We live in Richard Nixon’s America. Escaping it will not be easy.
It seems so naive now, that moment in 2020 when Democratic insiders started talking about Joe Biden as a transformational figure. But there were reasons to believe. To prevent a pandemic-induced collapse, the federal government injected $2.2 trillion into the economy, much of it New Deal-style. The summer protests have changed public perception about the role of race in the criminal justice system. And the scans pointed to Republican losses big enough to pave the way for the biggest wave of progressive legislation since the 1960s.
Two years later, the truth is easier to see. We don’t live in the America of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Donald Trump or even Joe Biden. We live with Richard Nixon.
Not the America of Nixon’s later years, though there are faint echoes from the January 6 hearings, but the nation he built before Watergate brought him down, where progressive possibilities would be stifled by the toxic policies of law and order and a Supreme Court he had helped shape.
His main message was already defined at the start of his 1968 campaign. In a February speech in New Hampshire, he said: “When a nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is torn apart by anarchy , when a nation that has been the symbol of equal opportunity is torn apart by racial strife…then I say it is time for new leadership in the United States of America.
And there you have it: the melding of crime, race, and fear that Nixon believed would lead him to the presidency.
During that year, he gave his speech a populist twist, saying he was running in defense of all those hard-working, law-abiding Americans who occupied “the silent center.”
A month later, after a landmark Supreme Court decision on inclusive education, he quietly told his core supporters that if elected, he would only appoint justices who opposed the Court’s progressiveness. And on the August night he accepted the Republican nomination, he gave it all a color-blind sheen. “To those who say law and order is the password for racism, there is an answer here and there,” he said. “Our goal is justice for every American.”
In practice, it didn’t work that way. Within two years of his election, Nixon had passed two major crime bills with provisions targeting poor black communities. One laid the groundwork for a racialized war on drugs. The other turned the Washington, D.C., criminal code into a model for states to follow by empowering district judges to issue no-knock warrants, allowing them to detain suspects they deemed dangerous and by requiring them to impose mandatory minimum sentences on those convicted of violent crimes.
And the national police would have all the help they needed to restore law and order. Lyndon Johnson sent about $20 million in aid to police departments and prison systems in his last two years in office. Nixon sent $3 billion. The departments’ purchases of military-grade weapons increased, their use of heavily armed tactical patrols, the number of officers they put on the streets. And the country’s prison population has increased by 16%, while the share of black people among new prisoners has reached its highest level in 50 years.
Nixon’s new order also reached the Supreme Court, as he said. His predecessors had made their first court appointments by the fluid standards that presidents tended to apply to the process: Dwight Eisenhower wanted a moderate Republican who looked like a statesman, John Kennedy someone with the vigor of a New Frontiersman, Johnson a former Washington. who understood where his loyalty lay. For his first nomination, in May 1969, Nixon chose a little-known federal judge, Warren Burger, with an extensive record supporting the power of prosecutors and police over the rights of the accused.
When a second seat opened a few months later, it followed the same pattern, twice appointing judges who had at one point either expressed opposition to race integration or whose rulings were seen as promoting segregation. It wasn’t until the Senate rejected them both that Nixon fell back on Harry Blackmun, the kind of centrist Ike would have loved.
Two more justices resigned in September 1971. Again, Nixon picked nominees he knew would be tough on crime and soft on civil rights — and by then he had a larger agenda in head. This included an aversion to government regulation of the private sector – and so one of the choices was the courteous corporate lawyer Lewis Powell, who that year had written an influential memo to the director of the American Chamber of Commerce advocating a strong corporate defense of free enterprise. system. Another item on Nixon’s agenda was to delegate federal power to the states. William Rehnquist, an assistant attorney general convinced of this view, was his other choice. The two fundamental tenets of an increasingly forceful conservatism were forced upon the court by Nixon’s determination to select his nominees through a precisely defined litmus test that previous presidents had not dreamed of applying.
Our view of Burger’s court may be biased in part because Nixon’s test did not include abortion. By 1971, abortion policy had become furiously contested, but the divisions followed demographics as well as political affiliation: in polls then (which were not as representative as they are today), among Whites, men were slightly more likely than women to support the right to choose, non-Catholics with a college education more likely than those without a college degree, non-Catholics significantly more likely than Catholics, who anchored the ‘opposition. It was therefore not surprising that after oral arguments, three of the four white Protestants whom Nixon had put on the court voted for Roe and that one of them wrote the majority opinion.
Judge Blackmun was still writing the court’s decision in May 1972 when Nixon sent a letter to the Catholic Cardinal of New York, offering his “admiration, sympathy and support” to the church intervening as “advocates of the right to life of the unborn child”. The Republican deputy who had led the decriminalization of abortion in New York denounced her intervention as “a clear argument for the Catholic vote”. It was. In November, Nixon won the Catholic vote, thanks to a decision that gave the abortion wars a partisan alignment they hadn’t had before.
Nixon’s version of law and order endured, through Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, George HW Bush’s Crime Control Act of 1990, and Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill, until to smashed windows, stops and frisks and the relentless increase in mass incarceration. The ideological verification of judges has increased in intensity and precision.
Mr. Trump’s tenure has entrenched a party beholden to the configurations of politics and power that Nixon shaped half a century ago. The possibility of gradual change that seemed to open up in 2020 has now been closed. The court’s supermajority handed down the first of what could be at least a decade of rulings eviscerating liberal precedents. Crime and gun violence now overtake the race as one of the top concerns of the electorate.
Mr Trump, in a speech on Tuesday, made it clear he would continue to hammer home the theme as he considered a 2024 race: “If we don’t have security, we don’t have freedom,” said he said, adding that “America first must mean safety first” and “we need an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America and defeat it firmly. And be tough. And be mean and be mean if you have to.
An order so firmly entrenched will not easily be undone. It’s tempting to talk about expanding the field or imposing age limits. But court reform has no plausible route through the Senate. Even if it did, the results might not be progressive: Republicans are as likely as Democrats to pack a court once they control Congress, and age limits wouldn’t affect some of the the most conservative judges before at least 13 years. The truth is that the court will be rebuilt as it always has been, one justice at a time.
The court will no doubt limit progressive policies, as it has done in the past on business regulation and gun control. But it also opened up the possibility of undoing some of the partisan alignments that Nixon set up, especially on abortion. Now that Roe is gone, Democrats have an opportunity to reclaim that portion of anti-abortion voters who support government interventions — like prenatal care and prenatal care — that a post-Roe nation desperately needs and the Republican Party won’t. certainly will not. to bring.
Nothing matters more, however, than shattering Nixon’s fusion of race, crime, and fear. To do this, liberals must take violent crime as a defining issue, something they have been reluctant to do, then relentlessly rework it and try to break the power of its racial dynamics by telling the public an all-too-obvious truth: The United States is plagued with violent crime because it is awash with guns, because it has no effective approach to dealing with mental illness and the addiction epidemic, because it accepts a appalling degree of inequality and leave whole sections of the country sinking into despair.
Making this point is also a long-term endeavour, as you would expect from a project that attempts to overturn half a century of political thinking. But until Nixon’s version of law and order is purged from American public life, we’re going to remain locked in the nation he built on his appeal, his future shaped, like much of his past was, by his racism and his fear. .
The New York Times