U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Renewed Considerations of the 1970s and American Intellectual History

This week marks two milestones for historians interested in the intellectual history of the United States in the 20th century: the 40th anniversary of the Richard Nixon resignation, and the release of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge. This third volume in Perlstein’s series on the rise of modern American conservatism—which stretches back to Barry Goldwater and the early movement (Before the Storm) and the political resurrection of Richard Nixon (Nixonland) now continues with a look at the collapse of the Nixon presidency, the growing strength of Ronald Reagan on a national stage, and the continued attempts by conservatives to forge a strong, nation-wide movement capable of winning control of the national government.

Perlstein’s work is part of a larger movement by historians to consider the 1970s and American conservatism’s recent victories in a historic context. I don’t think I need to remind folks of the wonderful diversity of books on the subject—or the fact that there’s still plenty of room in which historians can work when it comes to the 70s. Now, I’m nowhere near finished with The Invisible Bridge—although it has provided a nice break from comps reading and other scholarly activities I’m pursuing as the fall semester approaches. Still, as always, I consider what else can be said about the 70s as I read Perlstein’s book.

The story of American conservatism after World War II (indeed, for the entirety of the 20th century) still has plenty left to be said about it. However, one wonders if it’s time for some historians to shift to talking about American liberalism during the same era. Books such as Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform, for example, remind us that modern liberalism has never had a moment to breathe easily politically. Allen Matusow’s The Unraveling of America explained how liberalism failed to come to terms with the changing face of American politics in the 1960s. Yet I’m not convinced that we’ve done all we can when it comes to the 1970s and American liberalism. And that’s understandable—no historical topic that I can think of has truly been exhausted. But, there’s plenty to still be done in regards to American liberalism.

Let’s take, for example, the Democratic Party after Watergate. This is a fascinating story—a political party that, at the time, seemed to have a new lease on life, and hadn’t yet been crushed at the polls in 1978 or 1980. There are some books that take on parts of this era for the Democratic Party—most notably, Tim Stanley’s Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul. The battles between Kennedy and Carter were, in many ways, stand-ins for larger battles between liberals and Democratic Party moderates, including (and especially) those from the South. Those intraparty battles—which ultimately gave us both the Rainbow Coalition, at one end of the spectrum, and the New Democrats, on the other, were crucial to giving us the Democratic Party we have today.cartermondale

I also think considering the works of Jefferson Cowie and putting them in conversation with Rick Perlstein’s books (at least Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge) would be useful in regards to these questions. Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and his essay with Nick Salvatore, “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,”[1] both reflect an understanding of modern American liberalism as always being in danger of losing power. Yet, Stayin’ Alive also argues for looking at the American working class as being up for grabs in the 70s—listening to appeals from both the Right and the Left in the U.S.

Finally, questions of race and gender in the 1970s would add even more to a discussion about the changing fortunes of American liberalism in that decade. Cowie’s work, along with others, certainly help in this regard. But when it comes to intellectual history, taking into account reactions to books like William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race, the Bakke decision on affirmative actions, or writings about the Equal Rights Amendment from that era, are crucial if we’re to further develop a history of liberalism in that era. Finally, considering how activists of the 1970s considered their gains and losses since the 1960s is a task that historians should begin to tackle—mainly because, while it’s tempting for historians to see the era as one of liberal “defeat” and conservative “triumph”, we must take greater pains to understand just how a variety of Americans felt about the direction of their country in 1973, 1976, 1978, and 1980. Because while for some, the 1960s were a tragedy and the 1970s a haze of defeat and national weakness, for others the era as a whole provided new gains and new hopes. At some point I hope to sketch out a specific case study through a few posts. But, at the very least, it’s something to at least consider, as historians attempt to understand recent American history.

[1] Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore. “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” International Labor and Working Class History, Vol. 74, No. 1, p. 3-32.

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  1. Thanks for this, Robert. But remember: all my books (and historically informed journalism) have an ENORMOUS amount of discussion about American liberalism during the era.

    • Oh, indeed they do! And I’m thankful for that, because I’m always careful to look at the gains–and setbacks–liberals had in this era.

      One of the elements of your books that I enjoy is the fact that you point out how liberals and others underestimated conservatism. In many ways, it’s one of the broad themes of the post-World War II, which you start out with in “Before the Storm.” Thanks for responding!

    • You know what—I think that was one of the posts I read that got my really excited about this blog. Thanks for posting.

      There you mentioned Judith Stein’s work. Her book is critically important to looking at the era through the economics lens–as shown below by responses from Kit and Louis. Of course, I’m also not surprised to see Perlstein writing highly of Cowie–they both grasp, in many ways, the cultural and political manifestations of what it meant to live “in the 70s.”

  2. Thanks so much, Robert, for the important reminder that we have not come close to exhausting the “pivotal decade.” I remember reading an anthology of In These a Times pieces that began with an article hailing Carter’s win in ’76 as a tremendous moment for the revival of the US Left. However bizarre that statement looks in hindsight it does speak to the ’70s, at least in the West, as a potential moment of revival and expansion for social democracy. It seems to me then that upholding the ’70s as the key decade of the late 20th c. for working class insurgence (tremendous industrial militancy, black mayors winning office in major cities across the country, Humphrey-Hawkins, etc.) means downgrading the import of the ’60s. I’m not suggesting a ranking of decades or implying a fetishization of decades themselves. But it would seem that “the seventies” as a moment proved more transformative, with more at stake, than other postwar years, especially in terms of working class life, labor, and power. Though tense and tumultuous, the ’60s, as Ira Katznelson argues in his contribution to Fraser and Gerstle, basically played out conflicts over racial equality and social democracy on terms left over from the ’40s.

    • @Kit Smemo: Considered in hindsight and in an international (or at least W. European plus U.S. context), the early-to-mid ’70s can be seen to mark the end of ‘the Keynesian accommodation’, ‘the great compression’ and/or ‘the golden age’ of capitalism — i.e. the period of ~30 yrs of reasonably evenly distributed and robust ec. growth. (See e.g. Hobsbawm, ‘Age of Extremes’ end of ch.9, citing, inter alia, Marglin & Schor, eds., ‘The Golden Age of Capitalism’ (1990)). Whatever reasons one assigns for the end of ‘the golden age’ (H. references among other things the ‘end’ of Bretton Woods and the “worldwide wage explosion” at the end of ’60s accelerating firms’ search for cheaper labor abroad), and whether one thinks it was in some sense inevitable or not (and this is not the place to go into that), it seems to me discussion of U.S. and European politics, and specifically of “working class insurgence,” in the ’70s has to take it into account as a key part of the structural context.

      • Indeed, Louis. Thanks for this, as always, thoughtful comment. If one sees the 70s in an international context–which we see with books like Borstelmann’s “The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality”–then you start to see debates about social democracy, stagflation, and problems with the structural framework of capitalism in Western Europe and the USA everywhere.

        I’ve often thought it would be wonderful to see (or write!) a transatlantic history of conservatism from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War–partly because you’d see debates about race, economics, and gender through a different lens when comparing the US, France, and Great Britain, just as examples.

    • This is fantastic stuff, Kit! And I’m glad you brought up Humphrey-Hawkins–I didn’t get to it in my post, but David Chappell has a great chapter devoted to the fight over that bill in his book “Waking from the Dream”. To me, the bill and the battle over it seem from such a different time, which goes back both to your point of the importance of the decade to modern thought, and also to L.D.’s post from yesterday about Watergate and national memory.

  3. cocaine and disco ruled american culture (there’s a contradicitoin in terms for the 1970s); the 197070s were indeed a time to strap yourself to a tree with roots and hang tough. high water everywhere

  4. Robert,
    Thanks for your comment replying to mine; I’ve seen the Borstelmann book cited a few times, along with several other recent books on the international history of the ’70s. Though I’m not up on the recent literature on the history of conservatism, I’d imagine there’s a lot still to do on the transatlantic/transnational angle, as you suggest.

  5. A thought provoking post on a subject that needs a lot more thought. A colleague and I keep talking about writing a book about “really existing liberalism” in the 1960s and 70s; so much of what we think about liberalism starts from the postion staked out by Matasow and enshrined by Reagan.

    For a really nice little essay on the 60s vs. 70s by a partisan, check out Louis Menand’s review of Bruce Schulman’s book: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/05/28/the-seventies-show

    • Thanks for the kind words–and I think you’re right about where modern conceptions of American liberalism in the 1960s and beyond come from. I also think the DLC played a major role. I hope I don’t sound like I’m saying the DLC’s the bogeyman, and it’s key to note that they were responding to multiple landslide defeats, but their role in recent American political history is critical to understanding our current two party system.

      And thanks for that link! Looks like a fascinating read, will check it out tonight.

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