Why Watergate Seems Almost Quaint at Fifty
Taking stock of how our country has changed
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As we mark a half century tomorrow since the Watergate break-in, it feels increasingly like the 2024 election will determine whether, as Karl Marx might have wondered, the crimes of Richard Nixon will be seen by history to have been repeated by Donald Trump as tragedy or farce. If January 6 was our hour of maximum danger, farce is the likely historical judgment. If Trump becomes president again, tragedy looms.
But either way, and no matter how strongly you trace the parallels between Nixon and Trump, I have been struck by how far away the world of Watergate seems today. Part of the reason, to be sure, lies in the rise of Fox News and the new levels of mendacity and shamelessness Trump both embodies and profits from. Beyond that, however, in recalling Watergate I think we have paid too little attention to how much the country has changed over the last half century.
Let’s start with some good news about our democracy:
· There were 16 women out of 535 in Congress when Nixon resigned; today there are 146. In 1974, nine years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there were 17 Black members of Congress (three percent in a country that was 11% Black); today there are 59 (11% in a country that is 12% Black).
· Before 1981, there had never been a woman on the Supreme Court; next month, four of the nine justices will be women.
· The country has also diversified considerably, with the Latino population just 5% in 1970 and 19% today. Asian Americans comprised less than 1% of the population in 1970 and are almost 6% today. In Congress, there were 8 Latino members in 1974 (less than 2%) and there are 46 (9%) today. In 1974, all of the four Asian Americans in Congress represented Hawaii; today, there are 15 members from the mainland.
· In our own century, gay marriage went from a wedge issue for conservative Republicans in 2004 to an established and generally accepted constitutional right in just 11 years.
On the other hand, even as our polity has democratized, our wealth has become more concentrated. Here are few facts to consider:
· In the years since 1968, the federal minimum wage, controlling for inflation, has fallen by 45%.
· At the other end of the income scale, since 1981 the top marginal income tax rate has been cut from 69% to 37%.
· In the first two decades of this century, following on trends since about 1980, the disposable personal income of those in the top 20% have grown, while those of the bottom 60% have actually shrunk.
· In the two economic recoveries before this one, about 60% of the growth in the whole economy accrued to the top 10% in income.
Nor are the effects confined to money:
· Life expectancy in the US in 1980 was about 1.5 years longer than in other developed countries. It is now about 5 years shorter.
· Similarly, while my generation of Americans (I am 65) was one of the world’s most highly educated (first in terms of high school and third in college completion), those coming of age today aren’t even in the world’s top 10.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the country’s rural population— it’s almost precisely what it was in 1975, about 57 million people. All of the nation’s growth in the last half century has come in urban areas, so while the rural population in 1975 represented 27% of the country, it is now down to 17%.
Nixon and Trump lived in the same White House, but Watergate happened in a different country. Nixon’s crimes were shocking, Trump’s merely surprising. Nixon surrendered to the courts and the Congress; Trump urged his followers to literally overrun Congress and ignore the courts.
What does all of this mean for journalism?
For one thing, if any of the facts recited above surprised you, or particularly if you think they run counter to conventional understanding, then we have fallen short in describing our country to our fellow citizens.
Next, things do change, and policies matter. The decisions in 1986 and 2017 to pass tax breaks for the richest while leaving wages for the working poor untouched, for instance, have contributed meaningfully to the country we are today. Washington cynicism— the supposedly savvy practice of smugly covering politics rather than policy— obscures this, and helps entrench those who benefit from things as they are, while rewarding the unscrupulous in its refusal to censure them.
It is this pervasive cynicism against which I think we must work most vigorously. Yes, we learned, painfully, from Watergate how deeply presidents can deceive and betray us. But having learned, we must guard more carefully against becoming inured to the danger. One of the ways American elites, very much including journalists, have changed since Watergate is in becoming less idealistic. That is not something of which we should be proud.
 In comparing Napoleon and his nephew Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), Marx, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, observed that “world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
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