Whereas Peter Carroll cheekily titled his classic 1982 account of 1970s America It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, the emergent historiographic consensus on that decade not only claims that, in fact, “something happened,” the title of Edward Berkowitz’s overview of the 1970s, but that it was a “pivotal decade,” the title of Judith Stein’s new book on deindustrialization. Central to this new historiographic consensus is another area of wide agreement: that the 1970s were a crucial decade for conservative political transformation; that the 1970s signaled the beginning of the end of the New Deal Order. This thesis is pondered at length by a dozen authors in Bruce Schulman’s and Julian Zelizer’s edited collection, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.
Two excellent books I recently read—Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right—certainly do nothing to challenge these two interrelated consensuses. But the very different subject matter of the two books raises questions about what was most important in shaping the conservative transformation that occurred in the 1970s. Cowie’s and Williams’s divergent treatment of Nixon and the 1972 presidential election is a nice lens through which to view these complicated questions about causation—and will be the focus of my post today.
Cowie’s entertaining mix of political, labor, and cultural history paints a dour but believable picture of the 1970s collapse of Golden Age hopes and expectations. As Rick Perlstein writes in a glowing review of Stayin’ Alive: “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 dedicates two chapters to the compelling history of Big Labor’s dealings with the two presidential candidates from the 1972 election, which might have been landmark had it not been for Watergate: George McGovern and Richard Nixon.
Cowie maintains that we can learn a lot about the white working class of the 1970s by examining the perplexing ways in which it reacted to McGovern and Nixon. Organized labor, especially under the leadership of the AFL-CIO’s cold warrior extraordinaire, George Meany, loathed McGovern and the new social movements given life by the “New Politics” reformation of the Democratic Party following the 1968 disaster in Chicago. This, despite the fact that Senator McGovern had a 93% pro-labor voting record, all the more remarkable given that he represented a state, South Dakota, that had a small labor constituency (Interestingly, organized labor’s hatred of McGovern also persisted in spite of his PhD in labor history at Northwestern, where he wrote what Cowie describes as a very good dissertation [later a book] on the Colorado Coal Strike of 1913-14 and the infamous Ludlow Massacre). In stark contrast, the white working class, and especially its more conservative leadership, respected Nixon, despite his horridly anti-labor record.
Cowie chalks this paradox up to cultural politics. On McGovern, Cowie writes: “Despite his commitment to real material concerns of working people, a long-standing intellectual interest in labor issues, and an exceptional pro-labor voting record, McGovern’s candidacy created an enduring, if distorted, political template for what the white, male American working class was not: radical, effete, movement-based, anti-war, and, perhaps most profoundly, Democratic” (122). Pat Buchanan, writing in his book The New Majority, which came out between Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory and Watergate, called the election “a victory of ‘the New American Majority’ over the ‘New Politics,’ a victory of traditional American values and beliefs over the claims of the ‘counter-culture,’ a victory of the ‘Middle America’ over the celebrants of Woodstock Nation” (161). In short, Nixon was the style candidate, and McGovern was the substance candidate. Style won out. With the ground shifting under their feet, the white-working class aligned with a politician whose values seemed to reflect their own.
Cowie’s portrait of the 1970s working class is in no way a simplistic reading of how the working class was duped by the economic royalists, in the manner of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. He complicates such a simplistic rendering by, for instance, highlighting poll data that suggests the working class was less likely to support the war in Vietnam than were college educated Americans. But his sole focus on the relationship between the white working class and the larger political culture—a relationship, which, to his credit, he understands better than any historian—misses something important about the increasingly conservative landscape of the 1970s.
Paul Boyer, in his contribution to the Schulman/Zelizer edited collection, “The Evangelical Resurgence in 1970s,” criticizes Thomas Frank for ignoring religion as a factor in Kansas conservatism. “Broad-brush caricatures aside, Frank hardly addresses the post-1970 history or grassroots specificity of evangelical Protestantism in contemporary Kansas, including the state’s 7 Christian radio stations, 22 evangelical Christian bookstores, 8 Vineyard Christian Fellowships…” “It was not Republican political operatives,” Boyer continues, “but a vast army of pastors, evangelists, writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs, keenly attuned to the post-1960s mood of cultural disorientation and to the media outlets, pop-culture trends, management theories, and marketing strategies of consumer capitalism, who woke the sleeping giant of American evangelicalism in the 1970s” (50). In other words, if we are to understand the 1970s shift to conservatism, we must also come to terms with the political and cultural transformations of American Christianity.
I don’t blame Cowie for ignoring this history—it’s not the subject of his book. But he does sometimes confuse working-class cultural politics with Christian cultural politics. He quotes from a National Review editorial that analyzed the 1972 election results as a way to understand the cultural politics of the white working class: “Plainly, the New Majoritarians are themselves descendents of the anti-modernists and anti-cosmopolitans,” whom, in the words of Cowie, “William Jennings Bryan defended against science and the modern world” (162-163). Cowie should know that the descendents of Bryanism are not the urban “ethnics” who filled the ranks of the labor movement. These two groups represent distinctly different demographics and need distinctly different histories.
This is where Dan Williams serves as an important interlocutor. Though God’s Own Party traces the Christian Right from before W. J. Bryan to the present, Williams does recognize the centrality of the 1970s, when Christian cultural politics—education, family, and eventually, abortion—slowly but surely gained momentum, so much so that by 1980 the Christian Right was considered perhaps the key demographic in the Reagan coalition. Even before Christian cultural politics garnered mainstream attention, Republican politicians recognized the electoral importance of evangelical voters. This especially included Nixon, ever the master of electoral strategy.
Cowie titled a chapter in Stayin’ Alive “Nixon’s Class Struggle,” about how Nixon and his chief “working man” strategist Charles Colson (who, after a prison stint related to Watergate crimes, went on to a career as a Christian Right radio personality), sought to steal the labor vote from the Democratic Party. Williams titled a chapter in his book “Nixon’s Evangelical Strategy,” about Nixon’s success at manipulating the evangelical vote. 1972 election results reveal that both strategies were successful. But whereas Nixon failed to carry organized labor’s rank-and-file voters (somewhere in the range of 35-40% of them voted for him, much higher than in any previous election since FDR, but still not a majority), a startling 84% of white evangelicals voted for Nixon that year. If we are to consider the 1972 election landmark—or, only denied the landmark status granted to the 1980 election because of Watergate—then which demographic is more important? The white working-class vote, or the white evangelical vote?
Cowie shows that many urban ethnics, including union members, supported George Wallace in 1968, and again in 1972, because they saw Wallace as representing their class interests as against a liberal elite that, most egregiously in their eyes, sought to ram forced busing down their throats. Many of these Wallace supporters voted for Nixon in 1972 (when, unlike in 1968, Wallace did not run in the general election as an independent, due to the injuries he suffered at the hands of his would-be assassin during the Democratic primaries—and because, as some have argued, based on circumstantial evidence, Nixon struck a deal with Wallace to keep him out of the general election).
In contrast, Williams shows that most evangelical preachers, even right-wing fundamentalist preachers with an overtly racist streak, like Billy James Hargis, largely rejected George Wallace’s campaigns and instead supported Nixon in 1968 and again in 1972. Williams contends that this was because Nixon focused his campaign on wooing evangelicals due to an intelligent reading of national voting demographics. His campaign knew that the key to electoral success and to a future Republican majority was in winning over the growing Sunbelt. They also knew that evangelicals were the fastest growing population of the Sunbelt. Williams writes: “By the early 1970s, the nation’s ten largest churches were located in the South, West, and socially conservative Midwest, and nearly all of them were evangelical” (94). As such, the Nixon team decided that the best chance they had of reelection in 1972 was an even greater appeal to social conservatism. This analysis was predicated on the books put out by the political gurus of the time: Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority; and Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, The Real Majority (who, ironically, pitched their book to the Democratic Party in hopes of turning back the tide of McGovernism and the “New Politics”).
Strangely, Cowie also points to the Phillips and Scammon-Wattenberg tracts as the intellectual rationales for Nixon’s “working man” strategy. Now, insofar as social and cultural conservatism appealed to all who opposed the social and cultural liberalization that came to fruition in the 1960s, including white “ethnics” and conservative evangelicals, Nixon’s strategy worked on both important constituencies. But this is not to say that both constituencies are equally important to the conservative movement that came to life in the 1970s. I would say the Christian Right was much more important, and continues to be much more important to Republican success and failure.