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.

In 1964, most Americans knew nothing of the brewing conflict in Vietnam. Few would have argued with the notion that America had a God-given mandate to perform great, democratizing feats on the stage of history. The rage-filled subculture that Hofstadter chronicled was in many ways an utterly defensive movement, railing against the Cold War liberal, internationalist zeitgeist but not expecting to actually triumph.

In our own era, however, it is the mainstream culture that has been infected by anxiety, anger, and political paranoia. Throughout the 1990s, that anger was reflected in the rise of the militia movement, which the historian D. J. Mulloy has described as a loose conglomeration of religious conservatives, libertarians, anti-government extremists, constitutional literalists, and people hewing to a conspiratorial view of politics and history. The militias, however, never really entered the electoral arena. And their momentum was to a large extent destroyed by the apocalyptic act of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Today, that rage has led to the rise of the amorphous Tea Party movement. Unlike the militias, however, the Tea Party has the ambition and ability to profoundly impact electoral politics.

In some ways, today’s realities would be all too familiar to Hofstadter. “I call it the paranoid style,” he opined in his essay, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” Yet the sheer volume of misinformation, fear, and fury in today’s body politic makes the discourse of Hofstadter’s era seem relatively bland in comparison.

Sandbrook is fascinated by the way in which the angst that bubbled up during the years of double-digit unemployment, inflation, and national malaise changed American culture—and was exploited by rising conservative leaders looking to tilt the axis of politics rightward. “From skepticism and suspicion,” he writes, “it was only a short step to paranoia.” As he recounts, more than one president was whipsawed by the era’s rollercoaster economy and ideological turmoil. In fact, a whole series of pragmatic executives bit the dust during the 1970s. Nixon was blindsided by the first oil shock and then humiliated by Watergate; Ford was brought low by a faltering economy and increasingly vocal criticism from the right of his own party; Carter was destroyed by another oil crisis, unemployment, inflation, soaring crime rates, and above all, by his miserably inept handling of the Iran hostage crisis, which led to a general perception that he was letting America’s might dissipate in the wind.

And who was the prime beneficiary of all this anger? In Sandbrook’s view, it was Ronald Reagan: an intellectual lightweight but eminently smooth-talking actor who knew which way the conservative winds were blowing. The Gipper, a divorcee who rarely went to church, loved dirty jokes, and liberalized access to abortion while he was governor of California, could regularly move his right-wing audiences to tears. He simply appealed to their patriotism, their sense of religion, and their hopes for America’s future.

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. 

 

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).