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The Watergate Scandal, Research Paper Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1121

Research Paper

The Watergate Scandal is often cited as a decisive moment in American history and politics, according to which the Scandal either represented, on the one hand, the emergence of the general populace’s observance of the political class through the lens of an almost conspiratorial suspicion, or, on the other hand, the robustness of U.S. democracy, insofar as the events led to the resignation of President Nixon. As Fisher (2010) describes the dichotomy concerning the reception of Watergate: “Did Richard M. Nixon’s misdeeds and downfall strip the nation of its innocence or affirm the resilience of the American system?” According to this twofold interpretation of Watergate, in the case of the latter option, the fact that an American President could be displaced by the system evinced the system’s profound democratic character: no one, not even the President, finds themselves above the law. In the case of the former option, the criminal acts endorsed by the President opens the Pandora’s box regarding what other similar acts Nixon – and former and future presidents, alongside the political elite in general – may have committed. As in most analyses, when a dualism is applied it can often be at the cost of simplification: certainly, the either/or in this case may be considered to be a false dichotomy. Rather, it could be suggested that Watergate and the character of Nixon in general demonstrates an ideological divide, yet one that has not since been resolved. In other words, the above cited dichotomy in regards to Watergate is itself misstated: it is not that either democracy has lost or that democracy has won, but rather that two distinct pictures of democracy have emerged in the United States in an explicit manner after Watergate.

Certainly, the Watergate scandal itself unfolded amidst a historical context in which dissatisfaction with U.S. political policy was prevalent, a dissatisfaction above all caused by foreign policy decisions that were prolonging the Viet Nam War. In addition, cultural normativities were undergoing significant transformations, such as the decision to uphold abortion as in the Roe vs. Wade decision. Nixon and the Watergate scandal therefore appears at a time in which American political and social norms were engaged in a type of internal antagonism. It is clear that Nixon represented, according to his own background, the embodiment of a certain traditional worldview. For example, as Savage (2012) notes, citing White House documents released to the public, Nixon bore reservations to the Roe vs. Wade, decision, since he “worried that greater access to abortions would foster ‘permissiveness,’ and said that ‘it breaks the family.’” Nixon symbolized a certain stereotypical American social discourse, not merely grounded in such familial traditionalism, which is clearly not endemic to the United States, but also grounded in the more particularly American discourse that hard work will always pay off, i.e., the latter capable of overcoming social difference, class, racism, etc.,. This, in other words, is the ideology of the current Republican paradigm, based around a fierce individualism that borders on pathological selfishness.

Such an ideological worldview is portrayed by Perlstein as present in Nixon from his very youth, noting for example, that Nixon as a teenager had started a club the Orthogonians, whose motto, as Perlstein accounts was “beans, brains, and brawn” (22): a rhetorical slogan representing hard work and simplicity. Nixon’s individualism, however, clearly contrasted with the growing socially-oriented discourse of the sixties, precisely insofar as in this period moralities were challenged. According to this ideological perspective, not everything in life was merely generated according to the whim of the individual, but social forces could severely limit what the individual could accomplish: the world was not so simple. Nixon explicitly opposed this ideological movement, believing that this shift was not the view of the majority, and thus maintained the relevance of his ideological position through what he famously termed the “silent majority”: it was the minority who existed in the streets protesting – the radical shift in American values that was apparent in this time period was rather the work of a disenfranchised few. This is explicit in Nixon’s famous “silent majority” speech: “if a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation as no future as a free society.” (Perlstein, 434) From the standpoint of Nixon, the critique of values occurring in the United States was not only the acts of the few, but rather acts that entirely opposed rationality and freedom: it was an ideologically unsound position.

The Watergate Scandal, from this viewpoint, takes on its radically ideological significance: the champion of “freedom and rationality”, of the individual’s potential in American society to realize his objectives, was himself engaged in a criminal act. Essentially, Nixon, with the Watergate Scandal, disemboweled his own ideological position. The rhetoric of American individualism, expressed in a populist and demagogic manner with the slogan “beans, brains and brawns” from his youth was itself not adhered to by its proponent, unless one can include deception and criminal activity under the category of “brains.” In a sense, Watergate justified the ideological position of Nixon’s opponents: the portrayal of society presented by Nixon had shown itself to be an illusion, thus forcing Nixon’s resignation. However, this cannot be understood as a dissolution of the “Nixonland” ideology. As Perlstein suggests, what is so crucial about Nixon and the Watergate scandal is that it surfaced this very ideological divide in America; as Perlstein writes: “What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans.” (748) Judging by the continuous dichotomy that persists in America, therefore, the revelation that the Nixonian ideology was incorrect, according to the corruption of Watergate, has never been grasped by the entirety of America: rather, Watergate marks a distinct point of ideological rupture in U.S. history.

Accordingly, the historical exegesis as to whether Watergate designated a subversion or triumph of American democracy perhaps misses the crucial point: following Perlstein, the Watergate scandal is most significant not because of the particular elements that comprised the scandal, but that it clearly revealed the ideological divide within the United States. One side of this divide, as the post-Watergate era indicates, cannot be simply erased, even in the case when their positions are viewed as contradictory: this ideological division exists in the American psyche irrespective of empirical evidence. In this regard, Watergate signifies this ideological division’s movement from the unconscious to the conscious level.

Works Cited

Fisher, Marc. “Watergate: The Long Shadow of a Scandal.” The Washington Times. June 14, 2010.

Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Savage, Charlie. “On Nixon Tapes, Ambivalence Over Abortion, Not Watergate.” The New York Times. June 23, 1999.

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