Professor K.C. Johnson
Literature of American History II
May 15, 2006
Review of Bruce J. Schulman’s The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001)
Bruce J. Schulman’s ambitious, entertaining, but somewhat unsatisfying book examines what he dubs the “long 1970s”: 1968 to 1984. It is primarily a blend of political and cultural history, and does a fairly good job of pinning down the decade’s elusive zeitgeist culminating in Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech in July 1979. He sees the arc of the decade as a gradual decline in faith in the government’s ability to mend social wrongs and an increasing suspicion of the public sphere as people sough fulfillment through more individualistic pursuits. For example, Schulman sees the trope of “diversity” replacing that of “integration” in the realm of civil rights, using the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case to illustrate this point.
Politically, Schulman tells the story of the fragmentation of the grand Democratic New Deal/Great Society liberal coalition of labor and working-class white ethnics, African Americans, and northern elites that had dominated American politics since the New Deal. He also charts with the concurrent political rise of the Sun Belt South and West and the traditional libertarian strand that predominated politics in these regions. The book highlights the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the crushing Tet offensive of January 1968, the ugly scene at Altamont, the split between the liberals and New Left radicals, and even the marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy to Aristotle Onassis to convey crushed liberal hopes at the beginning of his narrative. Schulman then convincingly portrays Nixon as a brilliantly malevolent strategist in furthering the liberal coalition’s demise, demonstrating his intense hate toward the cultural elites in Nixon’s fondness for castration imagery when planning his attacks. Schulman uses the example of federal arts funding to demonstrate Nixon’s modus operandi: he would actually increase spending for causes so near to the liberals’ heart, but change the way in which it was distributed, for example, taking funding away from the elite cultural arbiters in New York and putting it into the hands of localities in the Mid-West, South, and West. The dearth of funds among liberal policy networks ultimately led to internecine squabbling that had not occurred in the during the liberal Camelot.
As the old order fell, Nixon dreamt of creating a new coalition and even a new party, the lynchpin of which was a “47 year old Catholic housewife in Dayton, Ohio whose husband is a machinist,” a paragon set out in the political manual, The Real Majority, by Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg. Nixon was unable to bring his grand plans to fruition, but Schulman argues that Watergate ultimately helped to feed the growth of the conservative movement by feeding distrust of government. While the Republicans suffered a short-term defeat with the election of Jimmy Carter, Carter himself contributed to the coalescing of conservative opposition by being too indecisive in the face of the energy and inflation crises. According to Schulman, inflation provided a critical catalyst in pushing the tax revolt movement into the conservative realm. The movements behind Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 ½ in Massachusetts first hinged on progressive issues such as tax equity and anti-corruption, but morphed into a more libertarian, small-government movement as the fiscal situation became grimmer. Schulman also argues that it pushed Americans from saving to investing, in part due to many financial innovations like the money market mutual fund that made investing no longer the private reserve of the country club crowd. Schulman argues that people sought to take more aggressive control of their financial futures since they could not count on the government to control inflation and mistrusted the long-term viability of the New Deal social safety net. Ultimately, I think Schulman’s reliance on the trope of “Southernization” of American politics lacks explanatory power because such hot-button grassroots issues like property taxes and school busing were not distinctly Southern. “Southernization” confuses rather than clarifies the complicated web of forces acting on both national and local levels.
Schulman’s more cultural and social chapters are fun to read, but don’t quite cohere. His chapter on the fragmentation of American identity into ethnicities, “E Pluribus Plures,” is perfunctory, while his chapter on disco, punk rock, and film, “This Ain’t No Fooling Around,” is an interesting detour, if flimsily argued (I don’t think one can put much broader cultural stock in Jonathan Richman’s flight from seriousness—it’s ridiculous to take Richman’s at his word and think of his older band, The Modern Lovers, as “serious.”). I did find his chapter on the fragmentation of feminism to be well argued and convincing, and he also does a good job of portraying the “cultural” victory of Ronald Reagan, using the “Rambo” films in a way that didn’t make me wince.