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

[ 294 ] 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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