In some ways, Reagan was the Bloody Mary one drinks to cure a hangover—the hair of the dog, persuading his listeners that all was well again. A generation later, his conservative heirs—true believers like Senator Rand Paul and Sarah Palin, as well as A Face in the Crowd-type charlatans like Glenn Beck—have similarly exploited the conservative wave, reducing politics to a set of Reaganesque bromides about lower taxes, smaller government, and a shining city on a hill. Yet theirs is a less sunny movement, more mired in discontent. To extend the bibulous metaphor: they are the drink one drinks after the Bloody Mary has worn off, not to feel better but simply to avoid feeling any worse.
As Sandbrook makes clear, it was the 1970s that set the stage for much of this indignation. This was the era in which millions of disillusioned voters ceased to participate in the political process, and a disproportionate number of those who remained politically engaged began casting their lot with ever more conservative political figures. “For all the talk of a Reagan landslide,” Sandbrook writes, “it is worth remembering that barely one in four Americans actually voted for him. The fact that so many people preferred to stay at home, even at a time of economic crisis and international tension, spoke volumes about the pervasive disillusionment of the 1970s.”
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.