THAT '70S SHOW: The Meaning of the 1970s

Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Some argue that all of the major cultural trends that we associate with modern America entered the mainstream in the 1970s. What was unique about the 1970s? Should we emphasize the impact of '70s over that of the '50s and '60s?

Recorded on Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I am Peter Robinson. Our show today a decade, the 1970s. Some decades are easy to characterize. The twenties, they were the Roaring 20s. A time when mass production of the automobile transformed American life. The forties, easy once again. They were the decade of our victory in war. Here we see the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.

But the 1970s. What was that all about? With us to discuss the '70s, two guests. David Frum, a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute is the author of How We Got Here. The 70s, the Decade That Brought You Modern Life For Better or Worse. David Frum believes the '70s were pivotal and that virtually every trend we now think of as modern started then.

We discuss David Frum's conclusions with David Kennedy, a Professor of History at Stanford University and an expert on the 20th century. David Kennedy uses his own favorite decade, the '50s and '60s to help flesh out the meaning of the '70s.

That 70's Show

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray finds himself trapped inside a single day that repeats itself again and again and again. If you had to be trapped inside a single decade that went on forever, which decade would you choose? The '60s or the '70s. David Frum?

David Frum: That went on forever? I would choose the '70s because it would end with the election of Ronald Reagan and some hope, at least that this...that things are going to begin looking up.

Peter Robinson: Alright, you cheated on the question a little bit but I take the point. David Kennedy?

David Kennedy: Well I'd actually choose the '50s but I'd take the '60s, given your choices, I'd take the '60s because it is the time...

Peter Robinson: Nobler decade, why?

David Kennedy: It is the time of the greatest achievements in the post World War II era in this society.

Peter Robinson: Social achievements?

David Kennedy: Civil rights success and so on.

Peter Robinson: I see. Well we have the groundwork for a little bit of a disagreement here. David, David Frum. Let me try to state what I take to be the central thesis of your book. Although a revolution of sorts in terms of style and intellectual notions took place in the 1960s, it was in the 1970s that it actually spread out and became embedded in American culture itself. Is that an accurate statement?

David Frum: I think that is accurate. You know, one of the things that I believe is in a democratic society you have to write democratic history. And with any social change, it is always interesting to find the point at which it originated. You can go to Greenwich Village in the 1910s. You can go to England in the 1890s. You can find the point of departure. But the most interesting question, for me at least, is the moment at which things become truly universal.

Now there is one other difference between the '60s and the '70s that needs to be stressed. It is not, the story of the '70s is not just a story of things starting in the '60s and coming to full fruition in the '70s. In many ways the '70s can only happen precisely because the political imperatives of the '60s have been lost.

I mean if wearing your hair long means I hope my country loses a foreign war, there is not going to be a big constituency for long hair in the United States. It is only as the political movements of the '60s withered and died that the social movements of the '70s became accessible to enormous numbers of people.

Peter Robinson: Let me probe you a little bit on that point because it is at least imaginable or it is at least conceivable that the '60s could simply have ended. And have been seen in retrospect as an aberrant decade and that in the '70s the country would have returned to the moral norms, the intellectual norms and so forth, of the '50s. Why didn't that happen? Why did the '70s become the '70s?

David Frum: What happened in the 1970s was America was struck by a whole series of disasters, all at the same time. More, various disasters than ever before, even in the 1930s. Economic failure.

Peter Robinson: Oil embargo.

David Frum: Exactly. Inflation. Military humiliation and not just one but repeated military humiliations. Terrible scandals at home and again, not just one, not just Watergate but a whole series of scandals whose exposure was triggered by Watergate.

Failures of the bright domestic ideas of the past 25 years. The busing problem struck so many people as a betrayal of everything they had been promised and offered.

Peter Robinson: David Kennedy, let me quote to you David Frum. He writes of the '70s quote, representative quote, "the most total social transformation since the coming of industrialism." Do you buy that?

David Kennedy: No I think that is quite a grand claim. Too grand a claim. And in fact it struck me just as we're talking here already, we are talking mostly about the '60s and ostensibly talking about a book written about the '70s but so far we have been talking mostly about the '60s. It seems to me what happens in the '60s is you get this intertwining, strange intertwining of an impulse for social and political and economic reform on the one hand and a explosion and a lot of cultural license on the other. And what the political and economic impulse largely fades by the '70s. That dimension of reform. But the cultural change continues into the '70s. And that is what I think David Frum's very colorful book is about.

David Frum: The cultural change is democratized and that is the kind of change that is not just a continuation.

David Kennedy: So, democratized, you mean that in the 1960s you have got a lot of people living a certain way in Cambridge, Massachusetts and up in the Haight in San Francisco. But in the 1970s you've got Americans, middle class Americans starting to live the same way as of 19...

Peter Robinson: As of 1967 only 5% of Americans have ever sampled marijuana. By 1976, a third of Americans have sampled marijuana, half of the Americans under the age of thirty. And most of that happens after about 1970, '71.

We've talked about drugs. Now, sex.

Countdown to Ecstacy

We tend to associate the sexual revolution with the '60s but you make the point that the revolution took place in the '70s. 1970 New York State liberalizes its abortion law. 1973 the Supreme Court effectively legalized abortion across the country. The divorce rate skyrockets. You entitle one chapter, The Courage to Divorce.

David Frum: Based on a book of the same title.

Peter Robinson: And you note that the Happy Hooker sold 6 million copies in 1973. That is a pretty quick pace at which to overturn 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian moral teaching. How did it happen so fast?

David Frum: It happened partly because of legislative changes that happened at the end of the 1960s. As you would say, that California liberalizes its divorce law. And it also happens because people, everybody, not just a few, have absorbed a set of ideas that make them believe that they are in fact doing the right thing. I quote, in that regard here, a mother in Baltimore who in 1973, packs her things into a station wagon and leaves her husband and three kids. And she writes an article about it. And she said, "Did I do something immoral, letting down people who trusted me or was I moral in the highest sense by living up to my duty to myself?"

And the idea that this is the supreme morality. I mean, again, it is not a new thing. Nietzsche writes this a hundred years before but the idea that housewives in Baltimore are miniature Nietzscheians, that is a distinct comment.

Peter Robinson: Now, David Kennedy, now you are a historian. Let me test the Archie Bunker thesis on you. We have been talking about the speed with which the moral order is overturned. And the Archie Bunker reaction would be, "kids these days, they have it too easy." That is to say that affluence is the cause or the solvent of traditional morality. Is that what is taking place in the '70s?

David Kennedy: Well number one, I think we ought to watch out for the danger of exaggerating the so-called collapse of traditional morality. A lot of people still believe in a lot of very traditional moral values even at the end of, or the beginning of the new century.

Peter Robinson: But you've got to say Roe versus Wade in 1973 is a hugely dramatic moment. Right? I mean there is something going on. It is important not to overstate it but there is something going on.

David Kennedy: Absolutely. But I think you are right to put your finger on the spread of affluence as maybe a deep underlying cause here and lest we forget, the great explosion in affluence in this country comes not in the '70s, as David's book makes clear. In fact that is a rather stagnant economic decade. It comes before that. Particularly in the twenty years or so after World War II between 1945 and 1965.

The size of the middle class in this country, measured by home ownership is a rough index of who belongs in the middle class and doubled. About one-third of Americans owned their own homes before World War II and by the early 1960s about two-thirds of Americans owned their own home. That is a good index of just how rich this country got so swiftly.

And it is the children of that generation of affluence who are the subjects, you might say, of David's book. The people who come into the majority in the '70s and began to establish the cultural style of this society, in a rather conspicuous way, are the products of this post World War II moment.

Peter Robinson: Is affluence in and of itself somehow hostile to what we might term traditional morality?

David Frum: I don't think I would agree with that and, in fact, I think we can look to the period after World War II to see that it depends. I mean that that is a period in which America gets richer faster than ever before or really ever since.

But the people who are getting richer have been through a series of searing personal experiences that, in fact, cause America in many ways to become a more traditional society. And the '50s are the decade in which we see the fastest rise in church membership, certainly in the 20th century. That as people who have been through depression and war and the fear of nuclear annihilation say they want something steady and reliable and stable in their lives.

Peter Robinson: The reliable and stable '50s. How did we get from that to the '70s?

Five Easy Theses

Now this is one of the central points of your book as well. That there is a very dramatic change in sensibility from the '60s to the '70s from rational to emotive, if that is not overstating the case. Now that is pretty slippery ground because it is so subjective. But could you state that thesis?

David Frum: I think what you can say is this. What the generation, the Americans who came of age in the 30s and 40s believe they lived, felt, I mean had reason to feel they lived in a world that was very much beyond their control and in which terrible things were capable of happening to you beyond your control. The depression being the obvious example.

And they had great regard for people who offered them a promise of through knowledge, greater control. And in area after area. They liked central economic planning. They liked city planning. They liked the Courbousian idea of the city where wise men would knock down the chaos of the slums and build orderly roads and office buildings at regular intervals.

Peter Robinson: And you also get quite a hunger in popular culture for education. Book of the Month Club actually starts pushing some pretty high brow books to middle class Americans.

David Frum: Right. But it is regular. It is a book of the...I mean the books come at a steady...

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Frum: And they are approved by experts and there is a great regard for...

Peter Robinson: Expert panel, right.

David Frum: ...intellectual authority. This system suddenly stops working so well in the 1970s. The economic planning doesn't work well. These new housing developments suddenly turn out to be snakepits of crime and social dysfunction. And Americans lose their faith in that power of the central reasoning mind to impose order on the world. And I think they go a little bit too far and they then become, then say gee, I mean if, if the experts were wrong about how to build a city, that means the doctors are wrong about whether you should treat your cold with cold medicine or whether you should take zinc tablets.

Peter Robinson: Does he do a good job? This is difficult ground for a historian, as David Frum says. Does he do a good job of coming to grips with this change in sensibility?

David Kennedy: I think this book is a marvelously evocative portrait of the change in texture of the society that began to be democratized, I think is a good word that David uses, began to be apparent in large sectors of the society in the 1970s. I would take a slightly different historical view of the matter.

It seems to me that the solvent, as you said, of modern or of traditional morality is something that has been at work in the modern world or in the Western world, at least, for about a century and a half, maybe two centuries. It is part and parcel of the whole great process that we know historically as the industrial revolution. We may be at the tail end of this long historical cycle, where the results begin to look particularly dramatic.

But remember Marx and Engels wrote in 1848...

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Kennedy: They said the bourgeoisie compels all nations to conform to the capitalist mode of production on pain of extinction. Now this was a powerful statement, it seems to be, about the ability...

Peter Robinson: Now you are going to subscribe to that?

David Kennedy: I am going to subscribe to that statement as a description of what modern industrial economies do to traditional ways of life. Everywhere that they happen, they undermine traditional ways of life.

Peter Robinson: Okay so then how do you get from the steam engine in the late 18th...mid-18th century to this rebellious shift in sensibility in the 70s. What is the proximate cause in more recent times for this? I mean I can understand the rebellion against the rigid order of industrial, of the industrial world.

David Kennedy: It is not, first of all, the first such change in sensibility that we have seen. Even in, in this society, in American society. You can look to Greenwich Village before World War I...

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Kennedy: ...for an expression of a very similar set of ideas about personal liberation, personal fulfillment being the real god that you should worship. What, again, I think David has caught accurately in this book is the fact that this, this spreads, This ethos spreads rather dramatically in this generation that grew up in the post World War II era. So by the 1970s it is everywhere apparent.

Peter Robinson: Let's look at the changing situation of women in the work force.

I am Woman, Hear Me Roar

David Frum, I quote the man. "The trend toward expressive work was accelerated by the rush of women into the work force. Before 1970 it was uncommon for a married woman to work outside the home and even more uncommon for a mother of young children to do so. By 1980 half of married mothers of children under six worked for wages." Now explain that term "expressive work" would you please?

David Frum: Daniel Yankolovich, was a very good pollster, did a series of studies for one of the big business groups of new college graduates and new high school graduates and their motives. And what they were looking for in jobs.

Peter Robinson: You are talking about a poll taken during the '70s.

David Frum: He took them in sequence in year pairs. '69, '71, and '73. And, of course, everyone always likes money. That is...there are some things that never change. But what he found was a great shift in the emphasis on job security. Job security becomes less and less important and this is at a time when the economy, by the way, is weakening.

But despite the weakening economy, the graduates of '73 put much less emphasis on security than do the graduates of '69. And much more emphasis on, they have various phrases, but a job that allows me to express myself. They change their motive for working. They are looking for some kind of emotional fulfillment with their money and they are prepared to trade off a lot of security to get it.

Peter Robinson: And that shift in sensibility draws women into the work force?

David Frum: The arrival of women in the work force in some way intensifies that because one of the things that the feminist intellectual movement does is it glorifies work as an end. And it says that, and this is a movement that argues if you are at home, if you are out of the paid work force, in some sense you are less of a person.

Why? I mean that would not be an argument that would cut a lot of ice in 1915. If you are not a stevedore you are not leading a full and complete life.

Peter Robinson: Right, right.

David Frum: They offer women a vision of work as the avenue in which the human personality can be express. And that message to half the population has tremendous effect on the whole society.

Peter Robinson: Do you buy that? Is that why we have women in the work force?

David Kennedy: Uh...

David Frum: That is not why we have, that is a consequence, not a cause.

Peter Robinson: A consequence. What is the cause then? Hold on, let him state the cause and then we'll have you check the cause.

David Frum: The cause of women in the work force is 1) that, I mean, as the economy's labor gets tight, women are drawn in. And 2) that one of the things that kept women out was their ability to count on support of men in their economic planning.

After 1970 a woman who says, my economic plan is I am going to have kids and count on my husband to take care of me, that is a very bad and dangerous plan.

Peter Robinson: Now you have not named as a cause what I take as the cause that is in the air. People talk about this. Sooner or later somebody is going to say the economy stagnated during the '70s. Women had to go out to work. You don't buy that?

David Frum: I don't really buy it because the economy, there had been bad economic patches before. I mean the stagnating economy of the 1930s drove women out of the work force. And you could have equally have imagined a different society would have said we need to reserve these jobs for bread winners.

Peter Robinson: David Kennedy. Why are women in the work force? Do you buy this argument?

David Kennedy: Actually, women's labor force participation rate goes up slightly in the 1930s. In fact, it goes up over the whole century. From the first statistics we have at the end of the 19th century to now, women's labor force participation rate has gone steadily upward.

Peter Robinson: Steadily? It is a smooth line?

David Kennedy: No. But where the curve begins to inflect most dramatically is the dread decade of the 1950s. The supposedly stable, home oriented, family oriented decade.

Peter Robinson: Let me restate one of his arguments in a tendentious manner. It is family breakdown that drives women into the work force.

David Kennedy: No because again the greatest increases percentage wise, proportion increases come before you get this dramatic increase in the divorce rate. There seems to be a correlation here but it seems to...I would say runs the other way. That is women have more economic opportunity. They are more likely...

Peter Robinson: Families breakdown because women are out working.

David Kennedy: Because they are more likely to leave a marriage that isn't satisfactory if they have economic opportunity. Historically women had no opportunities to support themselves outside the traditional family and they were stuck there.

Peter Robinson: Do you buy that? We have got to grant that cause and correlation are intertwined here. We can't really separate them.

David Frum: We can see A and we can see B happening and at some level you have to make a judgment as an observer about what you think is driving this. And, of course it's both. But we tell the story so much. I mean there is in every situation comedy of the 1970s, none is complete without this scene where the long-suffering wife, Mrs. Jefferson, at last tells off the overbearing husband, Mr. Jefferson...

Peter Robinson: To huge applause.

David Frum: And she slams the door. Silence, silence.

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Frum: Then the huge applause.

Peter Robinson: They get over the shock.

David Frum: That's right.

And I think of that scene, of course that happened. Mrs. Jefferson got a job, she no longer had to put up with Mr. Jefferson. But it happened as much the other way. That Mr. Jefferson left. And it was that that triggers Mrs. Jefferson's enormous rage and anger and it was that that sends her out to buy the books and join the encounter group to make sense of this thing that has befallen her.

Peter Robinson: David Frum is critical of the 1970s but why is he also critical of the 1950s and '60s?

Reelin' in the Years

David, you write in your prologue that the purpose of your book is, I quote you again, to describe and to judge and they key here is...he describes the decade of the '70s as a slum of a decade. And endless series of disasters. But listen to what he says about the decades that came before the '70s, your cherished '60s.

"Like them or loathe them, the middle decades of the 20th century, that is to say the period that comes before the '70s were an entirely anomalous period in American history. Never had the state been so strong. Never had people submitted as uncomplainingly. You can see now why people might pine for those days, but would they pine for them if they remember that the top rate of income tax was 90%. To ship a crate of lettuce across the country, a trucker needed permission from a federal agency. Almost one-third of the country's best jobs were off limits for anyone who refused to join a union."

What do you think, is he being too hard on the decades before the '70s and on the '70s?

David Kennedy: Well to be honest, I can't get to excited about the difficulties in shipping lettuce in the 1950s. The fact remains that, that both...

Peter Robinson: It was a highly regulated state we were living in.

David Kennedy: It surely was compared to the one we live in, lived in later.

Peter Robinson: In today, right.

David Kennedy: But the fact remains that that was the period of greatest economic growth in all of American history.

Peter Robinson: The '50s and '60s.

David Kennedy: The post-war generation, let's say. 1945 to roughly 1970. It was the period when this country, at last, had the self-confidence and the courage to grasp the nettle of race relations that it had avoided grasping for a century and finally made progress in racial equity. It was the period when we doubled the size of the middle class.

Whether or not there were nuisances about shipping lettuce seems to me to be quite trivial compared to the other rather more substantial achievements.

Peter Robinson: Now to listen to him, I am willing to go live with him in the endless loop of the 1960s. David?

David Frum: Well except it broke down. And it broke down for a reason. I don't think it was going to be a stable situation in America over the long run to say, in this country of all countries. We are going to run this country, of all countries, as a centralized society with a tremendous influence of military power, with tremendous secrecy, with enormous discretionary power in the hands of the central authorities. We are going to have an economy that is dominated by gigantic corporations who have deals with gigantic labor unions.

Peter Robinson: So let's go back to that second really interesting assertion in that passage I just quoted, which is that that post-war period, the '50s, the '60s were an entirely anomalous period in American history. Alexis d'Toqueville comes here in the mid-19th century, he sees a decentralized, individualistic nation and here we are, the '70s begin to bring us back to the decentralized individualistic nation. Do you go for that?

David Kennedy: Of course, d'Toqueville saw a pre-industrial America.

Peter Robinson: Right. Well now we are in a post-industrial America.

David Kennedy: Well again I think one can exaggerate, as David just did, the degree of bureaucratization, regimentation in the post World War II economy. I believe David just used the word centralized. There was no equivalent in this country. There was not even a nationalization of a single core industry which is not true in virtually any other Western industrial society where transportation, communication, sometimes basic industries like steel, aircraft production and so on were widely nationalized. We never had anything even remotely like that.

David Frum: We had the draft, which you could escape if you went to certain approved professions. We had the, we had in a way the nationalization of human labor, which is a pretty...

David Kennedy: We had a manpower policy.

David Frum: ...which is a pretty amazing thing if you think about it, in the United States.

Peter Robinson: And you are describing things that a Stanford sophomore might view as outrageous today, but they didn't feel that bad then. Is that a fair statement?

David Kennedy: What are the things that Stanford sophomore would find outrageous. The draft? Yes, certainly.

And I can tell you it felt pretty bad at the time, too.

Peter Robinson: Last question. What legacy of the 1970s would our guests change if they could?

A Family Affair

Let me pose one more mind experiment for you. A hundred and sixty years ago, the early Victorians confront a society in which illegitimacy is, by their standards at least, very high. It was 8%. They thought that was outrageous. Alcoholism is rampant. Crime in London is out of control. Within two decades they turned all three around. They cut the illegitimacy rate, alcoholism drops, they have got crime under...they establish a police force, get crime under control.

That is to say, cultural trends can be reversed by an act of will exercised through political entities. If you could repeal or reform one legacy of the 1970s, what would it be?

David Kennedy?

David Kennedy: The event in the '70s that I think was the specific event that was probably most damaging and that history has, in fact, repealed is the oil crises. In fact, the world has found new sources of oil and there is a transient moment right now when there is a bit of an oil crisis.

Peter Robinson: So in other words that mentality that we are running out of natural resources, the marketplace is simply overthrown and a good thing, too, you say.

David Frum?

David Frum: I think the '70s were themselves a great decade of repealing. That is why they were so painful to live through and yet so ultimately productive. That a lot of institutions that have outlived their usefulness were dismantled then and have left better ways.

But I'll tell you if there were one thing from the '70s that I wish, I mean even one wish, it is this. That people should not have children before, unless and until they are married. And the rehabilitation of the idea that a child can be born to unmarried people is, I think, the single most poisonous legacy that is introduced then and is still with us.

Peter Robinson: And can the family be rehabilitated in America? Is that a practical hope?

David Frum: You know, we have no way of knowing which of our hopes are practical or not, do we. I mean a lot of things that seemed impractical become quite practical. But the fact that something...it is not a very good answer to the statement, something is necessary, to say but it will be very difficult. If it is necessary then it has to be done, doesn't it?

Peter Robinson: Do you buy that?

David Kennedy: Well, the idea of the family, in one form or another but recognizably the family has been around a long time in a lot of cultures. And though it has been battered and the definition has been extended and manipulated in our society in the last generation or so, I think there is a core human need there that families fill and that we are likely to see families or something recognizably successive to families.

Peter Robinson: Reassert itself?

David Kennedy: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so you are not content with the situation yourself?

David Kennedy: To a degree not, but I think the fundamental needs that a family fulfills are likely to be there for a long time to come. And some institution like the family, very, very similar to the family, I think, will continue to fulfill it.

Peter Robinson: David Kennedy, David Frum, thank you very much.

David Frum: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: Both our guests agree, many of the effects of the 1970s are indeed still with us. For better or worse. I am Peter Robinson. Thank you for joining us.