Commentary Magazine

That 70s Woe

Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right
By Dominic Sandbrook
Alfred A. Knopf, 508 pages

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” shouted the unhinged anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. The outburst resonated powerfully with Americans of the day, who had a great deal to be angry about. Whereas Americans even a decade earlier had celebrated open horizons and economic possibility, they began to talk of limits and malaise in 1977, which began what would become the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter. In Mad as Hell, the young British historian Dominic Sandbrook offers an impressive and evenhanded narrative of those miserable years, running from the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. “There was an indefinable change of flavor, of atmosphere” in the nation during the mid-70s, Sandbrook observes; life seemed “tougher, grittier, more heavily weighed down by gloom and disappointment.” It was an era in which liberal ideas reached a political limit and provoked a grassroots proto–Tea Party populist backlash.

Sandbrook opens Mad as Hell with Watergate’s ugly dénouement. The Nixon administration’s corruption represented a “breach of faith” with the American people, in journalist Theodore White’s phrase. Yet the president’s removal from office failed to brighten the national mood much. Perhaps, Sandbrook suggests, this was because a degree of sleaze seemed already to have infected every aspect of society. In one month in 1973, the mayor of Miami, a former governor of Illinois, two Maryland state lawmakers, a New York City district attorney, two Dade County judges, and two Chicago aldermen were indicted or sentenced on corruption charges.

At the same time, headlines warned of an epidemic of police vice in New York, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia, with cops on the take and selling narcotics. “Even at West Point, the hallowed military academy famous for its motto, ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ the bacillus was spreading,” writes Sandbrook: the summer of 1976 saw 94 cadets expelled for cheating, with more than 400 implicated in a test-beating scam the next year. It is no wonder surveys showed seven out of 10 citizens believed their leaders lied to them regularly. Growing public cynicism began to bleed into outright paranoia, as reflected in celebrated works of fiction like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and movies like The Parallax View. When social thinkers warned of a crisis of legitimacy in America, they weren’t exaggerating.

Economic frustration ran as deep as political distrust. In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo to punish the United States for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Gasoline prices blasted skyward, and Americans first experienced the shortages, rationing, and long lines at the pump that would make the work commute fraught with anxiety during the rest of the decade. Inflation, fueled in part by a loose monetary policy at the Federal Reserve, galloped out of control—by the end of the decade hitting Third World–like double-digit rates—burning up savings and killing investment as businesses bought commodities instead of betting on the future. Confiscatory taxes and proliferating regulations (a liberal Congress passed more than 25 consumer-protection laws from 1967 to 1973 and environmental restrictions galore) undermined U.S. economic power, just as global competition was becoming ferocious.

Neither Gerald Ford nor Carter could reverse the economic decline. As unemployment rose and prices—defying prevailing economic models—kept going up, in the terrifying new phenomenon of “stagflation,” Americans began, uncharacteristically, to feel that the future would be worse than the present. This mounting economic pessimism, argues Sandbrook, helps explain “why people who lived through the 1970s often shudder to recall them.”

Then there was crime. People living in U.S. cities had become terrified of the escalating numbers of violent felons, a disproportionate percentage of them young black males from broken families. From 1960 to 1980, Sandbrook reports, criminals, emboldened by lax punishment and ineffective policing, rampaged: the murder rate doubled, the assault rate trebled, and robbery and rape rates quadrupled. “These were, by an enormous margin, the most frightening figures of the Western world,” he points out. Whites fled to the suburbs in droves. New York, once a symbol of American cultural and financial power, became the City of Fear depicted in urban horror stories like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Foreign-policy weakness intensified the feeling that America’s best days were over and that everything was spinning out of control. After the humiliating fall of Saigon and the national trauma of losing the Vietnam War, U.S. defense spending shrank severely as a percentage of gross domestic product. Our military seemed to be falling behind that of the Soviet Union, whose influence extended insidiously through Africa, Latin America, and eventually, with the invasion of 1979, Afghanistan.

But it was the Iranian Revolution during that dark year and the Carter administration’s impotent response to it that marked the nadir of U.S. power. Sandbrook vividly recounts the flight of the Shah of Iran, the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile, the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the kidnapping of the Americans working there. After the hostage crisis had dragged on for months, there was the disastrous U.S. helicopter rescue attempt of April 1980, which resulted in a midair crash and a “military, diplomatic, and political fiasco,” as Time put it. The once mighty American military, Time added for good measure, now appeared “incapable of keeping its aircraft aloft even when no enemy knew they were there, and even incapable of keeping them from crashing into each other.”

“As for Jimmy Carter,” who glumly reported the mission’s failure to the American public, Sandbrook says, “the debacle only bore out what people already suspected: that he was a loser, a miserable man who specialized in announcing bad news.” The hostages would eventually enjoy freedom again, but not until Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, 444 days after their capture.

The 70s were a fractious period culturally, and Sandbrook describes the key conflict points of race, sex, and class fairly. He brings us inside the battle over forced busing in Boston by showing how policymakers, in a quest for racial progress, stoked racial conflict by forcing the entire junior class of Irish, working-class, and thickly communal South Boston High to attend all-black Roxbury High across town, while sending Roxbury’s black sophomores, poor project kids, to “Southie.” And he surveys the changing nature of sexual mores and women’s roles in society without neglecting some of their less-happy consequences, including a divorce epidemic that shattered homes and left countless children emotionally damaged.

A recurring theme of Sandbrook’s panorama is the emergence during the 70s of forces that rejected American decline—and the left-liberal worldview of elites more generally. This conservative populism, setting the people against the establishment, took many forms, including anti-tax initiatives like Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 in California, the burgeoning Christian Right (which Sandbrook sees as a largely political reaction to aggressive elite secularism), and a renewed patriotic spirit, which expressed itself in the bicentennial celebration of 1976. The politician who became the standard-bearer of this new conservatism was, of course, Ronald Reagan, whose rise to power Mad as Hell briskly describes.

Sandbrook, whose previous book was a biography of Eugene McCarthy, is a muscular writer with an eye for the telling detail. (A particularly striking one: a little boy runs up to a campaigning Carter in Boston and asks him, doubtless parroting what he’d heard from his parents, “What’s your position on welfare?” Carter snaps back, “Get out of my way, will you?” before shoving the tearful little boy aside.) Mad as Hell has some odd off notes, including a calumnious mischaracterization of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a hater of Western civilization and a few silly potshots at right-of-center writers. It also devotes too little time to Roe v. Wade, which was a more significant factor in the rise of Christian conservatism than Sandbrook seems to think. Nevertheless, this is the best history I’ve yet read of the 70s.

It also helps inform our contemporary debate. Though Sandbrook finished most of Mad as Hell before Barack Obama’s election, the political and cultural dynamic it describes is strikingly similar to our current one, as if we’re replaying the battles of 35 years ago. If the Obama administration is Carter II, though, who will be the new Reagan?

About the Author

Brian C. Anderson is the editor of City Journal and the author of Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents, South Park Conservatives, and other books.

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