Here at Nixon Foundation, we’ve made efforts to examine President Nixon’s policy legacy and discuss its relevance in the America of 2016. We’ve zoomed in on topics as diverse as relations with Iran, North Korea, and Russia, foreign aid and assistance, Native American policy, the impact of television on politics, and nuclear nonproliferation. But sometimes, it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Many historians and policy thinkers, most recently Michael Lind, have analyzed American history in rhythmic cycles, with great periods of state-building followed by great periods of laissez-faire, delineated by major crises and slumps. The sticking point of these analyses is usually a call to action to forge the next great set of institutions for the Republic, inspired by a cyclical understanding of the nation’s past.
Understanding these cycles, the great “lawgivers” like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt typically synthesized the works of statesmen of the preceding era and adapted them as they rebuilt the Republic’s institutions amidst the ashes of crisis. To understand the reforms and works of Lincoln and FDR, then, it is important to understand the visions and contributions of Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman” Henry Clay, and Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin and inspiration, Theodore Roosevelt.
Richard Nixon may very well fall into this latter category- a great “model statesman” whose strategic temperament and policy blueprint can and should inform the next great lawgiver, hopefully a statesman or stateswoman who will lead America out of the present crisis and into the Republic’s next epoch of greatness. Let’s look at some of the ways his presidential legacy is relevant to the problems of the early 21st Century.
A Peacemaker amid the Rise of the Rest
President Nixon is perhaps most famous as a foreign policy strategist and practitioner, having extricated the United States from the Vietnam War, expelled the Soviet Union from the Middle East, and opened the United States to the People’s Republic of China in one of the greatest strategic coups of the 20th century. In his First Inaugural Address, Nixon praised the virtues of the “Peacemaker” and his legacy in forging the reasonably peaceful international order of the last third of the 20th century seems to vindicate that phrase as an aspirational self-description.
The world of 1969, when Nixon took office, was a bigger mess than it had been since the 1950s, if not the 1930s- the United States was embroiled in a war halfway around the world, other regional powers were rising and asserting themselves in their respective spheres, and the United States was exhausted and internally divided. The world of 2017 is shaping up to be similar, with storm-clouds brewing on every horizon: the increasing assertiveness of China in the East Asian Littoral, the active shooting wars engulfing a crumbling Muslim world, Russian adventurism across Western Eurasia, a dysfunctional European Union that has lost its sense of purpose. Transnational terrorist groups win territory and run amok in Western cities, wreaking havoc; the American people are as divided as they’ve ever been.
Richard Nixon’s vision- a primus inter pares America managing a stable world order of great nations at peace with each other- has yet to be realized.
Yet Nixon aptly managed the foreign affairs with a strategist’s mind and a statesman’s hand. It remains to be seen whether statesmen of similar temperaments and visions can ascend to power and rise to the occasion of the late 2010s and early 2020s. They would have to have a similar strategic purpose as Nixon’s- to make peace with honor, to accommodate the rise of other powers in the international order, to end the chaos in the ungoverned regions of the world- and a study of Nixonian Realpolitik would surely help that.
Just as Henry Clay’s strategic vision and mission of saving the Union was consummated by President Abraham Lincoln, and just as Theodore Roosevelt’s vision and mission of crafting a strong and pragmatic America able to stand on its own in foreign affairs was fully implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt, so Richard Nixon’s vision- a primus inter pares America managing a stable world order of great nations at peace with each other- has yet to be realized. Whoever brings it about will have earned the title of “Peacemaker.”
A Tory Man with Whig Measures
Though a center-right Republican, President Nixon did not preach against the institutions of the New Deal and accompanying reforms, nor did he merely expand them. Instead, like his mentor Eisenhower, he sought to reform them and make them work more effectively for the American people. Nixon took a dysfunctional federal system and sought to make it functional again. He sought to allay social problems and ameliorate society by proposing reforms less radical than those of the Left and more ambitious than those of the Right. As his great advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan might have thought when gifting the President a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, Nixon was truly a “Tory Man with Whig Measures” who could thereby change history.
The America of 1969 was reeling from domestic unrest and sagging under the weight of the decaying Great Society and New Deal social welfare programs, and experiencing the most complicated domestic situation since the 1930s. Many Americans were on the welfare rolls, the Executive Branch agencies were overloaded with overlapping tasks and jurisdictions, and more and more power was centered in Washington D.C., away from the states and local communities affected by said governance. The America of 2017 is similar- what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Blue Social Model” of dysfunctional pension systems and bureaucracies is on its last legs, while the Executive Branch remains dysfunctional as ever and the central government continues to consolidate regulatory authority, as Joel Kotkin notes. American society in 1969, meanwhile, was riven against itself on identity lines; the protests and identity politics of today are nothing new.
America needs a pragmatic reformist statesman or stateswoman to fulfill Nixon’s work in making the United States government more efficient and decentralized and reforming our institutions for the Information Age.
Though he wasn’t able to implement all of his historic and comprehensive reforms of the federal government- the Family Assistance Plan, which would have undercut the bureaucracy and transformed the welfare system through direct cash handouts to poor families, and which inspired the welfare reforms of the Clinton Administration; the New Federalism, a program of revenue sharing that would have propped up local governments on the federal dime, and which before it was terminated under the Reagan Administration shared $80 billion with states, cities, and counties; and the Executive Reorganization, which would have consolidated the Executive Branch into task-based rather than sector-based agencies and departments- President Nixon nonetheless proved a canny political operator and a great reformist statesman at the same time. Other initiatives, like universal healthcare, school desegregation and civil rights, and environmental protection, saw mixed results, but the motive and strategy was the same: address social problems as a moderate before the radicals could claim them for their own.
America needs a pragmatic reformist statesman or stateswoman to fulfill Nixon’s work in making the United States government more efficient and decentralized and reforming our institutions for the Information Age. A politician with such a vision- a penchant to push liberal policies with conservative aims, an acceptance of the institutions of the New Deal and “big government” coupled with a fiery passion to reform them in the broader public interest, and a true and unvarnished caring for the common people, without illusions about the efficacy of either government, society, or the market- would do well to study Nixonian reformism.
Just as Abraham Lincoln expanded and updated Henry Clay’s American System in the interests of the Union, and just as Franklin Roosevelt revitalized Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Square Deal through the New Deal, so a neo-Nixonian statesman ought to consider the imperatives of Nixon’s New Federalism as potential blueprints for solutions to the pressing issues of early 21st century America.
Toward a New Nixonism
So why is President Nixon relevant? Quite simply, because Nixon provides a useful model by which to understand the problems of 2016 and beyond, and a useful panoply of potential policy solutions for those issues. Overlooked by many, his treasure trove of knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the domestic and foreign policy realms remains unmined; enterprising leaders looking for new ideas could find ideas and concepts there, polish them off, and make them ready for use in the present era. It is especially important nowadays, with the cycles of American history converging and the next great state-building era of the Republic apparently imminent.