Debt, decline, and immigration.
hat was the countercultural culture that lasted for a decade or two after the 1960s? To those who rallied behind it, it was a progressive reworking of old values, a drawing out of new possibilities. To those who lamented it, it was a mere looting of the old culture, a decadence, a spending down. In theory it could have been both at the same time. But by the 1970s, Americans were reaching a verdict. They were drifting away from the idea that the country was in the middle of a renaissance and beginning to worry that it was going down the tubes.
This was not just a reaction to a slowing economy. Certainly, in an economy hemmed in by strong trade unions, new environmental regulation, and newly expensive oil and gasoline, it seemed impossible to create jobs. In December 1974 alone, the country lost 600,000 of them. But Americans were concerned more about the culture than the conjuncture.
American automobiles had once been a symbol of the country’s world-bestriding economy. Now their shoddiness was astonishing, embarrassing, no matter how obstreperously auto workers demanded to be compensated as the “best workers in the world.” In 1977, Plymouth brought out a new “T-Bar coupe” called the Volare. “To the new generation of Americans who have never known the driving pleasure of wind through the hair,” the ads ran, “we proudly dedicate our new T-Bar Volare Coupe.” It was a way for Chrysler to avoid saying that it had lost the capacity to build convertibles at an affordable price. Starting in 1978, General Motors began producing station wagons—such as the Buick Century and the Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser—in which the rear windows didn’t roll down. Magazine ads for Ford and Cadillac depicted their new models against a dim backdrop of historic ones, as if to console themselves that, if their products were third-rate, they had at least once made better ones.
The prospects for government were, if anything, worse. It was not only that Richard Nixon had been forced from office in a scandal. The three great progressive endeavors of the preceding decades—civil rights, women’s liberation, the attempt to impose a liberal order on the world militarily—had all been resoundingly repudiated by the public. Post-Civil Rights Act, violent crime and drug abuse in inner cities were at record highs. Post-Ms. magazine, legislatures were rescinding ratifications of the Equal Rights Amendment that they had only recently passed. Post-Vietnam War, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan and revolutionary governments came to power in Nicaragua and Iran.
The mood was one of nostalgia and failure. The American public had come to see the political project of the 1960s as dangerously utopian. They brought California governor Ronald Reagan to power to put an end to it. Instead, in ways that neither his supporters nor his detractors have ever fully understood, he rescued it.