U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The New Historiographic Consensus on the 1970s


Whereas Peter Carroll cheekily titled his classic 1982 account of 1970s America It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, the emergent historiographic consensus on that decade not only claims that, in fact, “something happened,” the title of Edward Berkowitz’s overview of the 1970s, but that it was a “pivotal decade,” the title of Judith Stein’s new book on deindustrialization. Central to this new historiographic consensus is another area of wide agreement: that the 1970s were a crucial decade for conservative political transformation; that the 1970s signaled the beginning of the end of the New Deal Order. This thesis is pondered at length by a dozen authors in Bruce Schulman’s and Julian Zelizer’s edited collection, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.

Two excellent books I recently read—Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right—certainly do nothing to challenge these two interrelated consensuses. But the very different subject matter of the two books raises questions about what was most important in shaping the conservative transformation that occurred in the 1970s. Cowie’s and Williams’s divergent treatment of Nixon and the 1972 presidential election is a nice lens through which to view these complicated questions about causation—and will be the focus of my post today.

Cowie’s entertaining mix of political, labor, and cultural history paints a dour but believable picture of the 1970s collapse of Golden Age hopes and expectations. As Rick Perlstein writes in a glowing review of Stayin’ Alive: “The continuous readjustment of expectations—downward: that was a key experience of the 1970s. An expectation can be wrenchingly hard to readjust because there is an awful existential lag involved. As historians go, Jefferson Cowie is that awful existential lag’s bard.” Cowie dedicates two chapters to the compelling history of Big Labor’s dealings with the two presidential candidates from the 1972 election, which might have been landmark had it not been for Watergate: George McGovern and Richard Nixon.

Cowie maintains that we can learn a lot about the white working class of the 1970s by examining the perplexing ways in which it reacted to McGovern and Nixon. Organized labor, especially under the leadership of the AFL-CIO’s cold warrior extraordinaire, George Meany, loathed McGovern and the new social movements given life by the “New Politics” reformation of the Democratic Party following the 1968 disaster in Chicago. This, despite the fact that Senator McGovern had a 93% pro-labor voting record, all the more remarkable given that he represented a state, South Dakota, that had a small labor constituency (Interestingly, organized labor’s hatred of McGovern also persisted in spite of his PhD in labor history at Northwestern, where he wrote what Cowie describes as a very good dissertation [later a book] on the Colorado Coal Strike of 1913-14 and the infamous Ludlow Massacre). In stark contrast, the white working class, and especially its more conservative leadership, respected Nixon, despite his horridly anti-labor record.

Cowie chalks this paradox up to cultural politics. On McGovern, Cowie writes: “Despite his commitment to real material concerns of working people, a long-standing intellectual interest in labor issues, and an exceptional pro-labor voting record, McGovern’s candidacy created an enduring, if distorted, political template for what the white, male American working class was not: radical, effete, movement-based, anti-war, and, perhaps most profoundly, Democratic” (122). Pat Buchanan, writing in his book The New Majority, which came out between Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory and Watergate, called the election “a victory of ‘the New American Majority’ over the ‘New Politics,’ a victory of traditional American values and beliefs over the claims of the ‘counter-culture,’ a victory of the ‘Middle America’ over the celebrants of Woodstock Nation” (161). In short, Nixon was the style candidate, and McGovern was the substance candidate. Style won out. With the ground shifting under their feet, the white-working class aligned with a politician whose values seemed to reflect their own.

Cowie’s portrait of the 1970s working class is in no way a simplistic reading of how the working class was duped by the economic royalists, in the manner of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. He complicates such a simplistic rendering by, for instance, highlighting poll data that suggests the working class was less likely to support the war in Vietnam than were college educated Americans. But his sole focus on the relationship between the white working class and the larger political culture—a relationship, which, to his credit, he understands better than any historian—misses something important about the increasingly conservative landscape of the 1970s.

Paul Boyer, in his contribution to the Schulman/Zelizer edited collection, “The Evangelical Resurgence in 1970s,” criticizes Thomas Frank for ignoring religion as a factor in Kansas conservatism. “Broad-brush caricatures aside, Frank hardly addresses the post-1970 history or grassroots specificity of evangelical Protestantism in contemporary Kansas, including the state’s 7 Christian radio stations, 22 evangelical Christian bookstores, 8 Vineyard Christian Fellowships…” “It was not Republican political operatives,” Boyer continues, “but a vast army of pastors, evangelists, writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs, keenly attuned to the post-1960s mood of cultural disorientation and to the media outlets, pop-culture trends, management theories, and marketing strategies of consumer capitalism, who woke the sleeping giant of American evangelicalism in the 1970s” (50). In other words, if we are to understand the 1970s shift to conservatism, we must also come to terms with the political and cultural transformations of American Christianity.

I don’t blame Cowie for ignoring this history—it’s not the subject of his book. But he does sometimes confuse working-class cultural politics with Christian cultural politics. He quotes from a National Review editorial that analyzed the 1972 election results as a way to understand the cultural politics of the white working class: “Plainly, the New Majoritarians are themselves descendents of the anti-modernists and anti-cosmopolitans,” whom, in the words of Cowie, “William Jennings Bryan defended against science and the modern world” (162-163). Cowie should know that the descendents of Bryanism are not the urban “ethnics” who filled the ranks of the labor movement. These two groups represent distinctly different demographics and need distinctly different histories.

This is where Dan Williams serves as an important interlocutor. Though God’s Own Party traces the Christian Right from before W. J. Bryan to the present, Williams does recognize the centrality of the 1970s, when Christian cultural politics—education, family, and eventually, abortion—slowly but surely gained momentum, so much so that by 1980 the Christian Right was considered perhaps the key demographic in the Reagan coalition. Even before Christian cultural politics garnered mainstream attention, Republican politicians recognized the electoral importance of evangelical voters. This especially included Nixon, ever the master of electoral strategy.

Cowie titled a chapter in Stayin’ Alive “Nixon’s Class Struggle,” about how Nixon and his chief “working man” strategist Charles Colson (who, after a prison stint related to Watergate crimes, went on to a career as a Christian Right radio personality), sought to steal the labor vote from the Democratic Party. Williams titled a chapter in his book “Nixon’s Evangelical Strategy,” about Nixon’s success at manipulating the evangelical vote. 1972 election results reveal that both strategies were successful. But whereas Nixon failed to carry organized labor’s rank-and-file voters (somewhere in the range of 35-40% of them voted for him, much higher than in any previous election since FDR, but still not a majority), a startling 84% of white evangelicals voted for Nixon that year. If we are to consider the 1972 election landmark—or, only denied the landmark status granted to the 1980 election because of Watergate—then which demographic is more important? The white working-class vote, or the white evangelical vote?

Cowie shows that many urban ethnics, including union members, supported George Wallace in 1968, and again in 1972, because they saw Wallace as representing their class interests as against a liberal elite that, most egregiously in their eyes, sought to ram forced busing down their throats. Many of these Wallace supporters voted for Nixon in 1972 (when, unlike in 1968, Wallace did not run in the general election as an independent, due to the injuries he suffered at the hands of his would-be assassin during the Democratic primaries—and because, as some have argued, based on circumstantial evidence, Nixon struck a deal with Wallace to keep him out of the general election).

In contrast, Williams shows that most evangelical preachers, even right-wing fundamentalist preachers with an overtly racist streak, like Billy James Hargis, largely rejected George Wallace’s campaigns and instead supported Nixon in 1968 and again in 1972. Williams contends that this was because Nixon focused his campaign on wooing evangelicals due to an intelligent reading of national voting demographics. His campaign knew that the key to electoral success and to a future Republican majority was in winning over the growing Sunbelt. They also knew that evangelicals were the fastest growing population of the Sunbelt. Williams writes: “By the early 1970s, the nation’s ten largest churches were located in the South, West, and socially conservative Midwest, and nearly all of them were evangelical” (94). As such, the Nixon team decided that the best chance they had of reelection in 1972 was an even greater appeal to social conservatism. This analysis was predicated on the books put out by the political gurus of the time: Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority; and Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, The Real Majority (who, ironically, pitched their book to the Democratic Party in hopes of turning back the tide of McGovernism and the “New Politics”).

Strangely, Cowie also points to the Phillips and Scammon-Wattenberg tracts as the intellectual rationales for Nixon’s “working man” strategy. Now, insofar as social and cultural conservatism appealed to all who opposed the social and cultural liberalization that came to fruition in the 1960s, including white “ethnics” and conservative evangelicals, Nixon’s strategy worked on both important constituencies. But this is not to say that both constituencies are equally important to the conservative movement that came to life in the 1970s. I would say the Christian Right was much more important, and continues to be much more important to Republican success and failure.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,

    Great analysis. I love especially how you parallel the contrasting chapter titles related to Nixon’s campaign strategy. Did this apply in 68 as well, or just 72?

    Did either author offer up details on how they analyzed ‘working-class’ or ‘Evangelical’ in terms of deciding who belongs to either/both groups? I ask because I’m intrigued by multiple identifications, and how a politician can make you forget, or care less, about one identity in favor of another. Put more specifically, what of working-class union members who were also Evangelicals?

    Speaking generally, however, it is most certainly clear that Carroll’s tongue-in-cheek title has developed into an historiographical growth industry! I’m loving it.

    On teaching these topics, I must say I’m pleased with my U.S. survey textbook, Out of Many (Faragher et al). I supplement its chapter (30) section on the rise of the New Right with a 10-page section from Schulman’s The Seventies. Speaking of, I assume Williams covers the now famous contributions of Richard Viguerie?

    Again, great post!

    – TL

  2. Tim: Neither author really deals with the ways in which religious and class consciousness mix. I would say, though, that aside from UMWA members in places like West Virginia–who partook in a wildcat strike in Kanawha County in 1974 in solidarity with conservative Christians who opposed a newly implemented multicultural reading list in their schools–most members of Big Labor were urban and “ethnic,” thus more likely to be Catholic and Orthodox than evangelical. Evagelicalism thrived in the Sunbelt, which is largely “right to work” (one of my all-time least favorite political euphemisms–but effective). This all points to why, though both demographics trended conservative in the 70s, they bespeak different histories.

    Yes, Williams deals with Viguerie and others who helped bring the New Right together with the Christian Right under the umbrella of the Republican Party. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great analysis, Andrew. But I have a slightly different take on the relationship between the working class as Cowie describes them and conservatism. From my reading of _Stayin’ Alive_ (full disclosure: I haven’t yet read Williams), Cowie is arguing that the 1960s-1980s working class enabled conservatism largely through its dis-assembly. It’s not that union members all turned into culture warrior conservatives–although some did–but rather that the enormous counterweight of a more-or-less unified, unionized, and liberal working class no longer stood in the way of conservatism. The urban ethnic workers went in different directions: Reagan Democrats, pissed off patriots, unmeltable ethnics, metalhead dropouts, pro-life evangelical advocates, etc. But they no longer held together as a New Deal working class. Thus, to answer Tim’s question, I think Cowie is trying to argue that one definition of the working class dissolved while he’s still hoping that a more expansive definition of the working class could emerge for the global present. So evangelical Christianity’s contribution to conservatism was largely positive, in the sense of a growing movement that aligned at times with conservatism, and the New Deal working class’s influence was notable mainly for its absence.

    A book that *does* bring these two themes together, in my opinion, is Moreton’s _To Serve God and Walmart_, since she directly addresses how an ethos of personal service contributed to both evangelical Christianity and the growing service sector economy.

    (And thanks for keeping up this great blog. It’s one of my favorite stops on the web.)

  4. Jeff: Points well made. I think I agree with you and this is a nice way to frame the issue. The (white) working class came apart at the seams, thus no longer serving as the force behind the New Deal Order. Thus a vacuum was created for other forces to step into, including and especially the Christian Right.

    I agree with you that Moreton brings class and religion together in compelling fashion, especially in how she helps us to understand how the non-unionized, evangelical service economy (represented by Wal-Mart) served as a vanguard in the redefinition and restructuring of the national and global political economies.

    Thanks for the kind words about our blog, and please continue to return.

  5. Andrew, thanks once again for another crash-course in late 20th century historiography. Speaking of which, your “Education and the Cold War” is sitting on my desk right now — am thinking it could be helpful for my historiography paper. Not that I’ve read the book yet, but it is there, which ought to count for something.

  6. That’s a good question, Andrew, and I don’t have an answer yet. :/

    Even if I did have an answer, though, I might hold off on naming my topic. The Writing Gods are jealous gods, and if I reveal too much about my projects during the process of writing, they might withdraw their presence from me.

    But I have poured my oblation of coffee, and I hope I might find favor in their sight today. I need it.

  7. Sorry — “libation,” which I would have remembered had I consumed enough coffee. What is “enough”? Another good question. 😉

  8. This may be another example of how we skew historical analysis by using categories that don’t fit. We have developed a language of politics that fits preconceptions of academic elites and journalists and seems peculiarly designed to render American politics incomprehensible to the rest of the world.

    This isn’t a right-left thing on the American scale. Neither do Marxism or Enlightenment rationalism fit. The US has the Western world’s most Christian working class and our intellectuals have not been able to alter this.

    Nixon’s “ethnics” were and are profoundly imbued with a Catholic moral sensibility that takes in a social safety net as well as opposition to abortion, gay rights, and artsy elitism. Nixon was as close as we’ve had to a European style progressive conservative, and that did not escape notice at an instinctive level. What this group really wanted was a Catholic Center party, something impossible here.

    Jimmy Carter tapped into a related vein among the White and African-American Protestant working class. They combined an attachment to a personal faith with New Deal values. They also valued the military for service and social mobility and looked very suspiciously at progressive trends in morality and social arrangements.

    Both groups got shut out or manipulated by the re-alignment, which imposed a falsely polarized consciousness of what it means to be a “Democrat,” or a “Republican” as orthodoxy on a reluctant population.

  9. You make a decent point, Dale, although you seem a little hostile, especially since this “academic elite” agrees with you that the American working class is indeed very religious. But some facts to complicate your analysis. Nixon was not “progressive” except in the sense that he was the last president to preside over the New Deal order. As such, with what remained a liberal Democratic Congress to contend with, he signed OSHA and the EPA into existence, mostly because they would have become law anyways and it was better to take credit for them than to seemingly stand in the way of progress. But his record on labor issues was very poor–he only supported labor issues 24% of the time according to the union rating system. He appealed to many white workers, and had an explicit working class strategy by 1972. But this was all about show–he’d invite AFL-CIO leaders to the White House, and talk a good game. His actions never displayed wanting to maintain or improve a safety net. All of which explains why only 35-40% of white union members voted for him in 1972–a high number for a Republican, to be sure, but this means that 60-65% of them voted for McGovern, the so-called “Acid, Abortion, and Amnesty” candidate. So my basic point stands: evangelicals of the Sun Belt, not Catholics of the rust belt, were far more important to Nixon’s 1972 victory and, as such, continue to be far more important to conservative and Republican power.

    So maybe this doesn’t speak to those Catholics who continue to be conservative on cultural issues and liberal on economic issues. But I don’t think these types of Catholics are as prevalent as they once were. The Catholics who voted for Nixon in 1972 have, to the degree that they’ve continued to vote Republican, moved away from their pro-safety net positions; and conversely, many (certainly not all) of those Catholics who have stayed with the Democratic Party have eschewed the moral conservatism of the Vatican. You may not like it, I may not like it, but American politics has a dialectical effect resulting the logic of two-party system.

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