Multi-volume “projects” in U.S. history, of the type represented by Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson or Kevin Starr’s history of California, frequently transcend their subjects to deliver messages both subtle and profound. Rick Perlstein’s series on the rise of modern conservatism has come to join this elite company: more than a political history of the late sixties and seventies, it seeks to explain nothing less than who we are today. Thus scholars and critics alike have awaited the most recent installment, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
So it was a bit of a surprise that when the book was released in August, many reviewers took issue with the its craftsmanship. In explaining the political formations of the mid-1970s, The Invisible Bridge simultaneously tackles several stories at once: the unraveling of Richard Nixon’s presidency, the growth of widespread fear and hostility in American culture, and the turn toward Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism as a tonic for the nation’s ills. Rather than using the more traditional historical tool of devoting different chapters to each of these topics, Perlstein continually cuts between them as they proceed. A typical passage, selected at random, reveals a segment dealing with the legal troubles of Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew, followed by one in which Reagan is roasted on The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, and then another testifying to the presence of nostalgia in the film, television and theater of the period.
The implicit claim here is that these developments are interrelated because the nation’s culture and its politics were particularly intertwined during this period. But many reviewers found that Perlstein’s writing style rendered his conclusions opaque. Writing in the National Review, Michael Knox Beran heaped special scorn on the book, decrying the “sloppiness of the argument” and the “hysterical flippancy of its writing” which “precludes sustained analysis” and allows the reader only to be “bewlidered and amused” but not to truly “understand.” In Jacobin, Andrew Hartman argued that “Perlstein needs a better theory” to explain the political shifts of the 1970s than one that relies on a “kaleidoscopic approach to digging up and relating seemingly random bits of sensational news.” Sam Tannenhaus issued a lament in the Atlantic that the archival research of the earlier books has degenerated into “the methodology of the Web aggregator.” Writing in the New Republic, Michael Kimmage stated that without more sophisticated “historical insights,” The Invisible Bridge is merely “a collage of campaign and cultural detail, of journalistic citations and political anecdote, held together only by chronological sequence.” Judith Stein’s Dissent review argues that Perlstein’s cultural analysis precludes an adequate understanding of the politics of the period. “Because Perlstein is uninterested in policy,” she writes, “he simplifies the complexities of political choices.”
I see the book quite differently. To me, it serves as a paradigmatic example of what Julian Zelizer called the “new political history.” This approach suggests that the actions of presidents, Congresspersons, generals and the like can seldom fully explain political phenomena. Social and cultural factors, as well as religious, intellectual and sociological ones (among many others) frequently come to bear on political outcomes. In order to capture these multiple vectors of influence, historians might need to innovate new styles of research and writing to get their points across. This is, to my mind, what Perlstein has done in The Invisible Bridge.
From that perspective, the method of writing in The Invisible Bridge enhances rather than obscures the book’s arguments. The first of Perlstein’s major points is that, though Watergate was perhaps the most visible symbol of the country’s “long national nightmare,” it stood alongside such events as the loss of the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, the Patty Hearst saga and the Manson murders in establishing what Perlstein calls a “sticky precipitate of national dread.” Americans were looking, first and foremost, for a leader to help them deal with their loss of confidence and sense of narrowing horizons. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan answered this need, in a way that Gerald Ford did not. The politics of the mid-seventies were defined, Perlstein clearly argues, by culture rather than policies.
Even though the book depicts Ford and Carter winning their respective primaries, it is Reagan who occupies its center. In Nixonland, his last book, Perlstein presented Nixon appealing to the lesser angels of the white working class in order to split it off from its traditional Democratic allies. The Invisible Bridge depicts Reagan continuing the project of turning some Americans against others in order to attract votes. Yet the Gipper added something without which this venture might not have succeeded: his genial optimism. In the face of what looked to many like the breakdown of civilization, Reagan simply did not believe—or was unable to see—that any problems existed at all.
Today, of course, this “optimism”—which often takes the form of a less than genial position that political opponents are existential national threats—is baked in to the conservative cake. The subject of Perlstein’s series is often referred to as modern conservatism, but its central preoccupation is actually the fracturing of the country into “red” and “blue” America. Thus Perlstein’s other major point is that the antagonism that defines our contemporary moment is something that conservatives created. Perlstein holds that the spirit of bipartisan centrism lauded by the David Brookses and Chris Matthewses of the world—one in which mature, patriotic Americans must acknowledge that blame for the current dysfunction is widely shared and that no party has a monopoly on either the truth or the moral high ground—is little more than a mainstream shibboleth, and a destructive one at that.
Both of these arguments are compelling, and each is well-served by Perlstein’s integration of cultural and political history. Unlike those critics who hold that The Invisible Bridge is characterized by a mistaken approach to its subject, I hope that this style of writing continues to thrive in U.S. political history.