It was the first decade since the 1930s in which mainstream America felt that daily life was getting worse. And in some ways, it signified an even more pessimistic moment than the Great Depression: the first time large numbers of Americans, raised on a credo of optimism, had good reason to suspect that their children would grow up in a world in many ways less bountiful than the one they had inherited. As a result, notes Sandbrook, the country’s liberal opinion shapers ceased to be able to dominate the political debate: “There was no sense of coherence, no direction. With Keynesianism out of fashion, they were like medieval monks who had lost their faith: confused, fractious, forlorn in a world deprived of the comforts of certainty.”

Today, we are entering the fifth decade of this crisis. It hasn’t all been bad: rationally or otherwise, optimism rebounded during the Reagan years, and two presidencies later, much of the economy flourished during the Clinton era. Yet, taken as a whole, the period from the first oil shock to today has not been kind to millions of American families. In consequence, those millions have gotten angrier and ever more suspicious of the “governing elites” whom they routinely elect and almost instantly turn upon; ever more hostile to the very structures of community and common cause that bind society together.

When it comes time for a future Edward Gibbon to explore the decline and fall of the American Republic, it is quite possible that he or she will zero in on the cultural trends and economic upheavals of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If that is the case, Mad as Hell will be there as a guiding light. 

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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).