APSA: Reeling in the Years

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It's always difficult when the conference gods inexplicably schedule an intriguing panel for the ungodly early 8 in the morning slot. (And what's with the 8 a.m. slot anyway? Why not just start at nine?)

But, then again, how often do I get to see New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and some all-star political scientists on a panel discussing Rick Perlstein's new book, Nixonland? (Answer: not very often. This morning: probably the only time).

With free Dunkin' Donuts to reward the early risers, Krugman began the panel by opining on the persistence of Nixon's politics of righteous indignation. When it was fresh and resonant, such fulminations stoked a silent majority to vote their fears of rising crime and creeping liberalism (this is the theme of Perlstein's book).

But now, Krugman argued, the right is "frozen in amber," still fighting the same battles even as these bogeymen have vanished. Worse, thanks to "six angry billionaires" who have funded an army of right wing think tanks, we now have a lot of "fake, or professional Orthogonians." (In Nixon's worldview, the "Orthogonians" are the underdogs, the strivers who he claimed to stand for.)

Next came Paul Pierson of the University of California, Berkeley (full disclosure: He's one of my dissertation advisers). Pierson made an important point he's made to me many times: While it's all well and good to focus on elections as the key events of politics (Nixonland is the story of how we went from one electoral landslide in 1964 to a different one in 1972), it's actually really not that well and good. Because, what about the actual policy? Isn't that why we care about politics? And what about the interest groups that are trying to influence policy? Why do these always get pushed to the side in political history?

Nolan McCarty of Princeton made some good points about context and perspective. While 1964 and 1972 might look like a major flip of the electorate, what if we took 1960 and 1976 as our bookends instead? We'd then have two very close elections in which a Democrat eked out a victory and something different to explain. And what about the 1966 congressional elections, to wich Perslstein attaches much significance. Again, proper perspective matters: Sure, the GOP picked up 47 seats. But those included 36 previously Republican seats that it lost in 1964 in Johnson's landslide.

And for those who don't trust my perspective, panel chair Henry Farrell, who blogs at themonkeycage.org, digitally recorded the panel for posterity. So maybe he'll be kind enough to post the audio of it. You know, for the true die-hards.