He assumed, correctly, that a majority of the nation was fed up with the radicalism that had defined the ’60s and the social madness that many saw consuming the country. Nixon knew that the revolution had ended, and that his counterrevolution was about to begin.
Though Ronald Reagan gets much of the praise from current GOP leaders for his so-called Reagan Revolution, it is Nixon who deserves the credit for the rightward restructuring of the American political spectrum. Though his superficial legacy remains, rightly, forever tarnished by his obsequious downfall during Watergate, Nixon’s underlying transformation of the GOP through wedge social issues became the standard upon which countless elections would be won. At the heart of his philosophy was a deeply personal disdain for an Eastern Establishment, a Yankee Yacht Club, personified by his forever-nemesis, John F. Kennedy.
When Nixon lost the White House in 1960 to a handful of dead folks voting for Kennedy in Chicago, the chip that had weighed quietly on his shoulder for so long screamed for revenge. Nixon’s ticket to victory in 1968 and in 1972 was a scheme that stemmed from a loathing of entitlement.
The Democrats, who since FDR had been seen as the party of the common man, leading the country back from the villainous big bosses who’d bankrupted the economy in ’29, were suddenly cast as out-of-touch with the realities of the everyday American citizen. Nixon, far shrewder a man than any of the Republicans who have since occupied the White House, deftly flipped the script on the Democrats by seizing on the moment that “liberalism” had gone too far.
Much of America seemed to accept the basic tenets of the Civil Rights Movement, many openly admitted solidarity with the radical anti-war movement, some hoped the government would go further with its invasive Great Society, nouveau-New Deal reforms. But after Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated within months of each other, after Lyndon Johnson became horribly enmeshed in the ruthlessness of Vietnam, after nearly 10 years of massive social upheaval, a silent majority of Americans wanted the revolution to end, and the out-of-touch Democrats were going to pay.
And they have paid. In the 40 years since the silent majority speech, Democrats have won only three times – Jimmy Carter eked out a two percent victory in 1976 in the aftermath of Watergate; Bill Clinton needed Ross Perot and a tanking economy to oust George H.W. Bush in 1992. Each and every time, Democrats have fought an uphill battle, facing accusations of elitism needing to prove their solidarity with the “American public.”
But now, 40 years later, the pendulum has swung back. George W. Bush has taken more pages out of Nixon’s playbook than anybody, but he forgot the most important lesson of Nixon’s presidency: it’s not the revolution that ultimately changes things, it’s the snap of the counterrevolution when people realize how far they’ve gone.
Bush swept into post-9/11 life with a theocratic mission of complete revolution, the attempt to change forever the power of the Executive Office and America’s position in the War on Terror. With the help of a partisan Congress and a pliant, frightened populace, he gouged and manipulated the Constitution, dramatically increased the budget and power of the federal government, authorized preemptive military strikes whenever necessary and crept further into the private lives of citizens than any government before.
Religious leaders and big business were given untold power over judicial appointments and foreign and domestic policy. Immigration, save for a “special” relationship with labor-rich Mexico, was slowed to a trickle. But he had gone too far.
The midterm elections of 2006 were the prophetic first blow. Though it took five years, a new majority of Americans had formed. This was a majority of Americans who were afraid for their safety but even more afraid of the country they were leaving to their children.
The excesses that once wafted freely into the air of San Francisco had been replaced by the screams of torture in secret prisons. The majority, that glorious majority prized above all else in a democracy, had had enough.
In the election of 2008, regardless of the outcome, the GOP revolution has already ended. Both John McCain and Barack Obama are certainly to the left of Bush, but so too must either candidate win with a new coalition that has finally cracked the mold.
Independents, not bases, will deliver the White House. Charges of elitism, out-of-touch-ism, are flung freely by both sides.
With technological advances eliminating landlines and placing a cell phone in the hands of every college student, a new silent majority has emerged. As polls show a dead-heat race between Obama and McCain, remember the million students in waiting that will never be reached with their unlisted cell phones. Imagine a comeuppance 40 years in the making – a new candidate needing a new coalition who will, at the very least, put past ghosts to rest.
So beware your revolution, Mr. Bush and Co., for as she snaps back, her wrath is even more terrible.