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No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals

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Forty years ago, my 16-year-old self breezed through the Bicentennial summer of 1976. Easy references to the Declaration of Independence ran through popular culture, and, in my memory, adolescent encounters with life, liberty, and pursuits of happiness predominate. Like many young Americans of the 1970s, I was preoccupied with myself. Had I been less so, I might have thought more about what that summer portended for the Declaration’s other ideal, equality, and how 1976 might matter from the distant perspective of 2016.

The summer of Seventy Six gave me an early taste of adult-like freedom. I got my first job pumping gas and doing basic auto repair at a local garage. I got my driver’s license; no restraints, then, on young drivers; I could cruise wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, so long as my parents approved. Wheels and cash enabled me sometimes to get into bars. The legal drinking age being 18, I found I might pass into that elicit realm of disco, music, beer, and dancing. All this happened very quickly just after 10th grade.

Pursuing happiness revolved around my all-consuming project of physical transformation. I was caught up in metamorphosing from childhood (bookish, nerdy, chubby) into the athlete I so badly wanted to become as a route to popularity . . . and girls. I obsessed about wrestling, football, waterskiing, and weightlifting. Perhaps a few girls noticed, but I continued to feel not very popular.

It turns out that my shallow concerns, attributable to raging hormones, exemplified the whole country and its inward turn. Looking away from 1960s activism in politics, civil rights, and antiwar agitation, Americans were living a sort of national adolescence in the seventies embodied by self-help and sexual revolution. That August, Tom Wolfe labeled the era “The Me Decade.”

I may have been preoccupied, but I read the papers and watched TV news. We lost Vietnam, and Saigon had fallen to the communists. Watergate and Nixon’s resignation served as bad counterpoints to bicentennial hype about the Founding Fathers’ purity. The economy whipsawed between rising inflation and low productivity. Black civil rights had reached a confusing, often violent impasse. I could hardly miss the shocking photograph that April of a well-dressed black man accosted and attacked on his way to work, in Boston, impaled by an angry white protesting school busing. The assailant’s weapon was a flagpole from which waved Old Glory.

Notwithstanding all this, I felt optimistic about America’s prospects, as astonishing as that sounds. Nixon’s resignation suggested that Congress, the press, and the Justice Department all did their jobs, and no one was above the law. It may have taken too long, but public outrage had finally forced us out of a bad war in Vietnam. “Stagflation” presented a real economic problem, but my grandparents had regaled me with stories about the Great Depression and how Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal beat it. American democracy worked, I thought.

Had I been wiser, maybe I could have intuited the advice I now give students in my history and contemporary issues classes. Imagine, I ask them, how the present moment will look from the distant future. What evidence will historians then seize on to define our own moment? In retrospect, it is easy to see what I missed:

Today’s political tropes originated in 1976. The rhetoric of that presidential election touted inexperience as a virtue. Beltway insider Gerald Ford, an unelected president who appeared to have gotten the office merely by being a career Congressman, was impotent either to fix the economy or get out of his own way. My friends and I howled at Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live impressions skewering Ford. Ronald Reagan almost stole the Republican nomination from him by promising to make America great again and labeling Ford weak, and Democrat Jimmy Carter played the God card: trumpeting his religiously inspired morality and promising not to lie in office. 1976 explains a lot both about Donald Trump and Mitt Romney as presidential candidates.

We stopped fighting racial segregation. Two Supreme Court rulings bracketed the Bicentennial summer in time. Milliken v Bradley (1974) and Bakke v Regents (1978) curbed inter-district school busing and racial quotas in higher-education admissions, respectively. Education writer Jonathan Kozol sees in those decisions the eventual “restoration of apartheid schooling” to the United States. The ideal shifted, according to historian Bruce Schulman, from integration to “diversity.” Had it not, there might be no need for Black Lives Matter now.

There was no 1970s New Deal. America hemorrhaged unionized blue-collar jobs. Deindustrialization hollowed out manufacturing cities. By 1979, economists note, we had entered a period of wealth polarization that continues today. The rise of the One Percent and middle class attrition originated in the seventies.

Oblivious to all this, still I had a few things going for me. Busy creating myself, I had time and freedom to become whoever I wanted to be, or so it seemed. Glimpsing the adult world from the garage and bars gave me insight into what I might want, or not want, out of life. I did not feel anxiety about concerns that plague my teenage students now: making the honor roll, getting into the right college and having the means to pay for it, accruing the status that parents and peers expect. My students seem terribly afraid of failure, maybe because they live so publicly on social media. I could concentrate on growing up. I had more freedom.

Bad times, bad hair, and polyester–the seventies offer little room for nostalgia. But, meditating this Independence Day on Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration, it seems hard not to conclude, objectively and anecdotally, that some things might be even worse now. We were freer and more equal in 1976. Maybe we had more reason for hope, too.

Chris Doyle holds a Ph.D. in American history and directs a Global Studies program at Watkinson School in Hartford, Conn. He is also an adjunct professor of history at Trinity College.

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