The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s genius lies in its respect for rebellion

A 1970s photo of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, right, is projected during a 2010 speech by Jobs in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
6 min

2022 has ushered in enormous economic and geopolitical uncertainty. The world is confronting ravaging inflation, an energy crisis, high interest rates and a possible recession. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent international tensions sky-high. And yet, when you sit back and examine it carefully, the country that looks most capable of navigating these murky waters is the United States of America.

As an essay in the Harvard Business Review puts it, “The current reality of the U.S. economy is that highly profitable firms are employing a record number of workers and paying them rising wages.” This is causing some problems as the Federal Reserve tries to slow the economy down, but those strengths are surely of long-term benefit. Americans’ household wealth has skyrocketed because of government pandemic relief programs. American banks are stable — and dominate the world — thanks to the reforms implemented after the 2008 financial crisis. The United States has abundant energy of all kinds, old and new. And, thanks to the dollar, the U.S. government can run up debts with greater ease than any other country in the world.

Meanwhile, Europe faces a dire energy crisis, which will take years to fix. China has utterly botched its exit from its “zero covid” strategy. Russia is isolated from global economic and technological flows because of harsh sanctions that were imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Developing countries face the double whammy of high energy prices and a strong dollar (in which a significant chunk of their debt is denominated). The United States has problems — but it’s still the country I would bet on.

So why does the United States show so much promise at a time when others are struggling? Behind the economic data, there does seem to be in America a spirit of innovation that is unusual and powerful. A recent book — though it is not directly about this subject at all — has helped me crystallize some of my own thoughts on this subject: Ronald Brownstein’s brilliant history of American pop culture in the mid-1970s, “Rock Me on the Water.”

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Brownstein begins by describing American popular culture in the early and mid-1960s, particularly the movies and television shows, as bland, apolitical and lifeless. Hollywood was addicted, he writes, to “World War II movies, Westerns, musicals, and above all, gargantuan historical epics” such as “The Ten Commandments.” Television, right up to the late 1960s, was dominated by what was considered wholesome fare, which meant shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “Here’s Lucy,” and “The Wonderful World of Disney.” The rising tide of baby boomers were tuning out. Weekly admissions at movie theaters fell by more than 50 percent from 1950 to 1960.

Then came rebellion and revolution in the form of sharp breaks with this conformist culture, first in music, then in movies and finally in the broadest of all formats, television shows. By the mid-1970s, rock music reigned supreme. The movie industry had been remade by sharp, edgy fare such as “Five Easy Pieces,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Taxi Driver.” The top television show was the funny but intensely political (and politically incorrect) “All in the Family.”

This break with the past strikes me as deeply American. Young people rejected the wisdom of their elders, dispensed with tradition and forged their own way — making new music, movies and television. They were disrespectful and disruptive, consumed with a kind of manic energy. But that energy created a new popular culture that remade America and the world. It is difficult to imagine that kind of attack on hierarchy and tradition coming out of other, more settled societies.

It sounds exciting in retrospect, but Brownstein reminds us how jarring the break was to many (perhaps most) Americans. Along with it came a disruptive, disrespectful politics that was often more than just angry. It was violent and messy. Those were the years of political assassinations, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army (the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and engaged in what was back then “the largest police firefight that had ever occurred on American soil”). The New Left activism of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda was a wholesale attack on both political parties and the entire U.S. political system.

The rebellion did not last long, and it triggered a backlash. Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and other politicians rode to power denouncing the radical youth culture of the time. And yet that culture has proved deeply influential and lasting. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson ties the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley in the 1970s to this same spirit of youth rebellion. The new, scrappy technology companies of the period — Microsoft, Apple, Intel — ended up remaking the global economy.

I do wonder whether American culture today still retains the elements that made it so disruptive in the 1970s. It feels more bourgeois; nowadays what starts as radical rebellion often turns quickly into big business. Ross Douthat describes much of the popular culture today as decadent and derivative — with endless remakes of comic book characters and stories. Where there is anger, often on the populist right, it is the kind of nostalgic rage that fueled Nixon and Reagan — a desire to take America back, not forward. The left, which once encouraged raucous, free-for-all debates on campus, has become more interested in creating safe spaces, policing thought and discouraging the airing of difficult, controversial disagreements.

I have to believe that this “decadence” is temporary. The United States’ core character remains one that encourages attacks on power and hierarchy, celebrates the upstarts and cares little for tradition and established practice. Businesspeople often quote Jobs’s famous commencement advice to Stanford students — “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” — but Jobs was actually quoting Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” an icon of the 1970s counterculture. You still see that spirit in many parts of American society — especially among the young, who are eager to break sharply with their elders, whether on race relations or climate change. They should take some inspiration from America in the 1970s — when the world’s richest and most powerful country demonstrated that it somehow retained the capacity for dissent, dissatisfaction and radical change. Somewhere in there is the country’s secret sauce for enduring success.