Dominic Sandbrook's "Mad as Hell," on rise of populist right

A white man uses an American flag to attack an African American man at Boston City Hall Plaza in April 1976 during protests against the use of busing to desegregate the city's public schools.
A white man uses an American flag to attack an African American man at Boston City Hall Plaza in April 1976 during protests against the use of busing to desegregate the city's public schools. (Stanley J. Forman/associated Press)

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dominic Sandbrook is a young British historian whose first book, the well-received √"Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism" (√2004), established the theme that he now examines on a broader canvas in "Mad as Hell." Taking his title from the famous chant in the √1976 film "Network" - "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" - Sandbrook discusses in detail "the dilemmas of liberalism in the 1970s." He writes:

"Once so rich and vibrant, the liberal tradition seemed to be in headlong retreat, its optimistic assumptions eroded by the war in Vietnam, white backlash, and the shock of inflation. In 1972, The Wall Street Journal commented on the 'dearth of creative new ideas coming from the entire liberal intellectual community,' and indeed it is hard to think of any new economic ideas that liberalism produced in the 1970s. Institutions such as the AFL-CIO, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and the ACLU were absorbed in their own factional struggles, while the new breed of congressional Democrats were much more conservative on broad socio-economic questions than were their predecessors. 'The New Deal has run its course,' declared George McGovern's old campaign manager Gary Hart, now Democratic senator from Colorado. 'The party is over. The pie cannot continue to expand forever.' "

Critics of the embattled present administration and its sharply depleted congressional allies will argue that events since Barack Obama's inauguration two years ago merely underscore the point about liberalism's failures, but that is not within Sandbrook's purview. He ends his narrative with the inauguration in 1981 of Ronald Reagan and the coming to power of the "new conservative generation [that] had reached maturity: the generation of Pat Buchanan and George Will, the tens of thousands of college students who had joined Young Americans for Freedom, the 100,000 subscribers who read William F. Buckley's National Review, the twenty-seven million who had voted for Barry Goldwater, the thirty-nine million who had voted for Gerald Ford."

If anything, the election of Obama in 2008 now seems to have been a mere liberal blip against the conservative tide, one brought about not by a resurgence of liberalism (as Obama et al. initially interpreted it), but by a charismatic candidate, a battered economy, a deeply unpopular war in Iraq and an equally unpopular sitting president. Though Sandbrook presents no evidence of the right's surge after 1981, the years since then mostly add emphasis to his argument: the presidencies of the two Bushes and the intervening one of Bill Clinton, rescued from near-disaster by his willingness - vilified among liberal Democrats - to cut deals with Newt Gingrich; the rise of the tea party; and the resurgence of the GOP in last fall's midterm elections.

Sandbrook writes that populism was reawakened in the 1970s "partly as a reaction to Vietnam and Watergate, partly as a result of the growth of individualism, the decline of institutions, and the conflict between liberalism and tradition," with the result being "the most powerful political and cultural force in the nation," a new variation on the populist theme "deeply rooted in American history." He is quick to acknowledge that this "reactionary populism" - a term coined by Ronald Formisano in "Boston Against Busing: Race, Class and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s" (2004) - must be seen in the context of earlier, comparatively liberal manifestations of populism, but it differs as "an inchoate attempt by blue-collar Americans to regain control over their own lives and to punish the affluent progressives they blamed for their alienation."

Arising out of the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s, this deep well of resentment "was to play a central role in the conservative politics of the future, discrediting the ambitions of big-government liberalism and inculcating a powerful sense of injustice among ordinary working-class Americans." In time this spread into the middle class - see the tea party - largely because of other influences and grievances that emerged during the 1970s. Central among these was the tax rebellion ignited by the approval in 1978 of California's Proposition 13, the referendum that drastically reduced the state's property taxes and thus the revenue that underwrote its many liberal initiatives.

"It is hard to exaggerate the importance of tax reduction to the rise of the New Right in the late 1970s," Sandbrook writes; "it made a vital contribution to the revival of conservatism, offering Republican politicians a new set of ideas, a new vocabulary, and a new faith with which to address the nation's woes." Other contributions included the rise of "Middle America," known to Richard Nixon as the "silent majority," and later in the decade the organization by Jerry Falwell of the "Moral Majority," which added a strongly religious coloration to the political and ideological mix, especially as issues involving homosexuality and abortion arose. The latter "played a key role in the mobilization of Christian conservatives" and needless to say remains controversial, though antipathy toward homosexuals has significantly declined.

By any measure, the '70s were a difficult and often unpleasant time. Sandbrook sensibly points out in his preface that "parceling up history into ten-year chunks is merely a journalistic trick borrowed from the calendar, and it often obscures as much as it illuminates the past. There was more continuity between the 1960s and the 1970s, or the 1970s and the 1980s, than we often remember." Indeed I am inclined to think of the '70s as an extension of the '60s, during which the earlier decade's many malignant chickens came home to roost. But the years between 1970 and '79 "often felt tougher, grittier, more heavily weighed down by gloom and disappointment" than the years before and after, as the country struggled with inflation, endless gas lines, the seizure of hostages in Iran, the rise in crime, the post-Watergate blues, busing, George Wallace, the bitter controversy over the Panama Canal ("vitally important" in the emergence of the New Right) and the pervasive fear that the country had lost its bearings.

The story of the '70s has been told many times in many books, but it bears repeating now that its influence on the country's politics and morale has become somewhat clearer. "Mad as Hell" is a useful contribution to this literature. Sandbrook pretty obviously is unsympathetic to many of the arguments of the New Right, as well as to many of the individuals who have articulated them, but except for the book's closing paragraphs - in which he takes a few shots at the ostentatious glitter attendant to Reagan's first inaugural - he is generally fair-minded. He takes note, for example, of Reagan's well-documented shortcomings but insists that "he was always much more pragmatic than his opponents realized, a measured populist rather than merely George Wallace with a smiling face," and he makes plain that Reagan was not a "conservative zealot" but a smart politician who evolved during the '70s into a comparatively moderate leader appealing to a broad spectrum of the electorate.

As one who was in his 30s for almost all of the decade and deeply engaged with everything in its political, social and cultural life, I have no complaints about Sandbrook's depiction of the time. His narrative is very long and could have profited from trimming much from its accounts of the presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980, but perhaps younger readers who weren't around at the time will find them useful. As a rule I am skeptical when Brits take it upon themselves to write about the States (as they should be skeptical when Yanks try to write about Britain), but Sandbrook knows the territory well and analyzes it with understanding and sympathy.

MAD AS HELL

The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right

By Dominic Sandbrook

Knopf. 506 pp. $35


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