Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Nixon, Watergate, and Conspiratorial Politics


Nixon, Watergate, and Conspiratorial Politics

Peter Schultz


            Nixon’s apparent passivity seemed remarkable as Watergate events unfolded. For example, Nixon didn’t ask John Mitchell about whether or not he was aware of, even responsible for the burglary. When Nixon explained why, he said: “If he [Nixon] asked and Mitchell said, ‘Yes, I did it. Then what do we say?’” [202, Silent Coup]


            This alerts us to something interesting about the behavior of politicians who believe that politics is all about power, getting it and keeping it. Nixon didn’t confront Mitchell because the result might be a loss of power. “Then what do we say?” On the other hand, in not asking Mitchell about the burglary, Nixon could claim, were Mitchell held responsible, that he, Nixon, didn’t know anything about the burglary. Not asking Mitchell was, therefore, Nixon’s best strategy insofar as he was seeking to protect his power. Even if his gambit failed, Nixon would be no worse off than if he had asked Mitchell and was discovered to have kept Mitchell’s answer secret.


            In other words, when politics is all about power, cover-ups are the best strategy, even if they don’t always work. If your goal is to protect your power, not justice, e.g., you might as well cover up because even if the cover up doesn’t work, you’re no worse off than if you told the truth to begin with. It’s the best available strategy because (1) your cover up might succeed and (2) because even if it doesn’t, it might mitigate the damage to your power. When politics is all about power, honesty is not the best policy. In fact, dishonesty is.


            So, Nixon being non-confrontational, avoiding confrontations in order to cover up events wasn’t a personality trait, although it might seem like one. It wasn’t even the result of paranoia. Covering up is the best political strategy available if politics is all about power, getting it and keeping it. It’s why institutions would rather pay off abusers than prosecute them. The payoffs protect the institutions’ power. Prosecutions might get justice, but they don’t fortify institutions or their elites.


            Hence, as Machiavelli so clearly indicated, conspiracies are the stuff of politics because being conspiratorial is the best available strategy if you are all about power. It’s your best bet for getting and keeping power. Persuasion, seeking consent or power honestly, is a two-way street, so to speak. Those you’re appealing to might or might not respond favorably. But if you seek power conspiratorially, you are in charge via your manipulations. If successful, then you rule. And if you are unsuccessful, you can deny your involvement and do so plausibly. This is what the CIA, et. al., call “plausible deniability.”  And it is, of course, the essence of power politics.

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