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Resilient America

Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government

Michael Nelson

Foreword by Marc J. Hetherington

April 2014
360 pages, 20 illustrations, 6 x 9
American Presidential Elections
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1963-4, $34.95

book cover imageTo look at the partisan polarization that paralyzes Washington today is to see what first took shape with the presidential election of 1968. This book explains why. Urban riots and the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the politics of outrage and race—all pointed to a reordering of party coalitions, of groups and regions, a hardening and widening of an ideological divide—and to the historical importance of the 1968 election as a watershed event.

Resilient America captures this extraordinary time in all its drama—the personalities, the politics, the parties, the events and the circumstances, from the shadow of 1964 through the primaries to the general election that pitted Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey, with George Wallace and Eugene McCarthy as the interlopers. Where most accounts of this pivotal year—and the decade that followed—emphasize the coming apart of the nation, this book focuses on the fact that because of measures taken after the election the country actually held together. An esteemed scholar of the American presidency, Michael Nelson turns our attention to how, in spite of increasing (and increasingly vehement) differences, the parties of the time managed to make divided government work. Conventional political processes—peaceful demonstrations, congressional legislation, executive initiatives, Supreme Court decisions, party reforms, and presidential politics—were flexible enough to absorb most of the dissent that tore America deeply in 1968 and might otherwise have torn it apart. This fraught time, as Nelson’s work clearly demonstrates, produced unity as well as results well worth noting in our current predicament.

“No one has plumbed as deeply into the extraordinary election year of 1968 as Michael Nelson. His Resilient America offers scholarly acumen, vibrant prose, and a provocative thesis.  Anyone who loves to read about American politics at its most intense will be enthralled.”—Bruce Miroff, author of The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party

"One of America’s most eminent presidential scholars takes on one of America’s most contentious elections, the three-way 1968 contest among Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and independent George Wallace. Nelson writes with a historian’s sensibility, zeroing on key personalities and decisions, but also with a political scientist’s feel for systemic developments. He argues that the culminating crisis of the late 1960s brought little immediate change to the nation’s “resilient” political institutions, though it—and the winning candidate—commenced an era of divided government and intensified partisanship that still dominates the national political landscape."—David Courtwright, author of No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America

Resilient America, Michael Nelson’s account of the 1968 presidential election, is a gem of a book. Abjuring the ideological biases that have characterized almost all accounts of that election, Nelson steps back from the fray and shows how a society stressed and torn apart by the cultural and political divisions of the sixties was kept together by the outcome of the election and the subsequent operations of the president and Congress. The big story here is that of the political system saving the society from disintegration, a remarkable achievement. It is our good fortune as well that one of America’s leading scholars of the presidency is also one of our finest writers. Nelson captures the drama and passion of the campaign, and of the entire tumultuous decade of the sixties, in a compelling narrative.”—James W. Ceaser, author of Presidential Selection, Liberal Democracy and Political Science, Reconstructing America, and Nature and History in American Political Development

“In Resilient America, Michael Nelson, one of our nation’s preeminent experts on the Presidency, takes a fascinating look at the pivotal 1968 election, one that in many ways created some of the contours that we see in our political scene today.  Held during one of the most turbulent periods in American history, Nelson argues that whether one agrees with the outcome or not, the election served its purpose, creating some degree of resolution and stability at a time when it was so badly needed.”—Charles E. Cook, Jr., columnist for the National Journal and editor & publisher of The Cook Political Report

MICHAEL NELSON, the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College, is a Fellow of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History and a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2011, with Sidney M. Milkis, and How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation, with John L. Mason, winner of the 2009 V. O. Key Award for Outstanding Book on Southern Politics from the Southern Political Science Association.

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