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» Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Age of Nixon

By Stirling Newberry
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One of the most influential books in American history was written by a very young Arthur Schlesinger Jr. - "The Age of Jackson". Andrew Jackson is, rightfully, an iconic figure in the Democratic Party, creating the second pillar of what would become the party's philosophy: a public mandate for a public government. Jefferson had been at least as much a small "r" repbulican as a small "d" democrat. Jackson was a democrat with both upper and lower case first letter.

The age of Jackson ran from 1828, when he seized control of the political discourse, through 1859, when the party he constructed finally fell into a deep morass, sickened by its corrupt bargain with slavery. It is time to realize that when the history of late 20th century and early 21st century America is written, the it will be "The Age of Nixon".

Nixon, not Reagan, is the architect of modern American politics and the road to power. While he built upon changes made to American Democracy and politics by others, it was he who synthesized the means of taking and manipulating power. It was a very near thing. Nixon ran three times, and only once managed to get a majority of the vote, and never won either House of Congress with his coat tails. It would be to others to complete his architecture. In this sense it would seem impossible to compare him to Jackson, the man who swept all opposition before him, and his right hand man Martin vanBuren. For those whom analogies are found in elections, Reagan, at best, is the Jacksonian figure. A man who won two terms, had a working majority in Congress most of that time, and left his Vice-President in charge of the White House to mind the store.

But this misses the greater point, and the larger reason why the 1828-1859 period lived in the shadow of "Old Hickory". Namely, it was Andrew Jackson who brought with him, not only a new kind of party organization, but a new group of people to run the government, and a new system, dubbed the "spoils system", to staff the government.

Jackson was also instrumental in establishing what would be the monetary order of the period - and it is here that there is the second important parallel with Nixon. Jackson would end the Bank of the United States, essentially an early central bank, and effectively unhinge the American monetary system from a hard silver basis in the form of "Free Banking". From then until Lincoln would tax private notes, money was a free market caveat emptor commodity.

Nixon's unhinging of the US Dollar from an international gold standard had the same effect. From that point on, the regulation of currency would largely be from the supply and demand of the market place. In the wake of this creation of a free floating currency regime, very similar effects were seen, most specifically, a huge land rush.

As importantly Jackson and Nixon pursued the creation of a very similar electoral strategy - an alliance of the agarian West and plantation South against the industrial cites. Both alliances grew more defined with time, and progressively more dominated by the Southern wing at the expense of the populists. Both began with significant presence in the North-East which eroded to almost non-existence by the end of the period.

In both Nixon and Jackson then created the dominant means for people to advance themselves, and created the dominant presidential coalition. Jackson's coalition would win 1828, 1832, 1836, 1844, 1852 and 1856 - 6 of 8 elections. One could even argue that Tyler governed more as a Democrat than as a Whig after he was tossed out of his own party. Nixon's coalition took the White House in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004 - 7 of 10 elections.

The element of decentralization power would carry both coalitions - both were elected in reaction to political orders which had promised a centralized economy, and were perceived of as not having delivered the opportunity for the working man that had been promised.

- - -

But more importantly, both President's built on the mandate left by a more Federalist successor - John Quincy Adams and Lyndon Baines Johnson - to create a Presidency with more power, and a more contentious relationship with the other branches, including the Surpreme Court. It is in this paradox - of an imperial Presidency that claimed to be moving power out of Washington DC, that the tension in both coalitions rested. The reason for this tension can be seen in the men who were to transform the coalitions in both cases. In the Age of Jackson, that man was Polk - who went to war with Mexico, and as a result cemented an expansive Texas and expanded United States. In the Age of Nixon, it was Ronald Reagan. Both men were enormously successful and pushing through their programs and enormously popular in their own moment.

And both took a semi-coherent coalition, and forged it into a more unified and consistent one, one more firmly rooted in the South and the need for land expansion that the Southern economy relied upon.

And this too indicates the parallel of ending. The Jeffersonian policy of westward expansion was coopted by the need for slave states to move new areas for slave agriculture. Slavery and Free Soil expansion grew increasingly at odds with each other. Gradually, the entirety of the future lands to be settled were put in the reach of becoming slave states.

Nixon's land expansion was implosive, not explosive. The Age of Nixon grew the suburbs and expanded into the areas that had been sleepy rural villages or upscale bedroom communities. The claim made on the future in the Age of Nixon was an increasing claim on the flow oil. Oil to make gasoline, gasoline which allowed the ever increasing distances to transport and drive.

The Age of Jackson collapsed when the morality of the industrial cities -which was against chattel slavery, if not against economic servitude - combined with the free soil vision of expansion untethered to the slave economy. And if the Nixonian coalition is to fall, it will be because of a similar coalition - the metropolitan economy which is increasingly opposed to foreign adventurism to secure oil supplies, and the rural need for liquidity untethered to the military complex that feeds that adventurism.

In short, Jackson spawned, in the near term, a Democratic Party which became addicted to slavery, and even as it rose to be the dominant party, lost its moral fabric. The collapse of this version of the Democratic Party has left history viewing Jackson's accomplishments in the postive light of the expansion of the franchise, the creation of the political party appartus as an open structure for political participation, and the Presidency as a resiliant and active agent in government.

Nixon's age has followed a similar course, addicted to the easy money of post-Bretton Woods currency, land expansion tied to a violent substratum, and the increasing alienation of the industrial economy from the dominant coalition.

While Rove's hypnotization on numbers is often reported, the trend which was present in the run up to the Civil War is also happening in the present: namely the dealigning of the center from the dominant political coalition. Both the late period Democratic Party of the antebellum era, and the recent Republican Party, have relied upon a split between the day laboring and capital sectors of the vote. In the antebellum era this was expressed as a split between the early Republican Party and the "American" or anti-immigrant party. In the recent past, it is the split between the two varieties of centrism - populist centrism as expressed by Perot which is protectionist and anti-immigration much as the American Party was, and technocratic centrism. The disintegration of the Whig Party and the failures of the present Democratic Party can be traced to essentially the same root cause - the inability to establish a coherent basis for a coalition between these two wings of politics.

In our present it is the technocratic centrists who have most often been willing to desert the Democratic Party ideologically, just as the abolitionists were in the antebellum period, but it is the populist centrists who are most willing to desert the Democratic Party electorally, just as they were willing to back the Liberty Party and Free Soil Party in the antebellum period.

The Civil War and rebellion codified the idea of "the Union" in the minds of these two wings. It had been an idea which was increasingly important in the 1850's - after not having been heard since Jefferson's day - partially because the increasing polarization of the parties in was finally being accepted. In the same way, the great bipartisan consensus period - which began with FDR in 1933 - is still the psychological standard by which politics is measured. Both Jacksonian and Nixonian politics looked back at a monopartisan politics, even as they pursued increasingly bitter partisan warfare.

Whether there is some idea or factor to replace "Unionism" in the minds of the modern day anti-Nixonian political sphere is unclear. While the Nixonian coalition is dealigning, it must be supplanted with a new idea to create realignment.

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