Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America andBefore the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. He is a senior fellow and blogger at the Campaign for America's Future.
Progressive political change in American history is rarely incremental. With important exceptions, most of the reforms that have advanced our nation's status as a modern, liberalizing social democracy were pushed through during narrow windows of progressive opportunity -- which subsequently slammed shut with the work not yet complete. The post–Civil War reconstruction of the apartheid South, the Progressive Era remaking of the institutions of democratic deliberation, the New Deal, the Great Society: They were all blunt shocks. Then, before reformers knew what had happened, the seemingly sturdy reform mandate faded and Washington returned to its habits of stasis and reaction.
Some of you might have read about the Democrats' success this past weekend in winning Louisiana's formerly Republican 6th Congressional District. And what kind of district is the Fightin' 6th? I just realized I mention it in passing in NIXONLAND because from 1943 to '66 it was represented by a relative liberal named James H. Morrison who backed LBJ's Great Society, until he was defeated by a conservative named John Rarick, who served for eight years.
In 1970, Richard Nixon, inspired by a spontaneous construction workers' riot, settled on the political strategy that would win him the 1972 election by a landslide and dominate American politics to this day.
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt of Rick Perstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, out May 15 from Scribner. Perlstein joins us this week as a contributor on our group blog, TAPPED.
Democrats have their majority in the House, and that's cause for celebration. But as of this writing several House races are still listed as "too close to call." The Senate has also changed hands -- after the Virginia race narrowly escaped a recount, and Republicans came close to challenging the results in Montana and Missouri. Whether Democrats possess enough of a congressional majority to truly put fear into Republicans, and add backbone to Democrats nervous about challenging the president, is still very much in the air.