In the late 1960s, America appeared to be a country coming apart at the seams. The split over the US presence in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement was disrupting the traditional political coalitions that existed within the Democratic Party and created an opening for the Republicans - a party that had almost continuously been in the minority since the Great Depression - to fill the void.

Richard Nixon’s ability to use these fault lines to polarize the electorate not only secured him victory in two presidential elections but also drew new members to the Republican Party that would eventually cement their electoral advantage.

To help understand the role Nixon played in shaping American politics, I spoke with Ken Hughes of the University of Virginia in this episode of YDHTY. Hughes is regarded as one of the foremost experts on Nixon’s politicization of the Vietnam War, and author of the book, Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection.

You can listen to the episode via the player below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you might happen to get your podcasts.


The logic behind Nixon’s decision-making process is clear once you understand his ambitions. Nixon’s goal was to turn America from a center-left country to a center-right one, with a personal but no less important goal to serve two terms in office.

To do this, he polarized the electorate around the Vietnam War, promising an “honorable” end to the conflict while painting those who opposed his plan as unpatriotic. His “law and order” messaging both reinforced antipathy to the antiwar movement and played off white anxiety over racial unrest, something especially appealing to Southern Democrats.

This ultimately laid the groundwork to expand the Republican’s hold on the South, while also allowing the party to use their “tough on crime, tough on foreign policy” brand as a cudgel against a purportedly weaker Democratic Party.

To this extent, Nixon was successful. His strategy secured his reelection, Republicans increased their hold on the South in the following decades, and the issue of their opponents’ patriotism in times of war echoed through the War on Terror.

The means to which he got there are another story. In order to secure reelection, Nixon promoted a strategy for victory in Vietnam he privately knew was doomed to fail, extending the war at a cost of over 20,000 American lives. While courting Southern Democrats, he created an environment for subtly racialized politics to thrive, contributing to the continued racial inequities in our criminal justice system.

Nixon’s presidency reflects as much on the weaknesses of our electoral system as it is those of the man himself. Nixon successfully polarized the American electorate because the two-party system makes it all too easy to pit one group against the other and govern by misdirection rather than consensus.

Reforms to the structures that protect America’s two parties from real political competition would help channel the energies of skilled politicians, of which Nixon was one, in a more positive direction. As it stands, it’s uncertain whether the country could last through another president as keenly suited for the job as he.