The “Nixon-to-China” theory of change

For my friends who’d rather have had Bernie for president… don’t lose hope. Here’s why I think the Biden presidency may be just what we need.

In the early 1970s, mainland China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, a violent and disastrous experiment in totalitarianism, and the United States had been holding it at arm’s length, keeping China largely isolated from the rest of the world. Then Richard Nixon shocked America by announcing plans to visit China as a step toward normalizing relations between the two countries.

Now, where capital-c Communism was concerned, Nixon was an arch-conservative. He wasn’t all that conservative on women’s rights, environmentalism, etc., just as many Republicans weren’t back then, but he had very firm credentials when it came to the “godless commies.” So for Nixon to decide it was okay to meet with Chairman Mao and shake his hand, making peace between our countries – that made it okay.

nixon_maoIf anyone else had tried it, let alone anyone on the American Left, there would have been a major domestic crisis. The Right would have been up in arms, possibly literally. The president’s standing, if not his career, would have been ruined. And the whole debacle might not even have led to peace with China. Hence the common political truism from my childhood: “Only Nixon could go to China.”

Likewise, it was Ronald Reagan who could work with Gorbachev to end the Cold War. If instead the Democrat, Walter Mondale, had been elected, he may also have welcomed Gorbachev’s overtures. But he wouldn’t have had Reagan’s credibility on national defense, and many Americans would have been skeptical.

Nowadays, there are many things the vast majority of Americans want – jobs and a living wage to go with them, health care without financial ruin, higher education without massive debt, energy security, clean air and water, affordable homes, equal opportunities and justice for all Americans regardless of race, religion, or consenting intimate activities. As a maverick with an (R) beside his name, Trump could have been “Nixon” and done all that. He would have been a hero, but… well, he had his chance.

sanders_biden_laughingIf Bernie Sanders had won, he could have used the presidency as a great “bully pulpit”  to make his ideas more mainstream, but the Right would have done its best to tar them with a “socialist” label. Given the existing polarization in the U.S., it may have been very difficult to get his actual policies through Congress – even though most of us want them.

Now, however, we have President-Elect Biden. He’s positioned as a moderate, but we know he listens. It’s his very positioning as a mild-mannered, widely respected moderate that can make him effective, which in turn makes those changes possible. Will he do what we hope? Only time can tell – but after four years of Donald Trump, the American Left and center are far from complacent.

So I suggest, for now, let’s trust Joe Biden, and let’s keep working for what we believe in. Above all, let’s keep reminding everyone that equal opportunities, fairness, health care, et cetera, are not just “socialist” values, they’re American values.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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1 Response to The “Nixon-to-China” theory of change

  1. Pingback: Overcoming the temptations of conservatism | The Meta-Narrator

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