Navigating Nixonland
Rich Perlstein's most recent book takes a look at conservative history in the 1960s.


NRO: I’d argue that Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? treats strains of conservatism throughout the last century as anomalous. The fundamental thesis of What’s the Matter With Kansas? is obnoxious – the idea that people who are voting for conservatives are voting against their economic interests as a result of being hoodwinked by social concerns. There’s a lot of evidence that that’s not true and it’s wrongly dismissive of conservatives who, say, care about how government values human life.

Perlstein: Frank talks about how the poorest county in the country was one in Wyoming that went 70 or 80 percent for Bush. You can argue there are perfectly good reasons to vote for Bush, and that might be a useful and thoughtful debate. Lots of liberal and progressive intellectuals have found Tom’s approach worse than useless. I found a lot that’s useful. When they say Tom Frank argues that it’s illegitimate, strange, or worthy of note to vote for conservatives even though it’s not in one’s economic interests, or to vote for reasons other than economics, what he’s recording is a very, very important shift in the relationship between conservatism and voters. I think this is an important point.

Conservatives no longer defend the idea of voting for conservatives on economic grounds. In the 1970s and 80s, you would say of course you’re going to vote for a Republican, of course you’re going to vote for a conservative, it’s in your economic interest to do so. It’s much harder to make that argument now. That’s a very important subtext of Tom’s book. Once conservatives were no longer able to make the argument, “Hey you lower middle class person, vote conservative because we’re going to pull you up into the middle class” . . . [they turned to the] very different argument “Hey lower middle class person, vote conservative because we’re consistent with your moral values.”

NRO: But isn’t it harder for conservatives to make that argument because they outright won a lot of those economic arguments, and Democrats moved substantially to the right on economic issues, such as taxes and welfare reform?

Perlstein: Yes – but conservatives moved to the right substantially too. The whole center of gravity moved to the right. The fact that a responsible, network anchor like Charles Gibson can go on TV and say gee that’s terrible for middle class Americans making over 200K a year that you could cut the capital gains tax because that always decreases fed revenue. Every economist in the universe who has any respectability whatsoever was able to debunk that within 15 seconds. The fact that he could get away with that shows how far the center of gravity has shifted to the right. Some of that is salutary. The fact that you couldn’t get welfare if there was a father in the home was something that was in profound need of reform. Liberals had called for that reform since the 1950s. . . But yeah, I think that liberals became ossified and arrogant in the 1960s and 1970s. But we see some of that same ossification among conservatives now where they’re running the same Reagan game plan when younger Americans seem to be turning against it in droves.

NRO: Uh, no comment. Why do you think liberals and progressives have been so obsessed with the 1960s, even to their detriment?

Perlstein: The 1960s are the very ground and horizon of our present political conflicts. You could say, why were Americans so obsessed with the Civil War at turn of the century America? It’s the formative experience that shapes our political life.

NRO: What I’m saying is that they’re obsessed with caricaturized version of 1960s – think of hippies, Woodstock, Vietnam protests etc. when as you ably chronicle in your book, there were all these foundational changes on the right and elsewhere. Why do they ignore all these other developments?

Perlstein: Well, it wasn’t just the left. They dominated across the political spectrum. Why did this version of events dominate so long? Well, because for a long time liberals in the left were much more hegemonic among the opinion classes. The opening up of opinion journalism and the political world to conservatives helped. But by the time I was starting Nixonland, there was nothing controversial about what I was writing. That liberals have been shaken up by conservative ascendancy is a very good thing.