Sucking in the Mid-to-Late '70s

How the Carter-Reagan era set the course for contemporary America.


Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, by Philip Jenkins, New York: Oxford University Press, 352 pages, $28

Loathed by the people who lived through them, held in disapprobation for ages afterward, the 1970s were for many years remembered mainly for being so forgettable. Compared with the upheaval and white-hot transformation of the '60s, the decade Garry Marshall built always seemed petty, small, ridiculous.

All that has changed in the last 10 years. A bumper crop of studies has treated the '70s as a period of catastrophic or liberating disruption that largely created contemporary America. Histories such as Bruce J. Schulman's The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, David Frum's How We Got Here, and William C. Berman's America's Right Turn, as well as media studies such as Rob Owen's Gen X TV and Josh Ozersky's Archie Bunker's America, have re-envisioned the period from Nixon to Reagan as fertile territory for social theory, a period of lasting and important change. (Sticklers for chronology should be aware that these books contain material that is not strictly contained within the 1970s, that they all differ on when the periods we think of as "the '60s," "the '70s," or "the '80s" began or ended, and that most studies of the period come with an understanding that we're referring to a "long '70s" of more than 10 years' duration.)

On its surface, Philip Jenkins' brilliant Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America is another installment in this growing body of literature. But Jenkins, a Penn State historian who has written several books on American social history, shifts both the time frame and the terms of the discussion to produce a rich, surprising reading of what Tom Wolfe in 1976 christened the Me Decade.

First, Decade of Nightmares dispenses with arbitrary decade markers entirely, identifying 1975 to 1986 as the period when the modern American sensibility developed. (Jenkins plays fast and loose enough with his examples that it may be more accurate just to say the book approximately covers the Carter-Reagan era, with leeway at both ends.) The book also asks more nuanced questions than others in its genre.

For one, how did a period of such enormous disruption also produce so much continuity? The post-1975 period was a time when the apparent triumph of progressive '60s values was decisively reversed, when the identity politics of the New Left fell into permanent disarray, when the liberal era's technocratic approaches to social problems were abandoned in favor of Manichean thinking that defined social ills as moral problems and aberrant behavior as the product of evil rather than dysfunction. Yet these retrenchments did not reverse the gains made in civil rights, feminism, and gay liberation, even though these last two were subject to strident counterattacks.

A trickier question involves how political disruption and continuity go hand in hand. Popular history largely ignores the important policy linkages between Jimmy Carter, the deregulating architect of the anti-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan, and Ronald Reagan, the bumbler behind the "Reagan recession" and the disastrous mission in Lebanon; but in retrospect there are important ways in which Reagan's revolution preceded his presidency. "Reagan's opportunities to impose his particular vision," Jenkins writes, "were shaped by a wide variety of developments, social, economic, demographic, and cultural, which were all under way well before the critical 1980 election.…American liberalism was transformed no less than conservatism was." Much of the working class not only drifted away from the Democratic Party but turned passionately against it—a development liberals lament and conservatives applaud, neither considering the degree to which these voters remained unchanged in underlying habits and attitudes.

These questions are of more than academic interest because, Jenkins argues, the conservative consensus that emerged in the Reagan period proved remarkably durable, retaining its general shape up to the present day. This consensus cannot be called fiscally conservative and socially liberal in any truly libertarian sense, but it has also avoided the extremes characteristic of an illiberal movement. Somehow, the uneasy alliance among Christian conservatives, defense hawks, free marketeers, and working-class 'Reagan Democrats' has endured as the national model of conservatism. How did all this happen?

According to Jenkins, Americans during the Carter-Reagan period remained in the grip of a series of "moral panics" that drove policy and produced a view of history in which rational (and numerical) realities mattered less than emotional perceptions. The concept of moral panic, of public hysteria over topics ranging from ritual child sex abuse to designer drugs to terrorism, is a regular theme of Jenkins' work (one he has promoted a little too facilely in treating the recent management scandal over sexual misconduct by Catholic priests). The pleasant surprise is how beautifully the theme works when applied to the politics of the late '70s and the '80s. You don't have to be a John Wayne Gacy completist, a POW/MIA stalwart, a cult deprogrammer, or a child suffering from recovered memories of Satanic rape at the hands of your day care center trusties (to name just a few of the real and unreal bogeymen Jenkins drags out of history's dustbin) to appreciate Decade of Nightmares' argument that politics is often mass psychology by another name.

It's a bracing reimagination of an era. We know now that inflation was on the verge of being whipped, that double-digit interest rates were a relic of practically medieval economic thinking, that urban decay was a passing phase in the renewal of America's cities, and that the Soviet Union was one Yakov Smirnoff routine away from the old folks' home of history. But at the time, such problems seemed chronic, and they were joined by countless smaller terrors to create a sense of cosmic dread. A nation of latchkey kids was either being driven mad by angel dust or getting abducted by brainwashing cults. Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic were mutilating cattle in the countryside, while in urban areas the '60s problem of "white flight" had escalated into a vision of American cities in violent, unmanageable, apocalyptic decline. Iranian maniacs weren't just keeping 52 U.S. citizens in captivity; they were, in the hysterical phrase that made the career of the supposedly unruffleable newsman Ted Koppel, holding America hostage.

Meanwhile Americans remained in dank prisons in Communist Vietnam, despite having been repeatedly rescued by Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, and other Hollywood stars. Americans at home were not safe either, easy prey for crack dealers, child rapists, swine flu, and serial killers (a concept, and a phrase, that attained national prominence in the early '80s). Even our apparent birthrights of electricity and warm homes had come to seem suspect, dependent as they were on shady Arab oil sheiks and nuclear power plants on the verge of melting down. Worst of all, Americans had become too narcissistic, emasculated, antisocial, and self-absorbed to do anything about it.

Decade of Nightmares traces the complex interplay of these panics with shifts in party politics and the era's many moments of real turmoil. Chapters treat the origins of the politics of children and child endangerment, the mainstreaming of the term predator to describe sex offenders and other violent criminals, the sense of powerlessness that accompanied the hostage crisis, the redefinition of the Soviet Union from a partner in "detente" to an Evil Empire (a change Jenkins for the most part countenances), and other major changes in attitude. The author is at his best when triangulating or cross-referencing these categories: In a discussion of the '80s vogue for anti–nuclear war films like Testament and The Day After, Jenkins notes how these pictures highlighted nuclear winter's threat to children, wryly concluding, "The bomb was the ultimate form of child abuse."

In "Wars Without End," the book's breezy but perceptive final chapter, Jenkins brings these new attitudes up to the present day, via such varied elements as Bill Clinton's religiosity, "three strikes" laws, the hunting of Manuel Noriega, and the birth of the Axis of Evil. He has a firm grasp on cultural moments whose import has faded with time—recalling, for example, the scandal that seized the nation when would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley was acquitted on insanity grounds. That outrage is forgotten because Hinckley has been effectively jailed in a psychiatric hospital ever since, but at the time, 80 percent of the population believed justice had not been done.

Jenkins generally avoids showing his cards, but he is mostly sympathetic to the conservative trend in American life, and sensitive to the way moral panics that put the population in a more conservative mood frequently originated on the left. Much of the early-'80s frenzy about child molesters and Satanic ritual abuse, for example, is traceable to Susan Brownmiller–style feminism, with its view of rape and incest as frequent or normative aspects of patriarchy. (It's also notable that conservatives such as Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz were honorable early skeptics of sexual abuse panics.) The serial killer concept, too, ended up as an icon of unadulterated evil, but grew out of psychoanalytic notions of compulsive behavior that tended to absolve individuals of moral responsibility.

Whether you believed the child abuse epidemic was the result of unchecked male pathology or of unbridled '60s libertinism, the important thing was that you believed there was a child abuse epidemic, requiring a strong response. It was this mood of compounded horror, as much as the standard explanations of stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, that made stout Reagan so much more attractive than pusillanimous Carter. Again, Jenkins brings back a nuance lost to history: the brimstone, apocalyptic strain that underlined Reagan's famous sunniness.

In one of those insights that are hidden in plain sight, Decade of Nightmares notes that no major coverage of the 1980 presidential campaign mentions the Atlanta child murders, that year's biggest, most disturbing, most compelling news story. This is not to say that Jimmy Carter would have won re-election if only Wayne Williams had been convicted of the murders (on very dubious grounds) a few months earlier. But there is no denying the sense of horror and powerlessness that hung over those days, infecting even the incumbent's home state. (One counterfactual Jenkins doesn't consider is that had Watergate not irradiated the Republicans, it's likely the GOP would have remained in the White House through the end of the '70s and paid the price for the decay of that period.)

This is soft science, and Jenkins beefs up his arguments with the citations of pop culture ephemera that have become standard in studies of this sort. He is skillful at this part, comfortable with the vagaries of punk politics, the cult of drug-addled sitcom star MacKenzie Phillips, Hal Lindsey's evangelical End Times blockbuster The Late, Great Planet Earth (and the many books of environmental apocalypse that now seem indistinguishable from it), Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's conspiracy-drunk Illuminatus! trilogy, and the gradations of slasher movies. Jenkins finds meaning in very special episodes of Mork & Mindy, in the no-budget Rapture film A Thief In the Night (which reportedly gained an audience in the hundreds of millions via showings on the international Protestant church group circuit), and in Sexual Suicide, George Gilder's unintentionally hilarious rampage against gay and feminist activism (and Gilder's own flagging masculine energies).

This type of material is easy to write and frequently fun to read, and I would have liked to see Jenkins devote more of his energy to it. Not only because he occasionally gets something wrong (e.g., erroneously grouping the Men Without Hats classic "Safety Dance," a song whose only concern is the listener's capacity to dance if he or she wants to, with the anti-war/anti-nuke music genre of the early '80s), but because there is room for so much more. Once again, The Bad News Bears gets ignored as a watershed film, as does Dawn of the Dead, popular culture's last word on both de-urbanization and Me Generation anomie. And where is Oingo Boingo's "Only a Lad," a song that demonstrated even New Wave fancy lads could produce a tough-on-crime anthem? Fox's sitcom Married With Children debuted at the tail end of the period Jenkins treats, to unanimous condemnation from conservatives who viewed it as an assault on traditional values, but in hindsight, the Al Bundy type of working-class forgotten man, whose real enemies are mealy-mouthed elites from the blue states, appears to be the central actor in the social transformation Jenkins is discussing.

But this is to criticize Decade of Nightmares for not being a different book. Jenkins has made an important contribution to our understanding of post-'60s America. If the book has a failing, it may be that Jenkins doesn't follow his arguments to their disquieting conclusions. He acknowledges that, particularly in the areas of foreign policy and crime prevention, moral panics often contain a kernel of reality, but he doesn't consider what that reality means for those of us who share his skepticism. The book ends on a modest plea for reason, acknowledging that while terrorists, killer drugs, and child molesters exist, we need to shrink the space they hold in our consciousness and avoid hysterical reactions. This supposes that reasonable reactions are advisable, or even possible. Against a hypochondriac who insists on wearing a surgical mask at all times, facts and logic are useless, because it's the hypochondriac who has facts and logic on his side: The world really is crawling with killer germs and unimaginable pathogens. The only counterargument is that nobody wants to go around looking like Dr. Giggles every day, but that's an argument based on preference, not logic.

To take a recent example of hysterical overreaction, consider that the most effective arguments against the USA PATRIOT Act haven't been logical appeals to the self-interest of the average citizen (who has almost certainly not noticed the act's effects) but panicky appeals to Big Brother's slippery slope and other fears that tend to exist more in the mind than in reality. (Proponents of the act have their own habits of chop logic and unreason, which don't need recapitulating here.) By the same token, Jenkins appears to be dismayed at ballooning rates of incarceration in recent decades. But like civil libertarians, he avoids the question of whether those rates might have something to do with the precipitous drops in violent crime rates during the same period. And it was the Chicken Littles of anti-terrorism and "Islamophobia" who ended up looking prescient after the 9/11 atrocities. I am not defending the prison boom or the PATRIOT Act, merely noting a troubling point about contemporary hysteria: that in many instances the hysterics have turned out to be right, or at least as right as anybody else offering solutions.

In what may be Decade of Nightmares' most brilliant juxtaposition, Jenkins compares the psychiatrist figures in slasher movies from two very different eras. At the end of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho, perpetual hothead Simon Oakland is brought in to explain murderer Norman Bates' pathology in irreproachable psychiatric detail, while authority figures from the church, the state, and the victim's family listen in rapt silence. ("A psychiatrist doesn't lay the groundwork," Oakland intones. "He merely tries to explain it.") Eighteen years later, John Carpenter's Halloween ends with perpetual egghead Donald Pleasance being asked if slasher Michael Myers is the bogeyman. The creepy shrink replies that yes, he probably is. You couldn't find a more striking contrast between the era of technocratic liberalism and the era of conservative reaction.

But there's another wrinkle here. By 1978, let alone 2006, Oakland's pseudoscientific display of Freudian skylarking looked not only wrong but laughably stupid and under-informed; the psychiatrist, like so many other authority figures, had by then been recognized as eminently fallible. The bogeyman explanation seems downright scientific by comparison.

The real surprise may not be how silly moral panics of the past look today but how disheveled today's rational high ground will look in the future.