This was required reading for a graduate course in American history. Bruce Schulman analyzes the social, cultural, and political trends of the decade of the Seventies, broadening it to begin at 1968 and end at 1984. Schulman crafts a relatively brief (334 pages inclusive of footnotes), but detailed, history of a period that he proves to be more eventful than previously credited. American society in the Seventies was, in fact, experiencing profound changes. Three main themes emerged in the reading:
From Rustbelt to Sunbelt Schulman astutely explains the great economic and political shift that took place from the Rustbelt, Northeastern and Midwestern states to the Sunbelt, Southern and Southwestern states. Schulman noted that jobs migrating from Rustbelt states to the Sunbelt states were a driving force in this transformation. During the late sixties and seventies, "Alabama, the slowest growing Sunbelt state, had expanded its job roles at twice the rate of New England and four times as fast as New York and Pennsylvania" (106). With these new jobs came people to fill them, which also meant there was a shift in political power as voters left the Rustbelt for the Sunbelt. "Between 1970 and 1990, the South's population exploded by 40 percent, twice the national rate" (109). The Sunbelt states' warm climates were attractive to business leaders and retirees. The Sunbelt also provided lower labor costs to business owners, due to the extremely low levels of union membership which was a result of the right-to-work laws enacted by most Sunbelt states in the 1950's. State governments made a concerted effort to lure jobs and industries to their region by providing public funds for generous relocation subsidies, long-term tax incentives, free land, and worker training programs. As Sunbelt communities transformed from agricultural backwaters to urban and suburban communities, laborers in the Rustbelt states were eager to leave their dilapidated urban communities.
Schulman superbly noted the correlation between the economic gains of the Sunbelt states and their new-found political gains. For decades, American conservatism was perceived to be under the influence of elitist country club Northeasterners. Schulman describes the Sunbelt's shift to the Republican Party and how its population changed. "As the geographic locus of conservative politics had moved south and west, its nature changed; it became more populist, more middle class, more antiestablishment" (114). Though William F. Buckley, Jr. and his magazine National Review had become the primary forum for conservatives since the 1950's, it took new leaders on the right, such as Richard Vigurie to establish a new organizational structure to communicate to members of disparate groups. Vigurie brought groups like the National Rifle Association, pro-life organizations and the Christian evangelical organizations under an umbrella network so, "these groups could map out a broad-based conservative agenda and organize the pressure groups into an effective movement, teaching the techniques of lobbying, fundraising, and grass-roots organizing" (196). Vigurie had 15 million names in a computer database and used direct mail to communicate to conservatives for fund raising. In turn, these mailings caused thousands of conservatives to contact their representatives to voice their concerns.
By the late 1970's the New Right became a force to be reckoned with in American politics. With a rehabilitated south rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of the civil rights era in the seventies, the newly refashioned Republican Party burst forth from the Sunbelt states and culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.
Shift in Activism Schulman expertly illustrates the shift in activism during this period. He bases his argument largely on the influence of two growing trends: pride in diversity and 'contempt for authority'. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 transformed the general feeling of societal optimism into disillusionment with New Deal liberalism and frustration at the establishment. The qualities of civility and restraint revered by the Cold War generation of the i950s, which were still visible in the New Left activists' appearance and demeanor, were replaced by personal liberation expressed by the Counterculture and the defiance of the Radicals.
With the arrival of Vietnamese and Cuban refugees, rising immigration from the Third World, minority set-asides, and reverse-discrimination case that encouraged student diversity (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) later in the decade, Americans' perceptions of race, ethnicity and identity became altered. The American 'melting pot' of integration and assimilation was transformed into "... discrete people and cultures sharing the same places - a tapestry, a salad bowl, or rainbow" (71). Ethnic groups embraced cultural nationalism through self-identification as "African-American", "Italian-American", or "Japanese-American." This move toward diversity, combined with contempt for authority, gave rise to diverse social movements like radical feminism, gay liberation, New Age, environmentalism and the "back to the land" movement, Christian fundamentalism, Red Power, and the Gray Panthers. While these movements may seem disparate, they illustrate a growing desire to search for individual growth and reshape society for the better.
Crisis of Confidence Shulman paints a grim portrait of the "crisis of confidence" that caused America to turn to the private sector, big business, entrepreneurship, evangelical revival, new age revival and even disco. Shulman posits the idea that Americans had no where else to turn, so they turned to themselves. Their government, saturated with the liberal bureaucracy from the sixties, was a tangle of wasteful dollars, it was "soft" on communism because of its detente policy, and it was rocked by scandals and ineptitude. Americans wondered whether they would even be able to heat their homes. In this climate, the conservative Ronald Reagan won the presidency.
Shulman illustrates how Reagan and "Reaganism" changed America on the surface. However, Shulman argues that if examined more closely, Regan's presidency was not so much a change, but rather the culmination of the 1970s and its inward turn. Regan's disdain for big, bureaucratic, government, public assistance, detente and high taxes resonated with many Americans, especially after the liberal policies of LBJ, Nixon and Carter. Shulman contends that after the scandalous Nixon and inept Carter, Americans simply lost faith in their government and public administrators. Americans began to "plug in," and chase their own dreams of individual salvation, whether it was by reading the Aquarian Conspiracy or being half a redneck. Regan, a product of their new emergent "sunbelt," embodied this new, individualistic America, which Shulman believes was a byproduct of the seventies.
Conclusion The 1960s are deemed as the decade of change. Shulman does not challenge this notion as much as he extends it to cover the 1970s as well. The 1960s began the change, but it was the 1970s which inherited all of these cataclysmic ruptures and had to live with them. Shulman's work examines this "inheritance." It is a study of lasting effects-and reactions-to the 1960s liberal changes and external events. This book is crucial for understanding the United States in the 2151 century. The 2151 century did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, persistent ideas and reactions to those ideas have shaped society into what it is today. Shulman examines the shift from public to private sector began in the 1970s and the reasons for that shift. Today, many Americans have "turned inward." The scars from Nixon and Carter have not healed and many Americans simply do not trust, or more bluntly, do not care about their government, so long as it leaves them alone. Socio-economically, and politically, the seventies have left an indelible mark on America to this day.
Recommended reading for anyone interested in American history.
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Michael Neulander (MNeulander)
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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During the era that Jonathan Livingston Seagull was soaring high on self-help platitudes, the Village People were bringing a campy sensibility to the discos, and "Ms." was replacing older forms of female address, the United States, according to Schulman, was undergoing some of the most drastic and profound changes in its history. A professor of history and director of American Studies at Boston University, Schulman has fashioned a sprightly, neatly detailed and enlightening history of a period that many historians have written off as an uneventful time. While Saturday Night Live embodied the "contempt for authority" that was prevalent during the period, it was, he says, also part of a culture that "reinvented America" in ways that were deeply progressive and political. From social movements like feminism, gay liberation and the "gray panthers," to the emergence of Jimmy Carter and the politics of the sunbelt, to the startling notion of "diversity" "the prospect of unlike, unassimilable groups as a good to be valued" the 1970s altered basic concepts about the individual, race, economics, politics and society. This book's power comes from its ability to capture both the myriad contradictions as well as the cultural and political syncopations of the time. Schulman's breadth of examples from popular and political culture and his ability to use them to illuminate one another make for astute analysis as well as colorful social history. Far more historically accurate, nuanced and ...