Monday, March 17, 2008

Conservatism and the 1970s

The Chronicle Review has an article by historians Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer on the 1970s roots of modern conservatism. Here is a taste of the first three paragraphs:
Today is a puzzling time for American politics. In many ways, conservatism dominates the political landscape. Unilateralism and militarism seem to rule U.S. foreign policy, while in domestic affairs, Washington resists robust federal controls on energy consumption or greenhouse-gas emissions. The nation battles over creationism in the public schools and financing stem-cell research, and every few years, Republicans and Democrats scramble to cut taxes. The conservative President Ronald Reagan has become the iconic figure for the current generation of voters that the liberal eminence Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet conservatives' vulnerabilities sometimes appear as prominent as their strengths, and not just because of particular problems facing President Bush. The reality of "conservative" America is that the federal government remains a large presence in American life. When disasters strike, we turn to government. When we retire, we turn to government. When we face external threats, we turn to government. Republicans failed to curb the growth of federal spending between 2001 and 2007, when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. In fact the Republican leadership developed new forms of government, ranging from the No Child Left Behind Act in education to a sweeping domestic-surveillance program. Notwithstanding the hawkish rhetoric flowing out of Washington, Americans are not flocking to volunteer for the war effort in Iraq. Public opinion of the president's military programs remains at historically low levels. With all the talk about the power of the religious right, popular culture is replete with the brash sexuality that conservatives have repeatedly decried. Such racy material is just as popular in the so-called red states as it is in the coastal cities of New York and Los Angeles.

We can understand the current situation only by unraveling the origins of the conservative movement — and the incomplete revolution that took place in the 1970s. The 70s unlock the mysteries of today because the decade constituted a decisive turning point in American history and set the foundations for current debates. The policies, social movements, leaders, and institutional changes that emerged from that decade continue to define the American political scene.
Tootle is working on a book on the 1970s, and he is a conservative and a Republican, so I'd be curious to know what he thinks about their argument. I certainly agree with them that the 1970s represent a more vital decade than most historians and political and cultural critics have heretofore acknowledged (and Schulman has persistently made this case for some time now) and that it is a decade that warrants as much attention as the sexier 1960s even if its narrative isn't as seductive or easy to capture.

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