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Nixon in China

The phrase “Nixon in China” refers to the paradoxical phenomenon where a leader takes an action that is unexpected or contrary to their established ideological stance.

Yet precisely because of that incongruity, they are uniquely positioned to successfully execute the policy.

The term originates from President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, which was groundbreaking because Nixon, a staunch anti-communist, was able to open diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

The phrase is often invoked to describe situations where a politician’s established credibility with a particular base allows them to take actions that would be politically perilous for others, such as a conservative leader pushing for environmental regulations or a progressive leader advocating for military intervention.

More on “Nixon in China”

A metaphor involving a politician who does something unexpected and out of character, sometimes because he or she has the political stature to do so.

It refers to Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China to improve relations at a time when the president had a reputation as an ardent anti-Communist.

Before running for president, Kentucky GOP senator Rand Paul drew attention for speaking to African-American audiences about criminal justice reform—a cause that interests many Democrats, but fewer members of Paul’s party. When libertarian billionaire Charles Koch announced in March 2015 that he would collaborate with the liberal Center for American Progress on the same idea, Bloomberg Politics carried the headline: “Rand Paul and the Koch Brothers Are Having a Nixon-in-China Moment.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Nixon in China” in a sentence

  • Some analysts argue that only a hardline conservative could have pushed through criminal justice reform, likening the situation to “Nixon in China” in its paradoxical effectiveness.
  • The progressive president’s decision to deregulate certain industries surprised many but was hailed as a “Nixon in China” moment, leveraging his liberal credentials to make a change that would have been politically impossible for a conservative leader.
  • When the hawkish senator announced her support for a peace treaty, pundits immediately labeled it a “Nixon in China” move, recognizing that her long-standing tough stance lent credibility to the diplomatic effort.