Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority

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Robert Mason. Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 1-289. ISBN 0-8078-2905-6.


Summary

Robert Mason traces the roots of the late twentieth-century conservative movement to the administration of Richard Nixon. According to Mason, the ascendency of the Democratic Party was beginning to falter by the late 1960’s because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and dissatisfaction with the economic and social direction of the country. Race riots and anti-war demonstrations left many Americans feeling uneasy and searching for core values. Laboring Americans felt they were losing ground in the struggle to be a part of the new affluence of the country.

Richard Nixon wanted to find a new majority in the country, but he did not see this new consensus forming along party lines. He felt that party affiliations were strongly ingrained in people, and the strength of Democratic Party loyalty could not be challenged in the short term. Nixon used a two-pronged strategy to undermine the Democratic dominance. First, the President distanced himself from his own party. He then attacked the Democrats as being ultra-liberal and out-of-touch with the concerns of average Americans, who Nixon labeled as the “silent majority.”

Using patriotism as his leverage, Nixon appealed to this silent majority to support his Vietnam policies. Wrapping themselves in the flag, this group used Nixon’s voice to counter the anti-war protesters. Nixon also provided a social voice for the silent Americans by promising an administration that emphasized law and order. Although he was successful in finding rhetoric to address social concerns, Nixon could not find a solution for the economic concerns of Americans.

Nixon’s strategy produced a new schizophrenic America that supported Nixon for President but elected over-whelming Democratic majorities in Congress. Americans liked the patriotic and social messages of the Republican Party but still trusted the country’s economy to the Democrats. Thus, the Republicans were unable to challenge as the new majority until the 1980’s and 1990’s. Mason believes Nixon’s new majority reflected the message of the President rather than a reshaping of the Republican Party.


Commentary

Curtis Vaughn, Fall, 2007

Using extensive research into the papers of officials of the Nixon administration, government documents, and interviews of political observers of the time, Robert Mason offers a study of how Richard Nixon won an impressive landslide victory in his bid for re-election in 1972. Mason’s theory that Nixon was searching for a new majority is not controversial. His belief that he was looking for this majority outside of the Republican Party is less well understood but adds to the image of Nixon as a man who could not work within the structures around him.

The complexity of Nixon’s personality is not shown in Mason’s work which portrays the President only as a calculating politician. In contrast, David Greenberg, in his book, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), shows a far more complex man who is always concerned about his image. Greenberg emphasized Nixon’s understanding that no matter the image portrayed, voters understood the authenticity of a politician’s political positions. If Nixon was truly concerned about social issues such as patriotism and law and order, did his concerns find a new majority or did a socially conservative majority of Americans rally around Richard Nixon as their spokesman? By researching only government documents and papers of the political elite, Mason cannot answer this question. This book about the quest for a new political majority gives no voice to the people who comprised that group.

In order to gain an understanding of the conservative movement that would soon sweep the country, we need more than the voice of a politician who was desperately seeking re-election. Mason’s work is a good political history and an interesting story of a man who found ways to exploit the divisions in the country for his political gain. It should not be read as anything more.

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