Pity the 1970s, a decade whose memory is lost in a haze of bell bottoms and disco music, sandwiched between the more interesting 1960s and 1980s. For most Americans, the '70s were a runt of a decade best left to the ash heap of history.
Yet the further we get, strangely, the more fascinating and important that unfortunate decade becomes. Following on the heels of books by David Frum and Bruce Schulman, two historians now offer their take on it. Edward Berkowitz has produced a brief but thorough primer whose very title captures the decade's ambivalence: Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies. A far more adventurous (and less ambivalently titled) account is found in Philip Jenkins's Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America.
Something did indeed happen during the 1970s. Take politics. The standard narrative of modern American conservatism's rise usually credits bold political leaders (Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan) or the movement's weighty intellectual roots (think George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America). Both leadership and ideas were surely central to the strength of conservatism, but they only tell half the story. "Reagan's opportunities to impose his particular vision," writes Jenkins, "were shaped by a wide variety of developments, social, economic, demographic, and cultural, which were all under way well before the critical 1980 election." According to Berkowitz's excellent account, the '70s were a time when Americans "rediscovered the power of the marketplace and individual responsibility and raised questions about the effectiveness of regulation to change behavior in a desired way." The decade "marked the end of the conventional postwar wisdom," and things were never quite the same again.
The '60s have become so romanticized or demonized (take your pick), that we neglect what came afterwards. Berkowitz and Jenkins agree that the mid-'70s mark the beginning of a new era in American society, one heralding the death of the New Deal consensus that had dominated since the 1930s. The old consensus sought a larger federal role in the regulation of business. It was anti-Communist and internationalist in foreign policy. The great postwar triumvirate—Big Government, Big Labor, and Big Business—had worked together during a time of unprecedented prosperity to reinforce the New Deal consensus.
Yet the period from 1945 until 1973 was undermined by the stagflation that belied Keynesian economic principles. Even Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy saw the need to deregulate. (The airline industry, for one.) New York City's fiscal crisis and the anti-tax revolution manifested in California's Proposition 13 rejected the sort of taxation that had financed endless big-government programs. The disastrous end of the Vietnam War weakened support for anti-Communism and pushed much of the Democratic Party toward isolationism. The decline of manufacturing and the rise of a global economy forced America to rediscover entrepreneurism and the free market; the nation now had to compete internationally on a scale that it had not done for decades. Calls for a national industrial policy or more government control over the economy were ill-suited for the new economic realities.
Some historians have called the '70s "the age of limits," for the illusively limitless postwar prosperity came crashing down with the oil crisis and stagflation. But it was also an age of limits for Big Business, which had grown too comfortable and too complacent to compete in the global economy; Big Labor's numbers fell from postwar highs as its demands increasingly made American companies less competitive; Big Government was increasingly limited in what it could do to alleviate poverty and cure other social ills. Social, cultural, and demographic changes also helped attenuate the liberal consensus. Suburbanization and the growth of the Sunbelt aided the rise of conservatism and weakened traditional Democratic areas of the country, like big cities and the Rust Belt.
The '70s saw the counterculture become mainstream. The real '60s did not begin until 1966 or so and continued well into the 1970s. Countercultural fashions hit Middle America, including widespread drug use and more liberal attitudes toward sex. The '70s also saw the apex of the feminist movement. In a counterintuitive way, the popularization of the counterculture helped fuel a conservative revival, especially coupled with the growth of evangelical Christianity. Between 1970 and 1978, the percentage of Americans who told pollsters that religion was an important part of their lives rose from 14 to 44%. The excesses of the counterculture and the "rights revolution" became apparent as the 1970s wore on. Roe v. Wade not only legalized abortion, but also gave birth to the right-to-life movement. The push for an Equal Rights Amendment failed, but it also mobilized conservative women under Phyllis Schlafly.
In another, subtler way, the counterculture aided conservatism's rise. That many contemporary liberal social movements challenged authority led to a more individualistic and more populist country—and thus a country more skeptical of government's power. Rather than pushing the country leftward, this promoted the conservative view of government's inability to solve social and economic ills. Distrust of authority also helped undermine regard for elite and expert opinion, whether that of the mainstream media, university professors, or professional organizations like the American Bar Association, all of which had drifted left.
Of these two books, Berkowitz's is more straightforward. Jenkins's book is idiosyncratic, and more problematic. He sees the decade through a much darker lens. "Whether in matters of foreign policy or war, disorder or terrorism, poverty or urban crisis, crime or drug abuse," he writes, "many Americans adopted a more pessimistic, more threatening interpretation of human behavior." And conservatives were more adept at mobilizing against these "widespread fear and anxieties." Conservatism's rise comes across, in Jenkins's hands, as the product of irrational fears, Christian apocalyptic thought, and invented bogeymen. Beginning in the '70s, Americans were in search of enemies, and conservatives were happy to supply them.
Jenkins simply cannot see the rise of conservatism as part of the natural ebb and flow of American politics. He paints it as an unnatural emanation from the dark side of the American psyche. In this he has plenty of company. Thomas Edsall blamed the rise of conservatism on race-baiting; Thomas Frank attributed it to the false consciousness of the average American, voting foolishly on values issues rather than on what Frank sees as their economic interests. Jenkins criticizes both Edsall and Frank for failing to credit conservatives for "responding to real or well-grounded concerns," then spends the rest of his book doing just that. For instance, he harps on real or imagined threats from rising crime rates, increased drug abuse, serial killers, child abductions, and the Cold War. But he argues that near-paranoia begins in the '70s and finds political incarnation in the Reagan Revolution of the '80s. The conservative ability to tap into these fears, from that '70s on down to today's war on terror, has solidified the rightward shift in politics and put liberals on the defensive.
Jenkins also fails to note the role that conspiracies and exposés have played for liberals. Evil corporations have always been the central villain among liberal consumer activists and muckraking journalists. The '70s were full of apocalyptic rhetoric from the Left, such as pronouncements from Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome about imminent "population bombs." Modern environmentalism, from the Alar scare to global warming, has encouraged fear among Americans in equal proportion to the wars on drugs or crime; at the same time, liberal economists have sounded the alarm about approaching depressions for decades. Even today, Leftist conspiracies abound about the war on terror, oil companies, and nefarious neocons. The irony, for Jenkins's book, is that in representing himself as the arch-rationalist, too wise for conspiracies and fear-mongering, himself abets what he professes to abhor. By portraying the politics of the last 30 years as a succession of public fears and anxieties exploited by the Right, Jenkins creates his own conspiracy—one of devious conservatives and a sensationalist media that together keep the public in fear. This dark book is a nightmare all right, but one almost wholly concocted by Jenkins.
But conservatives should not grow complacent. The collapse of the New Deal consensus happened so quickly that many Democrats didn't know what hit them. (Many still don't fully comprehend what happened.) If the postwar period was marked by unprecedented stability, the post-1973 world is marked by greater instability, at home and abroad. Economic insecurity, rising costs for energy, housing, and higher education, growing economic inequality, terrorism, rogue states, and unease with immigration—all these could destabilize the conservative consensus. It is hard to believe that the '70s—once thought so vapid, narcissistic, and dreary—could have brought forth modern conservatism. But without the wrenching changes of that period, the Reagan Revolution and all that followed could not have come to pass.