When It All Went Wrong

Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980, by Laura Kalman, W.W. Norton, 473 pages, $27.95

Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, by Jefferson Cowie, The New Press, 480 pages, $27.95

Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, by Judith Stein, Yale University Press, 367 pages, $32.50

The last years of the 1970s, as depicted in novels such as Ann Beattie's Falling in Place, were a hazy, anxious time. Skylab was falling (a powerful metaphor in Beattie's hands), Three Mile Island was melting, and people were literally dazed and confused, nervously drifting away from one another. The U.S. divorce rate reached its all-time peak in 1979, as did the rate of self-reported marijuana use.

Beneath the haze, though, something bigger than Skylab was falling. As Paul Krugman put it in his 2007 book, The Conscience of a Liberal, it was the moment when the world he had taken for granted, the middle-class paradise of postwar America, came to an end. "It's only in retrospect that the political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as ... an exceptional episode in our nation's history."

The short postwar miracle was built on a "great compression" of broadly shared economic gains, a "liberal consensus," around the idea of a supportive government committed to expanding rights and opportunity, and a loose social compact between industry and organized labor. In the late 1970s, these phenomena, dependent on prosperity, gave way to a particularly predatory form of financial capitalism, joined to an aggressive and opportunistic conservative politics capable of winning electoral majorities.

As Krugman notes, we understand this turn only "in retrospect," and that retrospect has led to a recent deluge of diverse historical scholarship. In Right Star Rising, Laura Kalman provides a straightforward political history of the Ford and Carter years. Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive -- the most enjoyable of these three books -- ranges far more widely. In Cowie's book, a chapter on labor-law reform might suddenly yield to a brilliant close reading of the lyrics of Devo, the New Wave band from the declining factory town of Akron, Ohio. Judith Stein's Pivotal Decade, by contrast, tackles the far narrower question of the failure of economic ideas and economic policy-making in the 1970s.

Since Kalman made her reputation as a legal historian with a biography of Justice Abe Fortas, it's unsurprising that her book's highlights are the accounts of the decade's great legal showdowns over race, gender, and rights: Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment; the Bakke case and others involving affirmative action; lower-court fights over school busing and housing integration; and the nascent gay-rights movement and the ugly countermovement that sprang up against it. (It's remarkable to learn how crude and sex-obsessed Anita Bryant and the early anti-gay activists were.) Unlike the clear victories for rights and equal treatment in the Warren Court years, each of these battles produced an inconclusive result, with backlashes that generated new constituents and new momentum for conservatives that arguably overwhelmed the positive gains. Since the 1990s, critics -- notably Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope -- have suggested that liberals overused courts to avoid political fights, weakening their position when politics inevitably intruded -- a view supported by the mixed victories of the 1970s.

While Kalman ably tracks the rise of the institutionalized grassroots right wing in individuals like the direct-mail genius Richard Viguerie, the book takes off when a figure enters the stage who really drives the country to the right. No, it's not Ronald Reagan, whose clumsy 1976 challenge to the unelected incumbent Gerald Ford showed that he was not quite the master of national politics whom we saw in the 1980s. Rather, it's the peanut farmer from Georgia who defeated Ford to become the only Democrat to win the White House in a 24-year span. The consensus view of Jimmy Carter, surely influenced by his admirable ex-presidency, is now somewhat forgiving, portraying him as a well-intentioned technocrat who wasn't quite up to the bad luck he ran into with the second energy crisis and the hostages in Iran. While her tone is dispassionate, Kalman is merciless. Describing Carter's stumbling failure to ratify the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1979, Kalman wonders "what moved him -- cynicism, naivete, arrogance, grandiosity, or idealism," a revolving menu that could apply to almost all the failures she recounts. The Carter she describes was aloof and indecisive just when he needed to be decisive and engaged (as in pushing for passage of his energy legislation or tax-reform plan), and then, as if to overcompensate, firm and unyielding at just the wrong moments -- for example, restarting the Cold War in overreaction to the Soviet Union's blundering invasion of Afghanistan. The one project to which he seems to have given unflinching effort, repatriating the Panama Canal, was the decent thing to do but gave the right a powerful organizing issue, while dooming other causes, such as labor-law reform, that lost priority. Each action, inaction, or reaction seems in one way or another to have ratcheted the country toward the right.

In an epilogue, Kalman says that a key historical question about 1980 is "the extent to which Reagan's victory represented a repudiation of Carter or a triumph of conservatism. As a historian and a liberal I give greater weight to the former." But what does being a liberal have to do with it? As a liberal, I'm not hesitant to acknowledge that conservatism triumphed through aggressive political organizing, powerful ideas, and a remarkable figurehead. But Carter's failings made him a singularly disastrous figure for the time.

Carter, though, was not an accident or some sort of usurper -- he was almost an inevitable product of the politics of the 1970s and the widening disconnect between the Democratic Party and the white working class. That's one of several themes in Cowie's Stayin' Alive. The breach had two causes. The expansion of rights and accompanying social changes in the position of minorities brought about a white backlash, assiduously manipulated by the Nixon administration. And organized labor had a falling out with a Democratic Party that adopted new rules empowering youth, minority, suburban, and anti-Vietnam War constituencies in a shift that these books refer to loosely as "New Politics."

Cowie's book begins with nine moving snapshots of now-forgotten union insurgencies of the early 1970s, including the deadly reform struggles in the United Mine Workers, the rebellion of young workers at the Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors plant, and efforts to organize female office and textile workers, all of which fell achingly short of their aspirations to change the labor movement. As a result, when he turns to national politics, Cowie deals evenhandedly with the New Politics and the old union leaders. On the one hand, the New Politics leaders failed to show respect for organized labor or interest-group politics generally (exemplified by Gary Hart's boast, on winning election to the Senate in 1974, that "we're not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys"). On the other hand, an aging generation of labor leaders failed to get out of their comfortable sinecures and rejoin the fight for economic fairness. Cowie portrays AFL-CIO President George Meany's refusal to endorse George McGovern, who had an impeccable pro-labor voting record in a conservative state, as a largely petulant response to labor's loss of control of the party.

Carter was a product of the New Politics, too. Cowie writes that Carter "had always understood race much better than class, did not understand unions at all, and felt caged rather than empowered by coalitional politics that had been the backbone of the New Deal order."

Without an understanding of class or an appreciation of the New Deal order, racial misunderstandings and resentments would continue to fester. It was a decade of lost opportunities to reconstruct that order: Labor-law reform would have been one element of a new New Deal; the other would have been the grand vision that began as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. As first drafted, the act would have provided a federal guarantee of a job and national planning to achieve full employment. The second version simply encouraged the Federal Reserve to prioritize full employment. In the end, though, with the act totally gutted by business lobbyists and Carter's concern with inflation, the Humphrey-Hawkins name lives on only in the requirement that the chair of the Federal Reserve appear periodically before Congress. With full employment, zero-sum battles over affirmative action would, in theory, disappear. Cowie describes the quest for full employment and labor-law reform as attempts at "seventies alchemy -- turning the leaden and divisive politics of race into the golden unity of class."

The political dimension of Cowie's book ends when Douglas Fraser, the deeply respected and collaborative leader of the United Auto Workers, resigns in protest from a government labor-management commission in 1978, charging that "leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war. ... [They] have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress." Over the course of eight years, organized labor had gone from Meany's complacency to a "realization that much of their power rested on an ephemeral deal, not a permanent realignment of class power."

In Pivotal Decade, Stein describes the challenge to economic policy-makers as the rest of the world economy -- the oil-producing nations, Japan, and Western Europe -- began to test U.S. postwar dominance. She argues that, much like the New Politics, and much like the ephemeral labor-management deal, the consensus at the time among Keynesian economists was ill-suited for the decade. It was rooted in assumptions of long-term affluence, indifferent to emerging trade deficits, and, because it focused only on broad questions of aggregate demand and growth, unable to address problems in key industries such as steel. To brutally oversimplify, Stein sees the Keynesian consensus questioned on two fronts. From the left there was a call for more economic planning and industrial policy (Humphrey-Hawkins, as well as other schemes), and from the right, a push to reduce the cost of investment capital, later known as supply-side economics. Ambitious efforts at planning and industrial policy amounted to nothing. Faced with the inflation, slow growth, and industrial decline during the late 1970s, Stein writes, "mainstream Keynesian economists lacked answers, [and thus] lost their monopoly on economic discourse and opened the door for outsiders," such as the supply-siders who transformed Carter's attempt at tax reform into a capital-gains tax cut. At a time when we are turning back to Keynesian solutions, it is helpful to be reminded of their limits.

It is tempting to think of the current moment, at the other end of the 30-year cycle of history, as a comparable pivot point, with a chance to pick up the lost opportunities of the 1970s. But reading this history is a sobering reminder of how little has changed. A Democratic president still fails to rebuild the New Deal coalition; the only thing that's different is that a majority can now be built with only 41 percent of the white working class. Organized labor is flat on its back in the private sector and can't even get a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act. Keynes is back, but economic stimulus can't do much about long-term sectoral shifts in the economy, and the economic consensus again has few answers to new problems. Skylab's not falling, but other strange things are happening. We're still living in the world of the late '70s. We can at least be thankful that Jimmy Carter's not the president.

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