The Nixon Connection: Why Black Lives Still Don’t Matter

At the dawn of the Age of Obama, America was supposed to have become a post-racial society. That cheerful thought has been on the wane since even before the Obamas moved into the White House. By now, everyone who has been paying attention knows better; those who were deluded seven years ago are sadder and wiser now.

Republican politicians don’t care; for them, caring doesn’t pay. Democratic politicians face a different reality.   But, with an African American in the White House and with far too many prominent black leaders still in “boost, don’t knock” mode, they have been reluctant to make malign neglect an issue. Suddenly, this has changed. After a few gentle confrontations, even Democrats running for President are catching on to what they have to say. They have to say: “black lives matter.” Conventional wisdom has changed too. That our post-racial society is actually full of racial strife is now widely understood; only GOP stalwarts or worse think otherwise.

The reality, though, is that race relations have hardly changed over the past few years or indeed for a long time before that. If it seems otherwise, it is only because more people now have cameras on cell phones, and more people use social media.

Are African Americans and other persons of color more subject to police violence in 2015 than in 2008? This is an empirical question that has not been thoroughly enough examined to be settled definitively. It is a safe bet, though, that the answer is No.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) spokespeople don’t claim otherwise. To hear them tell it, the problem is that while attitudinal racism has been on the decline for decades, institutional racism remains an acute problem. That, they say, is what fuels police violence.

They are right, of course.

But institutional racism is a complex phenomenon. To change, or even only to understand, policing in America today, everyone needs to think more clearly about what it involves.

Otherwise, well-meaning liberals will go on supposing that “black lives matter” is nothing more than a strict implication of the general moral principle that “all lives matter.”

If it were nothing more than that, the solution to the problems black activists are calling to everyone’s attention would be to demand that the police and the courts be truer to values right thinking Americans already believe.

This is evidently what Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders thought a few weeks ago.

It should be noted that it is far from clear that they actually believe that principle themselves. If they did, they could hardly support the empire’s perpetual war regime in the ways that they do.

That aside, the sanctity of human life as such is not what the BLM movement is about. BLM militants surely have no quarrel with the idea that all lives matter; their goal, however, is to drive home a different point.

They want to call attention to forms of racism that render persons of color, black men especially, vulnerable to degrading, violent, and sometimes lethal treatment by police and others in the justice system.

This racism is indeed institutional. But for that description to be helpful, it is necessary to take account of its historical specificity, and to reflect on its implications for police practices and attitudes.

To these ends it can be useful to recall the “vision” and legacy of a long gone President still remembered mainly for his villainy and “high crimes and misdemeanors”: Richard Nixon.

* * *

Few American Presidents have been complicated enough, or interesting enough, to rival the subjects of Shakespeare’s historical plays. There is Abraham Lincoln, of course; and there is Nixon.

Nixon got a lot of people overseas killed and maimed; his criminality was world historic.

He waged war on his enemies at home too, and abused his office recklessly. He thought he was, and acted as if he were, above the law. And the man was, as he famously denied, a crook.

But that was not all that he was. If he wasn’t America’s last liberal President – Jimmy Carter was that – he was the last to accomplish great things.

And he had a gift for strategy – in world and domestic affairs alike. He was America’s last transformative President.

People nowadays think that Ronald Reagan deserves that title. But Reagan was only there at the right time; when, for reasons not of his making, capitalists went on the offensive globally, and the neoliberal world order that afflicts us still was coming into its own.

Nixon, on the other hand, was visionary and audacious. He didn’t just ride waves the way that Reagan did; he made waves happen.

To do that, he had to fight the institutions. He fought too well and reached too far. In the end, the institutions did him in.

His character was twisted like Richard III’s, his agonies were monumental, and, in the best Shakespearean tradition, his story ended in tragedy. Imagine what Shakespeare would have made of him!

As his destiny unfolded, Nixon, like Lincoln, left his mark on American politics and society. Lincoln’s story is intertwined with the story of slavery and its demise; Nixon’s with enduring consequences of America’s slave past.

More than any other political figure in living memory, he shaped, or rather reshaped, those consequences — in ways that make the BLM movement necessary and urgent today.

His Southern Strategy was key.

Nixon didn’t invent it all by himself; his advisors – Pat Buchanan, especially – did. But Nixon made it his own.

The idea was to transform the solid (Democratic, White Supremacist) South into solid Republican territory, and to join it politically with retrograde Republican strongholds in the Midwest and mountain states.

Nixon also thought, correctly, that, by affecting a “populist” tone in the culture wars then getting underway, that Republicans could win over benighted white working class voters – Catholic “ethnics,” mainly — in traditionally Democratic states.

None of this happened overnight, but it did happen. Nixon had a gift for what the first George Bush called “the vision thing.”

Republicans who, unlike Nixon, were keen on reversing advances achieved under Democratic Presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson, got what they wanted from the Southern Strategy too.

This came about in part because the changes that Nixon set in motion dragged the GOP to the right. This was a price that Nixon, a self-declared liberal, was willing, perhaps even eager, to pay.

The Southern Strategy had other, (probably) unintended consequences, which also contributed to America’s rightward drift.

The idea had been to forge a permanent Republican majority by diminishing the Democratic Party’s electoral strength in the South. This did indeed come to pass. Paradoxically, though, the major change in the electoral landscape that resulted actually made the GOP weaker – by helping to turn formerly “purple” states in the northeast, the upper Midwest, and the far West solidly “blue.”

The Southern Strategy also contributed to turning Democrats into Republicans in all but name. This has been perhaps its most damaging consequence.

Southern Democrats in Congress helped enable New Deal and Fair Deal legislation. All they demanded in return was that the institutional underpinnings of the White Supremacist regime in Southern and border states – and in the North too, though to a lesser degree – not be disturbed.

There were even Southern Democrats who championed New Deal advances as ardently as Northern liberals. They were racists, but they were “populists” too.

Today’s Southern Republicans have a populist streak too, but their populism leads them to side with, not against, the corporate and financial interests that keep them, along with everyone else who is not rich and heinous, down.

Meanwhile, Democrats — never having been committed to anything like a counter-systemic political program, but traditionally less servile than Republicans to the interests of Big Business – made it their mission to shrink liberalism down to a shadow of its former self, leaving only its cultural component intact.

And so, culture wars replaced struggles over the distribution of societal wealth as the pivot dividing the right from the left. The result was that America’s two semi-established political parties, of one mind on matters vital to the interests of plutocrats, became bitterly polarized.

This turn of events has made the American government dysfunctional. It has also turned electoral politics at the national level into even more of a hoax than it used to be.

One consequence, evident for decades, has been that progress has ground to a halt.

Liberals who still maintain a semblance of the old faith have had no choice but to expend their energies safeguarding past advances. This is why, for decades now, none of them has seriously proposed moving on to new frontiers.

Even if the pendulum is now finally beginning to swing back, as Bernie Sanders fans evidently think it is, there would still be decades of stalled progress to overcome.

Therefore just as the legal and political disabilities of the Jim Crow era were ending, those state programs that had done so much to improve the material conditions of working people were either hanging by a thread or were already in decline.

Whites had benefited most from those programs, but African Americans and Latinos benefited too. Contrary to what Republicans claim, societal benefits seldom “trickle down.” Spillover, however, even across racial divides, is inevitable.

Back when Nixon was still in charge and for a few years after that, there was some spillover.

Now, with neoliberal politicians calling the shots and plutocrats taking all the gains, there is hardly anything left over to spill.

Neoliberal capitalism has damaged the life prospects of everyone who is not making off like a bandit. Because they were already held down most, African Americans and other persons of color have taken the biggest hit.

In Nixon’s time, cities were in revolt and turmoil was everywhere. Even privileged white youth were in a rebellious mood.

The main reason for that was the Vietnam War. Nixon inherited that war from Kennedy and Johnson, but he had not been President long before he took charge of it, and made it his own.

Maintaining the imperial order abroad, by any means necessary, while restoring order at home, therefore became his top priority. He did not shy away from the task.

* * *

Full-fledged affirmative action programs came into being only after Nixon had departed from the scene. It is far from clear how much, if at all, he would have approved of them. Ironically, though, his cunning helped lay the groundwork for what would follow.

The idea was to bring the bottom up. There is no more effective way to advance egalitarian justice.

However, Nixon was not much interested in justice; he launched his initiatives for a different, more sinister, reason.

What he wanted was peace, or rather order, at home, the better to wage wars and otherwise spread disorder abroad — when and insofar as the exigencies of empire called for it.

To that end, he set out to stifle black insurgencies by bringing potential black leaders on board.

His idea was to replace future Fred Hamptons with Eric Holders; and to turn black revolutionaries into black capitalists.

This too could not happen overnight. But it has happened – to an alarming degree.

On the plus side, this did make American race relations less unjust. “Minority” boys and girls can now grow up with the hope of someday becoming bourgeois. Even the Presidency is no longer out of reach.

But it has been a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Most African Americans and other persons of color were left if not worse off, then no better off than they had been when discrimination was more overt but the economy was better for the ninety-nine percent.

This side effect of Nixon’s efforts to calm the spirit of rebellion is one reason why BLM is necessary now.

Another Nixonian innovation is relevant too. Nixon realized that, with turmoil everywhere — with the ghettoes aflame, and with white youth joining in or dropping out — the “silent majority” was growing nervous.

This situation provided Nixon with a surefire method for rallying his people. All he had to do was call for law and order.

Politicians of all stripes have been calling for law and order ever since. Social unrest is no longer the problem it was. However, as every politician knows, “being tough on crime” is still a winner, even when crime rates are down.

Police brutality has always been with us; and so have killer cops. But it took a Nixon to turn what had been a poorly kept secret, an embarrassment to defenders of the status quo, into an emblematic political asset.

Nixon also helped turn the American penal system into the monstrosity that it has become. This was yet another way for him, and those who followed him, to be tough on crime.

It was also a way to warehouse populations made economically redundant by neoliberal globalization.

A robust welfare state could handle the situation more humanely and more efficiently too. But in post-Nixonian America, welfare state solutions are out of the question. Nixon had no problem with them, but his libertarian successors have long been adamantly opposed.

Minority populations have born the brunt of these changes, the burden falling hardest on young African American men.

It has been their televised victimization at the hands of forces Nixon helped shape, which, more than anything else, brought the BLM movement into being.

The images the whole world now can see on phones and computer screens dramatize a basic truth, confirmed countless times throughout history: that moral constraints hold up poorly when tensions run high, and that subaltern populations then become especially vulnerable to the ravages of organized violence.

This happens regularly in warfare and in military occupations; it happens in conditions of intense class struggle; and it happens whenever fratricidal of sectarian rivalries flare up.

It happens also in societies like ours where great inequalities prevail, and where police “protect and serve” by keeping the “teeming masses” mentioned on the Statue of Liberty, black and brown masses especially, in their place.

Attitudinal racism factors in, of course; but it isn’t the main problem.   Some of the most brutal violence perpetrated against young black men is perpetrated by out-of-control cops who are themselves young and black or otherwise less than fully “white.”

It isn’t usually that they hate black and brown people; it is that they view them as less than fully human, and therefore as beings to whom the constraints of morality and ordinary human decency don’t fully apply.

* * *

White progressives, like Bernie Sanders, who seemed at first not quite to get what BLM was about were more right than wrong.

Making the economy work to the advantage of working people generally, and providing help for lifting people out of poverty, can do more to make black lives matter in the eyes of the police and the courts than anything else that political leaders can do.

But it is also clear that restoring the advances of the middle decades of the twentieth century, or even carrying the New Deal-Great Society tradition forward, is not enough.

Race conscious measures of the kind we hear nothing of in the Age of Obama are necessary too.

So is good old-fashioned consciousness raising – because, without it, no matter the color of the Commander-in-Chief, and no matter how much attitudinal racism declines, white skin privilege doesn’t automatically fade away.

In the Nixon days, Gil Scott-Heron famously proclaimed that “the revolution will not be televised.” His words still ring true. But, nowadays, reasons for revolution are televised all the time, and that makes for all the difference.

This is why even Democrats vying for their party’s nomination are beginning to understand what BLM militants are saying.

Race neutral measures counteracting the causes and effects of neoliberal austerity are urgently needed. There is no more effective way to advance equality generally, and therefore, indirectly, on the streets and in the courts as well.

But, in our time and place, remedies that take cognizance of race are, if anything, even more important.

This has been the case seemingly forever. It was true before Obama, it was true when he took office, and, unless our politics somehow unexpectedly takes a great leap forward soon, it will remain true as the Age of Obama fades into historical memory.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).