Demonizing the 1970s

A wellspring of conservative ideology for the past three decades–perhaps the wellspring–is the conviction that America went to hell in the 1960s. David Frum’s new book, How We Got Here, diverges from this hypothesis and designates as the true culprit the 1970s. Strategically, it’s a very shrewd move. As Frum points out in his book, almost nobody who actually lived through the 1970s (as opposed to today’s teen-agers, who re-experience it as camp) have much regard for it:

My more leftish contemporaries looked backward to the heroic 1960s; those of more conservative outlook exulted in the Reagan 1980s. All of us agreed that the 1970s were a slum of a decade. Right or left, we delighted in the narrowing of neckties, the demise of disco, the restyling of the Camaro, the extinction of the fern bar.

Chatterbox (high-school class of ‘76, college class of ‘80) sort of liked the fern bar, and took no notice of the Camaro’s restyling, but otherwise won’t quibble: Good riddance to the 1970s, tacky decade of my youth! Nothing makes Frum’s point more forcefully than the jacket-cover art for his book–a garishly mod typeface (dig those concentric circles on the O’s!) against a background of orange, the unfortunate official color of that decade. It’s a testament to the 1970s’ cultural dreariness that even the good things about it–as Frum generously concedes, it was the best-ever decade for American movies–didn’t become apparent until years afterward.

But Frum’s political demonization of the 1970s is ultimately just a gimmicky way to restate the neoconservative indictment of the 1960s. As Frum rightly points out, the 1970s was the decade when the provocative ideas and styles of the 1960s spread from elite enclaves such as Cambridge, Mass., and northwest Washington, D.C., to the rest of the country. Particularly if you focus (as Frum does) on the first half of the 1970s, the prevailing mores of the period were largely indistinguishable from those of the second half of the 1960s. True, a Republican, Richard Nixon was president; but few of his policies (the most notable exceptions were Vietnam and Watergate) bucked the nation’s liberal mood. Commentators often argue that “the ‘60s,” defined as a time of political and social turmoil, really began with John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. And indeed, Frum’s various “social decline” indexes for the decade tend to have as their starting point 1965.

What this means is that Frum’s Evil 1970s are really just the Evil 1960s with a little more narcissism and a lot more inflation tossed in. Anyone who’s ever glanced at an issue of Commentarywill recognize Frum’s targets: the rights explosion, the loss of faith in institutions, the sexual revolution, the rise of the underclass, license, rudeness, etc., etc. (Interesting sign of the times: Legalized abortion gets only a glancing mention, even though Roe v. Wadewas handed down in 1973.) Unlike Midge Decter or Robert Bork, though, Frum can’t seem to work up much passion for decrying these things. In part, this may be because Frum is a bit of a snob; practically the only argument in the book that strikes Chatterbox as truly passionate is Frum’s withering denunciation of the old-line northern Protestant sects for failing, in trying to make Christianity more “relevant,” to attract new members. (Frum doesn’t much care for the showy and evangelistic Baptists who displaced the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.) Another obstacle is the book’s vaguely newsmaggy format, which requires Frum to move quickly from example to example and to abbreviate his arguments. (Apparently the publishers are trying to pass this book off to some buyers as neutral social history.)

The most intriguing handicap, though, is Frum’s own conflicted feeling about how good the good old days really were. At the end of How We Got Here, Frum recites the neocon catechism that the main trouble with the 1960s/1970s was that ungrateful punks didn’t appreciate the virtues of mid-century social order. But then he puts some distance between himself and the Commentary crowd by questioning whether that mid-century social order was all that wonderful to begin with:

Like them or loathe them, the middle decades of the twentieth century were an entirely anomalous period in American history. Never had the state been so strong, never had people submitted as uncomplainingly, never had the country been more economically equal, never had it been more ethnically homogenous, seldom was its political consensus more overpowering. You can see now why people might pine for those days. But would they pine for them if they remembered more clearly that the top rate of federal income tax was 90 percent? … To ship a crate of lettuce across the country, a trucker needed permission from a federal regulatory agency. Almost one-third of the country’s best jobs were off-limits for anyone who refused to join a union.

Like many contemporary conservatives, Frum is torn between his allegiance to social conservatism and his allegiance to libertarianism. Perhaps Frum’s conspicuous inability to reconcile these feelings will persuade conservatives to stop building their politics around the notion that America was banished from Eden in the years leading up to the Reagan presidency.