Nixon the Progressive

Richard Brownell
Apr 2 · 6 min read

The judgment of history is sometimes a fluid affair. Each generation has its own interpretation of the people and events that preceded it. When those views conflict with the established historical narrative, it begs the question, why the new attitude? Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of our natural evolution as a society. Other times, though, it is due to the influence of a prevailing social or political view.

Take Richard Nixon, for example. In a long political career that spanned the Cold War, Nixon broke ground and made achievements in foreign and domestic affairs that advanced the cause of freedom and changed history. He is also ultimately responsible for the biggest presidential scandal in American history, making Nixon a go-to symbol for the abuse of power.

Anyone who can be simultaneously associated with stellar achievements and base crimes is sure to stir mixed emotions upon historical review. Nixon has drawn all manner of queries and opinions about his character, his intellectual abilities, and his motivations. In some cases, this has led to grossly inaccurate assumptions about his political legacy. The biggest mistaken assumption, perhaps, being that Nixon governed as a conservative.

Because he was a lifelong Republican and a staunch anti-communist, Richard Nixon is commonly viewed as people often view contemporary Republicans — a small government conservative who rejected social engineering or federal interference into state or local matters. Modern Republicans may embrace Nixon with this view in mind (Watergate notwithstanding). Today’s progressives loathe Nixon for much the same reason (Watergate totally withstanding).

Both sides would be wrong. In fact, Nixon did a lot of things while in office that paint the picture of a progressive president, not a conservative one, at least as far as domestic policy was concerned. Nixon was comfortable with using the power of activist government to achieve certain policy outcomes. And in the modern political parlance, that would position him as a progressive, not a conservative.

I’ll even go you one better and put the idea out there that Richard Nixon’s domestic presidency was one that progressives can be proud of.

Let’s start with the environment. The fate of the Earth was a major topic of concern when Nixon became president in 1969. Environmental activism had grown steadily throughout the 1960s, spurred on by Rachel Carson’s 1962 game-changer of a book, Silent Spring. Within days after Nixon took office in 1969, the nation was reeling from a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the largest ever up to that time. A few months later, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flame because it was so polluted. Yes, you read that right. A river caught fire.

The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 helped spur the creation of Earth Day.

Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970. This law called upon federal agencies to evaluate the environmental consequences of their actions through assessments and impact studies. Federal projects could now be amended, postponed, or killed by virtue of their negative impact on the environment, significantly expanding the federal bureaucracy.

Later in 1970, Nixon signed the order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was designed to be the final word on the environment. The agency has grown immensely powerful over the years, and it has the capability to alter, amend, or end any business practice deemed to have an adverse effect on the environment.

The EPA was not the last word Nixon would have on the environment, though. He also signed into law the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. There was also the Noise Control Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Nixon also weighed in on the social safety net. He signed the Social Security Amendments of 1972, which extended Medicare to people under 65 who were disabled or suffered from kidney disease. Another component of these amendments was the Supplemental Security Income program. SSI came about after complaints arose over the uneven income and disability standards of various state-level benefits packages. These state aid programs were federalized and folded into a national system.

It’s worth noting here that during Nixon’s time in office, spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid all increased, with total spending on entitlements more than doubling between 1969 and 1975.

Nixon even got into the debate over health insurance and access to health care, proposing that all employers should offer insurance to full-time employees, and a federal aid program to pick up the tab for those too poor to afford coverage. He also proposed pegging insurance premiums to income and the creation of Health Maintenance Organizations to help manage the cost of care. Though many of these ideas did not see the light of day during Nixon’s time in office, they would form the basis of many modern health care-related reform programs.

Nixon declared war on cancer with the National Cancer Act and provided $1.6 billion (close to $10 billion in today’s dollars) for research. The National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act similarly set research money aside to combat Sickle Cell disease.

The nation’s workers were given OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was created in 1970 to establish federal government oversight of workplace safety. The Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972 allowed the government to create safety standards and issue product recalls for items that created unreasonable risk to consumers.

Drivers were told to keep it under 55 miles per hour when Nixon imposed a national speed limit in January 1974 to help reduce fuel consumption. Prior to the new law, states were free to set their own speed limits, but Congress and the president took that power away after price spikes by Middle Eastern oil producers sent gas prices skyrocketing.

Nixon took grief for defunding a number of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs like the Job Corps, but in its place Nixon created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise to promote and support minority-owned businesses. He also worked to actively increase the number of minorities hired for construction jobs, one of the nation’s first examples of affirmative action. Nixon called for a mandatory minimum of minority employees on all federal contract jobs worth more than $50,000.

Nixon also called for the expansion of the U.S. Civil Rights code to include sex discrimination. This led directly to the creation of Title IX, which banned sexual discrimination in education. Title IX became a big booster of women in college sports, increasing women’s participation from 1 in 27 in 1972 to 2 in 5 in 2012.

Nixon entertains guests in the Oval Office.

Nixon also voiced supported for the Equal Rights Amendment which made it through Congress in 1972 but subsequently failed to be ratified by the requisite number of states. He was criticized for not doing enough to make the ERA a reality, but it is worth noting that Nixon appointed more women to the executive branch than all his predecessors.

Nixon also supported the abolition of the Electoral College in 1969, coming closer than any elected official in getting rid of the controversial institution. He backed lowering the voting age to 18, which came about with the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1973.

Many of the programs, agencies, and initiatives in this list are common knowledge among the American public. Their impact is undeniable, even if their wisdom is open to debate. But few people realize that they all came about during the six years Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Diligent Nixon haters still try to prevent him from getting recognition for these achievements by claiming that he only did it for the votes. Fair enough. But that’s politics, baby. Every president has embraced the role of the political wheeler dealer at one time or another, no matter how high-minded or low-brow the task at hand.

You could reasonably claim that Nixon was being politically expedient by passing one or two progressive pieces of legislation. After all, using legislation to gain the support of a crucial constituency is as much a part of politics as getting wet is part of swimming. But the breadth and scope of Nixon’s domestic policy achievements indicates that he had a sustained belief in the power of an activist federal government to improve the fortunes of American citizens.

That sounds pretty progressive to me.

Richard Brownell

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Writer. Historian. Sucker for a Good Story. Blogging at among other places.