I’ve been calling 1973, as I sort through my research for a political and cultural history of the United States in the ’70s, the Year Without Christmas Lights. News of fuel shortages—what would come to be called the "energy crisis"—had begun cropping up in the spring, around the same time the resignations of Nixon confidants John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman introduced to a shocked Middle America the likelihood that the Watergate scandal went all the way to the top. By Memorial Day weekend, with Texaco rationing the sale of gasoline along the most heavily traveled highways, there was talk of outlawing the Indianapolis 500. "And pleasure boating," a letter writer to the Chicago Tribune suggested: "Better to go slow on gasoline than to be cold next winter."
At the annual Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, the festivities partook of the zeitgeist: Nixon-like, a lad by the name of James Gronen was disqualified for outfitting his car with a battery-enhanced magnet. (Cheating Always Part of Soap Box Fun, shot back a headline in the Los Angeles Times; the dissenting op-ed writer called what the boy did "enterprise.") At Congressional hearings, paranoid witnesses said the oil companies, whose profits soared 62 percent in the third quarter, had rigged the shortages. In September the Republican governor of Oregon passed an edict limiting commercial and decorative electric signs at night; in October the debate was over whether to end Daylight Savings Time to save energy. Then came the OPEC oil embargo—in the same week that President Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the scary White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who was infamous for coming to work in his general’s uniform, ordered the FBI to seal the office of the attorney general. "There was a real sense," said one of Cox’s aides, of the possibility of "a fascist takeover."
By the yuletide season, with the price of crude quadrupled, the Los Angeles City Council was debating a plan to cut street lighting by 50 percent, allow businesses only fifty hours of operation a week and require business and industry to keep the thermostat at sixty-eight degrees for heating and seventy-eight for cooling. A lead Los Angeles Times editorial proposed forgoing outdoor holiday decorations. A letter writer from Whittier further suggested a moratorium on Christmas cards. Another, responding to an article debunking rumors that the Pentagon planned to turn off the eternal flame at the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy to save energy, strenuously objected: "Wouldn’t it seem logical to use that gas for a better use such as heating homes or office buildings rather than just burning it for no real purpose whatever?"
Darkness fell across the land. Things fell apart. The year was rung out with the unlikeliest Top 40 hit ever—Merle Haggard’s mournful country dirge "If We Make It Through December."
* * *
While writing books about the past, I think about the present. It’s not intentional, but somehow my books end up being written under the sign of a political mood. In Before the Storm, finished in 1999, I wrote in, and of, a time of heady economic confidence, with Eisenhower-era Republicans and Clinton-era Democrats both convinced of the necessity of ideological sail-trimming to manage an "end to history"; and then, in 1964 as in 1999, a more feverish ideological age seemed to beckon. Nixonland, finished in 2007, was about right-wing presidents exploiting the public’s fears as a cover for betraying the public’s trust. What story of our own times will my ’70s book reveal? I’ll know only after it’s done.
"swipe left below to view more authors"Swipe →
The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
That Time Bernie Sanders Told America: “I Am Proud to Say That Henry Kissinger Is Not My Friend”
That Time Bernie Sanders Told America: “I Am Proud to Say That Henry Kissinger Is Not My Friend”
I remember standing before the Capitol building on January 20, 2009, thinking about the project as I listened to President Barack Obama’s inaugural address: the decade just past revealed an awful pattern of national decline, of exhausted, feckless elites and debased institutions. Obama said it was time to "set aside childish things," and I wondered whether the next several years of my life, as a citizen and a historian, would be spent bearing witness to the question of how a more grown-up national community might work through this historical trauma. Or would our nation and leaders begin to look long and hard and critically at the crises of our recent past—only to flinch and choose a blithe official optimism instead? The answer remains to be written, but the question is redolent of how we have come to understand the choices the country faced in the 1970s.
The title of the first book by a historian to canvass American culture and politics in the 1970s, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, published in 1982, was meant to be ironic; plenty happened, of course, between its covers. But when the book was reissued in 1990, the joke still signified: the world turned on a dime just about annually in the years beginning with a one and a nine and a six; in comparison, the years between the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan felt dolorous, uneventful, derivative, hardly an actual historical moment at all. Was Gerald Ford ever really president? He couldn’t even get himself shot straight.
The sense that a decade of sheer uneventfulness had just passed was suggested by the conclusions arrived at in a 1978 book by the public opinion expert Everett Carll Ladd. The title—Where Have All the Voters Gone?—spoke to a widespread sense among opinion elites that the most eventful "thing" that "happened" in the 1970s was apathy. In politics, Ladd thought, given the Watergate Babies’ triumph in the 1974 Congressional elections and Carter’s victory in 1976, America merely returned to its natural equilibrium: Democrats on top. Nixon’s eight years, Ladd concluded in a chapter titled "The Unmaking of the Republican Party," were but an odd interregnum: the "GOP today is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War." Daniel Bell had noted in 1976, in his oracular The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that one of the puzzles of industrial democracy was that masses of voters didn’t use their electoral muscle to command a more equal distribution of wealth. He predicted that soon they would. Who could buy what the Republicans were selling? A scant four years later, blue-collar workers didn’t vote themselves a raise; they voted themselves Ronald Wilson Reagan. Yes: something happened.
A wave of ’70s histories appeared with the turn of the new millennium. Their common frame was still the defensive argument that arguments needed to be made about the 1970s. Bruce Schulman’s The Seventies (2001) said on the flap it would take on the conventional wisdom that "nothing revolutionary, nothing with long-lasting significance" took place during the decade; another, by George Washington University historian Edward Berkowitz, was titled Something Happened. David Frum’s How We Got Here was outfitted with a triple-barreled subtitle that protested too much: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse. These books’ covers were in interchangeable leisure-suit browns and oranges, though they were distinguished by an emphasis on each scholar’s specialty: Schulman is illuminating on the post-’60s transformation of the South; Berkowitz, a specialist on the history of Social Security, is splendid on policy; and Frum, a conservative, is insightful on the decline of liberal religion in favor of evangelical Christianity. All lean, if softly, on the plotline of the nation’s unexpected ideological shift rightward.
In this sense, Laura Kalman’s recently published Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974–1980 feels more like an end than a beginning—though a notably accomplished one. Her chronological but thematic chapters (another trait all those books share) are full of wise judgments and mature summaries. Her accounts of the social and political contexts and ramifications of federal court decisions, and internal White House deliberations over legal issues like Ford’s pardon of Nixon and the Carter administration’s dilatory attempt to reach a position on affirmative action, are especially rich. She is also a fine explicator of the complicated transformations of America’s diplomatic posture during the Nixon, Ford and Carter presidencies. Sections on culture war issues and electoral battles are more perfunctory. But laced throughout are some awesome primary-source nuggets. How did Jimmy Carter truly feel about affirmative action? "Hate to see Bakke excluded from Med School," he wrote in the margin of one memo Kalman found. Her sharply original account of the sordid US collapse in Saigon in the spring of 1975 bestows to posterity a genuinely new cold war lunatic, worthy of the likes of James Jesus Angleton and Curtis LeMay, in the person of US Ambassador Graham Martin, whose cloud-cuckoo-land cables back home are so febrile and Panglossian that Francis Ford Coppola could build an Apocalypse Now sequel around him. ("The most calming influence in Saigon is my wife who goes about her regular way, makes appointments for weeks in advance, and who has refused to pack anything at all.") Kalman is great, too, at revealing the obsessive resentment professional conservatives like Richard Viguerie bore toward Ronald Reagan while he was president for supposedly selling out conservatism.
But none of these syntheses, Kalman’s included, deliver that instant of aha crucial to all great historical argumentation, that disturbed state of fresh apperception that turns confusion into unexpected new patterns of clarity and cliché into refreshing new doubt. These kinds of breakthroughs are usually the product of ferment at the scholarly version of the grassroots: young scholars asking new questions and tilling fresh furrows through archival sources. Any historian who sees further than most stands on the shoulders of graduate students. So it is appropriate that the first glimmerings of a transformative historical literature on the 1970s appeared a few years ago in the sort of anthologies in which young scholars in the stage of turning dissertations into books first present their research to the wider public.
In Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, edited by Schulman and Julian Zelizer, the most eye-opening chapter, by Suleiman Osman, an assistant professor at George Washington University, focuses of all things on the young rehabbers of urban brownstones in neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn. At a time when seven out of ten New Yorkers said they were afraid to walk a block from their homes, the rehabbers pioneered a hip kind of neither-left-nor-right urban capitalism that feels utterly familiar to us but has never quite been effectively named before. Osman tells a paradigmatic story about the institutionalization and domestication of 1960s insurgent energies. In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber, the standout essay is "’It Makes You Want to Believe’: Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits," by Christopher Capozzola, an associate professor at MIT. He juxtaposes two quotes that signal the ideological direction toward which Middle America would soon tend. A leading spokesman for the left described the celebration thus: "Corporate America has conceived a bicentennial plan to manipulate the mass psychology of an entire nation back into conformity with its vision of what American life should be." The Birmingham News, on the other hand, said this: "America turned the corner Sunday on a self-induced illness of the spirit and stretched its psyche in a burst of national joy and celebration." Which sounded more attractive? Ask anyone who voted for Reagan in 1980.
The young scholars of the 1970s frequently discern in the decade a new structure of feeling marked by a palpable longing for innocence. In No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968–1980, Natasha Zaretsky inventively untangles a skein of cultural imagery that depicted the nation in terms of a family in peril—a crisis of literal and symbolic fatherlessness—and materialized in such disparate realms as the panic over dependency on Arab oil, the debate over Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and emotions associated with the return of America’s prisoners of war from Vietnam. Michael Allen’s Until the Last Man Comes Home works out the politics of the POWs in staggering depth, first as they were exploited by the Nixon administration as sentimental heroes for a war without heroes, then as the unreasonable hysteria over veterans supposedly still "missing in action" became the perverse symbolic stand-in by which a traumatized nation negotiated its own sense of betrayal at the hands of an elite who dragged us into the war in the first place. In Roots Too, Matthew Jacobson shows how the ABC miniseries based on Alex Haley’s slavery chronicle stirred white America to an unprecedented engagement with the American past: it made every American a historian—of themselves. It kicked off, instead of an honest and critical national reckoning with America’s traumatic racial past, a booming trade in sentimental white ethnic nostalgia.
These are writers who grew up in the ’70s, who seek to make sense, sometimes self-consciously, of the signs and wonders that shaped their adult selves. They suggest that the most salient changes in the ’70s were cultural. For Judith Stein, a distinguished historian of American industry and the author of Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, this is a problem. She lumps much existing ’70s historiography with a goofy popular literature that insists on seeing the decade in terms of pet rocks, shag carpeting, transcendental meditation and disco. She is especially put out by scholarly analyses of pop culture. "Some written accounts of the decade descend to kitsch," she says. She’s talking about the history professors’ books, too.
Stein also sets herself against "Whiggish stories of rising conservatism [that] do not intersect with any political or economic event," criticizing journalist Thomas Byrne Edsall’s classic accounts of the ’70s and ’80s backlash against liberalism, The New Politics of Inequality (1984) and Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (1991). This is unfair. The political and economic event Edsall’s books intersected with was the period during which they were researched and written. Back then, the idea that the ’70s had produced an ongoing conservative hegemony was by no means universally apparent. Edsall was the writer most responsible, in real time, for making the notion of a ’70s antiliberal ascendancy universally apparent.
Stein also roundly excoriates historians’ tendencies to "psychologize the decade’s conflicts." She ascribes this trait to two recent books I find in no way deserve her condescension—Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America and Philip Jenkins’s Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, both richly fascinating accounts of the world-making cultural traumas that were precisely what made the period feel so distinct. (She also arraigns a third volume, Nixonland, for the same psychologizing sin, a judgment upon which the present reviewer shall remain neutral.) Stein is a historian of thunderous judgments. Against all these armchair shrinks, conservo-Whigs and scholarly bell-bottom-ologists, she presents herself as a stark alternative: "I start with different assumptions. I began this book after I learned that the 1970s was the only decade other than the 1930s wherein Americans ended up poorer than they began."
It’s not really a news flash. Charles Maier, the historian who helped guide the graduate students behind the 2008 conference "The Global 1970s," writes in the first chapter of the volume that issued from it, The Shock of the Global, that the turmoil of the 1970s was among the great economic crises of the twentieth century; the chapters that follow almost entirely ignore disco. But Stein’s thunder, if not always fair, is not un-useful. Her rage fuels her. The first half of her book provides a highly original illumination of how the American Century collapsed.
The focus is on the idiosyncrasies of the postwar hegemony that preceded it. Stein doesn’t quote Henry Luce’s famous 1941 "American Century" essay (too cultural, perhaps), but she might have. Luce imagined America as "the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive"; he concluded that "out of these elements surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th Century to which we can and will devote ourselves in joy and gladness and vigor and enthusiasm." By Stein’s judgment such bushwa was not driven by some neoimperial will to power. Just the opposite. By her reading, the "Great Compression" of 1947 through 1972 was an Eden in which productivity skyrocketed, unemployment and inflation plummeted, America bestrode the economic universe like a colossus and prosperity was broadly shared as it never had been before—and all of it was squandered by elites whose will to national power was not nearly strong enough.
Stein’s proposition is that, besotted by hubris that the good times would never end, and also by perceived cold war strategic imperatives, America gifted the rest of the industrial world with unprecedented trade concessions: unfettered access to the US market, a blind eye to others’ protectionism and a willful indifference to the possibility that these policies could render American industry vulnerable (indeed, we even encouraged Europe to form an economic cartel that "allowed Western Europeans to trade more with each other, even though this trade came at the expense of America’s own commerce"). We worked a similar generosity on one strategic corner of the industrializing world. Japan’s per capita GDP in 1950, Stein points out, was about the same as ours was in 1850. We helped that country catch up: the president of Toyota called the Korean War "Toyota’s salvation" because of the thousand trucks a month the US military began ordering. In 1953 "the National Security Council urged the entry of Japanese goods to the United States to halt ‘economic deterioration and falling living standards’ in Japan that ‘create fertile ground for Communist subversion.’" Walter Heller, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said one of the advantages of the 1964 income tax cut was that it would make it easier for Americans to buy Japanese products.
Heller and his ilk assumed that America would be the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen. ("No one imagined" and "never imagined" are phrases that redound across Pivotal Decade‘s early chapters.) "After the war," Stein reports, "the United States contained 60 percent of all the capital stock of the advanced capitalist countries and produced 60 percent of all output. Even in the 1970s, these figures were still 50 percent." But by 1971 the United States was running a trade deficit for the first time since 1893. How did a country with just about half the wealth in the world end up buying more stuff from abroad than it sold? Our elites let it happen on purpose. They gave away the store.
Through tax incentives companies were encouraged to transfer technology to foreign competitors. The Trade Expansion Act of 1962 let them build factories in Europe, which they loved to do not merely for the cheaper labor and reduced costs for transport to European customers but also because it eased the charge that they were foreign interlopers. The law made it easy for the president simply to strike wide classes of import tariffs from the books, which he was eager to do; what Stein calls the "new European mercantilism" one old-fashioned New Deal economist described as "the administration’s holy cause." A 1964 innovation let US components assembled abroad re-enter the United States taxed only on the value added in assembly. "Even Americans who predicted economic harm," she says, "supported unilateral trade reductions." Numbers tell the story: "U.S. companies increased their investment in foreign countries at a rate 50 percent faster than the investment in the United States"; from "1962 to 1972 the payments deficit grew from $3.6 to $11.2 billion"; between 1967 and 1970, imports from Japan doubled and America’s trade deficit from Japan was $3 billion—in 1971 it was $8.5 billion.
The best and the brightest—Republicans, Democrats, even those self-identifying as "liberal"—fashioned transnational capitalists as the heroes of freedom’s story. The State Department’s George Ball, a former lobbyist for the European Economic Community, when meeting with American textile manufacturers, used to love to show off the European labels of his suit, shirt and tie. In this Stein sees the harbinger of Democratic working-class sellouts to come: "His delight…left him no space to contemplate the situation of thousands of Southern agricultural workers who needed textile jobs." Meanwhile, manufacturing real wages fell 82 cents an hour from 1965 through 1969.
Some worried. The Wall Street Journal, for example, complained about all the "unsophisticated electronics" being marketed from Taiwan for gullible US teenagers. Midwestern Congressmen—dreaded isolationists!—excoriated the State Department for selling out American manufacturers. (They "were right," recollected a State Department trade specialist.) Nixon and Kissinger did not care; they had a cold war to fight. "Working as an economist for Kissinger," said the man whose job it was to make sure the National Security Council paid attention to domestic industrial interests, was comparable to "being in charge of the military for the Pope." Asked why he was indifferent to the tariff walls Japan was erecting to protect its computer industry, President Nixon said Japan must be given "more than our trade interest, strictly construed, would require"; later he said "computers were not politically important." Neither, it soon would arrive, were American factories—or at least it was assumed the factories could take care of themselves.
What about the factory workers? Here is the core of the rage that burns in Stein. Democratic intellectuals wrote books like The Affluent Society and The Challenge of Abundance. Stein’s most crucial contribution to our understanding of the era is demonstrating that by the 1970s wage earners actually weren’t all that affluent. Unemployment in 1969 was 3.9 percent. But among the 96.1 percent, one in five workers was unemployed for some period of the year, and one-third of those for almost four months. "In 1970," Stein points out, "government figures indicated that 30 percent of the nation’s working-class families were living in what was actually poverty."
She uncovers what the Bureau of Labor Standards recorded as a typical budget recommended for the average working family. It is a meager measure of affluence. That average American family could buy a new refrigerator after seventeen years and a TV after ten. It could have a toaster, which was supposed to last for thirty-three years. It could buy a two-year-old car that it should keep in working order for another four years. "The husband will take his wife to the movies once every three months and…will go to the movies alone once a year. A total of two dollars and fifty four cents per person per year is allowed for admission to all other events…. The budget allows nothing whatever for savings."
That was in 1970. Why was Archie in his bunker? Because, according to Judith Stein, financially his life rather sucked, and he was reasonably terrified it might soon suck worse. And all this was before the October 1973 oil shock set America’s economic hegemony on its ear.
* * *
The oil shock rightfully hangs over all these books. Stein explains better than most just how traumatic and blindsiding it was. At the beginning of the Great Compression, America did not use all that much oil. What we used mostly came from domestic sources. US consumption tripled by 1972. Japan’s went up 137-fold. For the first time, oil in large part came from elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors produced 1.1 million barrels a day in 1948 and 18.2 million barrels by 1972, and for the first time America imported 6.2 million more barrels a day than it consumed; but the strategic consequences were not much apparent, since Western countries controlled the oilfields. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, formed in the 1960s, was more "a band of rivals," Stein notes, than a "band of brothers"; its attempt to punish the United States for its support of Israel in the 1967 war was a thoroughgoing failure.
Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was the first to point a new way forward: in 1969 he overthrew the Libyan monarchy; then he jacked up the price for Occidental Petroleum to operate in his country. The ace held by such Middle Eastern potentates was their authoritarianism: they could slow their oil production at will, indifferent to the near-term economic consequences for their sparse populations. "People who have lived without oil for 5,000 years," Qaddafi paradigmatically declared, "can live without it again for a few years in order to attain their legitimate rights."
Nikita Khrushchev had called the strategic city of Berlin the West’s "testicles": all he had to do was squeeze it to get what he wanted. Now it was the likes of Colonel Qaddafi who had the West by the balls. Nixon and Kissinger, who could see the world only in cold war terms, reacted with slack inanity to the rising cartel. Kissinger bellowed to his aides, "Don’t talk to me about barrels of oil. They might as well be bottles of Coca-Cola. I don’t understand!" The president puffed up his chest and cited the example of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, whom the CIA overthrew in 1953, when Nixon was vice president. "I think the responsible Arab leaders will see to it that if they continue to up the price," the president warned at a September 5, 1973, press conference, and to "expropriate, without fair compensation, the inevitable result is that they will lose their markets."
Inevitable, Mr. President? On the occasion of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the OPEC producers banned the sale of petroleum to the United States, effecting what one historian called "the greatest nonviolent transfer of wealth in human history." Henry Kissinger once famously cried as the bombs fell on North Vietnam, "I can’t believe a fourth-rate power…doesn’t have a breaking point!" In 1972 the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 1,000. Then came the Revenge of the Fourth-Rate Powers. By 1975, Stein relates, when the Dow was closer to 600 and helicopters were ingloriously rescuing Americans from the roof of the embassy in Saigon, "Kuwait shoved aside British Petroleum and Gulf [Oil], taking over the Kuwait Oil Company, founded in 1934. Compensation? The two companies asked for $2 billion, and received $50 million."
Other nations that produced strategic commodities followed suit. "By the middle of the 1970s," Stein records, "at least 75 percent of the holdings of U.S. raw materials corporations located in Third World nations had been nationalized." Stein calls it the "trade unionism of the developing world." The consequences shattered the globe. The section on lowly Jamaica telling America precisely how high it had to jump to access its bauxite—essential to the manufacture of aluminum—makes for the book’s most riveting archival reconstruction.
The abstraction Marxists call "capital" got straight to work imagining new strategies and stories to re-establish its hegemony. The subtitle of Stein’s book promises an account of how that happened. In the first half of the book we learn where the factories went. The other half of the book, however, has nothing to say on the finance. Her rage gets in the way of the story she claims she wants to tell and takes it in another direction, one bearing the futile geriatric aroma of baby boomer ideological scores being settled.
The villains are 1960s-style New Politics liberals, Democrats who offered no compelling way out of the morass. Worse than ignoring the collapse of the industrial working class, she finds, they welcomed it. Postmaterialists, inspired by New Left concerns about "the extra-economic goals of ‘self-direction, self-understanding, creativity, and human independence,’" they saw in the decline of industrialism "new possibilities for ‘non-productive’ or social tasks to help the needy and improve the quality of life." Obsessed with the moral enormity of the Vietnam War, increasingly disposed to thinking of it as the "inevitable result of basic flaws of the United States—racism, militarism, and capitalism," they learned to ignore more prosaic, but imminently looming flaws: the economic social contract was under strain. How bad did it get? Well, she unearths a stunningly condescending remark from Murray Kempton, an older liberal, to be sure, but one who by the 1970s was very much on the New Politics bandwagon: "the AFL-CIO has lived happily in a society which, more lavishly than any in history, has managed the care and feeding of incompetent white people."
I’m pretty sure Versailles under Louis XIV was worse. Kempton was not alone in being driven a little hysterical by the 1960s. But now it is forty years later, and one hopes tempers have cooled. Stein’s has not, and so her account of the Democrats’ failed responses to the political and economic crises of the 1970s ends up being not false but not particularly useful, burying what is sharp and original under what is derivative, reductionist and sour.
The hero of her story is Hubert Humphrey, which is fascinating: Humphrey’s trashing at the hands of aesthetically derisive chroniclers like Hunter S. Thompson and the sheer unfocused rage that antiwar activists subjected him to on the campaign trail in 1968 represented 1960s radicalism at its most childish and uncouth. Stein reconsiders Humphrey as a prophet without honor, struggling mightily and unceasingly through the 1970s to craft legislative solutions to the burning of America’s industrial base while other Democrats fiddled with identity politics and post-Watergate procedural reformism. In cooler hands such a reconsideration of Humphrey might have made for a worthy historiographic intervention. Stein is too hepped up to make it work.
Her account of the 1972 presidential campaign begins with the unobjectionable insight that "Democrats felt free to fight for control of what they believed was the nation’s governing party, cast out temporarily in 1968 by the public disgust of Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam," but it ends up seeming as if it could have been written by Fox News Democrat Lanny Davis or a neoconservative like Jeane Kirkpatrick, both of whom told much the same story long, long ago. It is full of cheap shots. ("The New Deal, once a badge of honor, was now a hurdle to be transcended.") You wouldn’t know from this book that HHH had had his bite at the apple in 1968 running precisely the sort of economically nationalist, AFL-CIO–centered campaign Stein thinks was the obvious play for 1972. He lost. Her conclusion that McGovern’s victory over Humphrey for the nomination was "not especially potent" because the campaign "cherry-picked the states it would contest" is more sour grapes than sound historical analysis. Most crucially, her account is jumbled by a lack of contextual empathy for a historical actor’s partial view of his or her times.
Stein’s account of the Democrats from 1976 onward is especially ungenerous. Again, the animating insight is sound. "The critical moments occurred in 1979 and 1980," she concludes, "when a Democratic president chose in vain to battle inflation, not unemployment, and promote a balanced budget, not growth." (Democrats never, ever get political credit for dousing inflation at the risk of unemployment: man, do you ever want to bash Barack Obama’s economic team over the head with that particular truism!) She argues as if there were some magic bullet Democrats should have pursued instead, and that this course should have been self-evident to them. She assumes that it would be neither Keynesian nor neoliberal, but the specifics of the play this Monday morning quarterback would have called never quite come into focus. "Generals were fighting the last war," she writes. Well, yes: they were only human, doing the best they could with the limited understanding available to them at the time. Instead, with an ahistorical gracelessness, Stein seeks to court-martial them.
* * *
So how and why did the United States trade factories for finance in the 1970s? The young scholars collected in The Shock of the Global anthology have many more answers. Louis Hyman, a 2007 Harvard history PhD who landed at McKinsey & Co., gives us a groundbreaking account of how a new financial instrument called the "mortgage-backed security" emerged, irony of ironies, from the embers of the urban riots of the 1960s. It was intended as a safe way for industrial unions to invest their pension funds but ended up as the turbo-charged vehicle of choice for go-go hot-money investment banks seeking to "evade geographic and state boundary restrictions on lending."
Vernie Oliveiro, a graduate student in the same department, uncovers how Democratic mandarins like George Ball (who pronounced before the International Chamber of Commerce in 1967 that national boundaries only "impede the fulfillment of the world corporation’s full potential as the best means yet devised for using world resources") and Fortune magazine (whose managing editor the next year heralded the rise of the "Business Internationale") were joined in the yeoman work of propagating the notion that divesting themselves of American factories actually improved the lot of American workers. (From the archives of a business museum in Delaware, for example, Oliveiro excavated "Your Job Is Bigger Than You Think," a pamphlet 3M distributed to its employees explaining that unless they were "able to operate in those countries as a local business employing local people and giving local service, not as a foreign"—well, that local people in America would somehow lose their jobs.) Oliveiro’s dissertation promises to be an outstanding addition to the crucial story of how big business organized to crush liberalism in the 1970s. Daniel Sargent, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, narrates how, by the time of the Carter administration, the very notion of Congress legislating in the national economic interest—instead of an abstract "global economy"—was beginning to seem anathema.
America was being remade in the 1970s. But what these younger scholars much more effectively grasp was that this transformation—including the remaking of the country from a headquarters of factories to a headquarters for finance—cannot be understood as an exclusively or even predominantly economic process. It was also a cultural one. I was especially fascinated by Matthew Connelly’s contribution to The Shock of the Global, an article about the 1970s obsession with predicting the future. The trend, he points out, joined evangelical Christians, environmental doomsayers, "Team B" neocons predicting imminent Soviet military dominance and even, yes, the psychics hired by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. "The different forms it assumed," he argues convincingly, "cannot easily be disaggregated." What they shared was a sense of apocalypse.
What induced this shared dread? The experience of inflation, for one thing. Inflation was supposed to be a nugatory consideration in the brave new world of the Great Compression. The wizardly Keynesian economists who were the era’s priests were fond of scything remarks. Here’s Paul Samuelson in the 1950s: "By the proper choice of monetary and fiscal policy we as the artists, mixing the colors of our palette, can have the capital formation and rate of current consumption that we desire." If prices started going up, that means you had painted the economy in hues a bit too hot; cool it down, and the inflation would go away. Too cool, just add some heat. But then came something called "stagflation": the coexistence of a high inflation and stagnant unemployment. Stagflation was supposed to have been impossible, yet there it was. Its emergence, Samuelson sheepishly admitted, amounted to "a sad reflection on my generation of economists that we’re not the Merlins that can solve the problem." It deflated not just economists’ but an entire nation’s ego. As Connelly points out, "Of all economic phenomena, inflation is particularly pernicious in stoking anxiety about the future. It forces people to readjust their expectations continuously, since their wages are worth less every day, while the goods they need cost more all the time."
The continuous readjustment of expectations—downward: that was a key experience of the 1970s. An expectation can be wrenchingly hard to readjust because there is an awful existential lag involved. As historians go, Jefferson Cowie is that awful existential lag’s bard.
Cowie is a younger historian at Cornell, whose book Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor received a prize for the best book in labor history in 2000. In 2008, with Nick Salvatore, he published a major essay in International Labor and Working Class History, which argued that "while liberals of the seventies and eighties waited for a return to what they regarded as the normality of the New Deal order, they were actually living in the final days of what Paul Krugman later called the ‘interregnum between Gilded Ages.’"
I’ve struggled so long trying to figure out a way to summarize Cowie’s new book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, that I started worrying I was losing my critical mojo. I’ve summarized dozens of books in my literary career; it’s become rather second nature. Some books, however, are not easy to encapsulate. Often that means the author doesn’t know what he or she is doing. Other times, though—much more rarely—the summary is difficult because the work is so fresh, fertile and real that the only thing it resembles is itself. I can’t summarize my favorite movie, Jacques Tati’s Play Time. You just have to see it. And I can’t summarize Stayin’ Alive. You just have to read it. It establishes its author as one our most commanding interpreters of recent American experience. It corrals all the generational energies coursing through the centrifuge of post–baby boomer ’70s scholarship and churns them into the first compelling, coherent statement I’ve read of what happened in the ’70s.
Laura Kalman expresses well the consequences for a liberalism that formed its operative assumptions in an age of plenty and could not but run into tragedy when it carried forward those assumptions into an era of scarcity. "Inflation made desegregation more costly," she points out. "Democrats had assumed that a pluralistic, interest group–oriented liberalism would benefit all society." Instead of sharing in a cornucopia of abundance, working-class whites and minorities ended up competing "for a very limited piece of pie instead of joining forces to fight for a larger slice." Stein quotes a Nixon economic adviser explaining why that administration decided to repeal a 7 percent investment tax credit designed by the Kennedy/Johnson White House to encourage companies to expand their factories: "There were more important things at this juncture in history to do…than to make even more rapid a rate of growth that is already very rapid or making larger a gross national product in 1975 or 1980 which already in any case is going to be a staggering size." The American Century was supposed to be a century; no one thought it would last only thirty-two years. Cowie’s accomplishment is to convey what this epic cheat felt like from the inside. The fact that he is able to do so from the perspective of working people does no less than revivify the moribund genre of labor history.
Here is a taste. It is August 1974, the month of Nixon’s resignation. An old-fashioned labor-liberal refuses to cross a picket line at his workplace, single-handedly shutting down production for a month. "It’s a matter of principle for me," he says. "I simply refuse to work with anybody who takes money to do a union man’s job while that man is on strike…. I could no more go into a building and work with scabs than I could play handball in church." His co-workers were liberals too, but of a newer type. "I don’t think he has any support anywhere," one of them says. "It was very noble-sounding, but not, uh, wise." The holdout is a man named Carroll O’Connor, and the workplace is the set of All in the Family at CBS studios, where he plays Archie Bunker.
"Ironically," Cowie discovers, "the real-life labor dispute at CBS prevented O’Connor from taping a four-part set of shows centered on another strike—this one down at Archie’s plant…. The four installments of All in the Family, finally made once the strike was settled, centered on Archie’s union going on strike over wages and cost-of-living adjustments—exactly the reason that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) was striking CBS." As usual, Archie is scripted by the show’s creators—liberals too, of that newer type—into being the butt of the joke. "At the end of the made-for-TV dispute—during the entirety of which Archie could not grasp the difference between a flat raise and a cost-of-living adjustment—Archie boasts of winning a 15 percent raise," Cowie writes. "Let’s have a toast to the good old US of A, where everybody gets his slice of the pie. All you gotta do is do your work, and in the end ya get it," Archie declares as he is humiliated by the laugh track. The joke—conveyed by the long-haired son-in-law, Mike—is that when the settlement is adjusted for inflation, the bamboozled lunks at Archie’s plant make 5 percent less than before. "Archie, and his union (seemingly incapable of bargaining for real wage gains), are the fools as the show ends with everyone knowing that Archie really lost the strike—everyone, that is, except Archie."
In hindsight the joke was on all of us. As Cowie explains, "In a 1976 episode, Archie, brooding over the Democrat Jimmy Carter’s White House victory, may not have had the last laugh when he warned that liberals would not be so happy when Ronald Reagan won in 1980. The prophesy was supposed to be an attempt at absurdly dark humor."n