Call us the United States of Nixonland

Richard Nixon will always be with us.

Conservatives love to talk about Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as the fathers of the modern Republican Party, but George W. Bush won two elections and John McCain is competitive in a third by following the playbook Nixon wrote 60 years ago.

Rick Perlstein explained it earlier this year in his brilliant book “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.” What Nixon understood better than almost anyone was that there are far more people who consider themselves outsiders and resent the elites than there are insiders.

Nixon succeeded in taking a party that had been the home of the elites — businessmen, country club members and the like — and making it the home of what comedian Kathleen Madigan calls “Joe Critter Redneck.”

He told these folks that Democrats looked down on them, that liberals wanted to surrender to the Russians and that these elitists didn’t love Jesus.

Thomas Frank missed the point in his otherwise terrific “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” when he said Republicans used wedge issues to get people to vote against their own economic interests. What Nixon knew was that he could convince people that appealing to their patriotism would seem to them to be a higher interest than how much money they made.

But where Nixon really changed us was with his attacks on the media. When Republicans started hammering away at the so-called “liberal” media, the goal was eventually to destroy one of the greatest counterweights against established wealth.

Once average Americans no longer believed what they were hearing or reading from the media, everything eventually just became a matter of opinion. The media contributed to its own demise, dumbing down the discourse and fudging its standards.

After Janet Cooke and Jason Blair, after Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard story, the Rush Limbaughs of the world could just say, “See, you can’t trust these people.”

In one very real way, though, there is no liberal media anymore. There aren’t any major newspapers or broadcast outlets attacking “free trade” or the outsourcing of jobs.

No, the “liberal” media gets its name primarily for cultural issues, which matter far less, and it was the cultural issues Nixon used so effectively and his descendants use even better to keep us divided.

Richard Nixon died in 1994, but his spirit lives on when Sarah Palin attacks in the best tradition of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew.

His spirit lives on in the racially-tinged attack ads Republicans are running against Barack Obama.

Yes, Nixon is dead.

But if McCain and Palin win in November, we will definitely be living in the U.S. of Nixonland.