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To Noam Chomsky and Everyone Else: Richard Nixon Was Not a Liberal

[ 292 ] February 24, 2014 |

Oh Noam:

Three Democrats have held the position of commander-in-chief since the Richard Nixon era, but if you ask philosopher Noam Chomsky, it was the 37th president and infamous Watergate casualty who was truly the last liberal to preside in the Oval Office.

During a discussion on HuffPost Live, Chomsky weighed in on the minimum wage debate, blaming neo-liberals for keeping talk of wage increases off the table until now.

“It’s a shame that it’s taken so long to even be a discussion,” Chomsky said. “As for support, we may recall the last major program for helping families at the level of survival was under Richard Nixon. In many respects Nixon was the last liberal president.”

Sigh. Perhaps some images will help here. This is a liberal.

This is not a liberal.

I see this argument about Nixon all the time and it drives me crazy. It is deployed by progressives to express their frustration at the current political climate. Richard Nixon did this and that, say progressives. He signed all this environmental legislation. He amended the FLSA, says Chomsky. What has Carter, Clinton, or Obama done!

Richard Nixon was a liberal in no way. Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus. Nixon didn’t like signing those bills. He would have LOVED to rule in the 1980s when he could slash the welfare state, kill Central American commies, ignore the AIDS crisis, and undermine environmental regulations. But he couldn’t do that between 1969 and 1974. Nixon really wanted two things–to fight the Vietnam War and look like a world leader. He didn’t care much about domestic policy one way or another. Sure, if he had his druthers, he would have ruled conservatively. As it was, he wanted to build support for the war by signing relatively liberal legislation.

Perhaps some concrete examples will help. Nixon signed a spate of environmental legislation, ranging from the National Environmental Policy Act to the Occupational Safety and Health Act to extending the Clean Air Act to Marine Mammal Protection Act. But as Brooks Flippen has shown in his book analyzing Nixon’s environmental record, Nixon’s was completely indifferent to anything usually considered the natural world. You weren’t going to see Richard Nixon out hiking. He received no joy from nature at all. He weakened this legislation where he could. But Nixon recognized environmentalists for the political power it was. He thought that if he could sell himself as an environmental president, greens would then support his efforts in southeast Asia, or at least vote for his reelection. Beginning in 1972, when he didn’t need their help anymore, he indeed did begin vetoing legislation, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972. Because he hated the whole idea of it. Moreover, he knew that much of this legislation was passed with veto-proof majorities. He wasn’t going to burn political capital he needed in foreign policy on a useless veto for principle’s sake. He was a conservative in a time when he could not rule like a conservative.

What’s happening today is that even smart progressives are using Nixon as a uncontextualized figure to compare to everything they dislike about today. But this gives the presidency way too much power and essentially fetishizes the power of the presidency at the cost of a meaningful analysis of how political change is made in the United States. Unfortunately, if a law gets passed, the entire credit or demerit for it rests in the popular mind on that president and not on Congress or the millions of Americans who wanted it. This is a mistake.


The framing of this sums up the problem.
Richard Nixon didn’t do these good things for the environment, or at least certainly not by himself. Congress and the American people did. Nixon was making a shrewd political calculation by signing this legislation. He was more scared of environmentalists than business. Environmentalists held more legislative power than business in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until after the Powell Memo in 1971 that corporations got in gear and began pushing back. That coincided with the economic troubles and oil crises of the 1970s and the decline of the liberal consensus, opening the door for decades of conservative counterrevolution that continues today.

By thinking of our past and present entirely in terms of presidential politics, we make enormous mistakes in understanding how change occurs. No president is ever going to create the change we want. Only through organizing for policy changes does this happen. It’s not Barack Obama that is making gay rights a reality. It’s millions of gays and lesbians and their supporters demanding equality. Such was the same with civil rights and Johnson or New Deal policies and FDR. Electing the right president is important, but if you have enough power to scare politicians, they are likely to do more of what you want them to do than your enemies want them to do. That’s why Richard Nixon signed that environmental and economic legislation.

So I’d not only argue this Nixon as liberal construction is wrong, I’d argue it is dangerous because it distracts us from creating the change we want.

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  1. politicalfootball says:

    I see this argument about Nixon all the time and it drives me crazy. It is deployed by progressives to express their frustration at the current political climate.

    A minor edit: I’d propose (and I think you’d agree) that this is the one area in which progressives are correct in deploying this argument – as an expression of frustration with the current political climate. Of course, given the opportunity, Nixon would have been GW Bush or worse (if that’s possible). He just wasn’t given the opportunity.

    • NonyNony says:

      But this is a complaint about the Congress, not about the Executive.

      If people were honestly making the complaint that the last real liberal Congress we had was the 92nd Congress, I imagine that there would be a debate about it, but it would be a much different flavor of debate than the “Nixon was more liberal than any President we’ve had since” debate that is so much stupid it burns.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I remember roughly the feel of falling for this line. It’s a great one, really, nicely contrarian with enough of a soupcon of truth to make it compelling to the perpetually disappointed.

        I guess I’m not wildly surprised that Noam clings to it: I doubt he’s seriously reflected on it and it probably worked really well for a long time.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Also, I feel certain that he’ll be able to hedge his way out of it. “In certain respects” yadda yadda.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Oh well, if we’re going to look at specimens of the Nixon: Sooper-Liberal, I present exhibits A and B.

            The latter one is very funny, indeed.

          • Lee Rudolph says:

            I don’t think that Uncle Noam thinks much of “liberals”, any way, does he?

            • N__B says:

              He thinks liberals eat too much meat.

            • Dilan Esper says:

              I think Noam Chomsky is a leftist.

              Some of the errors that are made in these debates are made by people who think leftism is just a more intense version of liberalism. It’s not. It’s a very different ideology which arose from very different philosophical priors.

              Leftists and liberals are sometimes allied, but they are very different people, and given our 2 party system, leftists are very much anti-American (and I don’t say this really as a criticism) whereas liberals are fundamentally pro-American. There’s just a big difference between thinking this a country that gets most of the basic principles right but needs to live up to its promises, and thinking that this country is rotten to the core and founded on fundamentally unsound and evil principles and needs to be uprooted and overthrown. The fact that both groups might agree on, for instance, the need for national health insurance misses the fundamental disagreement.

              • Dana Houle says:

                It must be hard work, carrying a brush so gigantic that you can paint with such broad strokes.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  Not as hard as it is to pretend that there is no such thing as intellectual traditions or any attempt to describe how they inform people’s ideologies is “painting with a broad stroke”.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Some of the errors that are made in these debates are made by people who think leftism is just a more intense version of liberalism. It’s not. It’s a very different ideology which arose from very different philosophical priors.

                This is broadly true in Europe, but not so much in the US.

                Leftists in the US are largely more intense versions of liberals, and both grow out of the same strand that ran through the progressives and New Dealers. Attempts to get a non-liberal left from outside of that tradition started in the US have ended either with them joining into the liberal coalition, or become dead ends like the collection of boutique parties that randomly distribute “communist,” “socialist,” “workers,” and “revolutionary” into their names.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  This is broadly true in Europe, but not so much in the US.

                  Really?

                  I don’t find the distinction as Dilan articulates useful for any time since, at least, the 1980s in the US, and I certainly don’t see it in Europe.

                  Let’s take Nader/Greens in 2000. Lots of rhetoric about the duopoly etc. All action and proposed action is entirely reformist (win elections; get on the slate; get in on debates; maybe a few small whifts of voting reform; did they talk about the filibuster? I don’t think so).

                  Ok, maybe they aren’t left enough to count. But then who remains? I don’t recall Chomsky calling for a revolution. I guess some Earth First folks would count. PETA? (but they just suck)

                  It would be helpful to have some actual content to these distinctions.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  But then who remains?

                  Well, there’s MIM, but I fail to see how their movie reviews can be called a dead-end path.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  I don’t think you have to literally call for a revolution for your intellectual priors to be people like Marx rather than Mill.

                  One can oppose a revolution for instrumentalist reasons (too much change, too much can go wrong) and nonetheless feel that the liberal principles that the US was founded on were fundamentally illegitimate.

                  And I do think Chomsky is very much in that camp, as are a lot of other leftists (International ANSWER, etc.).

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  I don’t think you have to literally call for a revolution for your intellectual priors to be people like Marx rather than Mill.

                  Yes, but if it doesn’t affect tactics, strategy, or even ideal goals, a difference in priors doesn’t sustain an interesting distincdtion.

                  One can oppose a revolution for instrumentalist reasons (too much change, too much can go wrong) and nonetheless feel that the liberal principles that the US was founded on were fundamentally illegitimate.

                  Yes, but then so what? Most of the arguments are about strategy and tactics (well, an analytics). There is a strong line of “Because you endorse certain strategic moves you suck”, but that’s hardly intellectually interesting.

                  And I do think Chomsky is very much in that camp, as are a lot of other leftists (International ANSWER, etc.).

                  I don’t see how this remotely helps anything. Does Chomksy’s intellectual priors make “Nixon is, in many respects, the last liberal president” (or most liberal president of the past X years, or what have you) remotely more sensible? I don’t see how.

                  So I still don’t how your analysis explains, well, anything. It’s still remarkably content free. Chomsky thinks that the liberal principles that the US was founded on were fundamentally illegitimate?! Not for large values of “liberal principles”!

                  For example:

                  But the point is the ideological reason behind it. Social Security is a democratic system based on the principle that people care about each other, that we have a community responsibility to make sure vulnerable people are taken care of, so therefore there’s a huge attack on Social Security to try to dismantle it, even though there’s no issue.

                  You could appeal to things like:

                  CHOMSKY: The greatest threat to democracy right now is the transfer of decision making into the hands of unaccountable private power. It’s done by a lot of ways, but one of them is what they call “minimizing the state.” This is kind of paradoxical for me. I’m an old-time anarchist from way back. I don’t think the federal government is a legitimate institution. I think it ought to be dismantled, in principle; just as I don’t think there ought to be cages — I don’t think people ought to live in cages. On the other hand, if I’m in a cage and there’s a saber tooth tiger outside, I’d be happy to keep the bars of the cage in place — even though I think the cage is illegitimate. I think that image is not inappropriate. There are plenty of good arguments, in my opinion, against centralized government authority. On the other hand, there’s a much worse danger right outside. The centralized government authority is at least to some extent under popular influence, and in principle at least under popular control. The unaccountable private power outside is under no public control. What they call minimizing the state — transferring the decision making to unaccountable private interests — is not helpful to human beings or to democracy or, for that matter, to the markets. In this time when we are told there is “a triumph of the market,” the markets are threatened themselves, aren’t they? What’s developing is a kind of corporate mercantilism with huge centralized, more or less command economies, integrated with one another, closely tied to state power — relying very heavily on state power, in fact — and enforcing social policies and a conception of social and political order that happen to be highly beneficial to the interests of the top sectors of the population, the richest sectors.

                  Yeah, he says “Ooo, state power is illegitimate” but with a bit “except…”. This seems purely rhetorical.

                  His use of law (both US and international) is systematic.

                  So, I really don’t see that we get much from this.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Let’s take Nader/Greens in 2000.

                  A rounding error in the American political system.

                  Now, compare to England, where they have actual Labor/SD parties, as well as parties further to the left, that win elections, and also have liberal parties comparable to the Democrats.

                • Bijan Parsia says:
                  Let’s take Nader/Greens in 2000.

                  A rounding error in the American political system.

                  Sure, but that’s irrelevant to determining ideological content, yes?

                  Now, compare to England, where they have actual Labor/SD parties, as well as parties further to the left, that win elections, and also have liberal parties comparable to the Democrats.

                  Actual Labor? It’s not clear to me that that’s true since New Labour.

                  In any case none of these, afaict, think their home variants of liberal democracy are fundamentally illegitimate.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  But it’s not “ideological content” that’s at issue here; it’s meaningful presence.

                  Yes, there are hard-left lefties, who aren’t merely more-intense versions of liberals, in the United States. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them.

                  Actual Labor? It’s not clear to me that that’s true since New Labour.

                  Whoops, meant “Europe,” not “England.” The French SD party, for instance, or the Italian socialist parties.

                  In any case none of these, afaict, think their home variants of liberal democracy are fundamentally illegitimate.

                  Did anyone claim that they did? I wrote exactly the opposite: and also have liberal parties comparable to the Democrats.

                  In Europe, they have both lefty-left parties that aren’t just more-intense liberals, and ordinary liberals that would be familiar in the US. In the US, we have the latter, but the former are a rounding error in our system.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  But it’s not “ideological content” that’s at issue here; it’s meaningful presence.

                  Er….I think we’re in different conversations. You replied to Dilan’s comment which was all about content not presence.

                  Yes, there are hard-left lefties, who aren’t merely more-intense versions of liberals, in the United States. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them.

                  Well, that was sort of my point and that even they aren’t quite as Dilan presents.

                  In any case none of these, afaict, think their home variants of liberal democracy are fundamentally illegitimate.

                  Did anyone claim that they did?

                  Yes, Dilan did:

                  Leftists and liberals are sometimes allied, but they are very different people, and given our 2 party system, leftists are very much anti-American (and I don’t say this really as a criticism) whereas liberals are fundamentally pro-American. There’s just a big difference between thinking this a country that gets most of the basic principles right but needs to live up to its promises, and thinking that this country is rotten to the core and founded on fundamentally unsound and evil principles and needs to be uprooted and overthrown.

                  Which is what I thought you were replying too when you were talking about leftists.

                  I wrote exactly the opposite: and also have liberal parties comparable to the Democrats.

                  Yes, which is why I am confused ;)

                  In Europe, they have both lefty-left parties that aren’t just more-intense liberals, and ordinary liberals that would be familiar in the US. In the US, we have the latter, but the former are a rounding error in our system.

                  I agree with this analysis, roughly, but I don’t think the lefty-left parties in EU are the way Dilan describes.

        • DrDick says:

          Likewise and I think it reflects the disgust many of us old enough to remember those times have at how far to the right the Democratic Party has moved on many issues n(particularly economic ones). It also helps that the modern GOP has moved to the the right of Vlad the Impaler. The issue for most progressives (Chomsky is a bit of a loon), I think, is not so much that Nixon was an actual liberal, than that he was more liberal than Clinton or Obama. While Scott has disabused me of this notion, it really reflects how much more liberal legislation was passed into law then compared to now.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Well, sort of?

            I think Obama’s first congress really was substantively extraordinary and even moreso considering the opposition’s behavior. I also think he lost less ground since (which is really impressive given how bonkers the Republicans are).

            In some sense, I think the more fraught situation was helpful to getting stuff done. Unlike in 1974, no one in the Democratic coalition killed the ACA in hopes for a better deal later. They were more willing to accept a weaker than ideal solution in order to keep things together for the overall agenda.

            • Nathanael says:

              The trouble is, every time I read an analysis like this, I’m reminded of my study of the pre-Civil-War period.

              It’s absolutely correct, as Dana Houle noted below, that we’re back to the situation of a Southern anti-democracy bloc trying to prevent the government from functioning.

              The sort of accomplishments Obama has had just keep reminding me of the accomplishments of Taylor or Fillmore or Pierce or Buchanan. You can argue in each case that they were hamstrung by the situation they were in — and they WERE — but the fact is that each one just walked us closer to the Civil War, and I feel like we’re walking the same path today.

              In that time period, it required the explusion of the anti-slavery forces from the Whig Party, the collapse of the Whig party, the appearance of the Free Soil and then Republican Party, and the candidacy of John Fremont, and then we finally got Lincoln.

              Seems to me like we’re following a weirdly parallel trajectory. The Republican Party is already running loyalty tests and explusions of the sane. Its collapse is likely to come next.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                I don’t see this is a trouble with my analysis :)

                I agree that the collapse of the Republicans seems likely (not to mention necessary), but I don’t see what this has to do with the analysis of the progressiveness of various congresses.

          • Vlad the Impaler says:

            Hey, cut me a break. I could have gotten a lot further if I’d been bankrolled by Art Pope, Richard Scaife, and the Koch Brothers!

          • Nathanael says:

            ” It also helps that the modern GOP has moved to the the right of Vlad the Impaler. ”

            Yeah. I’ve been explaining to people that Vlad was far more honest, and a strong believer in impartial justice, whereas today’s GOP are supporters of crime and theft.

            The 99% would be better off under Vlad than under the Republicans today; Vlad actually hated it when the noblemen abused their power, which is why he killed a whole lot of the noblemen. He was a very rigid-minded person and thought everyone should follow the rules.

            “Right” vs. “Left” is best understood through the lens of the French Revolution where it originated: “Left” == democratic, “Right” == authoritarian.

            Originally “Right” == monarchist. The monarch at the time was horribly corrupt, and actually inviting foreign troops in to invade France and conquer its people, so the “far right” monarchist at the time would be an authoritarian of a very extreme variety.

      • Davis X. Machina says:

        Was that the last Congress that had Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale sitting with John Stennis and James Eastland sitting in the Democratic caucus?

        That world is as dead as I. B. Singer’s Poland.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          This is what makes the claims that the Democratic Party has moved to the right so absurd. The party leadership shifting from Robert Byrd to Nancy Pelosi is rightward movement?

          The Democrats have shed both their left wing (Mike Gravel) and their right wing (Byrd, the Dixiecrats) since the early 1970s, while the center of the party has remained just about where it was all along.

          The rightward drift in American politics since then can be entirely explained by the rightward movement of the Republicans.

          • Nathanael says:

            Your reference point matters. The Democratic Party shed the Dixiecrats (and folks like Byrd liberalized their policies) long before we lost the Mike Gravels.

            And we lost a whole bunch of what I might call “New Deal” left-wingers as well, replaced with supporters of bad economic policy who still considered themselves “left wing” in most other ways.

            There was a period in there when the Democratic Party WAS more liberal than today’s “Andrew Cuomo” period. I think this is mostly about the mess which happened in economics, where very bad ideas became completely dominant even among “left wingers” shortly after the oil crises.

            This bad economics drifted over into Democratic Party politics a decade or two later, and gave us trouble like Clinton’s support for NAFTA.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              That viewpoint was always represented in the Democratic Party. Those Dixiecrats were anti-union and happy to see factories move into their states by undercutting liberal states on wages and working conditions. So that doesn’t really represent any movement.

      • Nathanael says:

        “If people were honestly making the complaint that the last real liberal Congress we had was the 92nd Congress, I imagine that there would be a debate about it”

        We would. It’s arrant nonsense. The 100th Congress was substantially more liberal than the 92nd….

        …*but Ronald Reagan managed to hamstring it*, basically by simply wearing the Congressmen down. Every time they stopped one of his deranged, insane schemes he would just come up with another; every time they proposed something sensible he would veto it.

        This despite the fact that this Congress found Reagan guilty of the Iran-Contra affair.

        Nixon did not hamstring the 92nd, so I conclude that Nixon was more liberal than Reagan. (Which I realize is not the claim made by Chomsky.)

    • SamR says:

      Well, he could have vetoed legislation, and chose not to. Choosing not to was indeed almost certainly a political calculation that vetoes would be overriden, and this was probably a correct one.

      But to reuse a phrase we hear a lot “He. Didn’t. Even. Try.” He could have chosen to be the Presidential equivalent of Romney’s last couple years as MA Gov (Mitt issued like 260 veteos which the legislature overrode time and again). He instead signed legislation.

      I also think that what a politician ultimately does is more important than where we believe their heart truly lies.

  2. ed says:

    I’ve heard conservatives whine that Nixon was a Liberal too, mostly as a way to attempt to avoid being connected to the negative perception some have of POTUS 37. See also “Martin Luther King and/or Jackie Robinson was a conservative and/orRepublican,” ” ‘Swiftboating’ someone is bad,” “Democrats opposed Civil Rights (and are the Real Racists),” etc.

  3. jim, some guy in iowa says:

    weird. Chomsky’s some sort of word guy, right? you’d think if anyone knew to keep things in their proper context…

    • Cervantes says:

      Actually I think Chomsky did keep things in their proper context, and I’m not sure Eric Loomis is doing that in this case. Who gives a shit what was in Nixon’s head or what he would rather have done were he Dictator of the World (which indeed is what he wanted to be). If the domestic policy legacy of his presidency is more liberal than any president since, which it is, as Loomis more or less concedes, then for all practical purposes he was the last liberal president. Just because it pained him to have to be that is irrelevant. Most politicians are hypocrites and opportunists — our job is to make taking liberal positions and implementing liberal policies the opportunistic thing to do. Whether they are happy doing it or not matters not one whit to me.

      • Cervantes says:

        (Sorry for misspelling your name, Mr Loomis.)

      • Erik Loomis says:

        No. That’s just not accurate. He was not a liberal president at all. It was a liberal nation. Nixon was a conservative president.

        • Craigo says:

          We need a “liberalism above replacement level” metric.

        • Cervantes says:

          You seem to miss my point entirely. Nixon was no doubt no more liberal than he had to be, but what he had to be was considerably more liberal than Bill Clinton. Again, whether he was happy being that way is a separate question.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            But that doesn’t make him a liberal. And it most certainly doesn’t help us today to talk of him that way.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            Nixon was no doubt no more liberal than he had to be, but what he had to be was considerably more liberal than Bill Clinton.

            In 1870, were former slave-owning, pro-Confederate politicians actually anti-slavery politicians, or were they merely compelled to operate in a manner contrary to their beliefs by forces beyond their control?

          • Dana Houle says:

            Nobody’s missing your point. They’re showing it’s wrong.

            • Rigby Reardon says:

              Right – if Nixon was forced (by political realities as they existed at the time) to sign legislation that was more liberal than he wanted, then he shouldn’t get any credit for being liberal – that goes to the Congress, or the environmental movement, or whatever.

              If you want to know whether Nixon was really a liberal, just look at where he decided to invest his time and political capital. Those goals were not liberal ones.

      • pseudalicious says:

        our job is to make taking liberal positions and implementing liberal policies the opportunistic thing to do. Whether they are happy doing it or not matters not one whit to me.

        Yepppp.

        • junker says:

          So, I’m sure Erik agrees with this point. But focusing on how much more liberal Nixon was, when it was really liberals in congress who got stuff done, risks making everything about the President.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            Right–that comment mistakes the need for activists to move to push a president with the president being the person ultimately responsible for change.

          • Dana Houle says:

            It’s not all about the President. If it’s all about one thing, it’s all about the South. We’re in an era similar to antebellum times, when Southern conservatives are vetoing attempts at progress. That was blunted a bit during the New Deal era up to Reagan’s election, as almost all Southern conservatives were Democrats, and it was kind of that LBJ thing about having them inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in. But when they switched parties, they switched economic policies, or at least those that weren’t previously already in conflict with northern Dems (like anything supporting unions, or equal rights at work, or federal control of federal spending in the South, etc).

            I reject the idea that Democrats are more conservative now than in the past. They’re arguably a center-left party with significant cohesion. The problem is they no longer have the extra votes to give away that they once had when the urban north had a higher % of seats, when Northern Repubs could sometimes be counted on for votes, and Southern conservatives would vote against their leadership but they wouldn’t elect Republican speakers or sabotage the functioning of Congress.

            • Dana Houle says:

              [And Junker, to be clear, I know you weren't arguing it's all about the President]

              • Nathanael says:

                “I reject the idea that Democrats are more conservative now than in the past.”

                When in the past? I believe that the average Democrat in public office is far more right-wing *on economics and foreign policy* now than they were *immediately after the Dixiecrats left*. When you’re comparing to matters.

            • mpowell says:

              I think it looks very much to be the case that the Dem party has moved to the right over the past 30 years on certain economic issues. But there are other issues where they have definitely moved to the left and some where you could argue either way. One thing that irritates me is when you take an example of a policy that passed in the 60s and is still the law and say, “see, they were more liberal back then!” because we haven’t passed further legislation recently… what do you think you’ve proven? If the party is so much less liberal now, why don’t they repeal the law?

              In my observations, these kinds of claims are made in two ways: for jokes and not in good faith. But Chomsky so frequently argues in poor faith that it doesn’t even register for me.

              • Anonymous says:

                I think it looks very much to be the case that the Dem party has moved to the right over the past 30 years on certain economic issues.

                Absolutely not. Over the last 40 years? yes. The Democratic party moved considerably to the Right on economic issues between 1974 and 1984. Since then movement hasn’t been too significant, but insofar as it existed, it was to the left.

                • Manny Kant says:

                  I don’t know, I think you could argue that the Democratic Party moved to the right on economics about up to the point of welfare reform and Clinton’s triangulation re-election campaign in 96. Since then it’s definitely moved slightly back towards the left.

                  But that’s looking at the positions of the Democratic mainstream. If we also take account of the results of the gradual movement of conservative white southern Democrats out of the party, it might look different.

                • OBRA-93 says:

                  Clinton raised tax rates for high earners, expanded EITC and credited the direct loan program in his first budget. The worst of the Clinton administration came after 1996.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        If the domestic policy legacy of his presidency is more liberal than any president since, which it is, as Loomis more or less concedes, then for all practical purposes he was the last liberal president.

        I italicized the part where your argument goes off track by buying into the cult of the presidency, and attributing outcomes of the political system as a whole to the individual in the Oval Office.

        No, Cervantes, a President who grudgingly went along with liberal policies is not a liberal President. He’s a conservative President operating in a liberal environment. This failure to recognize the constraints on Presidents and the existence of other power centers in our government is endemic to bad political analyses.

      • Thom says:

        This is not logical:

        If the domestic policy legacy of his presidency is more liberal than any president since, which it is, as Loomis more or less concedes, then for all practical purposes he was the last liberal president.

        This basically amounts to saying it matters not at all who the president is or what he or she thinks. While the importance of the person and position is often overrated, it is not without consequence.

      • JL says:

        Most politicians are hypocrites and opportunists — our job is to make taking liberal positions and implementing liberal policies the opportunistic thing to do.

        I’m pretty sure Erik actually agrees with you there given his paragraph about how social change happens and how that does or doesn’t relate to the presidency.

        The problem with calling Nixon a liberal president is that it’s assigning the liberalism to Nixon, as a way of comparing Nixon favorably to more recent presidents, rather than the people who made getting out of the way of liberalism the opportunistic course for Nixon. Assigning that liberal ideology to the people rather than to Nixon gives us a framework for social change. Assigning it to Nixon, besides being unintentionally disrespecting the efforts of all those people who were the ones actually advancing liberalism rather than standing aside for it, gives us a framework to…complain about post-Nixon Democratic presidents, which I’m pretty sure can be accomplished without the Nixon argument.

        • isaiah says:

          The problem with calling Nixon a liberal president is that it’s assigning the liberalism to Nixon

          I agree. But, to be fair to Chomsky, it isn’t clear from the quote, which is given without any context, if that is really what Chomsky meant, or if he was just looking for a glib way to say that domestic policy has gotten less liberal since Nixon’s presidency.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Which is arguably (undoubtably?) untrue. Consider gay rights alone.

            Even economically, the story is more complicated. The ACA is a huge push in the right direction.

            And…it’s not like the Republicans haven’t had power lots and lots of times. Voting rights have been eroded, but that’s not exactly the fault of the Democrats!

  4. SatanicPanic says:

    What’s sad it that I assume Noam remembers the context of Nixon’s presidency

  5. Royko says:

    Well said! I think a lot of this rests on our Cult of the Executive. It’s the Great Man Theory of the past met with Celebrityism of the present. You have to wonder if part of the reason that our politics is so screwed up because the image of it is so unrelated to how it actually works.

    The other thing that this says to me is not how liberal Nixon was, but how weakened liberal interests (particularly anti-poverty and environmental) have become since the 70s.

    • chris says:

      …a change which I have long personally blamed on Reagan, but now, I’m not so sure. Maybe he just happened to coincide with it, rather than causing it (just like the fall of the USSR).

      • Royko says:

        It’s definitely a complicated issue. I think Reagan rode the crest, although he helped promote it, too. In baseball they have the idea “value over replacement player” to try to determine how much a particular player adds. How much different would the country be with a generic Republican instead of Reagan in 1980? Likely, not that different.

        Even in rare cases where you get lucky because your opponent puts up someone totally loathsome and scandal-ridden (like, say, your basic Nixon), you lose any advantage after one or two elections. It quickly reverts back to where the underlying political forces are.

        • JustRuss says:

          I don’t know. A lot of people who should have known better thought Reagan was the bees knees, and bought whatever he was peddling. His own VP, Bush the First, called his economic policies “voodoo economics”, but they’ve pretty much prevailed for over 30 years.

          I think a Bush presidency would have looked very different from Reagan’s.

          • Nathanael says:

            Oh my God yes.

            Reagan was exceptionally good at creating a cult of mindless personality. He then proceeded to just lie.

            (Remember the “magic asterisk”? I do. That’s the way Reagan’s advertised “balanced budgets” were balanced. By a “magic asterisk” indicated undefined savings, which never actually happened of course.)

            I think it’s important to analyze what features of human psychology allowed people to be misled by someone who talked outrageous nonsense as often as Reagan.

            The great Douglas Adams actually wrote a short story in which he described Reagan as an artificial weapon which played on people’s instinctive assumptions about human behavior, while violating all of them.

            I think that Reagan’s extreme and severe Alzheimer’s dementia allowed him to genuinely believe all the contradictory bullcrap he was spouting.

            So people looked at him and he *looked* honest — he had a “honest face” and all the visual cues which go along with honest people — even though he was talking bullcrap all the time.

          • Nathanael says:

            Bush I was actually pretty good, by contrast. Remember the “peace dividend”?

        • Pat says:

          I agree with your statement for Reagan, but Clinton was another matter entirely.

    • Jon C. says:

      Aptly, there was a President’s Day-related listicle about each President’s favorite book. Nixon was linked to “War and Peace” (supposedly he referred to it in some High profile staff meeting), presumably because he was sympathetic to Tolstoy’s criticism of great man type understandings of history. Nixon himself would have recognized the way his domestic policies, at least, were limited by political realities, and how changing electorates affected his successors.

  6. stepped pyramids says:

    I am fairly sure Noam originated that claim. At least, he’s been saying it since i first read him in 1996.

    • Grumpy says:

      Research has shown that babies born every culture display features of a common Universal Blather: Nixon was a Liberal, Bin Ladin likely wasn’t responsible for 9/11, etc.

    • eastriver says:

      No, he didn’t.
      From the ultimate Executive Branch wonk, Robert B. Gates, “From the Shadows”, 1996:
      “When I entered government under Johnson, I never met him. I knew the next five Presidents in varying measure… Nixon remotely and mainly after he left the Presidency.
      “Richard Nixon has been examined and psychoanalyzed by so many historians, political scientists, journalists and filmmakers that I can add little. He was, in my view, by far the most liberal President of the five in both domestic and foreign policy, contrary to the perceptions of many. I cannot think of an American President perceptions of whom were more at variance with reality, whose public words and private actions were in such contrast, or who made more of a fetish of talking tough while shrinking from personal confrontation and reaching out to old foreign enemies. No stranger man in American history dominated our politics and our lives for so long.”

  7. Anonymous says:

    Pretty sure an anagram of “Loomis Chomsky” is “licking my chops.” Given Chomsky’s legendarily thick skin, I doubt you’ll get a response though.

  8. rea says:

    When Chomsky hails Nixon as a liberal, it’s time to wonder exactly what blackmail materials Nixon’s plumbers extracted from his office. Well, at least Nixon didn’t kill people with DRONES!

  9. Kal says:

    Pretty sure you’re making almost the same point as Chomsky. I can’t watch the context for this particular quote right now, but he’s made the same point before. Chomsky doesn’t think Nixon was a great progressive dude. He’s just pointing out that “in many respects” he was forced to act more liberal than modern Democratic presidents by the political climate in which he was operating. So, Chomsky is arguing, don’t worry too much about who’s in the White House, get out there and organize to make them do the right thing regardless.

    I know finding something to denounce Chomsky for is an expected rite of passage for liberal intellectuals, but I feel like it should be outdated in the 2010s.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Or maybe Chomsky shouldn’t be saying things that are wrong.

    • Craigo says:

      He’s just pointing out that “in many respects” he was forced to act more liberal than modern Democratic presidents by the political climate in which he was operating.

      No, he’s not. He’s saying that in many respects Nixon was the last liberal president – which is not the same thing as being forced to act like a liberal president, at all. If you have to alter a quote so substantially to make it correct, then the speaker was just wrong.

      • Kal says:

        Being the last liberal president and acting as the last liberal president are actually pretty similar. Seems like an unexceptional rhetorical shortcut to me.

        • Craigo says:

          If you are forced to act as something, then you are not actually that thing.

          And Chomsky is not even correct in that regard. An actual liberal president would have actually acted – done a hell of a lot more than grudgingly sign some liberal bills,watch as his vetoes were overridden on others, and use his executive authority to weaken them all.

  10. The Navigator says:

    This post is just pure bullshit. Does LGM, or does it not, try to read presidents’ minds and pronounce what they’d “really” like to do? I thought we’d established that we don’t do that. It’s a category error, is it not, Scott Lemieux? No, what we do is we look at the actual record – what they actually did. See, e.g., Obama and C-CPI. If Nixon didn’t really want these bills to become law, he could have vetoed them. You can perhaps except the ones that passed with veto-proof majorities, although you didn’t specify which those were. Those aside, though, where do you come off with this “Nixon didn’t enjoy walking in the woods” b.s.? Obama staffs his administration with people who say, repeatedly, that it would be good, on the merits, for its own sake, without trade-offs, to switch to C-CPI, and that Obama wants that too. But it is not permissible on LGM to weigh that evidence – it’s irrelevant. So, okay, fine, it’s irrelevant – we look solely at the objective evidence. And the evidence says that Nixon was objectively pro-environment. Or does signing something into law not have any more meaning than proposing something in your budget?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The story Scott and I tell is the same–you want change, elect the Congressional majority to make it happen. Presidents respond to the circumstances in which they are given.

      • Opie Elvis says:

        And if you want a Congressional majorities you better field a farm team in state legislatures. And state legislatures are Triple A so you better fill county commissions, school boards, planning boards, and all sorts of other minor institutions where people learn how to do politics and maybe even govern.
        Otherwise your simply chasing a cult of personality. Presidents are not miracle workers. Some may be eloquent, some may be wise, some may be persuasive but it takes majorities in Congress to get policy enacted. And in come cases, ACA being a perfect example, it takes states to make policies work as they are intended.
        Democrats keep talking about the inevitability of demographics but without the hard work needed to build organizations and support from the ground up winning the presidency threatens to be little more than a consolation prize (or maybe the president simply becomes Brian as in Life of).

        • Opie Elvis says:

          Typing on an IPad sucks, excuse the typos.

        • Dana Houle says:

          Not just hard work. Rich liberals don’t have the focus and discipline of some rich reactionaries, so they invest HUGE amounts of money in to local and especially state politics. The reason for attacking labor in Michigan and Wisconsin wasn’t about economics, it was to eliminate the only significant monied opposition to the right wing. There are some states where there’s a good liberal financial infrastructure (Colorado and Minnesota, for instance), but for the most part we’re gettling slaughtered financially below the federal level. And even on Congressional/Senate races, conservative superpacs and C-3′s/C-4′s are hammering our candidates already, and rich liberals aren’t doing a damn thing.

          • Opie Elvis says:

            You know a lot more about the money end of things than I ever will but from where I sit that is one of the most on point observations I’ve ever heard.
            Here in North Carolina there have been a few people screaming for years about what Art Pope was doing. He was smart, disciplined and patient. He built Civitas and the John Locke Society and both organizations worked tirelessly to develop county level candidates and local followings.
            Meanwhile the Democratic Party in the state wandered around aimlessly chasing mediocrities and bending over for folks like Heath Shuler, as if raising a crop of Blue Dogs was a solution to anything other than creating gray hair.
            It’s not only about winning elections. It’s about winning elections with smart, committed candidates who understand both the importance of good policy and the politics needed to enact and implement good policy.
            That takes patience, organizations, and as you say money.

            • Nathanael says:

              “It’s not only about winning elections. It’s about winning elections with smart, committed candidates who understand both the importance of good policy and the politics needed to enact and implement good policy.”

              The Republicans don’t do that, of course.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            I love these sort of comments from you, fwiw.

          • Nathanael says:

            Dana, you know why that is if you think about it.

            Rich liberals pay their taxes and give money to causes which help people directly.

            Rich reactionaries spend as much money as necessary to get their taxes cut and give themselves more money.

            They’ll always have more money to burn on political power because they spend their political power on getting more money.

            Only way to break the cycle is to remove the money from the reactionaries.

            Obama’s extension of the Bush tax cuts was either the worst tactical political move since shooting on the Bonus Army, or an act of deliberate betrayal. I don’t care which any more.

      • Nathanael says:

        “The story Scott and I tell is the same–you want change, elect the Congressional majority to make it happen.”

        A shallow story.

        Our Congressmen are largely selected by our state legislatures, who gerrymander the districts.

        Here in worst-in-the-country NY, the state legislators are also selected by the state legislature, who gerrymanders the districts. This is a *very very difficult* cycle to break.

        Even with a massive political wave which has been moving for longer than my lifetime, and multiple rounds of major grassroots organization, it is *very very hard* to break through something like that.

        We had a chance to do so by throwing the districts to the courts, but our turncoat Governor decided to sign the incumbent-protection gerrymander.

        In fact, in New York State the most important election is the election for Governor immediately before the next redistricting. It determines *everything*, more or less.

        Unfortunately, the party nomination procedure is seriously corrupt and very very hard to break into too…

        I think people are beginning to recognize this but it’s going to take a while for them to figure out what to do about it.

    • djw says:

      You can perhaps except the ones that passed with veto-proof majorities, although you didn’t specify which those were.

      15 members of Congress and 0 senators voted against NEPA. 1 member of Congress voted against the Clean air act of 1970. Nixon did veto the clean water act, its was easily overridden.

      The Postwar consensus was a thing, and the Republican party was very different then.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      we do is we look at the actual record – what they actually did.

      And among the smarter segment of us, we look at what they actually did within the context that gives that record meaning.

      So, okay, fine, it’s irrelevant – we look solely at the objective evidence.

      Yes, we do. Did Richard Nixon try to accomplish more in the field of environmental protection than the Congress he was working with, or less? Why, the answer is “less” – he tried to reduce and water down environmental protection below what Congress was sending him.

      Objectively, by the evidence, he was neither an environmentalist nor a liberal; he was fighting a rear-guard action.

      Tell me, Navigator, did the German Army turn into anti-imperialists in 1943, because they were withdrawing? Or is there more to “objective evidence” than looking at the actions of one actor in isolation?

      • Tristan says:
        we do is we look at the actual record – what they actually did.

        And among the smarter segment of us, we look at what they actually did within the context that gives that record meaning.

        Yeah, seriously, this is like arguing whether or not Hitler really got slightly less antisemetic for a brief period in 1936 because he cleaned up some of the more overt state repression during the Olympics. How can we know for sure without reading his mind!?!?

      • Joel Patterson says:

        Joe From Lowell drops the mic and leaves the stage.

    • If only Richard Nixon had left some form of recordings of his thinking. I’m sure we could have settled this one for once and for all…

    • wjts says:

      If Nixon didn’t really want these bills to become law, he could have vetoed them. You can perhaps except the ones that passed with veto-proof majorities…

      Yes, perhaps. But surely Nixon could have used the Secret Double Ultimate Veto, which I believe can be found in the Deities and Demigods supplement of the Constitution.

  11. Vardibidian says:

    One of the ways you can tell Nixon was a liberal was the way he continued advocating for liberal causes for the twenty years after his presidency.

    Thanks,
    -V.

  12. KmCO says:

    From my vantage point, the more current trend among dissatisfied liberals has been to claim that Ronald Reagan was more liberal than Barack Obama.

    • That is just mind-bogglingly dumb. They must not be old enough to actually remember Reagan.

      • JL says:

        People who are currently, say, 35 – young, but not incredibly so – were 9 or 10 at the end of Reagan’s presidency, and most 9 and 10 year-olds (there are exceptions but probably not tons of them) have little understanding of what’s going on around them politically. And liberals as a group are more likely to be young than conservatives. So yes, there are almost certainly a whole bunch of unhappy liberals running around who don’t remember the Reagan presidency. I was three years old when it ended.

    • Nathanael says:

      Horribly, there are ways in which he was. Not many, but under Reagan I don’t remember anyone being imprisoned without trial or any American citizens being assassinated.

      Remember, Obama said Reagan was one of his role models!

  13. mike in dc says:

    I tend to think of Chomsky as an old school Purity Troll.

    • Donald says:

      There it is–the whole “purity troll” thing. Chomsky is complaining about how far right the Overton Window has shifted–he probably doesn’t realize that in some parts of the internet even the most obviously ironic comment is grounds for denouncing someone as a “purity troll”.

      • Dana Houle says:

        “Overton Window” is a stupid concept. Invented by some rightwing crank at a third tier libertarian think tank in Midland Michigan to explain how conservatives could convince Americans to privatize Social Security.

        Stupid concept, and the world will be a tiny less stupid when people stop using it.

      • mike in dc says:

        Uh, no. If I want to support my impression, there’s a veritable plethora of far superior examples of his purity trolling. See also everything he’s said or written in the past quarter century.

  14. lawguy says:

    So the argument is that Nixon didn’t like it but he did it anyway.

    The point I think that people make is that no democratic president has done anything or tried to do anything to the left of Nixon since Nixon. Would you deny that? I know, no one could because.

    Well guess what no one tried. No one pushed. Maybe if they had they wouldn’t have been elected, but hey we were able to gut welfare and get DOMA and DADT and deregulate the banks under Clinton and that was important because he was a democrat. See. So he was to the left of Nixon.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The problem with the “he didn’t even try” argument is that it misplaces where change comes from. You want the policies you want? Elect the majorities in Congress and mobilize Earth Day size rallies to make it happen. Presidents don’t create change.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Your argument is helped immensely by the way you ignore the CRA. And the ACA. And the ARRA. I was particularly impressed by the way you cite DOMA and DADT, but not their overturning.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        But Nixon proposed the ACA!

        And yet it didn’t pass because he didn’t even try?

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Oh, I forgot to quote my favorite bit:

          In February 1974, Republican President Richard Nixon proposed, in essence, today’s Affordable Care Act. Under Nixon’s plan all but the smallest employers would provide insurance to their workers or pay a penalty, an expanded Medicaid-type program would insure the poor, and subsidies would be provided to low-income individuals and small employers. Sound familiar?

          The “in essence” part sure does!

          (I don’t know how the Nixon plan actually holds up against the ACA, but given that the article mashed in the Heritage plan, etc. I’m prima facie skeptical.)

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            And here I go replying to myself. It seems Nixon’s wasn’t that great:

            In 1970, three proposals for universal national health insurance financed by payroll taxes and general federal revenues were introduced in the U.S. Congress.[17] In February 1970, Representative Martha Griffiths (D-MI) introduced a national health insurance bill—without any cost sharing—developed with the AFL–CIO.[18] In April 1970, Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) introduced a bill to extend Medicare to all—retaining existing Medicare cost sharing and coverage limits—developed after consultation with Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY) and former Johnson administration HEW Secretary Wilbur Cohen.[19] In August 1970, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced a bipartisan national health insurance bill—without any cost sharing—developed with the Committee for National Health Insurance founded by United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther, with a corresponding bill introduced in the House the following month by Representative James Corman (D-CA).[20] In September 1970, the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee held the first congressional hearings in twenty years on national health insurance.[21]

            In January 1971, Kennedy began a decade as chairman of the Health subcommittee of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, and introduced a reconciled bipartisan Kennedy-Griffiths bill proposing universal national health insurance.[22] In February 1971, President Richard Nixon proposed more limited health insurance reform—a private health insurance employer mandate and federalization of Medicaid for the poor with dependent minor children.[22] Hearings on national health insurance were held by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee in 1971, but no bill had the support of committee chairmen Representative Wilbur Mills (D-AR) or Senator Russell Long (D-LA).[22]

            In October 1973, Long and Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) introduced a bipartisan bill for catastrophic health insurance coverage for workers financed by payroll taxes and federalization of Medicaid with extension to the poor without dependent minor children.[26] In February 1974, Nixon proposed more comprehensive health insurance reform—an employer mandate to offer private health insurance and replacement of Medicaid by state-run health insurance plans available to all with income-based premiums and cost sharing.[27] In April 1974, Kennedy and Mills introduced a bill for near-universal national health insurance with benefits identical to the expanded Nixon plan, both of which were criticized by labor and senior citizens organizations because of their substantial cost sharing.[27]

            The first thing that seems obvious to me is that there was a hell of a lot of churn in the 1970s on various proposals (there are a ton under Ford and Carter as well).

            (This is an interesting take.)

            • Dilan Esper says:

              Actually, Nixon’s plan was something like Hillarycare, if you want to get technical.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                And post presidency, he was not so much in favor:

                Thus far, no one has made reference to President Nixon’s staunch opposition to President Bill Clinton’s health care proposal in the early 1990s. In his tenth and final book Beyond Peace, which may have reflected a stronger commitment to limited government than at other points in his public life, Nixon issued a stinging critique of the Clinton plan. He began, “The 1994 debate over health care will be a crucial testing ground for our faith in freedom, which, if it means anything, must mean free markets and free choice.” Certainly, we face the same test today.

                He continued, “The Clinton plan, all 1,342 impenetrable pages of it, is less a prescription for better health care than a blueprint for the takeover by the federal government of one seventh of our nation’s economy. If enacted, it would represent the ultimate revenge of the 1960s generation. The plan epitomizes the discredited notion that taking action against a problem requires introducing a massive network of new compulsions, bureaucracies, and government controls.” Elsewhere in the essay, he wrote, “For a thousand years, whenever price controls have been tried, they have failed.” Particularly when we speak of the public option and the House bill, we could say all the same things, only today it would mean nationalizing one sixth, not one seventh, of our nation’s economy.

                President Nixon not only argued against the bureaucratic statism inherent in the Clinton plan – he also articulated a patient-centered vision similar to the one delivered by Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Paul Ryan in recent days. “Any sensible reform of the nation’s health care system must start with the patient, not with the government. The most powerful force inflating health care costs has been a system of insurance that removes the patient’s own incentive to shop for value.” In other words, Nixon today would be much more likely to support health savings accounts than a public option. He also called for tort reform, a great emphasis on wellness and preventative care, and greater competition among insurance providers, all key elements of Republican alternatives.

                Nixon sought to repudiate the suggestion, floating then as well, that his plans from the 1970s inspired the Democrats plan at present. Rebutting those who implied his support for the Clinton scheme from his time in office, Nixon wrote, “I most emphatically did not, and would not, endorse a wholesale federal takeover of the nation’s health care system.” Those equating the Obama plan with the Nixon plan are missing the fundamental difference between the two, something Nixon himself noted in his opposition to the 1994 plan: “Employers would have been required to help pay only for their own employees, not for all the indigent in the entire community.” He concluded that the Clinton plan “focuses less on improving health care delivery than it does on centralizing health care control. Our program was about health. The Clinton program gives every indication of being about power.” Could we not deliver the same indictment today against the Obama plan?

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                And I’d like to see the technicalities. Here’s a claim that they’re different:

                By the time President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, his plan for health care reform had changed substantially from the plan once offered by the Nixon-Kennedy compromise. The Clinton proposal was to place the requirements for mandatory health insurance on the individual citizen, rather than on business owners, as had been previously suggested. This plan was also attacked and ultimately defeated by a media campaign that labeled the reform proposal as government intrusion. This opposition to the Clinton plan was typified by the “Harry and Louise” national advertising campaign viewed on all of the major television networks as the debate raged in Washington.

              • LeeEsq says:

                Clinton’s plan seemed closer to the Bismarckian model. Everybody has to buy insurance but you regulate the insurance companies like crazy to make they don’t cheat.

        • dick says, "It was Teddy's fault." says:

          It was back in 1971 and President Nixon was concerned that he would once again have to face a Kennedy in the next year’s election — in this case a Kennedy with a proposal to extend health care to all Americans. Feeling the need to offer an alternative, Nixon asked Congress to require for the first time that all companies provide a health plan for their employees, with federal subsidies for low-income workers. Nixon was particularly intrigued by a new idea called health maintenance organizations, which held the promise of providing high-quality care at lower prices by relying on salaried physicians to manage and coordinate patient care.

          At first, Kennedy rejected Nixon’s proposal as nothing more than a bonanza for the insurance industry that would create a two-class system of health care in America. But after Nixon won reelection, Kennedy began a series of secret negotiations with the White House that almost led to a public agreement. In the end, Nixon backed out after receiving pressure from small-business owners and the American Medical Association. And Kennedy himself decided to back off after receiving heavy pressure from labor leaders, who urged him to hold out for a single-payer system once Democrats recaptured the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

          This article is more sympathetic to Nixon
          tying in his brothers deaths when he was young with his interest in healthcare.

          Do any of the Nixon bios have anything on healthcare or
          his negotiations with Kennedy?

          • Colin Day says:

            Feeling the need to offer an alternative, Nixon asked Congress to require for the first time that all companies provide a health plan for their employees, with federal subsidies for low-income workers.

            Offering an actual alternative to the Democrats’ health-care plan? That’s more than today’s Republicans would do!

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      The point I think that people make is that no democratic president has done anything or tried to do anything to the left of Nixon since Nixon.

      Well, except for Barack Obama.

      • Nathanael says:

        I can’t think of anything Obama has done which was “to the left of Nixon”. I can think of several things Carter, the elder Bush, and Clinton did which were “to the left of Nixon”.

        Pray tell, what are you thinking of when you claim that Obama has tried to do something “to the left of Nixon”?

        Extending the Bush tax cuts? Calling for a balanced budget? Imprisonments without trial? Drone attacks on whoever’s carrying a particular cellphone? Spying on everyone in the entire world? Assassinations?

        Really, I’m trying to figure out what you’re thinking of.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal.

          Much, much stricter environmental standards through executive order.

          Working to withdraw from wars.

          Supporting uprisings against American clients.

          Opposing the Honduras coup.

          Vigorous enforcement of civil rights and voting rights.

          You lack perspective.

          • wjts says:

            Appointing Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court (contrast with Burger, Powell and Rehnquist, though I’ll give you Blackmun).

            The ACA.

            The New START treaty.

            I’m inclined to give Obama some credit for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

  15. Bloix says:

    There’s a tendency among people who are trying to upend conventional wisdom to make statements that are intended to shock the listener into reconsidering his or her preconceived ideas. Sometimes such statements are framed as oxymorons, because of the rhetorical power of that device, even though they are obviously not completely true in a literal sense. If you read one of these statements as if it were intended literally, you’re apt to be confused and angered.

    “Nixon was a liberal” is just such an oxymoron. The intended meaning is not that Nixon secretly held left-of-center ideas. The meaning is that the political center in Nixon’s time was amenable to policies that in our day are no longer moderate or centrist – they are now identifiably “liberal” or “progressive.” On certain issues, the center has moved to the right. Not on all, obviously, but on tax, economic and business regulation issues in particular.

    Of course you’re right that Nixon didn’t care about the environment. But he was a conservative in his own day, and many conservatives in his day didn’t mind the environmental regulation of business of a sort that would be utterly unacceptable to any modern conservative. A president with modern conservative views and elected by a modern conservative electorate would have had to (and would have wanted to) veto many laws that Nixon was perfectly willing to sign.

    And not only sign. Nixon introduced direct regulation of wages and prices that no modern conservative could possibly accept. See this link for a modern conservative view of Nixon’s wage and price freeze as a threat to the free enterprise system -http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/remembering-nixons-wage-price-controls

    What people mean when they say “Nixon was a liberal” is that policies that are today considered desirable only by people out on the leftward margin – just this side of DFH’s – were once perfectly fine even to a president who was understood by all to be well over on the right of the spectrum. There may be people who hear the phrase “Nixon was a liberal” and, not understanding, parrot it as if were meant literally. But Chomsky isn’t one of them.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I understand that Chomsky doesn’t actually think Nixon was a liberal.

      But as a rhetorical device it is incredibly dangerous because it places the onus of change on presidents and not where it needs to be. It obscures the fact that the nation itself is far more conservative than it was in 1970. It makes us all look at the president to be our leader directing change rather than directing it ourselves and doing what needs to be done to recreate the conditions of 1970.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Well, I don’t know how dangerous it is. I doubt it has much effect on anything but a margin of a margin of extremely active and engaged political folks. This particular contrarianism is not widespread e.g., in the democratic party.

        It is analytically dumb. It doesn’t provide any insight whatsoever, indeed it rather clouds insight. There may remain some few people who will be shocked out of a complacent dogmatic slumber by the slogan, but I’d be surprised.

        If you want to say, “Polarisation has increased and the bounds of acceptable policy discourse has shifted rightward since Nixon” then why not freaking *say* that? I might quibble with the second clause (and the “since”, but OK), but at least this is meaningful and not terribly longer than “Nixon was (in some respects) the last liberal president”.

        • pseudalicious says:

          If you want to say, “Polarisation has increased and the bounds of acceptable policy discourse has shifted rightward since Nixon” then why not freaking *say* that?

          Not sexy.

        • Greg says:

          Ask everyone in a state that voted for Obama twice but a Republican governor in 2010 how dangerous the Cult of the Presidency is, particularly union members in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. When people think the only office that matters is the presidency, that’s the only election they show up for.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Well, I agree that the president isn’t the only thing that matters, but I disagree 1) that the rhetorical device meaningfully contributes to it (so *it* isn’t incredibly dangerous and 2) that the cult of the presidency thingy itself is a big factor. The 50 state strategy wasn’t so long ago. Republicans had an unfortunately timed state level wave election and thus got hold of some levers (gerrymandering) that are a real problem.

            Improving turnout among certain Democratic cohorts for off elections is an important problem. I don’t know if it’s right to say that they are in a Cult of the Presidency or more than they are only motivated to turn out for presidential elections.

        • Royko says:

          Why not say “Polarisation has increased and the bounds of acceptable policy discourse has shifted rightward since

          1970

          “? That’s so obvious, few people would even blink at it.

          Invoking Nixon just doesn’t really help much clarify what happened. Obviously, Chomsky references Nixon to provoke, and that would be okay, except it’s provoking the wrong things. Nixon himself was not liberal, and the center of the country today is not to the right of Nixon.

      • Paul Beaulieu says:

        Simply describing the record of a president as “liberal” or not – however flawed that description may be – does not automatically imply a “messianic president” theory of progressive change and frankly, given what I know of Chomsky, I would be very surprised indeed if he did subscribe to such a theory. So perhaps this statement by Chomsky was not actually a very good example of the point you were trying to make.

      • Donald says:

        As best I can tell, you agree with the point Chomsky is making. You just don’t think anyone else is smart enough to figure out what he meant. If you’re right, the danger is not that Chomsky used a rhetorical device that grates on your ears–the danger is that there are a huge number of incredibly stupid and ignorant people who could be persuaded to think that Nixon was a compassionate guy who fought for lefty causes and that we need more like him.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      There’s a tendency among people who are trying to upend conventional wisdom to make statements that are intended to shock the listener into reconsidering his or her preconceived ideas. Sometimes such statements are framed as oxymorons, because of the rhetorical power of that device, even though they are obviously not completely true in a literal sense.

      Maybe I’m in the minority, but when people say things that they knot are “not completely true in a literal sense” – that is, when they bullshit for rhetorical effect – it doesn’t make me really interested in negotiating through their words to find the nugget of truth buried inside. It tends to make me shut them, and their argument, off entirely when I catch someone bullshitting for political effect.

      This is a habit that became very pronounced in my during the Iraq WMDs scam. I came away from that episode with a pronounced tendency to walk off the car lot when I catch the used car salesman bullshitting me.

    • Pseudonym says:

      #slatepitch

  16. Craigo says:

    The actual article is just as bad:

    However, that pattern fell off in the next decade. After six years of stagnant wages and escalating costs of living, the Nixon administration stepped in — in 1974, Nixon signed an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

    No, you fucking idiot, the Nixon Administration did not “step in.” A Democratic Congress passed that amendment by a veto-proof majority, and Nixon signed it as a sop to try and save his own skin.

    But Christine Conetta has a story to tell, and details like those just don’t fit.

  17. D.N. Nation says:

    Just die already, you dinosauric troll.

  18. DAS says:

    Your images do not help. For conservatives, such as Nixon, sartorially sophisticated enough to eschew the shiny suits of many on the religious right, one needs to see an action-shot to see how much the suit rides up when one raises his/her arms. While middle-class liberals such as myself may lack the time to sit for a proper fitting or the money to get a sufficiently high quality suit, liberals in positions of power tend to take a little time-out (and use some resources) to have a few high-quality, well-tailored suits.

    OTOH, other than St. Ronnie (who was an actor after all and tainted by liberal Hollywood), conservative politicians tend to have horridly fitting suits: it wasn’t just Nixon who wore a suit whose shoulders bunched when he raised his arms — I’ve noticed the same phenomena watching GW Bush, who certainly could have afforded to dress better than he did. Could you even imagine Obama or any Kennedy (even a hung-over Teddy) showing up to a press conference as horrendously dressed as GW Bush oftetimes was?

    • ninja3000 says:

      I think Old Man Bush was reasonably well-dressed, no? And you know that Mitt has a personal tailor.

      Ever read Le Carre’s “The Tailor of Panama”? Some fun bits in there about the tailor making certain of the President’s suits for standing and others for sitting…

  19. Karen says:

    Nixon endured some good domestic legislation in the service of his abomination of a foreign policy. Johnson allowed the same horrible foreign policy that existed since the end of WWII to continue so that he could get excellent domestic bills passed. This distinction is vital.

  20. joe from Lowell says:

    After that whole Pol Pot thing, maybe Chomsky should have stuck to analysis of political structures and left it to others to suss out the orientations of individual political actors.

    • DocAmazing says:

      Oh, Christ, we’re back to the “Chomsky made excuses for the Khmer Rouge” bit again. Why not post what Chomsky actually said about the Khmer Rouge? (While you’re at it, you can contrast it with what Margaret Thatcher said about them.)

      • joe from Lowell says:

        What a weird pet peeve to have: you’re driven to fury by insufficiently nuanced descriptions of Chomsky’s defense of Pol Pot.

        Because that’s you: Mr. Nuance.

  21. Hannibal Lecture says:

    I’m genuinely curious: what exactly are the theories of change held by the LGM regulars? I’m thinking mostly of Lemieux, djw, and Loomis here. Because mostly what you seem to be saying is:

    - Stoopid firebaggers don’t understand shit about how politics really works.

    - Presidential power is constrained in almost all the ways that matter domestically, what presidents say about things doesn’t matter, and the only thing that presidents are good for is spying on people, killing people and blowing shit up. And the best you can hope for from the president on the killing-people front is that they’re not Cheney-levels of insane about it. Anything more you get is a bonus.

    - The appointment power barely matters, even w/r/t regulatory appointments. Might as well just hire a lot of “experts” who have been bribed by their former paymasters with exit bonuses and extra retirement pay.

    - Congress and state legislatures matters more than the presidents do, and those institutions are mostly fucked given the structural constraints of the constitution, the legal bribery, the massive financial constraints on electability given the current population of the Federal judiciary (again, created by the fuckedness of Congress, the weakness of the president, and Dem capitulation to the situation).

    - You can’t really blame the overwhelming majority of the Dem ruling classes for capitulating to this situation — it’s just realistic and it’s foolish to expect better. Further, any ability to really refocus the Democratic Party structure to get them to revoke that capitulation is *just* as constrained as their ability to unfuck Congress, and for the same reasons.

    Let’s assume this is all true — it probably is. Is there any realistic theory of change, or is this all just documenting the atrocities in a savvier academic sort of way? Because given all of this the lay person would be really rational to just say “Fuck it, we’re fucking fucked, and I’m not getting paid to pay attention to this stuff, unlike the academics and the professional consultants. I’m going to spend my days doing whatever my masters will still let me do that makes me happy, because there’s really no plausible path to create better outcomes.”

    • Dilan Esper says:

      I think their theory of change is that grass roots activism can shift the Overton Window to some extent, and that will allow the Democratic Party to move somewhat to the left and eventually get better policies enacted.

      I actually think that’s somewhat true, by the way.

      Where I think they fail is basically equating whatever it is that the Democratic Party accomplishes at any particular moment with “the best we can do”. They are unwilling to explore counterfactuals. If Obamacare passes by the skin of its teeth, that means by definition, no matter what was proposed, no policy result better than Obamacare could have possibly been accomplished, even over the long term. If Clinton signed DOMA, that proves that no more-pro-gay-marriage policy could have gotten passed. If LBJ escalated Vietnam, it was due to an elite policy consensus and no less bad policy could have been followed. (In fairness to Scott, he backed off that last one when he was pushed.)

      The reality is that one of the ways that the grass roots activism works is by raking the Democratic Party over the coals when it does right-wing things. That’s the way the consensus shifted on the Iraq War, for instance. The people who supported it thinking that it would help win them the Presidency lost (Kerry in the general, Hillary and Edwards in the primary), and the Presidency was eventually won by an opponent of the war.

      But to do that, you can’t walk into debates assuming that anything the party does must be the most left-most thing that can possibly be done under the current political circumstances. You can’t subscribe to the LGM theory of political constraints.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        I’m not going to speak for anyone but myself here, but:

        1) I’m a historian and am therefore largely uninterested in hypothetical counterfactuals. Unless we’re sitting around drinking or something. It’s not particularly helpful anyway because exploring those counterfacutals is usually done by people who don’t understand all the moving parts behind the scenes.

        2) You seem to struggle to untangle the agency of presidents versus the constraints in which they face. Yes, any presidential candidate in 1964 was going to escalate the war. But not every presidential candidate would have lied to the public so brazenly about it. LBJ’s actions in escalating the war can be explained by the first, but that doesn’t get him out of blame for the second. And then there’s Carter–how many times have Scott and I gotten after Carter on this blog for governing to the right of Congress. There were huge forced errors and missed opportunities there, especially before the 78 midterms. But at the same time, Carter also had to face both a rising conservative counterrrevolution tide that he saw coming when many Dems didn’t and deal with a hostile media. So there was agency on his part and circumstances he could not control. Such as it is with every president.

        3. What the party does on policy is a matter of which interest groups are controlling the mechanisms. Often, what Obama signs is probably close to the farthest left thing he can sign, unless you have some secret knowledge that Max Baucus was actually for single-payer. That doesn’t mean Obama and the current Democratic Party is without blame or that they couldn’t move the score slightly to the left in some areas (education for instance). And I’ve certainly criticized Obama many times. But I try to save those criticisms for the things he can actually affect profoundly–appointments, executive level policy decisions, foreign policy–and contextualize what he can’t change.

        And yes, the base should rake the Party over the coals–but we should also understand that real change doesn’t come through a single election or just criticizing the president, but massive long-term strategies and struggles.

        • Nathanael says:

          If you aren’t raking Obama over the coals for the NSA garbage and the CIA drone-murder garbage, you’re not doing it right.

          “we should also understand that real change doesn’t come through a single election or just criticizing the president, but massive long-term strategies and struggles.”

          Duh. At this point, based on my informed study of a hell of a lot of history, it looks like (with most democratic options blocked) change is most likely to come through civil war, which is always the result of long-term struggles. But you don’t want to talk about that either, of course.

          What IS your theory of change? Have you studied enough of history to have one? I know you claim to be a historian, but credentials don’t always mean knowing anything.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        If Obamacare passes by the skin of its teeth, that means by definition, no matter what was proposed, no policy result better than Obamacare could have possibly been accomplished, even over the long term.

        How many times are you going to battle this strawman?

        If LBJ escalated Vietnam, it was due to an elite policy consensus and no less bad policy could have been followed. In fairness to Scott, he backed off that last one when he was pushed.

        I never argued that. Erik argued (and I agree) that no plausible president would have withdrawn from Vietnam, but that’s very different.

        • Nathanael says:

          “If Obamacare passes by the skin of its teeth, that means by definition, no matter what was proposed, no policy result better than Obamacare could have possibly been accomplished, even over the long term.

          How many times are you going to battle this strawman? ”

          As long as you keep actually saying it, Scott.

          You’ve said it repeatedly, claiming that nothing better could possibly have passed, and you’ve managed to ignore the actual legislative history while doing so (claiming that anything better would have needed 60 votes, when 51 are all that were ever needed and all that were gotten).

          Erik has been more careful.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      On the various points:

      1. Too often true, unfortunately.

      2. More or less, but that’s an overstatement. Presidents don’t create change and we shouldn’t expect them to. We should expect them to do what we want them to do and if they aren’t, it’s our fault for not having enough power to make them.

      3. Appointments are of vast importance and one place a president can make huge changes. Not sure where you are getting this.

      4. Congress and state legislatures do matter more than the presidency. Just because they are messed up now doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. We have to organize to change that. People have done so many times.

      5. Politicians are going to follow the power base. It’s not a matter of blame or not. It’s what they do. You have to become the power base on the issues you care about. Until then, they are going to follow the power, i.e. corporations.

      As for change, there is all kinds of change that has happened in history and is happening now–labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc. Look today, you have the rapid expansion of gay rights and the move to legalize marijuana and stop imprisoning people for stupid pot offenses. Almost none of the impetus for these changes is coming from politicians. It’s coming from people organizing and forcing reluctant politicians to change their positions, a path change almost always follows.

      • Hannibal Lecture says:

        3. Appointments are of vast importance and one place a president can make huge changes. Not sure where you are getting this.

        Maybe there’s a cite needed from me, but I see a distinct lack of interest here in criticizing the Obama personnel decisions in the various regulatory agencies when they appoint bought industry hacks — mostly, say, finance & telecoms. But maybe that’s just because the authors here don’t really focus on or care about those areas much.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I’ve been extremely critical of Ken Salazar at Interior and Arne Duncan at Education, as well as some of Obama’s judicial selections.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          I guess you missed all of those Larry Summers posts.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          If only there were a freely available, highly usable tool that would enable someone to look stuff up before spouting off. Oh wait!

          A not atypical example:

          Because of both Senate obstructionism and the relatively low priority placed on them by the Obama administration, the pace of appointments to the federal judiciary has been regrettably low…. For 30 years, Republicans have placed a high priority on packing the federal courts with young conservatives, while the Democratic administrations during this time have not placed a commensurate priority on getting young liberal judges confirmed. This might be OK if Democrats were gaining institutional advantages in other areas, but I don’t see that they are.

          And really, just about any presidential election piece about lessor evilism will point out how appointments are a Really Big Deal.

          Sorry, you made this up, wrongly, out of whole cloth.

      • Royko says:

        As for change, there is all kinds of change that has happened in history and is happening now–labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc.

        You know, it’s not the most positive example, but I thought first part of Ken Burns’ Prohibition series was a fascinating depiction of political forces building to achieve a policy goal.

    • wengler says:

      I think all of it boils down to ‘Obama secretly agrees with me even when its looks like he doesn’t.’

      • Erik Loomis says:

        It actually boils down to “Obama’s not the most important person on most issues.”

        • wengler says:

          Yes he is. There is no single person in government or in the country that has more impact on policy.

          My point above was there is a large portion of public policy that Obama either doesn’t give a shit about or holds a rightwing position on.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            No, not really. Max Baucus was more important on ACA. Patrick Leahy is the most important person on judicial appointments. John Boehner or whoever controls the House is the most important person (or people) on funding programs. Etc., etc.

            President is certainly the most important person on most foreign policy issues.

            • Greg says:

              Pat Leahy is not more important than Obama on nominees, the most you can say is that they’re equals. He has an effective veto, it’s true, but he can’t nominate someone, and that’s obviously a huge source of the appointment power.

            • Nathanael says:

              Erik, there is a large portion of public policy that Obama either doesn’t give a shit about or holds a rightwing position on.

              This includes the treasonous and criminal activities currently going on at the NSA. And the CIA program of murdering the holders of particular cellphone SIM cards using drones, as well as interntionally murdering American citizens. There’s also Obama’s imprisonment-without-trial gulag program.

              In both cases, Obama’s position is well to the right of Nixon. Though about the same as the position of George W. Bush.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Much of this bears no relationship to anything I or any LGM regular has ever written, esp. with respect to the appointment power.

      • Hannibal Lecture says:

        Well, the fault must be entirely with my failure to understand then. It certainly can’t be anything that any of the writers have done, or the attitudes they’ve displayed. That would be unpossible.

  22. Trollhattan says:

    I suppose this mythical creature, the liberal Nixon, assured the assasination of Robert Kennedy ultimately had no effect on how the nation progressed from 1969 onward. Got it, thanks Noam!

    Did Noam ever meet HS Thompson? I’d have paid to watch that.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/07/he-was-a-crook/308699/

  23. Paul Beaulieu says:

    I dunno, this sounds a bit like flip side of the “but in his heart of hearts, Obama WANTS to cut social security” argument. In the end, who cares what Nixon’s inner convictions were, to the extent that we can clearly identify those? It’s the record that counts, that’s what Chomsky is referring to, and frankly, based on his writings, I think he would agree that popular pressure for progressive measures is far more important than the personal convictions of the President or anyone in power. His comment that Nixon being the “last liberal president”, however much it rubs certain people up the wrong way, says far more about how the political context changed after the mid 1970′s than about Nixon the person. So I think this whole dispute is over nothing of any importance.

    • Paul Beaulieu says:

      comment about Nixon being “the last liberal president” – oh, for an edit button!

    • joe from Lowell says:

      It’s the record that counts

      It is the record that counts, but the record needs to be viewed in context. This why we don’t denounce FDR as a racist, segregationist, plantation-elite-coddling bastard for the carve outs for farm labor in the Social Security Act.

      His comment that Nixon being the “last liberal president”, however much it rubs certain people up the wrong way, says far more about how the political context changed after the mid 1970′s than about Nixon the person.

      Expressing the actual, meaningful point about the political context in terms of Richard Nixon personally obscures that point.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        It is the record that counts, but the record needs to be viewed in context. This why we don’t denounce FDR as a racist, segregationist, plantation-elite-coddling bastard for the carve outs for farm labor in the Social Security Act.

        That’s OK, we can denounce FDR as a racist for Japanese internment, keeping the military segregated, and generally not doing shit on civil rights. And we should.

  24. quercus says:

    Has anybody actually listened to the discussion to get the context? I mean, I hate to doubt the summarization/headlining skills of the renowned avoid-sensationalism-at-all-costs HuffPost, and all, but it would be nice to know what the context really was.

    And even in the snippet of quote, Chomsky leads in by saying “as for support,..” which kind of makes me think he’s talking about public opinion and political pressure pushing acceptable discourse, not about Great Men Striding Through History being secretly liberal.

    Not saying uncle Noam is perfect, but he’s not exactly a dummy about how the political system works.

    Now, if you wanted to rant about the headline writers who want to reduce discourse to this level, go ahead. But at this point, I’d really need to see more evidence before giving Chomsky even a ‘misspoke giving the wrong impression’ demerit on this one.

    (Or is this Hippie-Punching Monday and I missed it?)

  25. Dilan Esper says:

    Nixon’s was completely indifferent to anything usually considered the natural world. You weren’t going to see Richard Nixon out hiking. He received no joy from nature at all.

    This is a weird criticism. Obviously, Reagan was an outdoorsy type. Loved riding his horses in Santa Barbara. And George W. Bush got at least some pleasure from being on his ranch in Crawford. And yet, those people (especially Reagan, who was infamously dismissive of environmentalists, such as the people who wanted to save redwood trees) weren’t able to lift a finger for the environment.

    In contrast, Clinton, who had a fairly decent environmental record, hated the outdoors and only went on a vacation to Yellowstone after Dick Morris told him it polled well.

    Liking the outdoors obviously CAN cultivate environmentalism (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt), but it doesn’t necessarily do so. Nixon’s environmental record includes some decent legislation, and it isn’t negated just because he was a city guy.

    Richard Nixon didn’t do these good things for the environment, or at least certainly not by himself. Congress and the American people did. Nixon was making a shrewd political calculation by signing this legislation.

    I think there’s a tendency of you and (especially) Scott to think that motives matter more than accomplishment in politics. Which makes it really easy to dismiss anything a conservative or Republican does, and to defend anything a liberal or Democrat does.

    Whatever Nixon thought of the Clean Air Act or the EPA, he signed the bills (and implemented them). Those are accomplishments. Sorry, but sometimes Republicans and conservatives do some good things. (And sometimes liberals and Democrats do some bad things, such as Bill Clinton signing DOMA and running ads on Christian radio saying that he defended traditional marriage.)

    • JL says:

      Is anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing for Nixon to sign those bills? Or that it wasn’t a bad thing for Clinton to sign DOMA? Or even that the important thing in terms of policy is what’s in their hearts? The point here is about a particular rhetorical device and how it influences people’s theories of change in ways that are bad for actually accomplishing social change.

      I agree with you about the strangeness of focusing on Nixon’s relationship to the outdoors. I like and largely agree with Erik’s post, but I don’t really see whether someone loves or spends a lot of time in pristine nature as much of an indicator of their environmentalism. Look at all the young urban climate activists. Or the inner-city people of color who have spearheaded environmental justice work, like Majora Carter and others in the South Bronx.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      This is a weird criticism.

      I actually agree with this. I hate camping but this doesn’t mean I oppose carbon trade legislation or want to sell Adirondack State Park to developers.

      Whatever Nixon thought of the Clean Air Act or the EPA, he signed the bills (and implemented them). Those are accomplishments.

      Singing bills that passed with veto-proof majorities isn’t any kind of “accomplishment” for Richard Nixon. Implementation, yes.

      • Nathanael says:

        Frankly, Nixon’s EPA appointment (Ruckelshaus) was a perfectly good one too.

        Contrast Anne Gorsuch.

        Nixon was more liberal than Reagan and that’s undeniable.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Sorry, but sometimes Republicans and conservatives do some good things.

      Sure, when the Democrats have a gun to hold to their heads. Then sometimes. Maybe.

      • Jeremy says:

        Exactly. If the goal is to pass progressive legislation, we need to look at the context in which progressive legislation has passed before, and try to recreate those conditions. Basically, we need a new gun to the President’s head, not another President like Nixon.

  26. brad says:

    This argument has never made any sense to me, and I wasn’t even there.
    The EPA isn’t Cabinet level because Nixon preempted that. The farm policies established under Nixon left us with the industrial food systems we have now, and all the horrible consequences.
    And there was that whole war thing killing and maiming millions, along with the side effect of major deforestation of large swaths of two nations.

    • Donald says:

      “And there was that whole war thing killing and maiming millions, along with the side effect of major deforestation of large swaths of two nations.”

      If only Chomsky could have written something about that, instead of the endless fanboy worship of Nixon.

      • brad says:

        Yes, and “in many respects” is a completely fair and intellectually honest qualifier by Chomsky to dismiss that from his point. Further, in no way does his own history make glossing over that reality in any way dubious for him to do.

  27. politicalfootball says:

    False equivalence has always been Chomsky’s favorite rhetorical gambit.

  28. wengler says:

    Ted Kennedy was never President.

    • Just Dropping By says:

      Yeah, I was going to say that Chomsky would probably respond by pointing out that Ted Kennedy was never president and that, if by some chance he had become president, Chomsky would be willing to agree that Ted Kennedy was a more liberal president than Nixon.

  29. Peter Hovde says:

    Chomsky should really have stuck to linguistics.

  30. Paula says:

    We do have professional historians and media critics available — probably at cut rates! I have no idea why Chomsky’s greatest claim to fame is essentially a moonlighting gig.

  31. Chris Andersen says:

    In this day and age, even pragmatic siding with liberal ideas is considered to be as evil as being a full-throated advocate for those ideas.

  32. Steve S. says:

    My favorite thing in the liberal blogosphere is when somebody pulls two sentences out of Noam Chomsky’s corpus and the downthreaders go to town on it.

  33. cpinva says:

    I grew up during the Nixon presidency. I can assure you that Nixon was, by no stretch of the imagination, a liberal. that imagination would have to be ripped out by the roots, and beaten to death on the rocks by the river, to in any way, shape or form, call Nixon a liberal.

  34. Bitter Scribe says:

    The “Nixon was liberal” thing, in my experience, usually comes up in connection with foreign policy. And it’s just as bogus there, too. His “progress” mostly consisted of trying to undo some of the damage that he and his fellow Red-baiters had inflicted in the previous couple of decades.

  35. Paula says:

    Can someone, like, make sure people read other writers in addition to Chomsky? A little Gramsci, Said, Fanon, Foucault, Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Eagleton, Hall? Hell, a little Benjamin or Barthes might help too. Also, Marx is actually tough to get into but, hey, you can at least tell people you’ve read Das Capital! I’ve been too afraid to do it, myself.

  36. rnelson says:

    I agree largely with the substance of the OP, but two points of food for thought. 1) Obviously Chomsky (and others who use this move) are using the President as a synechdoche, a symbol of the times, i.e. “Nixon’s America.” There are obviously problems with it. But hey, the bloggers here also pay more attention to stuff happening at the Presidential level of politics because, hey, that’s what the reading public is most drawn to. 2) I haven’t seen a cogent argument about how Chomsky’s perhaps overly general use of the presidential synechdoche actually has any negative effect on progressive change. If, as Loomis properly points out, the things that matter the most are grass-roots mobilizations and long-term demographic change, then why is “SOMEONE BEING WRONG IN THE MEDIA/ON THE INTERNET” such a groan-worthy occasion?

    • Paula says:

      I appreciate that Chomsky is the pop culture distillation of a lot of leftist historical thought, but how problematic is it to have the distillation and leave behind a certain amount of awareness of actual history and/or and understanding of how power is manifested in different institutions?

      Leftism without the detailed history leads to pretty poor (or nonexistent) structural critique. Which ultimately leaves you with posturing, not ideas for action. My two cents, anyway.

      • rnelson says:

        Sure, that’s a worthy critique, but it applies to pop history/political punditry pretty broadly. Anyways, this type of synechdotal headline is meant to shock, which I think has some value. As a person in their mid-twenties who lives in a generally liberal-progressive milieu, I think the shock headline of “Nixon’s policy outcomes are more liberal than Obama’s policy outcomes” might cause people who I know to think more critically about Obama’s policy outcomes. In other words, breaking the false dichotomy that most people (liberals too) passively accept from the mainstream media: democrats=liberal republicans=conservative nothing else to see here folks

  37. Sev says:

    Surely nobody can deny that Nixon was, in some respects, a green President:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Green

  38. need a nym says:

    In fact, Nixon was such a liberal that he campaigned for right-to-work laws in 1958, and while President, he started the War on Drugs, gutted the OCO, and set price and wage controls that favored business over labor.

  39. Gwen says:

    http://screen.yahoo.com/final-days-223417438.html

    Seriously, anyone who finds this funny would understand why Richard Nixon is not a liberal.

  40. Manju says:

    Nixon’s DW Nominate score as a Rep and Senator was 0.167 (using the lifetime scores that scales the House and Senate as one legislature)

    Lib to Conservative = -1 to +1.

    At best (ie, how could one position Nixon as a liberal) you could say he was a Liberal Republican or right-leaning moderate. But a Liberal Republican is not liberal.

    He was roughly the ideological counterpart to John Dulles (0.146), was to the right of Cabot Lodge, Jr. (0.096), and to the left of Harry Byrd (0.208) and Everett Dirksen (0.328).

    For what its worth, his Presidential score is much more rwing (0.563).

    Even though this buttresses Erik’s argument (which I generally agree with) even more, I didn’t lead with it b/c the presidential scores use a whole different methodology…one that is not nearly as comprehensive, rigorous, or even accepted among scholars as the one for legislators is.

    But if you are curious:

    http://voteview.com/images/presidential_square_wave.png

  41. Nathanael says:

    I’m going to describe one way in which Nixon was *far more liberal* than Reagan or G W Bush.

    Nixon wasn’t a complete idiot.

    The thing about not being an idiot is that it causes you to implement liberal policies because *they work better*.

    The biggest example: “We are all Keynesians now”.

    Also, talking to Communist China.

    Reagan was actually demented (Alzheimer’s) while in office, and G W Bush seems to have been brain-damaged at some point, possibly due to excessive cocaine use. They did *unutterably stupid things constantly*.

    Nixon only did unutterably stupid things when his clinical paranoia (for which he was being treated by a psychiatrist — ineffectively — for his entire Presidency) ran amok.

    Talking about this makes me think of John Stuart Mill.
    “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.”

  42. [...] policies were well to the left of the current Republicans, it’s also true they were not liberals. As Erik Loomis points out at the link, a lot of their accomplishments were in response to [...]

  43. [...] first sentence is actually pretty much right. But the second, as Erik noted recently, is wrong even on its own terms. Reed’s version is better because at least he doesn’t [...]

  44. [...] outside pressures also account for the widespread myth that Nixon was a leftist. As Erik Loomis noted discussing Nixon’s environmental record, “Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician [...]

  45. [...] in the Senate and nearly unanimous votes in the House. The overwhelming support for these laws is why Richard Nixon deserves no liberal credit for them, but that’s another issue. The laws themselves came out of grassroots demands and an [...]

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    To Noam Chomsky and Everyone Else: Richard Nixon Was Not a Liberal – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

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