Rick Perlstein’s first book on Barry Goldwater, Before the Storm, made him one of the most celebrated young historians in the country. Surprisingly, Perlstein’s unabashed progressive political activism did not prevent his scholarship from generating praise from the right. Indeed, Before the Storm received glowing reviews for its scholarship on conservatism from perspectives as various as that of William F. Buckley Jr. and Markos Moulitsas. Picking up largely where Before the Storm left off, Perlstein’s new book, Nixonland, grapples with the seismic political shifts occurring on the right and elsewhere between Johnson’s triumphant Democratic victory, and Nixon’s overwhelming reelection.
National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway sat down with Perlstein to discuss the historical terrain covered by Nixonland, as well as the import of conservative history for scholars of a variety of political dispositions.
NRO: You wrote a book about Barry Goldwater, and now you’ve written Nixonland, which deals with conservative history in 1960s, the factors that that led to Nixon’s success, the southern realignment, etc. It’s my general sense that liberal or popular historians don’t seem to be very interested in conservative history and ideology. Why are you?
Perlstein: That was true 10 to 15 years ago, but if you went to a decent graduate history program like Columbia you’d see that half of the people who are working on “modern American history” are working on conservatism so it’s not true anymore. I build my work on this very strong foundation of completely unsung scholarly monographic work on the right. There are also a lot of young historians who really have done the archival work. All my stuff on Frank Rizzo, for example, the Philadelphia mayor who was one of Nixon’s big conservative Democrat backers – that’s all from a master’s thesis by Jeff Decker, a graduate student at Columbia. If it ever was true, it’s not true now.
NRO: Well even if perception is changing in academic circles, the notion that is still prevalent among the left is that somehow Reagan and the religious right sprung from the skull of Athena fully formed in 1980 and there wasn’t a lot of movement conservatism preceding that. So if progressive historians like yourself are revising the popular narrative of the 1960s, what impact does that have on the current understanding of the political landscape and how can that help liberals?
Perlstein: Liberals have a very distorted history through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and even to some extent the 90s, of patronizing and condescending to conservative sentiment in America. They’ve always been blindsided. In 1966 when Ronald Reagan comes to the fore running for Governor, these jokes appear in Esquire which quip that maybe he’ll nominate Elizabeth Taylor as Superintendent of Public Instruction which was a really funny joke back then because Elizabeth Taylor was this super sex symbol. This idea she’d be teaching children was slightly risqué. Saw a lot of that in the 60s, a lot of that in the 70s, some in the 80s. I remember reading some TNR articles in the early 1980s that had the same kind of hooting derision at the notion of Ronald Reagan being president. . . At least in my circles in the progressive movement, that’s the not the case any more. Now I see more of that kind of sense of entitlement, condescension, and arrogance directed at liberals. When a movement has been in power for a while, it’s hard to achieve perspective.
NRO: That said, do you think there are any specific fundamental historical misunderstandings that have shaped progressive politics that still persist? That need to be addressed? Certainly you’re writing this book from your political perspective to fill a need.
PerLstein: Not so much. Again, I’m basing this on a pretty solid body of roughly liberal or liberal pluralist work on the right over the last 10 or 15 years. Are there any common misperceptions that are left? There are lingering ones like any scholarly endeavor, and achieving mature understanding is what Lenin called a combined and uneven development. But for the most part, I doubt you’d find a serious liberal writer today who would describe the conservative movement as an anomaly in American history or American life. I could come up with some picayune thing that people don’t get but the main contours of the story are already pretty strong. I think it would be hard for people to accept my work as they had, if the trail had not been blazed pretty well already.
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.