Monday, July 13, 2020

Nixon, Buchanan, and the Status Quo

Nixon, Buchanan, and the Status Quo
Peter Schultz

            So much of the divisiveness in US politics is a cover that serves, surprisingly, the status quo, a phenomenon I have been reminded of while reading Pat Buchanan’s book, Nixon’s White House Wars,” and especially chapter four, “Agnew’s Hour.”

            Agnew’s hour came when Buchanan proposed and Nixon accepted that the Vice President should launch attacks on the media. First, Agnew would attack the TV networks and then he would attack the NY Times and the Washington Post for “arrogance, bias, and elitism.” [78] Buchanan saw these attacks as changing the rules governing the media’s approach to politics and claimed that they had succeeded. “The networks never recovered from the Des Moines attacks. . . .” And “the networks and newspapers show[ed] they had been affected” because “Op-ed pages blossomed” and “CBS and other networks began to bring forward conservatives to do commentary.” [78]

            There are, however, several interesting aspects to these events that should be noted. First, to Buchanan’s surprise the TV networks, aware that Agnew was going to attack them, decided to air his Des Moines speech live. As Buchanan says: “I was stunned. This was going to be huge.  . .  . The Vice President would be given an audience of 50 million for a sustained polemic indicting the networks for biased and irresponsible stewardship . . . over American public opinion.” [72]

            Why would the networks do that? Buchanan argued they miscalculated, thinking the people would rally to their cause, not the president’s. But it was already clear from the people’s reaction to Nixon’s earlier speech on Vietnam that this was unlikely to happen as the popular reaction to that speech and the reaction of the network analysts were opposed. So why give Agnew such an audience? Perhaps because the networks were not as worried about the backlash as Buchanan thought they were. Perhaps like Nixon, et. al., the networks thought the dissonance created by Agnew would work to their advantage insofar as the media liked and profited from such conflict. So, while Nixon profited popularly, so too did the media, at least financially.

            Moreover, there was no real danger to the media, no real threat despite some innuendoes from Agnew. As Buchanan pointed out, the networks and the newspapers simply co-opted Buchanan by incorporating the conservative point of view into their programming. And parts of the media, like Time magazine which even put Agnew on its cover, seemed to almost celebrate his attacks. It might not even be wrong to say that media and the Nixon administration colluded in a way that obscured how each was preserving and fortifying the status quo.

            Buchanan reported that at this time the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was revealed and 375,000 people descended on D.C. to protest that war. Operating as “balanced” institutions, the media was not forced to do anything more than “report” these events as “news.” And in this way, these events would not threaten the status quo, as there would be “liberal” and “conservative” perspectives offered up by the media, thereby undermining attempts to use these events as indicators of a corrupt political order, an order of which the media was a central part. In the end, both the Nixon administration and the media maintained their legitimacy, the Nixon administration by attacking “arrogance, bias, and elitism,” and the media by demonstrating its openness to a “variety” of opinions.

            Buchanan notes over and over that the Nixon administration was not the conservative nirvana he hoped it would be. What is odd though is that he never seems to grasp how even his recommendations merely served to fortify the status quo. And this is so because Buchanan failed to recognize that the labels “liberal” and “conservative” are attached to “movements” legitimated by a political order that comprehends them both. Despite Buchanan’s revolutionary desires, there can no more be a conservative “revolution” than there can be a “liberal” revolution because these phenomena only make sense, only come to light as reflections of a more comprehensive political order. A revolution would require a critique, a break with that more comprehensive political order.

            That political order maintains itself by making us think that the political world is divided between “left” and “right,” between “liberals” and “conservatives.” But actually the political world is divided between “the top” and “the rest,” between the wealthy and the not wealthy, between the few and the many. Nixon’s “war” against the media was a war among the wealthy, among the few, between this few and that few. As such, it couldn’t and, of course, didn’t change American politics, as evidenced by Nixon’s fall from grace during Watergate, thanks in large part to the media. “Agnew’s hour” was just that, an ephemeral event that changed nothing permanently in the American political order. And even Nixon’s fall changed nothing permanently because it too was the result of a conflict among the few. In fact, Nixon’s fall also fortified the status quo as illustrated by the fact that Gerry Ford became president. What could be more status quo than a Ford presidency? Which of course even the Ford people recognized as they took pride in their election year mantra: “A Ford, Not a Lincoln.”

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