You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Did It All Start With Nixon?

The near-simultaneous publication of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland and Sean Wilentz's The Age of Reagan has stirred up a lot of controversy among the GOP history set.

Basically, the question boils down to, "Is conservatism all Nixon, or all Reagan?"

Perlstein--though he wrote the seminal work on Goldwater--argues that the conservative revolution was all culture war; all Southern Strategy; all resentment and Id: in essence, that it is all Nixon. George Packer replicated this view in his recent New Yorker piece--which leans heavily on Perlstein and Wilentz.

His thesis drew howls from the intellectual Right, who see Nixon as an apostate on the level of Nelson Rockefeller. National Review's review of Perlstein was succinctly titled "One of Them," meaning that Nixon--with his price controls, moral relativism, and atavistic desire to make peace with Mao and Brezhnev--was more like a liberal than "one of us." Jonah Goldberg, on The Corner, was pretty succinct:

"[F]or Packer, these terms--conservative and Republican--sometimes seem like interchangeable terms, while for me they are not. ... He begins by arguing, asserting really, that conservatism begins with Nixon in the late 1960s, when Tricky Dick crafted a strategy of exploiting resentments, which any student of intellectual conservatism knows is simply wrong."

The difference, as it always is in the minds of conservatives, has to do with first principles. If Nixon didn't believe the same things as Goldwater-Reaganites, they ask, and if his policies were diametrically opposed to theirs, how can we possibly consider him the Godfather of modern conservatism?

It's a good question. As far as I can tell, the answer goes something like this: Nixon's government was like pagan Rome, while Reagan's was like the Christian Empire after Constantine.

In other words, Nixon created the physical infrastructure--the electoral coalition, the tactics, and the cultural tropes that have sustained the GOP majority. When Reagan took the throne, he brought conservative ideology with him (just as Constantine enshrined his revolutionary religion) and turned Nixon's machinery to new ends.

The result was a synthesis.

The Reaganites came in determined to replace all the Nixon-Ford nostrums about the welfare state and d