After the Sixties: Activism in Disenchanted Times

After the Sixties: Activism in Disenchanted Times

Front Porch Politics:
The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s

by Michael Stewart Foley
Hill and Wang, 2013, 432 pp.

Are the 1970s and 1980s really history? Over the past ten years, the era has undergone a strange alchemy, placing it into the realm of scholarship. Archives are opening, oral histories are being taken down before the key participants pass away, and undergraduate history classes are populated—all of a sudden—by people who were born during the Clinton years.

Yet the immediacy of a time so recently past can make it hard to gain perspective on the way that contemporaries understood their world, while still recognizing it as something distinct from our own moment. As a result, most people still imagine the 1970s and ’80s as defined by Ronald Reagan and the rise of the right—in other words, the antithesis of sixties radicalism. In the common narrative, these were years of a “culture of narcissism” (to quote the title of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book), when people rejected the idealism of the social movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and succumbed to a cynical disengagement from politics and a newly frenetic consumerism. As the story goes, Americans grew more concerned with shopping than protest, more invested in buying ever-bigger homes, cars, television sets, and stock portfolios than in any vision of the common good.

Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s challenges this bleak vision. In this remarkable history, Michael Stewart Foley makes the case that the period cannot be understood in terms of a simple partisan shift from left to right, or liberal to conservative. Nor, he suggests, can these years be seen as a time of quiescence or retreat. Instead, they were characterized by an intense, angry, and impassioned style of activism on issues that spanned the political spectrum. In contrast to today’s Internet cool—where ironic tweets and online petitions pass for political expression—he suggests that in the 1970s and ’80s people felt directly and personally affected by politics. Even more so than in the 1960s, they were driven to protest, get arrested, and mount political campaigns on a wide array of issues, including factory closings, farm bankruptcies, taxes, city cutbacks, pollution, abortion, gay rights (and opposition to them), nuclear power plants, and more. The political diversity of these issues is less important for Foley than the “existential and emotional” commitment they evoked. As he puts it, “The common denominator was an immediate sense of threat—from government, corporations, the law or other citizens with opposing interests—that required something more than a vote. It required action.”

The political valences of this impulse were complex. On the one hand, Foley argues that the spread of grassroots activis...

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