Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right | By Dominic Sandbrook | Alfred A. Knopf | 496 pages, $30

”Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.” So opens Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The author then applies this dictum to the Goldwater insurgency of 1964: “Today, this fact is most evident in the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

Nearly a half-century after Barry Goldwater’s foot soldiers began tilting the GOP rightward, American politics is an increasingly shrill game of posturing anger and paranoia. More than ever, complex historical forces are interpreted through the lens of conspiracy—or rather, the fear of conspiracy. How else to understand the pervasive belief that Barack Obama is really a Muslim Manchurian candidate, or that secular authors of school textbooks are seeking to undermine the moral fiber of America’s youth? On the right, the Tea Party and its media shills flourish within a rage culture noisier and arguably more influential than at any time in American history. On the left, disillusioned radicals, frustrated that Obama didn’t immediately usher in the Age of Aquarius, spit venom at the most progressive administration to govern the United States since the Johnson years.

A good many observers have attributed this poisonous political culture to the rise of a post-print, video-reliant populace—one schooled in the basic ABCs but unable or unwilling to read, and to think, critically. Without such skills, goes the argument, opinion all too easily substitutes for fact, rigidity for intellectual curiosity and tolerance.

For the British historian Dominic Sandbrook, however, the rise of a broad-based rage culture is not simply, or even primarily, a matter of declining academic standards. He prefers to explore it through the lens of the cultural and economic changes unleashed in the 1960s, which were then given free rein to mature throughout the dingy, stagflation-plagued 1970s. As he writes in Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right, “Once Americans had talked of possibilities; now they talked of limits. Once they had talked of growth and prosperity; now they talked of inflation and unemployment.” This book tells the story of why Americans became so mad and why it mattered.

Thirty-six years old and Oxford-educated, Sandbrook boasts an extraordinary résumé. He has published several well-received social histories of postwar Britain, as well as a confidently crafted biography of the mercurial Eugene McCarthy. A free-floating public intellectual, Sandbrook is a writer for the prestigious New Statesman, and regularly appears on television as the go-to guy for interpreting the past six decades of British history.

Like Rick Perlstein, who has explored similar terrain, Sandbrook is a first-rate synthesizer. He is able to view history panoramically, almost as a living, breathing organism, by collecting and effectively using vast numbers of on-the-ground anecdotes. In Mad as Hell, he weaves in everything from school busing and the riots it triggered to the rise of gay culture and disco music. We read about housewives organizing a boycott of supermarket meat to protest rising food costs, and a copycat fad following the release of the movie Network, which involved hundreds of college students simultaneously leaning out of their dorm windows and screaming, after the words of the movie’s deranged hero, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The scattershot approach is occasionally overwhelming. Yet it helps readers to visualize those strange days, as they mounted into strange years.

One wishes that Sandbrook had also interviewed the participants directly; after all, many key players from this period are still alive. But even absent such first-person testimony, the result is still powerful. In a sense, the author is chronicling the sour mood of an American hangover, of the country waking up after decades of rising prosperity and national influence to a world of headaches, bad breath, red eyes: the national blahs.

When Hofstadter penned his essay in 1964, America was as prosperous and as dominant as it had ever been—morally, culturally, politically, militarily, economically—and ascendant on the world stage. New Deal liberalism had pulled the nation out of a Great Depression, through the Second World War, and into superpower status. Meanwhile, a broad consensus still prevailed that government could, and oftentimes should, throw its weight around to ameliorate social ills. Over the coming year, both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts would be signed into law.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon Press, 2006). His most recent book is a profile of President Obama titled Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin Portfolio, December 2009).