The Foreword to the new book “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition.”
Richard Nixon, New Deal Nationalist
The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy
By John Roy Price
University Press of Kansas, 2021
“The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” reads the gravestone of Richard Nixon at his presidential library in Yorba Linda, California. The quote comes from the 37th president’s first inaugural address and might be interpreted as one of those psychopersonal aphorisms that drive the lives of misunderstood dark romantics. Nixon’s role in his own life drama could be thought of as that of a triple peacemaker.
First, lessons for peace on the world stage: he did more than anyone to pull America out of the Vietnam War, and his bold, practical vision in foreign affairs—with all the fruits of détente with Communist Russia and China—kept peace and order at front and center.
Second, lessons for peace within: he was tormented by deep insecurity, innumerable resentments and rage against his social betters, and he knew it. “Nixon has an angel on one shoulder and a dark angel on the other. He is both,” said his law partner. He never quite conquered himself, but by the end of his career in public life he’d learned enough to admonish his staff that “others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Third, lessons for peace on the homefront: Nixon governed America in a time of riots and protests and killings, as trust in the established order hit a nadir and the essential patterns of the public neuroses of our own time first hardened into national conflict. The Nixon presidency was remarkably successful at quelling the worst of the unrest of the ’60s and restoring a sort of “peace with honor” to domestic affairs. A larger part of that achievement than is commonly realized emerged from the Nixon administration’s approach to social policy.
John Roy Price’s memoir of his time working as an assistant to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the key figure in the early Nixon administration’s domestic program, illuminates this impact. The Last Liberal Republican is not a definitive and comprehensive analysis of the Nixon administration’s domestic policy, although it will be an indispensable aid to the historian who eventually takes on writing that work. But the book is a firsthand account of the inner workings of those crucial years.
One of its best features is Price’s recounting of his early days in the Ripon Society, a club of young Republicans who strove to build a counter-movement against the ascendant Buckleyite conservatives (and simultaneously against the activist New Left) capable of articulating a moderate Republican program and eventually staffing moderate Republican administrations. The Ripon men would fail in that task, eventually, but not before many helped shape the Nixon administration’s policy agenda. “We were doing serious things; it was our Camelot,” says one young Nixon aide of the forgotten idealism of the Nixon White House’s early years.
Moynihan had played a role in crafting the Great Society under President Lyndon Johnson earlier in the 1960s, realizing over time that its programs sometimes worsened various social pathologies. A New Deal liberal until the day he died, Moynihan was more genuinely mugged by reality than anyone else associated with neoconservatism and achieved his greatest heights while working for and with folks far more conservative than himself. The failed fruit of some of that work was President Nixon’s signature domestic initiative.
Price’s memoir focuses on the development and demise of the Family Assistance Plan (FAP,) cast in the minds of its advocates, and sold to the governing class whose blessing it needed, as a Republican analogue to the Social Security Act of 1935—a revolutionary redirection of social policy which, if it succeeded, would “establish a framework of economic security that would have reduced racial antagonisms and the scale of the economic divisions.” Moynihan and Nixon were trying to change the basis of American welfare policy from what they called a “services strategy” to an “income strategy.”
The FAP had a simple ambition, a sophisticated mechanism, and a simplistic framing to sell itself, and would have operated through a complicated apparatus upon a complicated reality. Its ambition was to eliminate poverty by increasing the incomes of all American families beneath the poverty line, through means of income support—a negative income tax, whereby American families would receive cash, no strings attached, if their earnings were below the federal poverty line.
Among the considerations behind the income strategy was the fact that many Great Society antipoverty programs focusing on social services and “community engagement” seemed to be jobs programs for social workers, without much of a measurable benefit to the poor or unemployed. Why not just give money to those who needed it? The FAP strove, as well, to be universal rather than targeted; its means-testing was premised on family income level alone and abolished all distinctions and categories between the dependent poor and the working poor regarding benefits. The aim was to keep families out of deep poverty. (There was a work requirement, but Moynihan saw this as a political necessity more than an essential feature of policy design, and Nixon himself told Moynihan “I don’t give a damn about the work requirement.”)
Had the FAP succeeded, so the thinking went, it would have removed one of the chief sources of the unrest of the 1960s—the soul-sucking conditions of modern poverty—while undermining the intransigent bureaucratic power that so often precluded meaningful reforms in governance. If the goal is a genuine working-class populism that benefits people materially while sticking it to the pointy-headed nabobs, kicking out the middlemen and handing people money is one way to achieve it.
The FAP explicitly aimed to roll back the provisions of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) that in Moynihan’s view encouraged family breakdown by aiding fatherless families at the same rates as families where fathers stayed. The dignity of the working poor, the pride of honest men and women looking not for handouts but for state-aided stability, was central to the plan’s conception. However burdensome and paperwork-heavy any tax-based income support scheme might be (and the FAP, just like later versions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and various Child Tax Credit schemes, was quite deserving of this criticism) such plans do have the virtue of helping people without requiring them to ask for help. Nobody, especially the American working classes, wants to grovel as a supplicant.
Price does not look much at Nixon’s other domestic programs, aside from Food Stamp expansion and the abortive 1971 attempt at universal health insurance. Many other Nixon policies, though, were as bold gambles on American politics as was the FAP itself—the decoupling of the dollar from the gold standard in 1971, wage and price controls for a time, the failed reorganization of the federal government’s domestic departments, and the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency among them. The chutzpah of a press-despised Republican administration enforcing school desegregation, supporting D.C. home rule and greater self-determination for American Indian nations, pushing draft abolition through, and lowering the voting age all speak for themselves, and pulled the rug out from under the New Left types that had long sneered at Nixon and those like him. “The ghettoes and campuses fell silent,” concludes Walter McDougall of the effect of this flurry. “Tory men and liberal principles are what have changed the world,” wrote Nixon to Moynihan as the FAP assumed its doomed final form in 1970.
Nixon and Moynihan “lamented that even their own administration did not understand” what they were trying to do, says Price. The logic of the Family Assistance Plan and the Disraelian needle-threading of the administration were as hard to place then as they are now.
Josiah Lee Auspitz, another early Ripon Society man, told the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice decades afterwards that his organization “really did try to locate a third way between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The early policy papers were quite consistently based on a different notion of government than New Deal government.”
Yet it seems clear with hindsight that the project the Ripon Society folks were attempting—a market-based technocracy-friendly centrism looking suspiciously like that of the Democratic Leadership Council of the 1990s or the Reformicons of the 2010s—was a long-term failure in exact proportion to its attempts to get beyond the New Deal’s notions of government. The centers of gravity and power in both parties from the late 1970s onward gradually drifted away from the edifices of the New Deal order until, by the 1990s, its most prominent defenders were anti-establishment populists like Ross Perot.
The Nixon administration retained a certain Rooseveltian faith. Price, describing Moynihan’s sociological outlook, writes: “Social institutions were imperiled because confidence in them was imperiled. Institutions serve a core and cohering purpose in society… Many of [Nixon’s] initiatives sought to remove from these institutions, including the basic institution of the family, the unsustainable stress of programs that had been poorly thought out.”
Price quotes Moynihan’s 1969 pre-inaugural memo to Nixon liberally:
In one form or another all the major domestic problems facing you derive from the erosion of the authority of the institutions of American society… relationships based on authority are consensual ones: that is to say they are based on common agreement to behave in certain ways. It is said that freedom lives in the interstices of authority: when the structure collapses, freedom disappears, and society is governed by relationships based on power… Your task then is clear: to restore the authority of American institutions… with a clear sense that what is at issue is the continued acceptance by the great mass of the people of the legitimacy and efficacy of the present arrangements of American society, and of our processes for changing those arrangements…
Stability, security, authority, trust, balance—to the degree that the term “Burkean” means anything in the American context, surely it is in the restoration of these qualities in American public and society in the face of their precipitous decline. Where Moynihan and Nixon departed from the liberals of their time was in their modesty about policy’s ability to do anything about this. Where they departed from the conservatives of their time was in their willingness to use the hand of the state to try. By that standard at least, Nixon was the last New Deal president.
Despite the recent uptick in scholarly interest in Moynihan and the resurgence of interest in Nixon as the 50th anniversaries of major events from his presidency slide past us, no one has seemed to find the Nixon/Moynihan partnership on domestic policy interesting enough to appropriate for their current schemes. Andrew Yang, the most recent proponent of any sort of guaranteed-income program (in his case, individual-based rather than family-based) does not seem to have engaged with the FAP much.
Ultimately, the specifics of the Nixon administration’s domestic policy approach do not matter nearly as much for today as the habits of the thought which animated it. Latter-day Moynihans should no more re-submit the Family Assistance Plan provision-by-provision to Congress than latter-day Kissingers should approach the governments of Romania and Pakistan to arrange a secret trip to China. Instead the political spirit of Nixon’s approach—practical and reformist, tempered conservatively, quietly bold—is crucial. Price’s book is a dutiful reconstruction of how that spirit arose in a past generation.
Price recounts his last meeting with Nixon, a decade or so after Nixon resigned the presidency. The former president asked if the FAP would’ve worked. After an uneasy silence, Price replied “I just am not sure.” Nixon looked off into the distance, apparently just as unsure as his former aide.
The ways Nixon tried, succeeded, and failed to bring order to the storms of his time ought to inform those who, in the 2020s, are conservative yet activist, who search for lessons in history to address the divisions, distrust, and instability of our own era. We cannot merely bring anything back. But in terms of spirit, the road to a conservative-nationalist new dispensation must first pass through a reappraisal of the legacies of Nixon and Moynihan.
Luke Nathan Phillips is Publius Fellow for Public Discourse at Braver Angels. He was once an intern for the Richard Nixon Foundation in Yorba Linda, California. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official positions of either organization.
Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For
Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.
Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles
Join the ISI community. Membership is free.