A British historian revisits the politics and culture of a miserable American decade.
Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the 1970s “The ‘Me’ Decade,” when anything hopeful or noble about the ’60s either curdled or congealed. Three undistinguished presidencies—Nixon, Ford and Carter—presided over an angry, resentful, self-absorbed populace reeling from Vietnam and Watergate and suffering from high unemployment, inflation and taxes. At the same time, liberalism dozed, either unaware or dismissive of the gathering conservative reaction to a corrupt establishment that, to them, fostered permissiveness, lawlessness and regular assaults on the traditional family. Against this backdrop of cultural decay, working-class discontent and middle-class resentment arose the populist right. Scorned by opponents as kooks and racists, derided as poorly educated and fearful of modernity, these activists helped prepare the ground for the Reagan Revolution. Sandbrook’s principal cast includes characters like James Dobson and his Focus on the Family pressure group; Howard Jarvis, the California anti-tax crusader; Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller, evangelists who moved boldly into the political arena; singer Anita Bryant, who campaigned against a gay-rights ordinance in Florida; Louise Day Hicks, who led demonstrations against busing in South Boston; Phyllis Schlafly, who spearheaded opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment; Richard Viguerie, who invented direct-mail fundraising on behalf of conservative causes; and Paul Weyrich, who helped bring big money to the movement and whose Heritage Foundation offered ideological guidance. Sandbrook (Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, 2005, etc.) also surveys a multitude of ’70s phenomena, including redneck chic, the booming of the Sunbelt, the revival of country music, the surprising nostalgia for the ’50s, Bobby Riggs v. Billy Jean King, Norman Mailer v. Germaine Greer, New York as Fear City and California Dreaming becoming the Golden State Nightmare.
The author’s frequent allusions to the era’s films, TV shows, books and music lend color and context to an already penetrating and evenhanded political analysis.