- Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority
In this welcome contribution to the history of Richard Nixon's complex presidency, Robert Mason directs our attention to Nixon's multifaceted efforts to activate the "silent majority" and create an enduring partisan electoral realignment. Where other studies of Nixon's presidency may discount Nixon's attempts to build a lasting electoral coalition (presumably because his majority-building project collapsed utterly in the face of Watergate), Mason insists on bringing the question of what Nixon did and how he did it front and center. In his own quest to narrate the Nixon story in an innovative way, Mason unquestionably succeeds. This book is a well-executed study of a pivotal presidency at an important crossroads in modern American political development.
Thanks to his in-depth archival research, Mason is able to pull back the curtain and reveal the calculations made and strategies developed by Nixon and his team to expand the president's 1968 plurality, cut into traditional Democratic constituencies, and build a new electoral coalition for his reelection bid in 1972. Nixon's majority-building plan included a wide range of presidential activities—crafting innovative policies, practicing the art of symbolic politics, using strategic rhetoric, and building new organizational forms. Thankfully, Mason is sensitive to the methodological problem of assuming that every presidential policy choice or political decision is motivated by electoral calculations or is part of a majority-building plan (indeed, how can we ever know, in any systematic way, whether a certain presidential action is motivated by principle or strategic calculation?). Instead, Mason uses this complication productively to show how Nixon's brand of politics could come to mean so many different things to so many different people.
Generally, normative judgments about Nixon's political style have already been made and opinions of the deposed president hold firm in the public mind. For most readers, the hard lessons of Nixon's aggressive presidential politics are all too familiar. What distinguishes Mason's fine study is that it reaches beyond these problems to draw out more from Nixon's leadership than will probably be familiar to most readers. Indeed, as Mason demonstrates, Nixon was actually striving to accomplish more than his own reelection. He was aiming to build something bigger than himself, something more enduring than his brief tenure in the White House (of course, Nixon knew not how brief at the time). The new majority Nixon envisioned was not only intended to reflect the president's personal political purposes and stand as a testament to his own leadership skills, it was to be a durable electoral coalition that would effectively entrench the Republican Party in the councils of [End Page 140] government well into the future. Indeed, Nixon's quest for a new majority was personal but also deeply partisan, Nixon's own ambivalence for the Republican Party proper notwithstanding. Mason sees Nixon's efforts as part and parcel—a cause and a result—of a broader historical development: a gradual shift toward conservatism in the American polity. While Nixon's quest ultimately produced only the appearance of a conservative majority and not the real thing, his attempt to realign politics, Mason argues, is worthy of examination on its own merits.
It is telling that Mason begins his history with Goldwater's launch of modern conservatism in 1964 rather than with the hybrid conservatism Nixon developed for his failed 1960 bid for the presidency. Rather than locating the significance of the Nixon case in the man's personal history—in his individual development of a political identity—Mason treats Nixon's quest for a new majority as an important element in the long rise of the conservative political movement. Nixon emerges not as a president driven by fundamental commitments but as a pragmatist who, standing in the cross-currents of history, tried to position himself just so; as one who sought to maximize his ability to influence the political winds and shape the political landscape according to...