by Dominic Sandbrook; Knopf, 2011; 506 pages; $35
The way the pendulum of power swings in American politics, the establishment liberal populism of the left in the second half of the last century has shifted to the grassroots conservative populism of the New Right in the opening decade of the 21st century. An outburst of anger and frustration by the U.S. electorate at the misdeeds and missteps of government, starting with the War in Vietnam in the 1960s and Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the 1970s drove popular American politics rightward.
According to historian Dominic Sandbrook in his recently published study of the rise of the populist right, understanding the current revolution of social and economic conservatives requires an appreciation of what happened to America in the 1970s.
Sandbrook writes that by 1975, “The headlines were full of collapsing firms and jobless workers, of decrepit Rust Belt cities ravaged by crime and unemployment … three out of four Americans felt that the country was on the wrong track, while nine out of ten had no confidence in Gerald Ford’s economic leadership.”
The largess of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Nixon years had all but disappeared, and America in the 1970s had embarked on “The Age of Limits.”
The New York Times, reporting on the cold, hard reality in the mid-70s that the good times were over, offered a litany of economic woes besetting the nation: “the worst inflation in the country’s peacetime history, the highest interest rates in a century, the consequent severe slump in housing, sinking and utterly demoralized securities markets, a stagnant economy with large-scale unemployment in prospect, and a worsening international trade and payments position.”
Furthermore, the country was torn apart by social and moral issues, as the nation in the 1970s suffered a “hang-over” from the freewheeling 1960s. Sandbrook points out, “Against this background of economic anxiety, other resentments from busing to obscenity, took on a sharper edge.”
Over the course of 500 pages, Sandbrook clearly and methodically documents the most likely causes for America’s great disillusionment with the status quo of the 1960s and 1970s: Aside from Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon, there was forced school busing, the feminist movement and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), urban crime, infrastructure deterioration, the energy crisis, rocketing oil and gas prices, high taxes, inflation, stagflation, staggeringly high interest rates, entitlements and the white-hot issues of abortion and separation of church and state.
With great perception, Sandbrook shows that the anti-establishment populism that swept the nation during the 1970s was not a matter of Democrats versus Republicans. Nor was the phenomena necessarily liberals versus conservatives. Politicians on both sides of the aisle tried as best they could to read the mood of the people and embrace the themes of the popular revolt: A reverence for private property and free enterprise; antipathy toward communism, socialism and New Deal liberalism; boosting American nationalism; supporting traditional moral and cultural standards; an emphasis on hard work, low taxes, curtailed government spending, deregulation, privacy, self-improvement and Christian piety.
By 1976, the American electorate was ready to turn the government over to someone who seemed to personify this New Right populism … making a born-again, conservative Southern peanut farm, a Democrat named Jimmy Carter, president of the United States.
The greatest part of “Mad As Hell” is devoted to Carter’s rise and fall and an examination of his failed presidency. Sandbrook, the author of five best-selling books of history, diligently analyzes why Carter was unable to meet expectations and effectively lead the nation through very tough times, as he ended up turning over power after only one term to another self-proclaimed conservative, Ronald Reagan, to start the 1980s.
Of special interest to Alabama history buffs is Sandbrook’s attention to Gov. George Wallace, who the historian credits with being the seminal force behind the rise of the New Right. In recognition of Wallace’s place in history, Sandbrook writes that Wallace’s “real historical importance was that he brought to the national stage a rhetorical style drawn from the long history of southern populism … The vocabulary and themes of populism had long existed, but Wallace’s achievement was to weld them into a New Symbolic Language … other conservative politicians would learn from his example.”
Sandbrook’s writing is popular history at its best: clear, easily understood, factual and exciting.
Art Gould is a former newspaper reporter and book publisher. He lives in Anniston.