THE YEAR THAT REALLY CHANGED EVERYTHING
The Spirit of '78, Stayin' Alive
Everyone seems to be telling us that if you want to understand 2008, you have to look back 40 years to 1968. "It's the year that changed everything," wrote Newsweek last November. Seen through tie-dye-tinted glasses, Iraq is the new Vietnam, Barack Obama is the new Bobby Kennedy, and bloggers are the new student activists.
But are we commemorating the right year? If we really want a time that defined the way we live now, we should look back not to the romance and trauma of the '60s but to the gloriously tacky '70s, to the year that made modern America -- 1978. Look beyond the year's bad disco and worse clothes; if you peer deeply into the polyester soul of 1978, you can see the beginnings of the world we live in today.
Start with politics. Two weeks into that year, on Jan. 13, former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey died, but it took six more months before the big-government liberalism that he embodied was buried. In June, California voters backed Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes and capped tax increases, thereby marking the start of conservatism's rebirth -- and the beginning of the long end of New Deal liberalism.
People had good reason to be irked at Washington, too. Voters were fed up with rising tax rates (heavily fueled by inflation) and an inefficient government that was seen as wasting their dollars. The Yankelovich poll found that 78 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "Government wastes a lot of money we pay in taxes," an 18-point jump from 1968.
This anti-government sentiment propelled successful efforts to limit taxing and spending in 13 states and prompted 23 state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention to consider a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. The sour public mood, especially after the passage of Prop 13, triggered a stampede of elected officials to the right, and those who didn't dart quickly enough were run over -- such as Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who lost his party's gubernatorial primary.
In fact, it was in November 1978 that the modern Republican Party -- which had been on the verge of extinction after Watergate -- was born. In the midterm elections, the GOP gained three Senate seats, 12 House seats and six governorships. The anti-tax, small-government worldview of its right wing was suddenly ascendant -- and has dominated American politics until the present day. (Note that, even with President Bush and his party on the ropes, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Rodham Clinton was willing to back the sort of nationalized health care that every other industrialized democracy enjoys or mention raising taxes to get rid of the massive deficit that Bush is leaving behind.)
Our year also set the contours of today's civil rights battles. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that rigid race quotas for university admissions were unconstitutional but that affirmative action policies designed to ensure a diverse student body were not. Americans have battled over the implications of this decision ever since, but we have come to accept diversity as a virtue in universities, corporations and throughout American life. That began with Bakke in 1978.
Of course, today's most contentious civil rights battles aren't over race but over sexual orientation. Here, too, 1978 was pivotal. As the year began, a handful of communities had ordinances on the books banning discrimination against gays in employment and housing. But as these measures passed, opposition mobilized, often led by the singer Anita Bryant. In 1978, the citizens of Eugene, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Wichita, Kan., voted overwhelmingly to repeal these gay-friendly laws. Even in liberal New York, Mayor Ed Koch's effort to expand a ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for municipal hiring never got out of the relevant city council committee.
But the most bizarre and important incident happened, perhaps unsurprisingly, in San Francisco. The city had passed its own anti-discrimination law in March. On Nov. 27, Daniel White, the lone city supervisor to oppose the ordinance, walked into Mayor George Moscone's office and shot him dead, then proceeded to the office of Supervisor Harvey Milk -- the country's first openly gay official of any consequence -- and killed him, too.
More than 30,000 San Franciscans took to the streets to mourn Milk and Moscone, blaming their deaths on the anti-gay backlash. One person held a sign stating: "Are you happy, Anita?" If this didn't galvanize the gay community, the light sentence that White received did. That year, the gay community's first Washington lobbyist was hired, and its long struggle for equality was underway.
Politics wasn't the only thing that began to change in 1978. Are you reading this article on your BlackBerry? That's only possible because, in 1978, Illinois Bell rolled out the first cellular phone system -- a radical new technology that promised to break the 10-year waiting list for mobile phones. That same year, the first computer bulletin-board system was created, and the first piece of e-mail spam was sent over the ARPANET, the forerunner to today's Internet, inviting users to a computer company's product demonstration. (No word on whether it promised to enhance the attendees' virility.)
Computers were quickly becoming more pervasive, too. VisiCalc, an early spreadsheet program, was introduced in 1978 and quickly became the first commercially successful piece of software, giving personal computers mass rather than just geek appeal. "Eventually, the household computer will be as much a part of the home as the kitchen sink," Time magazine boldly predicted in February 1978.