In 1974, after Richard Nixon resigned, people thought the left had won in America. This book shows why they were wrong. Sandbrook, who took on the ’60s in his biography of Eugene McCarthy, now looks at the “age of limits,” the gloomy inflation-battered era between Nixon and Reagan. If the ’60s were liberal, Sandbrook’s ’70s are a backlash era: protests against forced school integration through busing, anger about pornography and crime, and a gung-ho, patriotic spirit embodied by movies like The Deer Hunter and the reaction to the Iranian hostage crisis. He alternates between those social changes and the White House, which was also getting more conservative: from Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican with a proudly feminist wife, to Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian who “had never been much interested in the traditions of the Democratic party,” to the triumph of Reagan conservatism.
Sandbrook is strong in examining two factions that would come to dominate U.S. politics. The Christian right, united in the belief that social change had gone too far, helped defeat the feminist Equal Rights Amendment and paved the way for a new politics “directed against liberal secularism.” Meanwhile, crusaders like Howard Jarvis, who led a movement to reduce property taxes in California, made tax cutting a permanent political winner. Compared to these new populist movements, the old guards of feminism and Keynesian economics seemed listless and defeated.
The book is less solid in analyzing the Ford and Carter administrations, if only because it can seem unbalanced: Sandbrook admiringly calls Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon “indisputably the right one in the long term,” but mostly portrays Carter as cold and unpleasant. Still, the anti-Carter vibe may help create parallels with the world of today. When Sandbrook mentions that Carter came into office with a mistaken belief that he was “above ideology,” and soon learned that he wasn’t, it’s hard not to think that history is repeating itself. Though the Obama era has less disco music.