“The View From 30,000 Feet”:
Rick Perlstein Responds to Judith Stein

“The View From 30,000 Feet”:
Rick Perlstein Responds to Judith Stein

The author of Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan debates reviewer Judith Stein on the rise of the right in the 1970s.

California Governor Ronald Reagan visits Richard Nixon at the White House, 1971 (NARA)

To read Judith Stein’s review of Invisible Bridge, click here.

There is room for all sorts of history, which is why I’m glad we have Judith Stein—a historian who writes from 30,000 feet, examining in omniscient voice the impersonal economic forces that help determine humans’ lifeworlds. Others, like me, examine history largely from the perspective of the consciousness of ordinary people, as a way of grasping what seemed politically possible and desirable in any given moment; where those possibilities came from and how they changed; and how the masters of the universe gained (or did not gain) consent from masses of Americans to remake the world in the way they preferred. My methodological ideal is best captured in the late British philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History (1946). Collingwood argued that the most valuable thing a historian provides is a foundation for the empathetic “re-experiencing” of the thought and feeling of people in the past. At the same time, grasping what a Marxist would call “consciousness” cannot be accomplished without a sense, as Stein notes, of “[m]aterial changes.” Which is why I also, despite what Stein claims, write that kind of history, too. You need both—and more.

I reviewed Stein’s book on the 1970s in 2010, calling it a “[h]ighly original illumination of how the American Century collapsed.” But I also complained about how “her account is jumbled by a lack of contextual empathy for a historical actor’s partial view of his or her times.” I’ll repeat that here. Stein would have us believe that people chose the politicians they did based on merely “concrete” reasons—the kind the historian can discern from 30,000 feet. In her chosen example of Jimmy Carter, liberals liked that he defeated George Wallace in the Florida primary; laborites liked him because he endorsed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill; et voila: victory. It’s the most reductionist formulation I’ve read from a professional historian in decades. It sees historical subjects as a neoclassical economist would: as perfectly rational actors.

But most voters don’t act that way—even the highly motivated, well-informed ones who vote as delegates to national political conventions. In my chapters on the 1976 Republican convention I cite a political scientist, Robert T. Nakamura, who interviewed delegates for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford about why they preferred their chosen candidate and rejected the other. The answers revolved almost exclusively around the soft variables Stein derides:

A Ford delegate on Ford: “He’s solid in character, not flashy, or phony.”

A Ford delegate on Reagan: “a good con artist.”

A Reaganite on Reagan: “Any future problem can be predicted by his philosophy.”

The bottom line, as I hope my book demonstrates, is that in 1976, the first presidential election after Watergate, people were making their political decisions as almost never before according to such questions of belief: who was the “phony” and who wasn’t, who was “solid in character,” whose actions one could safely predict—a longing for someone they could trust. Stein acknowledges this much: “people want to believe, but they want to believe in different things.” Well, obviously. But why would some of those longing for belief buy the invisible bridge sold by Carter (“I will never lie to you”), and others the one sold by Reagan (“…a City on a Hill”)? Understanding that, and from whence this not-quite-concrete political variable arose, and how it became so strikingly salient, is one of my main tasks in the book.

Partially, as I also hope I demonstrate, it came from material changes—the newly uncertain economic prospects for the American middle class. That’s the easy part, rendered transparent by a few simple statistics. Much harder is discerning sources relatively autonomous of that: the way, immediately following America’s greatest period of economic confidence, things started to feel like they were coming apart in every realm. How did that work? How did it feel? Why did it come to matter so much? And why, indeed, when “horrors, of course, drench the news in any decade,” did the perception arise “that the density of horrors was so much worse”? Figuring that out is another main task I set for myself. And if it feels, as Stein notes, “difficult to assess the significance of any one event” in this story, it’s because it was difficult for my subjects to assess the significance of any one event—that, at least, is what the sources show, in which the one-thing-after-anotherness of everyday life was a constant observation.

Demonstrating that—making it salient to the reader—is a literary problem: show, don’t tell. That’s why I’m glad Stein foregrounds my juxtaposition of the Yom Kippur War and a UFO scare: it’s one of my proudest writerly moments. The style is, yes, as she observes, “truncated,” jagged, random—because that was how it all felt: unmasterable even to the most knowledgeable news consumer. Within weeks in October 1973 came the almost simultaneous explosions of the Saturday Night Massacre and the Arab Oil Embargo. Americans of both high influence and no influence began speaking of their fears of a fascist coup in America: not an everyday occurrence, and not one that one can come anywhere close to either grasping or conveying in the customarily disciplined “thus-and-therefore” routines of academic prose.

“The book’s disjointed style makes it impossible to follow themes,” writes Stein—but the disjointedness is the theme. I write this way not just to titillate. There is analytic purpose here, carried out with discerning care. Stein complains of one of my formulations, “Contained passion did not suddenly pop up.” She’s writing about a moment, immediately following Nixon’s resignation, where I point out that suddenly Americans began talking about their economic crisis where they had almost entirely ignored it before. Her complaint is wrongheaded. At the level of politics, contained passions suddenly “pop up” all the time. In this case, I know they did from reading the transcripts of dozens of Watergate-era Nixon press conferences in which no reporter asked about economics, and then they suddenly did; from reading hundreds of letters to the editor, in which no one was talking about unemployment or inflation, and then they suddenly did; from monitoring the popular culture, even comic strips, which suddenly started featuring jokes about a potential depression. That doesn’t mean the forces behind them were not long in coming. Which is why I also explain where those forces came from, for instance in an analysis, drawing on Stein’s own work—it’s in Chapter 9, “The Year Without Christmas Lights”—of how petroleum came to only seemed to become so suddenly scarce, where the forces that rendered it thus were decades in coming.

But Stein reads inattentively, missing much. For instance the fact that she detects “murky” causation here—“Perlstein claims that both Nixon and Reagan created social divisions”—makes sense, because I never, ever claim that. They surfed preexisting waves of both latent and not-so-latent social division; their special skill in doing so simultaneously rendered those divisions more palpable, more politically salient, which exacerbated those divisions. That dual face of political leadership is basic to my project; miss that, and you miss it all.

So what, ultimately, am I saying about why the electorate moved to the right in the 1970s? For reasons of genre, writing for a popular audience, earning my living by my pen, I’m not as explicit about my theoretical aims as if I were writing a scholarly monograph. And my current volume is the third of a four-volume volume series, so my answer is inseparable from why I think the electorate began moving to the right in the 1960s, did so even more so in the 1970s, and then (as will be narrated in my concluding volume) finally gave Ronald Reagan a landslide in 1980. I’m glad to foreground my sense of causal architecture a bit more explicitly here, and am eager to hear what Professor Stein thinks.

There has always been a healthy conservative remnant in American politics—even during those times when posterity, in the form of the historical professional, granted it naught but enormous condescension. How did it begin moving from margin to center? Three major ways, which correspond to the major themes of my three books so far, but which overlap through all of them, each gathering strength as time went on: the motion of three waves, each gathering their original momentum further back in time, traveling along a common vector, each contributing to the tidal sweep that left New Deal liberalism, Great Society liberalism, and the anti-militarism and social libertinism of the 1960s and ‘70s in various states of ruin. The first is infrastructural: that original remnant of conservatism, in the late 1950s all the way through the nomination and general election campaign of Barry Goldwater, begins forming organizations and organizational bonds—“an army that could lose a battle,” as I write in Before the Storm, “suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more.”

That army recedes from view in my second book, Nixonland, because, while these organizational nodes remained and in some ways strengthened themselves during the years of Nixon’s rise and reelection, Nixon proved himself such an outsized figure within the political culture (such figures do in fact come around from time to time) that, within Republican politics especially, they found their oxygen sucked away by the Great Man. But Nixon contributes something crucial to the story of the rising hegemony of the right during this period, as I emphasize in Nixonland: a gift for shaping and focusing the resentment of ordinary bourgeois Americans—his “Silent Majority”—against what the shrewdest theoretician of this phenomenon, Kevin Phillips, called the “toryhood of change.” This helped shape a durable electoral message crucial to the conservative appeal yet today, rooted in a backlash against 1960s liberation movements.

Now, grasping the role of economic forces is also crucial understanding the success of the divide-and-conquer strategy of the post-Nixon right. In volume three, The Invisible Bridge, I bring this story—of the 1970s collapse of the working class amid the rise of a more politicized corporate class—more to the fore, (inspired, in fact, by Stein’s own brilliant intervention in her book Pivotal Decade), pointing out that even during their supposed heyday, before the fall, almost a third of the nation’s working-class families were actually living in poverty. It’s only one of the many stories told in the book; and it will become even more prominent in my fourth and final volume, as the collapse of the postwar labor-management bargain becomes yet more palpable. The main story in Invisible Bridge, however—the third explanatory wave, if you will, and the main theme of the book—describes how conservatism evolved toward a more encompassing hegemony during the years that Ronald Reagan emerged as its leading figure by telling a comforting but profoundly evasive and hubristic story: in the face of the palpable failures of American foreign policy as revealed in Vietnam, of America’s leadership class as revealed by Watergate, of its economic stability as revealed in the energy crisis (exacerbated by what Stein astutely calls the OPEC-led “trade unionism of the developing world”), and of the vulnerability of middle-class fortunes thus revealed—Reaganites said America was simply, ineluctably, great, and that we lived in the best of all possible worlds, or would, if only those meddlesome liberals would just bug off.

Why they succeeded has much to do with questions of culture, which is why I talk about culture so much in my book. But with this final piece in place the conservative waves became tidal: an organizational infrastructure wedded to reaction succeeded in moving into positions of influence in the Republican Party, increasingly skilled at exploiting ground-level cultural grievances to attract new sources of money and recruit new cadres of loyalists into politics. A persuasive post-Nixonian rhetoric of resentment spreading the conservative appeal into a broader popular base. An increasingly class-conscious, anti-Keynesian, and politically active capitalist class, beggaring labor and rigging politics in its own favor. A newly emergent, “Reaganite” cult of nostalgic optimism, softening the edges of conservatism’s post-Nixonian appeal, rendering it more palatable, not least to the gatekeepers of polite opinion—a politics of belief. It all works together.

What is salient in history? Lots of things. Let us honor that injunction in our writing.

To read Judith Stein’s reply, click here.

Rick Perlstein is the author, most recently, of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.