This week marks two milestones for historians interested in the intellectual history of the United States in the 20th century: the 40th anniversary of the Richard Nixon resignation, and the release of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge. This third volume in Perlstein’s series on the rise of modern American conservatism—which stretches back to Barry Goldwater and the early movement (Before the Storm) and the political resurrection of Richard Nixon (Nixonland) now continues with a look at the collapse of the Nixon presidency, the growing strength of Ronald Reagan on a national stage, and the continued attempts by conservatives to forge a strong, nation-wide movement capable of winning control of the national government.
Perlstein’s work is part of a larger movement by historians to consider the 1970s and American conservatism’s recent victories in a historic context. I don’t think I need to remind folks of the wonderful diversity of books on the subject—or the fact that there’s still plenty of room in which historians can work when it comes to the 70s. Now, I’m nowhere near finished with The Invisible Bridge—although it has provided a nice break from comps reading and other scholarly activities I’m pursuing as the fall semester approaches. Still, as always, I consider what else can be said about the 70s as I read Perlstein’s book.
The story of American conservatism after World War II (indeed, for the entirety of the 20th century) still has plenty left to be said about it. However, one wonders if it’s time for some historians to shift to talking about American liberalism during the same era. Books such as Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform, for example, remind us that modern liberalism has never had a moment to breathe easily politically. Allen Matusow’s The Unraveling of America explained how liberalism failed to come to terms with the changing face of American politics in the 1960s. Yet I’m not convinced that we’ve done all we can when it comes to the 1970s and American liberalism. And that’s understandable—no historical topic that I can think of has truly been exhausted. But, there’s plenty to still be done in regards to American liberalism.
Let’s take, for example, the Democratic Party after Watergate. This is a fascinating story—a political party that, at the time, seemed to have a new lease on life, and hadn’t yet been crushed at the polls in 1978 or 1980. There are some books that take on parts of this era for the Democratic Party—most notably, Tim Stanley’s Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul. The battles between Kennedy and Carter were, in many ways, stand-ins for larger battles between liberals and Democratic Party moderates, including (and especially) those from the South. Those intraparty battles—which ultimately gave us both the Rainbow Coalition, at one end of the spectrum, and the New Democrats, on the other, were crucial to giving us the Democratic Party we have today.
I also think considering the works of Jefferson Cowie and putting them in conversation with Rick Perlstein’s books (at least Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge) would be useful in regards to these questions. Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and his essay with Nick Salvatore, “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” both reflect an understanding of modern American liberalism as always being in danger of losing power. Yet, Stayin’ Alive also argues for looking at the American working class as being up for grabs in the 70s—listening to appeals from both the Right and the Left in the U.S.
Finally, questions of race and gender in the 1970s would add even more to a discussion about the changing fortunes of American liberalism in that decade. Cowie’s work, along with others, certainly help in this regard. But when it comes to intellectual history, taking into account reactions to books like William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race, the Bakke decision on affirmative actions, or writings about the Equal Rights Amendment from that era, are crucial if we’re to further develop a history of liberalism in that era. Finally, considering how activists of the 1970s considered their gains and losses since the 1960s is a task that historians should begin to tackle—mainly because, while it’s tempting for historians to see the era as one of liberal “defeat” and conservative “triumph”, we must take greater pains to understand just how a variety of Americans felt about the direction of their country in 1973, 1976, 1978, and 1980. Because while for some, the 1960s were a tragedy and the 1970s a haze of defeat and national weakness, for others the era as a whole provided new gains and new hopes. At some point I hope to sketch out a specific case study through a few posts. But, at the very least, it’s something to at least consider, as historians attempt to understand recent American history.
 Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore. “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” International Labor and Working Class History, Vol. 74, No. 1, p. 3-32.