Mad as Hell

By Dominic Sandbrook

We often speak of how history teaches lessons, but we should keep in mind that not all of the lessons it teaches are positive ones. The United States in the 1970s offers some deeply unedifying examples, and they’re front and center in Dominic Sandbrook’s punchy political history of that depressing decade, Mad as Hell.

The book is mostly concerned with the second half of the decade: the Ford and Carter administrations. With a minimum of necessary backfill, Sandbrook begins with the resignation of Nixon and the end of the Vietnam war, both in 1974. That year seemed like a watershed, the drawing of a line across a running tally of bad news – so much so that when Ford took office he could announce that the nation’s “long national nightmare” was over.

In fact, it was only beginning. What the ’70s had in store, and the source of so much of the anger Sandbrook describes, was stagflation (high unemployment and inflation), a series of crippling oil shocks, and a general sense that the American economy had hit a wall. Yes, it was the economy (stupid!), and these developments affected the lives of most ordinary Americans (the silent majority), far more than the dirty tricks being run out of the White House or even a divisive foreign war. It was this economic crisis that marked a true historical watershed for the middle class. From now on (that is, until the present day) it would all be downhill, with the economy characterized by rising inequality, stagnant standards of living, and falling real incomes.

There didn’t seem any way to put a happy face on the situation, not to mention any point in trying. Making a happy face would have been irresponsible, given the challenges the nation faced. In his State of the Union address in 1975 President Ford didn’t even try: “Today I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good . . . I’ve got bad news and I don’t expect much, if any, applause.” The keynote would be a call for sacrifice. Gloomy? Yes. But he was respected for his candor by the press. As the Washington Post reported, “what this country may be in need of is straight talk and realistic ambitions. And that is basically what it got.”

Later, Ford’s successor would be pilloried for his “malaise” address to the nation, which directed straight talk at the country’s crisis of confidence. Times had changed. A virulent, unthinking nationalism had taken hold, one that held any criticism of the American way of life (characterized by a belief in free markets, endless opportunity, and a vision of Americans as the chosen people of God) unacceptable. Talk of “thrift and sacrifice” had become “politically poisonous.” The time was now ripe for a man on horseback, someone who could do a happy face. And this was the lesson of history that the crisis of the 1970s taught: realism and maturity had no place in American politics. A responsible, adult attitude was for losers. From now on the only formula for political success was endless hope and optimism, no matter how misplaced or fantastic. There were no limits to American dreams; if there was a reckoning to come it was so far down the road it could cheerfully be ignored. Tomorrow was another day, and somebody else’s problem.

The ’70s were a tipping point in other ways as well, though economic decline was the driver. Bad times bred resentment, and the powerless perhaps naturally turned on government elites (government itself being powerless to do much about their plight, but still the only tool handy). The greatest victim of the backlash thus became big-government, social-welfare liberalism. California’s Proposition 13 led the way for a wave of state and federal movements to cut taxes (or, as the strategy would become known to small-government militants, a plan to “starve the beast”). At the same time, the Iranian revolution marked the entry into new and dangerous waters for American foreign policy, as the old strategy of global domination through proxy saw its first spectacular case of backlash. But as with the anti-tax movement, the response would be driven by anger, resentment, and a sense of injured pride, without even a diplomatic nod toward liberal values. And again there were immediate lessons to be learned, which were ignored for knee-jerk reactions. What followed was California’s ongoing financial meltdown and the even worse quagmire in the Middle East.

As for liberalism, its fate becomes Sandbrook’s leitmotif. As an economic theory, liberalism (associated most closely with the name of John Maynard Keynes) was a blueprint for growth. But in the ’70s “the combination of recession and inflation was something Keynes had never anticipated and for which his disciples had no solution. To put it bluntly, Keynesianism was no longer delivering the goods.” As a result, liberalism swiftly became designated as “the L-word.” One liberal candidate for the Democratic primary in 1975 even described the label as a “barrier to communication,” and Carter himself rejected it entirely, choosing to describe himself (not inaccurately) as a conservative. This was another watershed, with “liberal” today still widely being used as a pejorative only slightly less loaded than “commie.”

But if liberalism had been defeated it was mainly in the economic sphere. In cultural matters, despite the visibility of right-wing, religious attacks on equal rights, affirmative action, Hollywood, and all the rest of it, America was becoming more liberal. Whether this mattered that much, however, is another question. The real prize was domestic (economic) and foreign policy. This is what would define America in the following decade, not what the moral majority was railing about but things like growing inequality, a shift in the character of the economy away from industry to service, status to contract employment, skyrocketing defense spending and an endless round of military misadventures, and the failure to adapt to a new energy paradigm and invest in infrastructure. As Thomas Frank relates in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the electorate became victims of a giant bait-and-switch: hammered economically while parties waved the red flags of gay marriage, pornography, or abortion rights. At the end of the day, an old-fashioned, social-oriented liberalism had given way to libertarianism:

while the Me Decade was a caricature, a good caricature, as any illustrator knows, must have a core of truth. There was a genuine sense of individualism and self-absorption, evident in everything from religious affiliation and neighborhood politics to folk songs and psychotherapy. Collective institutions were in retreat; individualism was on the rise. In this respect, as in so many others, the rightward shift of the 1980s was under way long before its greatest architect came to Washington.

The upshot, which lands at the end of Sandbrook’s book like a sad, groan-inducing punch line, was that Americans by the end of the ’70s had become thoroughly disillusioned with politics in general. As Tocqueville predicted, and Robert D. Putnam (in Bowling Alone) documented, the little guy, the forgotten man, finally withdrew within himself.

But behind all the talk of Reagan Democrats and the Moral Majority, of cultural wars and electoral realignment, one fact attracted rather less attention. With almost one in two eligible voters refusing to cast a ballot, turnout was simply atrocious. For all the talk of a Reagan landslide, it is worth remembering that barely on in four Americans actually voted for him. The fact that so many people preferred to stay at home, even at a time of economic crisis and international tension, spoke volumes about the pervasive disillusionment of the 1970s. Perhaps this was the ultimate verdict on the decade, the fact that more Americans voted for nobody at all than voted for the winners. The political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called it “the largest mass movement of our time” – a movement of people who, when asked to pronounce between Reagan, Carter, and Anderson, simply refused to choose.

Well, I suppose some people might say, at least now we have the Internet.

Review first published online July 22, 2013.