Friday, October 31, 2008

Thoughts on DeNixonification

I've been thinking quite a bit about Trend's post of a couple of days ago where he argued that Obama could start the deNixonification process in America.

I think there's something to it. It is possible although it is a long row to hoe.

But I also think it is worth considering this matter historically. There is the fact that Nixon semi-permanently damaged the American political system and body politic by his cynical acts. These actions were then built upon by other cynical politicians such as Reagan and Clinton and followed up with Congressional corruption and other acts that disillusioned a large section of the American public.

But there is also a sense of myth to this. To believe this entire construction, as I did before I really thought hard about it, is to ignore the Gilded Age. This is not the first time that the voting public has hated politicians and had no respect for the political system. Between about 1870 and 1901, most Americans had nothing but contempt for the people who ran their nation. This was a period of weak presidents and a strong but corrupt Congress. It was almost assumed by most Americans that if you were in Congress, you were probably taking bribes. And both parties essentially did whatever corporations wanted. I know this sounds nothing like the present.

The Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872 was just one of many times when the American public had little reason but to show contempt for their politicians. To be brief, the Union Pacific railroad decided to create a nonexistent company that they could funnel money to in order that they could be paid more for building the Transcontinental Railroad. They charged at least $23 million extra dollars for building the railroad, all of which went into the hands of executives and the politicians needed to make the scheme work.

Among the politicians implicated: Vice President Schuyler Colfax, future president James Garfield, future presidential candidate and powerful Maine senator James Blaine, and about 10 other congressmen and senators.

You can imagine the contempt and cynicism such actions, particularly when repeated time and time again, would have on the American public.

The difference between the 1880s and 2000s is that people still voted in large numbers, often over 80% turnout of the voting age population. And while I am not an expert on voting patterns of the Gilded Age, I believe this had more to do with local politics, patronage, and left-over feelings from the Civil War than any real belief that the person at the top of the ticket was worth a damn.

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt came along and was a refreshing figure that took America in a new direction and really changed how Americans looked at the presidency and politicians in general. Don't get me wrong, I really despise TR. But he does show that a young, idealistic, activist president can make a difference in how people see politicians.

So why do we have this strong myth about everyone respecting politicians and looking up to the president before Nixon. Even during previous periods of high political engagement with low levels of corruption or other cynicism-producing activities, there was significant discontent with the government from large groups of the population.

Thus, I am wondering if this idea of a pre-Nixon past where everyone looks up to the president for leadership isn't a result of McCarthyism. The erasure from public space of real opposition to national leadership was a part of that plastic 50s world of Leave it to Beaver, Mom having Dad's martini ready when we walked in the door, and using your school desk to protect you from the atomic bomb. Of course this was the same world where we killed Ethel Rosenberg, where redbaiting was a part of life, when Mom was killing her own pain and boredom through Valium, and where Dad was the man in the gray flannel suit.

I think that this idea of a heroic political past is a specific historical phenomenon of the 1950s that doesn't really stand up to historical analysis. Like so much of baby boomer culture, this idea has been made normative and the lack of it defined as abnormal. But I would say that the last 35 years are at least as common in American history as the idealized Cold War world.