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The Myth That Was Real | The Nation

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The Myth That Was Real

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Richard Nixon based his Presidential strategy on a reactionary, utterly erroneous myth about the United States. It cqincided with the false consciousness of a majority of the people and it seemed to be corroborated, in part at least, by George McGovern's campaign. The practical conclusion from this analysis is not, however, that the democratic Left need only wait around until Nixon's untruths are revealed for what they are in 1976. There were myths as well on the side of the good guys this yearonly, unlike Nixon's, they were not shared by 60, per cent of the electorate. One must be as candid about the illusions of the Left as about those of the Right.

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Before discussing this interpretation of recent, and sad, events, I want first to summarize some of the obvious features of the election. The vote was the lowest since 1948 and one can probably assume that the nonvoters, though politically more motivated than usual, found both Nixon and McGovern unacceptable. The President's victory must be seen as personal and negative, since the people increased the Democrats' liberal representation in the Senate and held their losses in the House to thirteen seats (with half of those to be explained by gerrymanders rather than by issues). In some respects, the outcome reminded me of the 1969 Lindsay-Procaccino-Marchi race in New York City: an unpopular Mayor was re-elected because both alternatives to him were intolerable. That, it would seem, is the way a good many people viewed the choice between Nixon and McGovern.

In all of this, the actual shift to the Right was of the order of about 4 per cent of the vote. That is; Nixon's and Wallace's 1968 percentages came to about 57 per cent, and Nixon, who labored hard in 1972 for that Wallace vote and took almost all of it, came in this year with just under 61 per cent. And even this trend is less significant than it may seem, given the fact that so many, people split their tickets and voted for liberal Democrats after having cast a ballot for the President. But that leads back to the problem of assessing the data. Is the contrast between the Democratic Presidential rout and the Democratic Congressional success to be explained either by McGovern's personality or by the way in which he campaigned? I think not.

To be certain, incidents and events in the campaign contributed to the final result. McGovern was not subjected to really serious scrutiny until Hubert Humphrey's rough attack on him in the California primary was when he started going downhill. The Eagleton affair was atremendous, and damaging, blow to the McGovern image, and Wallace's shooting also had an effect upon the race. But basically, Nixon won so handily- and would, I think, have beaten any Democrat this year because he articulated attitudes which are as popular as they are mistaken. This was the year of the myth that was real.

Mr. Nixon spelled out that myth in considerable detail in his pre-election interview with Garnett D. Homer of the Washington Star-News. In the process, he developed his own theory as to why he was about to win in a landslide.

"This country," Mr. Nixon said, "has enough on its plate in the way of new spending programs, social programs, throwing dollars at problems. . . I don't believe that the answer to the nation's problems is simply more new programs in terms of dollars and in terms of people." In a similar vein: "What we have to realize is that many of the solutions of the sixties were massive failures. They threw money at problems and for the most part they failed." That is the central premise of the Nixon myth: we have been doing too much and it has not worked. A majority of the American people believe that, although they will often give it a bit of a racist twist: We have been doing too much, particularly for the blacks. When The New York Times looked over the data which Daniel Yankelovich's surveys had provided, it discovered that the very considerable number of people who answered that the federal government had done too much for the minorities were voting overwhelmingly for Nixon.

In fact, as will be seen, we have not been "throwing dollars at problems," particularly black problems. The President may believe it, and a majority of the voters almost certainly do; but it is not so.

The second element in the Nixon myth is derived from the first: those profligate programs corrupted people's self-reliance and resulted in permissiveness, rising drug addiction, skyrocketing welfare rolls. In Nixon's view in "the thoughts of the sixties . . . it was the government's job every time there was a problem, to make people more dependent upon it to give away to their whims. The welfare mess is an example. The escalation of the numbers on welfare, much of it is a result simply of,running down what I call the work ethic." This federal attitude led to an "enormous move toward permissiveness, which led to the escalation in drugs in this country."

Mr. Nixon, and the majority of hard-working voters, think they know that federal permissiveness caused the increase in the welfare rolls and drug addiction. They are, as will be seen, wrong.

The third and most political element of the Nixon myth is an attack upon "a breakdown in frankly what I would call the leadership class of this country." These are the members of "the limousine liberal set" (Nixon uses here the phrase immortalized by Mario Procaccino in that New York mayoralty race) which is found in the Northeast, their "playground." Their error lies in "not .recognizing that above everything else you must not weaken a people's character." Nixon proclaims, in an extraordinarily authoritarian image, that he will not make this error: "The average American is just like the child in the family. You give him some responsibility and he is going to amount to something. If, on the other hand, you make him completely dependent and pamper him and cater to him too much, you are doing to make him soft, spoiled and eventually a very weak individual."

These charges are partly mythic. If anything, it is Nixon who has followed policies which -- by adding 2 million to the unemployment rolls and more than 1 million to the number of the poor -- have increased dependency in America. But the assertion that the affluent liberals, who loomed so large in the McGovern entourage, are out of contact with the mass of the people is partly accurate. One of the most important reasons for the President's landslide was that that truth was placed in a social context wherein millions drew Nixon's mythic conclusions from it.

However, before focusing on the political consequences of the Nixon myth, it is important to take a closer look at its flawed premises. In Lyndon Johnson's farewell budget, presented in January 1969, just before Nixon took office, there is an accounting of the increase in federal spending during his full term. Between 1964. and 1968, Washington more than doubled its spending for major social programs, investing 37.4 billion in them in 1968. That would seem to substantiate the Nixon image of a bureaucracy which threw money at problems. But 40 per cent of that total, or 14.4 billion, went to increases in social insurance programs, and 33 per cent, or 11.2 billion, went to health, primarily to Medicare or Medicaid. That is, more than three-quarters of the increase in federal outlays between 1964 and 1968 .went to programs which have the overwhelming support of the American people, including the support of a majority of those who voted for Nixon.

The other increments in those years were much more modest. There was a 2.5 billion increase in welfare spending; 5.6 billion,was added to education and manpower programs; 1.1 billion more for low and moderate" income housing; and 2.4 billion,for community and regional development. "Excluding special' Vietnam costs and the self-financed social insurance trust-funds," the Johnson budget concluded, "outlays have been declining, as a share of the nation's output."

Why, then, if the actual expenditures from Washington did not rise very fast in the 1960s do so many people believe that they did? The answer, I think, is that the Johnson administration gave the rhetorical impression of much more innovation than was actually taking place. The gains under Johnson were quite real in areas like medicine and education, and unemployment was substantially reduced: But how many citizens know that the bold plan of 1968 to have the federal government make certain that 2.6 million units of low-cost housing would be built in the next ten years never went beyond the stage of pious wish (albeit a pious wish passed into law)? So it was with the blacks and other minorities; yery important progress was made in open accommodations and voting rights, but the basically inferior position of the Negro in the American economy did not change.

It is simply not true, therefore, that Kennedy and Johnson were throwing money around -- although Johnson sometimes might have seemed to be doing so. Given that fact, the second portion of the Nixon myth -- that federal profligacy created a permissiveness in the society which encouraged welfare dependence and drug addiction -- should fall. It does.

To begin with, only one-half of those officially defined as poor in the United States receive any welfare payments, at all. The rolls grew, in considerable measure, because 20 per cent of the poor who had been legally qualified for aid all along were fmally claiming what was theirs. But half of the poor still get nothing-and one-third of the families of the poor are headed by a full-time, working male, i.e., by devotees of Nixon's work ethic who are cruelly used by the economy. Moreover, welfare 'benefits in the United States are on the average one-half of what the government defines as desperate need. And the welfare population is, by a majority, composed of children and the aging, people whom even Mr. Nixon has not yet proposed to drive into the labor market.

The idea that welfare caused the increase in drug addiction is a pathetic exercise in pop sociology. The great New York heroin epidemic broke out in the ghettos in the 1950s, during the Eisenlhiower-Nixon administration, at a time when the welfare rolls were much lower than now. And societies with much better welfare provisions, like England, have about 0.5 per cent of the American drug problem. Indeed, if one wanted to make a simplified (and half-true) argument about the social causes of addiction, one would observe that this problem is greatest among the young who are both poor and black, that is to say among those whose life has been made more miserable and addiction-prone because of the Nixon policies.

Why then does Nixon's theme strike such a responsive chord among the people? I suspect it is because the society has indeed become more permissive, but not for the reasons that Nixon cites. There has been a decline in religious belief, caused by factors beyond the control of Richard Nixon, or any other President. That has removed a good number of inhibitions from social life. At the same time, the authority of the family has declined, relative affluence has made a youth culture possible (and profitable), and young workers on the assembly line don't even scramble for overtime any more. The church's legitimacy is in decline; so are those of the Army and the corporation. These transformations do indeed create worrisome problems, not the least because they occur, not as part of an emancipating, creative movement of the Left but within a context of the old order. Tens of millions of Americans are genuinely and even rightfully worried and Mr. Nixon provides them with a convenient scapegoat: federal permissiveness.

However, and this gets to the political portion of the Nixon theory, there is one group that can be identified as the human agents of this disturbing permissiveness: the affluent liberals and radicals who formed the basis for McGovern's candidacy in the primaries. They do, indeed stand for abortion reform, the legalization of marijuana, sexual freedom and amnesty for opponents of the war in Vietnam. That, very fact should give Mr. Nixon pause with regard to his own hypothesis, for it locates atendency toward permissiveness, not in the welfare dependents at the bottom of the society but in the uppermiddle and even upper classes. Since these people also favor federal programs and social investments, Nixon was able to link up the McGovern campaign with the massive unrest the society about the poor, the black, the drug users -- and about the decline in traditional values.

I am of two minds about this part of the Nixon myth. On the one hand, there must be abortion reform, the marijuana laws are insane, homosexuals and others should be freed from persecution, and there should be an amnesty for the anti-warriors once the contlict in Vietnam ends. That is to say, the McGovernites were in part penalized by Nixon, and by the huge majority who rallied to the President, for being right. On the other hand, one can see in this constituency a suicidal desire to maximize its handicaps, to present these essentially good positions in such a way as to insure the greatest hostility tcr them. In particular, the original McGovern constituency was utterly insensitive to the white working class-and particularly the Catholic white working class-in those areas where it could, and should, have demonstratedsome cause for its views; Accordingly, when McGovern came to areas in which a principled politician had to take some losses because of his commitment to good but unpopular causes, he had no rior sympathy on which he could call.

In all of this, I think, McGovern, who is a serious politician, was often the victim of his followers. He did make a serious effort after he had won the nomination to stress the blue-collar themes of full employment, hositility to corporate political and economic power, etc. But by then the Nixon myth had already descended upon his candidacy. He was perceived, quite wrongly, as the ' spokesman of those upper-class affluents who were corrupting the youth, the poor and the minorities by tolerating outrageous crimes, drug use, religious blasphemy and contempt for the flag. In fact, the policies that McGovern proposed -- like a guaranteed job for every citizen --might have made at least a dent in some of the problems that Nixon cited, whereas inixon's actions have demonstrably made things worse in the very area of his supposedly most passionate concern. But people saw and voted on an inverted perception of social reality.

If, then, Mr. Nixon was quite right and shrewd in appraising the basic source of his triumph -- as I think he was -- what practical lessons should the democratic Left draw from his wily analysis? First of all, it is clear that atremendous educational job remains to be done. Above all, the pernicious theory that the."failure" of the 1960s was occasioned by a profligate spending of money must be laid to rest. Since a new conservatism is emerging in this country -- most notably around the magazine, The Public Interest -- that task will not be easy. But it must be done, first of all on a serious and meticulous intellectual level, then in the form of popular education.

Secondly, it is crucial that the Left advocate policies which will unite the interests of the poor and the minorities with those of the white working class-and put them in the very forefront of its program. Demands for reparations, or for minority employment, which seem to be, or are, demands for white unemployment, will not be happily greeted by trade unionists. The strategy must always be to put forward proposals which will benefit the majority and not just the most needful minority. I have thought .for some time that this was the proper way to act; now that 50 per cent of the trade unionists and a majority of the Catholics in America have voted for Richard Nixon, it becomes the more imperative.

Thirdly, there is a need for reconciliation between the major forces of a potential progressive Democratic majority. McGovern's basic constituency-issue-oriented, white, college-educated has proved itself a major factor in American politics, one strong enough to be necessary to any liberal victory; and it has also demonstrated that, alone, it cannot possibly win. George Meany's basic constituency has proved itself stronger than the McGovernites because in 1968, almost single-handedly, it just missed electing Hubert Humphrey. But it was not a near majority, since 13.3 per cent of the vote that year went to Wallace. In reality, it was only four or five points stronger than the vote that McGovern rallied. The laborites are thus both crucial, even decisive, for any future vicFory and unable to win on their own. ments in the Meany labor and McGovern New Politics constituencies, or else 1972 was the Year One of the New Republican era. I do not accept that second alternative as inevitable. The myth was more real than reality this year and' Nixon won. That need not be true in 1976.

So there will either be a reconciliation of the best elements in the Meany Labor and McGovern New Politics constituencies, or else 1972 was the Year One of the New Republican era. I do not accept that second alternative as inevitable. The myth was more real than reality this year and Nixon won. That need not be true in 1976.

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