DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

[Theme: Social Structures & the Practices of Identity]

[Approach: Global/International Contextualization]

This paper was for an upper-level seminar at King's College London entitled The Cultural Politics of the Presidency. Taking American Studies classes while studying abroad was an amazing experience, and I valued the objective study of American politics and the ability to place the Presidency in a global context.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

The Nixon Paradox: Conservative Liberalism


Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential election was the result of a complete reformation of his political base and heavy campaigning as a strong social conservative. Nixon’s Silent Majority was the first successful unification and mobilization of the entire Christian conservative contingent, but Nixon was paradoxically one of the most liberal Presidents in recent history. Somehow, Nixon won conservative votes in both 1968 and 1972 without delivering on any concrete conservative social issues. His strikingly liberal presidency was not simply the result of broken campaign promises, but astute political knowledge and an acute understanding of what has come to be known as the Nixon Paradox. This political reality suggests that a social conservative could never successfully pursue a truly conservative agenda in office, nor could a liberal succeed with a completely liberal agenda. Nixon’s understanding of the paradox allowed him to effectively sever ties with the Republican Party in pursuit of a bipartisan ‘Nixonian Majority’. The Watergate scandal prevented Nixon from ever witnessing this ideal, but his landslide victory in 1972 proves that a professed social conservative can succeed as President even when pursuing contradictory liberal policies and alienating party leadership, as long as the correct constituents are mobilized and the press is carefully monitored. Nixon’s policies and political prowess have left a lasting legacy on the American presidency, and they are especially pertinent when considering the status of the Republican Party and American conservatism as the 2012 presidential election approaches.


Nixon’s Silent Majority was the result of years of cultural conflict and various disagreements between Christian factions about American politics. Throughout the 1960s, both the Republican and Democrat parties had liberal and conservative wings and were having trouble defining specific party aims. Christians in particular were further split, with fundamentalist and evangelicals disagreeing on issues of civil rights and the role of religion in politics.[1] Nixon understood these issues and applied them to his own political strategy. Between his loss to Kennedy in 1960 and his victory in 1968, Nixon completely rebuilt his political base. No longer portraying himself as the ‘mature, centrist candidate’ that was unable to motivate voters in 1960, Nixon ran as a harmonizer that could unite the various factions in the Republican Party through authentic social conservatism and a return to Christian morals.[2] He was, of course, still backed most strongly by conservative Republicans; liberal Republicans generally preferred candidates like George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller.[3] Nixon’s main contingent was what he termed the Silent Majority, voters in the ‘rapidly growing, culturally conservative regions of the country’ concerned about religious values and law and order.[4] By the end of the 1960’s, religious Americans that were previously divided about the Vietnam War and civil rights could, with the help of evangelist Billy Graham and other politically active preachers, unite against sexual promiscuity, racial violence, and secular overtones in American public policy. Sure to project himself as ‘a wholesome, moral person’ and a close personal friend of Billy Graham, Nixon easily mobilized the religious right.[5] By uniting different religious and socially conservative factions – including fundamentalists, evangelicals, and even urban Catholics – Nixon was the first Presidential nominee to successfully use the immense political power of the religious right to his own electoral advantage.


Although his election was largely due to mobilizing a new conservative base, Nixon’s presidency featured many astoundingly liberal policies. Nixon’s success when pursuing enigmatic liberal policies has come to be known as the ‘Nixon paradox’, a political theory that now accurately applies to various political situations. The main example of the paradox is the convention that ‘only Nixon could have gone to China’, which seems counterintuitive when considering that Nixon made his name in politics as a staunch anti-communist in the 1940’s and 50’s.  In Nixon’s own words to Chairman Mao Zedong, he noted that ‘in America, at least this time, those on the right can do what those on the left can only talk about’.[6] Indeed, only Nixon could go to China because he ‘was the first President who did not have Richard Nixon to worry about’.[7] Because of his history as an anti-communist in Congress, Nixon could never reputably be accused of being soft on communism; thus, only the proven conservative could take such a liberal action without being heavily criticized. Another important example of the paradox is Nixon’s introduction of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement (SALT I), another seemingly liberal foreign policy endeavour that could be considered ‘soft’ if pursued by a politician without a strong conservative background. Neither of these initiatives was initially in line with the preferences of Nixon’s Silent Majority, but Nixon still pursued them without losing his supporters.


The paradox is epitomized most commonly by Nixon’s trip to China, and scholars of various disciplines have tried to explain the phenomenon. Some researchers have gone as far as attempting to create mathematical proofs of why the paradox could possibly be true. Tyler Cowen and Daniel Sutter’s sophisticated formula asserts that if a right-wing President ‘receives private information that a left-wing course of action is preferable… their choice credibly signals the desirability of a left-wing course of action for individuals of all political persuasions’. If a left-wing President takes the same course of action, it ‘appears to be ideological shirking and fails to command bipartisan support’. For these specific purposes, ‘electing a right-wing president, under some conditions, is more likely to produce left-wing policy, and vice versa’.[8] Although it seems counter-intuitive, a politician can deliberately take an action that seems to contradict their own politics and use it to their own advantage publicly. Indeed, in some situations that policy can only be advantageous when taken by a politician with contradictory preferences. Nixon, a political mastermind, understood that he could successfully go to China precisely because of his previous conservative, anti-communist rhetoric. When voters considered his political history, they could assume that Nixon going to China was clearly the best political choice, as the action is in complete contradiction with the politician’s own policies. However, if a liberal President pursued the same course of action, it would be considered ‘ideological shirking’ that merely confirms the politician’s preferences and is not proven the best possible action. Visiting China ‘was a gamble that Nixon was prepared to take because he felt that it was crucial for the United States’,[9] and ‘he had the determination, the intelligence and the knowledge to sense the currents in history and to take advantage of them’.[10] With an acute understanding of media manipulations,[11] Nixon felt confident that he could prove to the American people that he visiting China was the correct decision.


With the help of Billy Graham and White House Chief of Staff (and unofficial public relations supervisor) H. R. Haldeman, Nixon successfully sold his policies to his conservative supporters as well as any other sceptical Americans. When Christian fundamentalists began criticizing Nixon’s decisions to visit China and commence arms limitation talks, Nixon asked Graham to invite influential religious figures to meet with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a ‘briefing on the rationale’ for the president’s policy choices, which diminished criticism from the invited parties.[12] Haldeman and Nixon then kept careful control of the American press that travelled to China. Photo opportunities were meticulously arranged and important events were planned to take place during America’s prime-time television hours.[13] Such meticulous attention to detail allowed Nixon to completely control the story, limiting the information available to reporters so much that the administration could effectively write the news stories itself. The American people heard only scripted bits of dialogue and saw perfectly picturesque scenes of the Nixons in China, epitomized by the image of the legendary handshake between Nixon and Zedong.


While the paradox is applicable to Nixon’s trip to China, which could only be as successful as it was because Nixon was a conservative, some other policies seem to call into question whether Nixon really was conservative at all. His purported conservative positions appealing to Christian voters – a strong anti-abortion and anti-pornography stance, opposition to forced integration, and hostility towards the counter-culture’s drugs and free love – were offset by an inability to pass any concrete conservative legislation. Indeed, Nixon seemed to prefer strikingly liberal economic policies – federal controls to slow inflation, the Price Commission and Cost of Living Council, and even proposing a full unemployment budget. Two other noticeable examples are Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and extension of affirmative action policies. His policies’ resemblance to those of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations provoked Noam Chomsky to call Nixon ‘in many respects the last liberal president’ in 2000.[14]


Of course, all political figures act more moderately than their campaigns initially promise, whether liberal or conservative. Even Ronald Reagan, champion of conservatism, failed to truly deliver on his promises of social conservatism to the religious right and the Republican Party in general. Reagan ‘was not a persistent and strong party leader’, but rather a skilled politician able ‘to sustain personal support through his skills at communicating with the public’ without the help of the party.[15] He did, however, still leave a lasting legacy on the Republican Party and help other conservative candidates succeed. Nixon’s case, however, seems fundamentally different; while other nominees make campaign promises they cannot keep or simply separated themselves from party bureaucracy, Nixon seemed to take actions that were completely opposite from his earlier assertions and his party affiliations. When comparing Nixon’s liberal policies to Bush’s Supreme Court nominations, Ann Coulter criticized how Nixon spent five years ‘ignoring’ and ‘using and abusing conservatives’, effectively ‘attacking his base’.[16] Certainly, no President could be successful if not at least a bit moderate or able to empathize with other parties. Nixon, however, took deliberate liberal actions and failed to deliver true conservative policy, yet still succeeded in at least some sense, as evidenced by his landslide victory when running for re-election in 1972.


A significant amount of this confusion can be blamed on divided parties with constantly shifting ideologies. Comparing Nixon’s presidency to his 1960 campaign provides some telling examples. In 1960, the victorious Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy was much more hawkish than Nixon. The conservative Nixon even ‘exhibited remarkably liberal tendencies on race’ and enjoyed public endorsement by African-American baseball star Jackie Robinson, while Democrat JFK was trying desperately to win black votes while also campaigning towards Jim Crow southerners.[17] However, by 1968, conservatism was defined largely by Nixon’s own Silent Majority, or the emerging Christian Right. Republican voters were now more hawkish, quietly opposed to integration, and focused on religious freedom and ‘law and order’ in the face of increasing crime rates and sexual liberation.


In addition to unclear ideologies, Nixon also served under unique historical circumstances. Faced with a Democratic Congress, most of his conservative campaign promises would be impossible to enact. But even further, Nixon separated himself from the national party, only appointing Republicans with weak party commitments and eventually making the party organisation ‘almost irrelevant’ by the time of his 1972 re-election campaign. His personal separation from the party was an ‘attempt to become a “superpartisan” President’ and eventually ‘create a new majority while obtaining maximum support for his candidacy and a popular mandate which would weaken the legitimacy of the opposition’.[18] By 1972, his separation from the party was all but complete, but he still enjoyed the same Christian conservative support and was approaching his ideal bipartisan ‘Nixonian majority’ without delivering on any concrete conservative promises. Nixon established the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP) in preparation for his 1972 campaign, which officially confirmed that he had no real need for the Republican Party organisation. However, the CRP, so dedicated to the cause of a landslide victory and electoral realignment, lacked the power checks of a traditional party and ultimately ordered the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex, which led to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.[19] The Watergate scandal is often remembered as the lasting legacy of Nixon’s presidency, but he changed the presidency in countless other ways that cannot be ignored. His brash policy choices, dedication to peaceful foreign policy, attention to public image as mediated by the press, and skilful mobilization of voters are important legacies that have modernized the American presidency and permanently changed presidential politics.


Nixon’s paradoxical politics are still relevant, especially when considering the 2012 presidential election and the curious state of the current Republican Party. In a thought-provoking article for RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende compares Mitt Romney’s current run for President to Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign. Trende’s main point of comparison between the two campaigns was a ‘GOP front-runner who has no clear political compass’ because, ‘like Mitt Romney today, no one really knew what to make of Richard Nixon in 1968’. The similarities are certainly striking; conservatives have already criticized Romney for his relatively liberal record as Massachusetts’s governor, which could potentially lead to a Nixon-like presidency. Both Nixon and Romney’s ‘mushy political convictions’ seem to leave the definition of the party and religious conservatism in jeopardy.[20] The Christian Right is indeed an enduring political force that any Republican nominee needs to mobilize to win an election, but Romney has failed to sell himself as a true conservative like Nixon did in 1968. Without a Nixon-like history of conservatism, Romney cannot defend liberal policy choices and will fail to gain religious support. To win the election, Romney must learn from Nixon and align himself with the religious right to ensure their vote; only then can he paradoxically succeed in pursuing liberal policies.

[1] Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 70

[2] Ibid., p. 89

[3] Sean Trende, ‘Romney as Nixon? 2012 Carries Unsettling Echoes for GOP’, RealClearPolitics.com, 21 December 2011 <http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/12/21/ romney_as_nixon_2012_carries_unsettling_echoes_for_gop_112480- full.html> [accessed  4 April 2012].

[4] Daniel Williams, p. 98

[5] Joseph C. Spear, Presidents and the Press: The Nixon Legacy (London: MIT Press, 1986), p. 90

[6] J. Aitken, Nixon: A Life (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1993), p. 431

[7] Phil Williams, ‘The President and Foreign Relations’, in Roosevelt to Reagan: The Development of the Modern Presidency, ed. by Malcolm Shaw (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1987), p. 216

[8] Tyler Cowen & Daniel Sutter, ‘Why Only Nixon Could Go to China’, Public Choice, 97.4 (1998), p. 606

[9] Margaret MacMillan, Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao (London: John Murray, 2006), p. 8

[10] Ibid., p. 11

[11] Spear, pp. 97-100

[12] Daniel Williams, p. 96

[13] Spear, p. 98

[14] Noam Chomsky, ‘Colombia Plan: April 2000’, Z Magazine, June 2000 <http://www.chomsky.info/ articles/200006--.htm> [accessed 4 April 2012].

[15] John D. Lees, ‘The President and His Party’, in Roosevelt to Reagan: The Development of the Modern Presidency, ed. by Malcolm Shaw (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1987), p. 79

[16] Ann Coulter,  ‘It’s Morning in America!’, RealClearPolitics.com, 28 October 2005 <http:// www.realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com‑10_28_05_AC_pf.html> [accessed 4 April 2012].

[17] David Pietrusza, 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies (New York: Union Square Press, 2008), p. 299

[18] Lees, p. 71

[19] Ibid., p. 73

[20] Trende

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.



Aitken, J., Nixon: A Life (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1993).


Chomsky, Noam, ‘Colombia Plan: April 2000’, Z Magazine, June 2000 <http:// www.chomsky.info/articles/200006--.htm> [accessed 4 April 2012].


Coulter, Ann, ‘It’s Morning in America!’, RealClearPolitics.com, 28 October 2005 <http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com‑10_28_05_AC_pf.html> [accessed 4 April 2012].


Cowen, Tyler and Daniel Sutter, ‘Why Only Nixon Could Go to China’, Public Choice, 97.4 (1998), pp. 605-615.


Lees, John D., ‘The President and His Party’, in Roosevelt to Reagan: The Development of the Modern Presidency, ed. by Malcolm Shaw (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1987), pp. 46-82.


MacMillan, Margaret, Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao (London: John Murray, 2006).


Pietrusza, David, 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies (New York: Union Square Press, 2008).


Spear, Joseph C., Presidents and the Press: The Nixon Legacy (London: MIT Press, 1986).


Trende, Sean, ‘Romney as Nixon? 2012 Carries Unsettling Echoes for GOP’, RealClearPolitics.com, 21 December 2011 <http://www.realclearpolitics.com/ articles/2011/12/21/romney_as_nixon_2012_carries_unsettling_echoes_for_gop_112480- full.html> [accessed  4 April 2012].


Williams, Daniel K., God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Williams, Phil, ‘The President and Foreign Relations’, in Roosevelt to Reagan: The Development of the Modern Presidency, ed. by Malcolm Shaw (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1987), pp. 206-243.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.