Decisive Decade: Re-evaluating the Seventies

Decisive Decade: Re-evaluating the Seventies

Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974–1980
by Laura Kalman
W.W. Norton, 2010, 473 pp.

Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies
by Judith Stein
Yale University Press, 2010, 384 pp.

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days
of the Working Class

by Jefferson Cowie
The New Press, 2010, 488 pp.

AMERICAN PUNDITS love to make historical comparisons, so much so that the present can at times feel like a dizzying pastiche of Greatest Hit moments in the national past. Early in 2009, we were back in the 1930s, with Barack Obama a virtual reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Less than two years later, we’ve already hit the 1970s, and the Jimmy Carter comparisons are starting to fly. Now as then, the American economy is in turmoil. The country is embroiled in nasty and unpopular wars. We are no closer to independence from oil than we were when Carter, in his famous 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech, admonished us that “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” And the centrist Democrat in the White House again finds himself taunted relentlessly by conservatives who seem, against all odds, to be on the march. The long march from the dawn of the New Deal to its rejection has apparently happened in the amount of time it took to hit the midterm elections.

Yet just as the milieu of the 1930s had little in common with the United States in 2009, these comparisons seem to gloss over the complex mood and spirit of the 1970s, which seem so remote from anything in our contemporary scene. In the early 1970s, conservatives still seemed a fringe movement. These were the days of Watergate, the Church Committee’s revelations about the FBI and CIA, Roe v. Wade, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 following ten years of antiwar activism, and the largest strike wave since the end of the Second World War. For a brief moment, it seemed as though the recession of the decade might be met with a full employment bill and real labor law reform. Even the mundane public relations outreach of federal agencies was politically charged in a way hard to imagine today. One short film for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, was narrated by Studs Terkel and featured documentary-style interviews with workers maimed and sickened on the job, along with footage from strikes for worker safety. “Work has killed millions,” Terkel intones in the opening voice-over, sounding like a trailer for a slightly didactic conspiracy thriller. In early 1980, Gerald Ford could confidently tell the New York Times that a “very conservative Republican can’t win in a national election,” not-so-coyly suggesting that perhaps he might be an alternative choice for the GOP. Michael Harrington described the decade by saying that the country was moving “vigorously left, right...