nixon rode a wave of resentment to the presidency in 1968, when he realized that many northern, white members of the middle and working classes resented anti-war protestors and civil rights activists. He fostered the concept of a “silent majority,” and encouraged Republicans to integrate a politics of resentment into their political DNA.
Ronald Reagan expertly learned this lesson, turning his sights on the supposed privileges of public assistance and affirmative action. The definition of a Reagan Democratic was a member of the white working class, formerly a Democrat, who had moved to the Republican Party, largely driven by a sense of cultural exclusion.
The trends continued through both Bushes, as the cultural field expanded to include gays, feminists, and others who were deemed to be demanding “special rights,” and thus threatening an increasingly economically insecure white middle class. The strategy was remarkably resilient and successful.
So Republicans then turned their attention to public union employees. According to the New York Times, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, consciously has striven to represent public employees as the new welfare queens. And such rhetoric seems central to Republican attempts to frame the issue.
But it’s not working. One clear problem is that those now offered as the targets of resentment are some of the same as those that were previously being mobilized. Members of the white middle and working classes, some of whom were peeled away from the Democratic Party via Nixonian strategies, are now being themselves cast as lazy, privileged, and selfish. So then who is left to mobilize?
Do Republicans believe that they can turn even more disenfranchised citizens--minimum wage workers, the unemployed, and mortgage refugees-- against teachers and firefighters, using their time-honored strategy?
Last Saturday, according to some estimates, 100,000 people turned up in Madison to protest Republican labor policies, including farmers, cops, private union members, firefighters, teachers, custodians, medical workers, and more.
The Republican politics of resentment may have played itself out, and the Republican Revolution is now in the process of unsuccessfully attempting to eat its own children.