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.
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.