Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, 2001

Historians often locate the great cultural shift in 20th century American history during the late 1950s and much of the 1960s, most notably 1968. However, Bruce Schulman argues in The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics that this periodization ignores real changes brought by the 1970s especially transformations in the American public ranging from economic alterations such as deindustrialization and the shift from a savings economy to one based on investments to the rise of identity politics which experienced its own internal transformations.

According to Schulman, many of these changes were driven by the rising sunbelt in the South and West. Like M.D. Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Politics in the Sunbelt South, Schulman sees the development and spread of an ideology based on an anti-tax, anti-establishment populist orientation that promoted taxpayer and homeowner identities over others. Ultimately, these voters felt the liberalism that had held sway since the New Deal no longer served their interests, “by the end of the Sixties, many such voters had grown disaffected with national liberalism. Ready to abandon their old champions, they drifted unmoored through the currents, unwilling to hitch themselves to a conservatism many still found elitist or extremist.” (8) Sunbelt conservatism softened the less attractive aspects of the movement, dulling its racial edges with anti-racism rhetoric and an economic populism that illustrated a racial prerogative without actually mentioning race. Additionally, Schulman’s work does not simply recount political history but also explores cultural examples that help explain the shift from 1960s America to its 1980s counterpart. Chapters explore various cultural developments including the rise of punk, spread of “faux bubba” or “demi redneck” identities, and the ethos of yuppies in the 1980s. Schulman’s chapter on rebellion and authority in 1970s pop culture, “There Ain’t No Foolin Around”, cleverly explores the meaning of Dylan’s 70s persona, the golden age of film, punk rock, and the beginnings of New Wave.

Schulman begins with the rise of the Nixon presidency and its political machinations. The ultimate politician, Nixon did not repeal the Great Society or New Deal but instead undermined it through more subtle processes. For example, Nixon despised cultural elites and Eastern powerbrokers, however rather than revoke the NEA, Nixon expanded its spending but “redirected federal arts policy and reallocated federal arts dollars,” by emphasizing popular and populist forms of art rather than the avant garde, shifting funding to “regional and local authorities and cultural endeavors”, and promoting his own “ideological agenda, such as sending the pop rock group Blood, Sweat, and Tears on a concert tour through Eastern Europe to showcase American artistic freedom.” (28) Nixon repeated similar maneuvers in various areas of the government. Schulman illustrates that even the environmentalism ascribed to Nixon exhibited similar characteristics to that of his NEA policy, “Nixon tried to stake out a conservative vision of environmentalism, sucking the wind out of his liberal opponents’ sails. He endorsed elements of the ecological agenda while limiting the reach of environmental regulation and foreclosing more radical alternatives.” (31) [In housing, Nixon accomplished much the same. The construction of public housing involved an uneasy alliance between “developers … construction companies … the building crafts trades, labor unions … and the social services establishment”. (29) Rather than cutting housing, which would have strengthened this alliance, he actually increased funding but like the NEA, redirected its funding, “whenever possible, the Nixon administration redirected funding from specific projects and contracts to block grants. The new system encouraged squabbling for shares of the allocated money. Nixon also shifted resources from building and maintaining public housing to handing out rent subsidies, so poor tenants could rent from private landlords. This policy defunded the liberal network; the money would not flow freely to builders, the unions, the housing administrator, and they no longer faithfully rewarded liberal Democrats with their support. But urban democrats could hardly oppose policy that put more aid directly in the hands of poor tenant.” (29) ] Nixon’s denouement did more to hurt liberals the anyone realized at the time. The combination of failure in Vietnam, the economic shocks of the decade, and Nixon’s malfeasance created a broad distrust of the government, distrust that in the long term penalized Democrats more than Republicans.

For Schulman the shifts in identity and culture also prove noteworthy. By the 1970s, the hopes of integration faded as ethnic and racial groups adopted cultural nationalist sensibilities, “The ideological shift to diversity led to a reconceptualization of the very nature of America – to see the nation not as a melting pot where many different peoples and cultures contributed to one common stew, but as discrete peoples and cultures sharing the same places – a tapestry, a salad bowl, or a rainbow.” This view dominated conception of race relations throughout the 1970s and 80 eliminating the possibility of an “American culture” replacing them with several. Schulman’s exploration of disco’s ability to draw the ire of both black nationalists and white bigots provides a useful example the rejection of integration, “disco acknowledged dancers’ solidarity across racial and cultural lines. It held out the allure of integration. Disco artists fused black, gay, and Latin strands and found a huge, mass audience.” (73) Suburban white kids thought disco “feminine, too gay, too black. But its hybrid form mocked ethnic nationalists dedicated to preserving distinct Black and Latino cultural identities.” (74) Of course, benefits arose from this new multiculturalism, a cultural vibrancy arose in various venues such as art museums, music clubs, classrooms, and the street itself. However, politically Schulman argues “the demise of liberal universalism and the celebration of diversity exacerbated the political crisis of the 1970s. Politics always revolves around citizenship – around defining the “we” marking out an “us” against “them” Everyone desires good schools, good housing, roads, and health care for “us”; few wish to spend their hard earned dollars on “them”.” (76)

Gender issues also underwent changes. Feminism moved away from directly political battles, focusing more intently on a cultural feminism that recognized difference but rejected hierarchy, “ [it] pointed not toward mere quality but toward a feminist reconstruction of American society based on gender differences.” In addition to fissures between middle class white and non-white feminists, a break between radical and establishment women’s rights advocates emerged. Established mainstream feminist organizations like NOW broke with more radical outfits in attempt to distance themselves from accusations of homosexuality and hatred of men.

One of the strengths of The Seventies lay in the way Schulman illustrates how frequently two seeming opposed movements are connected by a reaction to new developments in culture (see disco above for a second example). For example, the rise of New Age religion and evangelicalism, though admittedly very different belief systems, display remarkable similarities in their structures. Each expressed a skepticism in a knowing ecclesiastical elite, “Religious pilgrims of the 1970s, from New Age to New Right, shared the conviction that individuals needed to experience the divine directly – to feel god, not just hear about or study his commandments.” (100) Each found popularity in the growing Sunbelt region. However, while both expanded, evangelicalism did so faster and at greater scale, “the evangelical awakening permeated American life, giving rise to flourishing evangelical subculture with booming churches, schools, and service organizations. After 1970, fundamentalist Christians shed their image as ignorant rural hicks, unable, and unwilling to make their way in the modern world.” (95)

The growth of the Sunbelt helped to spread evangelical zeal. The shift in federal largess to the South and Southwest earned grumbles from what Schulman labels the Frostbelt region (Midwest, Rust Belt, Northeast). The energy crisis highlighted the Sunbelt’s economic advantage. Culturally, Schulman argues the “demi redneck” and “faux bubba” emerged as a prominent figures both as an identity and a set of beliefs, “Along with boots and trucks, these demi-rednecks also brandished a set of shared political attitudes: they resented government interference … they disliked bureaucrats, pointed headed intellectuals, and “welfare Cadillacs.” Demi-rednecks formed the foundation for conservative populism, the tax revolt, and the Reaganite assault on the welfare state. With the ascendant Sunbelt, a "new political force was primed to accelerate the erosion of American public life,” writes Schulman. (117) This New Right rested on a three step process that brought a new conservative ideology to the people: 1) organization 2) domesticate conservatism’s message and 3) a spark, an issue that resonated with people, for the New Right this proved to be taxation of the late 1970s and “the economic turmoil of the era would provide its tinder.” (194) The New Right agenda focused on three main areas of concern: 1) national defense 2) anti-elitism and 3) family values. Schulman credits neo-cons with softening conservatism’s message such that it played to a wider audience.

The tax revolts of the 1970s helped to connect the various groups making up the New Right coalition. Critically, the taxpayer revolt illustrated the effect that declining economic fortunes and New Right ideologies had regarding public life. No longer were people demanding tax equity but instead tax cuts. Still, conservatives approached cuts carefully since Americans despised government and bureaucracy in the abstract but still enjoyed use of public services. Unfortunately, the tax revolt served as cover for expressions of “racial hostility. In the racially polarized United States of the 1970s, it allowed conservatives to tap into the fears and resentments of some white voters. Without even mentioning race, Republican candidates and New Right demagogues could exploit the pervasive feeling that the liberal welfare state unfairly benefited blacks and racial minorities – the sense the our tax money was being spent on THEM.” (216)

Inflationary pressures (Schulman refers to this as the “Great Inflation”) of the 1970s led to widespread use of credit along with money market funds, “The experience of the Carter years turned many Americans, previously conservative in their financial dealings, into speculators and investors. To let savings sit in a band in the age of inflation was to lose everything.” (131) Americans went from savers to investors as an increasing numbers of financial products emerged, “Once Americans were willing to let their savings ride on a investment and once brokers, dealers, and fund companies were wiling to sell financial products like hamburgers, the process would not stop with money market funds. After all, money market funds were investments dressed up to look as much as possible like secure, boring, conservative bank accounts.” (138)

Reagan emerges as the culmination of all the decade’s developments. Expressing military power through strident anti-communist language, targeted military excursions such as Grenada, and funding weapons systems like SDI, Reagan looked to reassert American military power. Domestically, the Reagan Revolution rested on three principles: 1) a demand for radical cuts in taxes 2) a redefinition of the relationship that altered the power dynamics between government, labor and business, and 3) a war on federal government. Reagan radically reduced business regulations, not by law but by starving or underfunding agencies. He illustrated the new hard line on unions when he crushed the PATCO strike firing over 50,000 workers sending a message to both labor and business. He cut federal programs though only those that served the poor including food stamps, student loans, public service jobs and school lunches. Public spaces shrunk in the face of privatization. Schulman notes that Homeowners Associations emerged “with elaborate formal structures and far reaching powers.” (248) However, in some ways, Reagan simply built upon what the 1970s had wrought. In terms of faith in free markets, though many focus on Reagan’s rhetoric and policies, the foundation for the dominance of deregulated capitalism developed in the 1970s and even enjoyed support from Carter. The 1980s did expand this faith such that “the entrepreneur became a national hero, and suspicion of business, a mistrust of unregulated corporations that had anchored American politics since the 1890s, all but vanished from American political discourse.” (249) Democrats and the Left looked for compromise rather than confrontation, leading to a general shift rightward. Even former political radicals celebrated the wisdom of markets in the form of “counterculture capitalism [which] flourished across the country … Radical feminists and black power advocates stressed community owned businesses as vehicles for cultural survival.” (252)

Bruce Schulman’s The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics crafts a convincing argument that the 1970s served as critical decade in the development of the last decades of the 20th and the first couple of the 21st. Identity politics, blind faith in free markets, the proliferation of financial instruments/products, all find their origin in the 1970s. Though Schulman’s work glides through nearly twenty years of political, cultural, and economic history in less than 300 pages, the book feels substantial not superficial.

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