I call it the Nixon Thesis of Conflict, because most of it originated with Richard M. Nixon. Its assumptions include the ideas that political adversaries are enemies, that politics is a form of war, that attack is always better than defense, and that the system is always under threat from outside.
As with most Political Theses in American history, the Nixon Thesis is made from bits of the old AntiThesis, combined with the character of the leader and the nature of the crisis he rode in on. The AntiThesis in this case was McCarthyism, the character of the leader is Nixon's personal myth of the Great Man, and the crisis was what we called the 1960s.
It's the crisis that ties all this together, and the political crisis of the 1960s was misunderstood for a long, long time. Seeing the 60s from the point of view of the anti-war movement is a lot like seeing the Civil War from the point of view of the South. Culture makes it the popular view. But that's not how it went down.
Middle class Americans felt threatened by the changes of the 1960s. By constantly conjuring up the threat (whether or not it exists) leaders under the Nixon Thesis can get the political knees to jerk, and impose their will. It's the equivalent of Republicans in the late 19th century “waving the bloody shirt,” calling all Democrats potential traitors because they either fought against the Union or urged peace with the Confederacy.
All this mixed in the character of Nixon himself. His early achievement was to make McCarthyism legitimate. He used it strategically, targeting only specific individuals who stood in the way of his own drive for power. Eisenhower brought Nixon into national politics because he believed he could give him the energy of McCarthy's troops without the craziness, the assumptions of the movement yoked to the necessities of the Cold War.
But the craziness was always there, hidden behind a mask of affability. In was unleashed in the form of Nixon's Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and Agnew's speechwriter, William Safire. Groups to be cowed were chosen carefully – students, the media, intellectuals. The purpose was to place these groups on the other side of the political divide but to show potential members of those groups a way to salvation, subordination to the will of the Movement.
The Movement in this case was the Goldwater Movement. Nixon himself always had an arms-length relationship to Movement Conservatives. He had come from a different time and was not one of “them.” But he could bring them to power – he could “win” -- and the Movement would inherit that power.
Power was Nixon's aim, the power to change history by manipulating ideology. He fed the Movement rhetoric, but in many ways leaned against the previous regime, as an AntiThesis politician will. The results were a host of liberal initiatives – the EPA, OSHA, the CPSC, judges who seemed conservative but accepted liberalism's premises. Nixon left the Movement with a generation's worth of work to do, which I think was his intention. .
Watergate and Vietnam may be the most misunderstood elements of the Nixon Thesis. They were personal failures for the man, but for the Movement they were, and remain, causes to be overcome. To adherents of the Nixon Thesis these were merely failures of nerve. This is expressed explicitly by Vice President Cheney, in the case of Watergate, and by President George W. Bush himself, in the case of Vietnam. Destroy the evidence, refuse to retreat, and any aim can be achieved.
The Nixon Thesis worked. It brought the Movement to power. In the form of Reaganism, that movement triumphed in its ultimate aim, which was to win the Cold War through confrontation. But once that war was won, the assumptions of the Thesis continued to work, always seeking new enemies, and building those enemies into dire threats.
George W. Bush, whose Administration represents the Excess of this Thesis, is not an idiot. He is a believer in what he was taught, an acolyte of the Nixon Thesis and the conservative Movement it brought to power. In this he is no different from Lyndon Johnson, who believed in the FDR Thesis, or Herbert Hoover, who believed the Teddy Roosevelt Thesis, or even of James Buchanan, an adherent of the Andrew Jackson Thesis.
Any political movement, born in crisis, becomes obsolete when a new crisis emerges it is not designed to handle. The Jackson Thesis of balancing regions could not stop the Civil War. The Teddy Roosevelt Thesis of measured change could not deal with the Great Depression. The FDR Thesis of unity cracked under the strains of the 1960s. And so the Nixon Thesis has expired in Iraq and Katrina.
The Nixon Thesis, like all these theses of the past, collapsed because history moved on, creating new crises it was not built to handle.
That's where we are today, seeking a new Thesis that can deal with the environmental, and energy crises that threaten, not just the suburbs, not just the United States, but the whole world.