Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 257 pages of text plus 77 pages of notes and an index and 8 pages of photos.
I have a confession to make. I’ve been enlightened and now need to do some serious penance. Back in the 70s, I was a chauvinistic, misogynistic, homophobic racist. I must repent of my sins. I just thought I hated disco and liked good rock and roll music, but now, thanks to Mr. Shulman, I see the errors of my ways. Shulman points out how those who shunned disco were guilty of a host of society’s evils. (73-75) Or maybe I’ll just revert to my redneck and anti-elite ways and ask, “what do you expect from a professor in tweed at from the northeast?” Of course, in this way, I’m sounding a lot like Richard Nixon who hated the Northeastern elite! (24) Bruce Shulman teaches at Boston University.
Now, despite what you might think by my opening comments, I mostly enjoyed this book. Although I disagree with some of his comments on disco, and also felt that he looked disdainfully on the South, Shulman provides a good cultural and political history to that decade in which I came of age (I became a teenager just a few days into the decade and had a bachelor’s degree slapped on my wall by its end).
The 70s is often seen as a lost decade, squeezed between the optimistic 60s and the opportunitistic 80s. Interestingly, as Shulman recalls, the 60s which had begin with the Kennedy Camelot ended with the widowed queen of Camelot (Jackie) marrying a rich Greek tycoon, twice her age. (4) Shulman strives to interpret several wide cultural shifts that occured between the 1969 and 1984. In this work, he explores music, books, television and movies, economics and politics. Several things are happening. America loses a broad cultural consensus as the era of special interest groups begin to rise. Many of these are explored such as ethnic groups which not only included an interest in African-Americans (black power movements to the mini-series “Roots”), but also Hispanics, Italians, Irish, etc. In addition, the 70s saw women’s issues rise to the forefront (remember the Rigby/King tennis match and the ERA), age groups (America began graying in the 70s and the elderly became a major political force in which Tip O’Neil referred to as the third-rail in American politics: Touch it and die!” ), and the gay rights movement. In addition, there were shifts in region. Shulman refers to the decade as the “Southernization of America.” (256) There were also religious shifts. Although religion became more important, it also became more personal and less able to lift up a common vision for society. There were also great changes in the American economy. The era gave rise to the “rustbelt” as factories in the northern parts of the country closed. The inflation of the late 70s caused Americans to begin to use credit (why put off buying when it will cost more tomorrow). Also, due to regulation changes, Americans began to look at saving differently and investing became more important than savings (which were being eaten up by inflation). And finally, the era saw the end of the old liberalism in American politics which saw the government as a force for the good with certain obligations to help those unable to help themselves to a new era that bemoaned any government involvement. Shulman discusses the tie between government involvement and civil rights in the 60s and how it took the decade for a new conservative coalition to arise out of the old conservative coalition. Racial prejudices slid into the background as the new conservatives found other issues to excite their cause.
Although I took offense at Shulman’s defense of disco, I must say that I think there is a lot to ponder in his view of the roles region, religion and race played in the shifts in American politics during this era. However, the nature of this book requires that it be very subjective and one could draw other conclusions (like I did with my opposition to disco). I do recommend this book for anyone interested in a trip down memory lane.
For another view of the 70s, see my review of Edward D. Berkowitz's, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies