With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why the Democrats Need to Embrace Blue Collar Populism

Democratic activists worry that their party is marching toward a McGovernite debacle. By staking out the most anti-Bush stands and courting the highly educated, antiwar voters who have rallied to Howard Dean, the Democratic presidential candidates risk affirming the worst stereotypes of their party as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Unless they shake their highbrow image, the Democrats could revive the losing strategy that guided them from 1968 until 1992, in which Republican populism triumphed over Democratic elitism.

Many Democrats still don't appreciate how the GOP ever made itself into the champion of"average Americans." Not long ago most people saw the Democrats as standing for the common man and the Republicans, the minority party, as protectors of wealth and privilege. Why the turnabout?

The parties' reputations and fortunes reversed for many well-known reasons: racial politics; the activism of evangelical Christians; a growing resentment of taxes. But here's one that's often overlooked: Richard Nixon.

This explanation may seem unsurprising coming from the author of a new book about Nixon's role in American politics. But my research convinced me that Nixon has been denied his place in the story of the rise of conservative populism.

According to standard accounts, post-World War II conservatism was an elitist and dated doctrine of the rich. Then, thanks to F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and William F. Buckley's National Review, the right fashioned a cogent challenge to the New Deal orthodoxy. By the 1960s the GOP was loosening the grip of its Eastern liberal wing and rallying behind Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. And although Goldwater lost, the story goes, the grass-roots organizers he inspired went on to harness popular frustration with taxes, big government, and liberalism, eventually electing Ronald Reagan president in 1980.

Former President Richard Nixon

These narratives assign Nixon a peripheral or detrimental role in conservatism's transformation. The liberal slant of his policies as president led historians to view his administration as a continuation of the Great Society rather than the start of its undoing. The short-term damage that Watergate inflicted on the GOP lent a certain logic to the decision to write him out of the story—and to see his presidency as an interruption of the right's postwar ascent.

Yet before Reagan, before the"backlash" against the liberal 1960s, and even before Joe McCarthy spoke for Americans resentful toward the New Deal,it was Nixon who pioneered the use of populist language and imagery in the service of free-market economics and anti-government conservatism. He drew the blueprint on which successors relied.

The hallmarks were there in Nixon's first campaign for Congress, in 1946, against the patrician New Dealer Jerry Voorhis. It's often claimed that Nixon began his infamous red-baiting during this race. But although Nixon did distort Voorhis' record, he did so in the context of a coherent, compelling critique of the New Deal.

A Gallup Poll that year showed that just one-fifth of voters thought the Republican Party cared about"men and women of average income." Nixon tried to rid the GOP of this reputation."The Republican Party has been labeled the party of big business and privilege," he said at one of his first big speeches."Republicans live on both sides of the tracks."

Throughout the campaign, he developed a conservative populist philosophy: a fusion of old-line anti-statist tenets with symbols and language meant to identify with the common man. Conservative populism rewrote the New Deal equation. Instead of protecting the citizen from the depredations of business and safeguarding individual rights, the government itself, piloted by decadent liberal elites, had become the oppressor. Free-market economics and a minimal state would be the people's salvation. Nixon's speeches analyzed how big government (" creeping socialism")—rent control, price controls, overregulation, over-taxation—was depriving young couples and returning veterans of the chance to create a good life in the once booming but now precarious economy of Southern California.

Nixon also spoke about"the forgotten man"—a favorite phrase of FDR. Nixon reclaimed it for the conservative cause. And he identified himself personally with struggling middle-class voters, noting elements of his background that made him seem like an American type: his Navy service, his churchgoing, his family. When Pat gave birth to baby Tricia, Nixon praised a staffer for spreading the news and photographs of the birth to local papers, calling it"the most effective piece of publicity which has been sent out."

Throughout his early career, Nixon's triumphs similarly rested on linking conservatism with"the common man" and liberalism with out-of-touch elites. He established the pattern in his pursuit of Alger Hiss and in his 1950 Senate race, and he solidified it with his Checkers speech. In September 1952, Nixon was trying to save his place as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate after it was revealed he kept a secret $18,000 expense fund. His televised speech—to an audience of 60 million, the largest ever—was, as Garry Wills once wrote, Nixon's" classic attempt" to show that"He is just like all the rest of us, only more so."

In the speech, Nixon spoke of his hard-luck beginnings, his efforts with Pat to make ends meet, her"Republican cloth coat," and his daughters' cocker spaniel, Checkers. Remembered today as a sentimental exploitation of his biography, the speech at the time succeeded spectacularly, solidifying his profile as a hard-working family man and the epitome of Horatio Alger values.

Nixon lost his 1960 presidential bid partly because he was trying to shed his fighting populist persona and style himself as more mature. But he made no such error during his 1968 campaign—another brilliant exercise in conservative populism.

His"law and order" motto that year spoke to a public sense that permissive liberal leadership during the 1960s had encouraged campus protests, urban riots, and street crime. He again invoked"the forgotten man," that elastic category that could include workers, the bourgeoisie, and even the well-to-do who felt powerless to alter Washington's liberal drift.

Lastly, conservative populism defined Nixon's presidency itself. He celebrated his"Silent Majority" of supporters who backed his commitment to the Vietnam War and shared his scorn for the left. He catered to what analysts Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg called the"47-year-old Dayton housewife"—the Middle American voter who felt that venerable values such as religion, duty, and patriotism were being jettisoned. He slammed liberals who promoted busing and tolerated drug use, and he deputized Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack pointy-headed intellectuals and journalists. Agnew's florid description of them—"an effete corps of impudent snobs"—forever linked"effete" with"liberal."

Nixon's victory over George McGovern in 1972 crystallized the GOP's populist message. In every presidential race since, victorious Republicans have touted their plainspoken American values while casting their Democratic rivals as effete. For some, like Reagan or George W. Bush, these populist appeals have come naturally. (George Bush Sr. relied on such contrived gestures as munching pork rinds, but he beat Michael Dukakis by casting him as un-American and weak on crime and defense.)

After Bill Clinton's 1992 race, some Democrats caught on. Notwithstanding the allure of the McGovern-Bill Bradley-Dean elite constituency, many today are playing the populist card, too. John Kerry underscores his veteran status, John Edwards serenades his father the mill worker, Dick Gephardt extols workingmen, and Wesley Clark heralds a"new patriotism"—with uncertain results so far.

To win, someone will have to recapture Clinton's ease in speaking to what he called the"forgotten middle class." Like Clinton, they'll have to grow comfortable using words and symbols that mobilize a little resentment, that tap into Americans' core values, and—unpleasant though it may be to swallow—that crib from that longtime champion of"the forgotten man," Richard Nixon.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.