On page 510 of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, Stephen Ambrose states that President Dwight Eisenhower focused on the gains the United States had made, whereas Vice-President Richard Nixon tended to look at the losses. Ambrose attributes this to the different background of the two men: Eisenhower was born in the nineteenth century and was “the son of a laborer in rural Kansas”, whereas Nixon was “born in the second decade of the twentieth century” and was “the son of a grocery-store owner” (page 510). Ambrose’s point is probably that Eisenhower saw a lot of advancement over the course of his lifetime, and so he tended to be more optimistic than Richard Nixon, who lived after some of the advancements had already taken place.
An example of where Eisenhower was optimistic whereas Nixon was pessimistic could be seen at a meeting of Republican leaders, where Nixon was talking about “tax exemption for tuition payments to private schools” (Ambrose on page 510). Nixon was lamenting the “whole erosion of the middle class”, as “the very wealthy do very well, but the middle class is sinking” (Nixon’s words). According to Ambrose, Nixon was speaking for his professional and small-businessmen constituency, who did not care for the advancement of labor unions, the increase in federal regulations, and taxes they were having to pay.
But Eisenhower cut off Nixon, saying that the middle-class was not declining, for working people were becoming part of the middle-class and were sending their sons off to college.
But, when Nixon was debating with Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union, Nixon had a more favorable opinion of the distribution of wealth in the U.S. Nixon said: “…the United States…has from the standpoint of distribution of wealth come closest to the idea of prosperity for all in a classless society…The caricature of capitalism as a predatory, monopolist-dominated society is as hopelessly out of date, as far as the United States is concerned, as a wooden plow.”
Did Nixon contradict himself? Perhaps, in the sense that at one point he presented a picture in which the wealthy were well-off even as the middle-class was eroding, while at another point he was arguing that the middle-class was prospering under the American system. But I think that the same ideology was underneath both sentiments. Nixon believed that capitalism benefited the middle-class because it allowed for greater productivity of goods that elevated people’s standard of living, while creating more opportunities to earn money. But Nixon, like his political base, probably thought that certain labor policies and acts of government intervention into the economy were chipping away at the middle-class.
The reason that Ambrose’s discussion on page 510 stood out to me was because of the rhetoric today about the decline of the middle-class. Many on the Left who use that rhetoric actually point to the Eisenhower years as a time when the middle class was at its strongest. Moreover, they wouldn’t attribute the decline of the middle-class to certain labor policies or acts of government intervention into the economy. Rather, they’d say that strong labor unions were a significant contributor to the existence of a large and robust middle-class during the 1950’s, and so they’d probably appreciate Eisenhower’s insight that the working people were becoming the middle-class. Moreover, they’d attribute the decline of the middle-class to President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to roll back government intervention into the economy. They might overlap with Nixon on the issue of taxes, however, particularly the importance of lessening the tax burden on small businesspeople.