A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does restage old moments in new conditions and costumes.

The U.S. is in the midst of a major political crisis. The crisis is rooted in the Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic and social destabilizations it engendered. But it is a crisis made worse by Donald Trump’s failed presidency.

While the stock market is, like a roller coaster, in an upswing and reaching new heights, deeper, most troubling and structural problems are only getting worse. Unemployment is widespread; families are going hungry and many are facing eviction; millions are mobilizing to challenge institutionalized racism and deepening inequality; a new Cold War with China is being promoted; and interpersonal and social violence is intensifying.

Today’s mounting social crisis recall the decade of the 1970s, a tumultuous moment in U.S. history. It was the moment when U.S. imperialism began to stall-out and the “American Dream” started to unravel.

The late-60s was rocked by widespread political protests, urban riots and political assassinations. In 1968, half a million U.S. soldiers were at war in Vietnam and other Southeast Asia war zone. When the U.S. withdrew its military in 1973, 58,000 Americans had died.

In May ’70, U.S. forces expanded the war from Vietnam to Cambodia; in response, major protests erupted at Ohio’s Kent State University (National Guardsmen killed four students and wounding nine) and Mississippi’s Jackson State (city and state police killed two students and injuring twelve). That year witnessed the first major postal workers’ strike — that last seven days! — in the nation’s history. Equally memorable, Ralph Nader, author of Unsafe at Any Speed, won his long-fought battle with General Motors.

Sadly, the war dragged on. Nixon’s failed Cambodia Initiative as followed by the equally flawed Easter Offensive, a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. In response, anti-war activists organized the May Day demonstrations to shut down the government. An estimated 35,000 protesters rallied and were confronted by 10,000 federal troops and 5,100 D.C. police officers – and 12,614 people were arrested.

So begins the ‘70s and, over the coming decade, the Christian, corporatists right congealed into a powerful social force. It was response to the social dislocation of the 1960s – a reaction to the civil-rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, the counterculture of sex, drugs & rock-and-roll, second-wave feminism (especially abortion) and homosexuality.

The conservative campaign was (unofficially) launched in August 1971 when Lewis Powell, a Virginia attorney, released a secret study commissioned by a neighbor affiliated with Chamber of Commerce entitled, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” As Ben Waterhouse observes, Powell articulated a deeply shared belief among “anti-capitalist forces — from the universities to the pulpits to public-interest law firms — were waging a cultural assault on business, and that groups such as the Chamber of Commerce had no choice but to become politically active.” Powell argued that, as Waterhouse, notes, “Business-people had to become more involved in national politics.”

In his secret memo, Powell advised the Chamber and its members on a simple, if profound, message:

Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

And they acted. Independently of the memo, on January 7, 1972, Powel began serving as a Justice on the nation’s highest court.

Influential Americans took Powell’s warning to heart. In February ‘73, three of the nation’s richest conservatives – Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and H. L. Hunt — backed Paul Weyrich and the creation of the Heritage Foundation. In May, the National Council of Catholic Bishops spun off its National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) into a separate, activist anti-abortion organization. In September, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators.

Powell’s memo came at a propitious moment. The nation faced mounting international tensions and Nixon’s foreign-policy tsar, Henry Kissinger, worried that America’s global fortunes were faltering. The Soviet Union was growing in power; independence movements were spreading throughout he third-world; Europe and Japan were resurging; Nixon visited China in February ’72, signaling its entry onto the world stage; the CIA backed the bloody coup in Chile; and the disastrous, nearly-two-decade long Vietnam War dragged on.

Nixon’s veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 was most telling. Promoted by Pat Buchanan, Nixon claimed the act was “a long leap into the dark” that would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”

Equally troubling, in 1971 Nixon decided to decouple the dollar from the gold standard and, in retaliation for the U.S. support for Israel during the Arab–Israeli War, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo in ’73-’74. This led to a period of “stagflation.” Wage and price controls were introduced as post-WW-II prosperity stalled. One response to the economic downturn was an increase in the violent crime rate. It escalated by 260 percent from 1960 to ’75, from 288,460 to 1,039,710 reported incidents.

In June ’71, portions of what became known as the Pentagon Papers were published in the New York Times. Released by Daniel Ellsberg, they detailed the U.S.’s political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Its precipitated Street protests, political controversy and lawsuits followed, ultimately ending in a Supreme Court ruling that found the Nixon administration failed meet the burden of proof required for a prior restraint injunction.

Compounding the growing tension, in the 18-month period between 1971-’72, 2,500 bombings took place throughout the country. In ’71, Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” dramatically increasing the size and presence of federal drug control agencies as well as securing mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. In 1973, 200 Oglala Lakota people occupied Wounded Knee. A Democratic-controlled Congress passed major liberal legislation, including: Title IX, prohibiting discrimination in education; the Equal Rights Amendment; extended the Equal Pay Act to cover administrative and professional positions; and passed Equal Employment Opportunity Act.

On January 20, 1973, Nixon was inaugurated to his second term as president. This followed his landslide victory over Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) — who had been labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” – driven by the “Southern strategy” that reconfigured national politics and shaped the culture wars. Nevertheless, the presidency faced the gravest threat since Lincoln’s assassination.

On June 25th, John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, testified before the Senate’s Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities and acknowledged the president’s role in planning the White House Special Investigations Unit — aka the “Plumbers” — broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex. On October 20th, Nixon executed the situation by ordering the “Saturday Night Massacre,” firing the heads of the Justice Department for refusing to follow his orders. On February 6, 1974, the House initiated the impeachment of Nixon and, on August 9, 1974, he resigned.

Perhaps most threatening for traditionalists, especially to white evangelicals and Catholics, a new moral order was recasting American sexual and “family” values. The ‘60s counterculture reconceived social life; Ozzie & Harriet were gone, replaced by Sonny & Cher. Contraceptive and birth control – the Pill – were transforming sex life; women were re-entering the labor market in ever-growing numbers; divorce increased, reforming the family; school segregation and prayer were prohibited, and a more secular school curriculum was being introduced. The gravest challenge was the shift in moral values, from one based on a notion of “sin” to a legal concern, “consent”; sex crimes included rape, pedophilia, child porn, sex trafficking, incest, lust murder or inflicting someone with an STD.

Conservatives were deeply disturbed by what they saw as the breakdown of Christian morality. They were upset by the 1970 report of a special commission, “President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography,” that found no link between pornography and child molestation – Pres. Nixon repudiated it. Deep Throat, a porn sensation starring Linda Lovelace (aka Amanda Seyfried), premiered at New York’s World Theater in June 1972, launching a new genre called “porn chic.” A host of celebrates went to see it, including Truman Capote, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, Frank Sinatra and even Vice President Spiro Agnew. (It was so popular that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used it as the pseudonym given to the secret informant who provided information for their 1972 Watergate investigation.)

In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, launch a successful campaign to block the ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Her campaign gained momentum following the Supreme Court’s momentous Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973, that legalizing a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion. In his decision, Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “… throughout the 19th Century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn ….” The Roe decision forced 46 states to liberalize their abortion laws and remains the defining issue of the culture wars.

Traditionalists were further incensed when the Supreme Court, in Miller v. California (1973), introduced a new, expanded three-factor definition of obscenity; (i) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work as a whole appeals to the prurient interest; (ii) whether the work depicts or describes sexual conduct or excretory functions, as defined by state law, in an offensive way; and (iii) whether the work as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Equally disturbing to many traditionalists, the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) held its 1973 conference in that led to the landmark decision removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Shortly thereafter, other medical, religious and civic groups formally ending discrimination against homosexuals, sodomy laws were dropped in more than a dozen states and cities across the country passed laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Over the last half-century, traditionalists successfully wove together a series of deep-seated social concerns into the culture wars. These issues range from the defeat of the ERA, opposition to abortion, efforts to strengthen family relations, anticommunism, contain race relations, restrict sexual identity to the dualism of male/female, suppress “obscenity,” replace public education with private and religious schools, and, perhaps most threatening, the increasing secularization of a supposedly religious society. These efforts forged the New Christian Right that recast the Republican Party and, decades later, culminated in Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

However, during this half-century the nation has changed. While the U.S. military was defeated in Vietnam, it has nonetheless pursued an aggressive interventionist strategy ever since. Domestically, a series of “liberal” Supreme Court decisions rippled through society. They helped increased women’s rights (e.g., military service), gay rights (e.g., marriage), shifts in popular values (e.g., contraceptives use, “consensual” premarital sex), changes in family relations (e.g., decreased divorce rate) and growth of the multi-billion-dollar commercial sex industry (e.g., sex toys, porn and prostitution). These and other developments outline America’s changed moral order.

A deepening crisis grips the nation. Grounded in the Covid-19 pandemic, its fueled profound economic uncertainty. More troubling, the crisis has freed African American and others to challenge the repressive police state that seeks to contain social resistance. Like the protest movements of the ‘70s, today’s challenge takes many forms – from individual acts of resistance, to street mobilizations, to lootings, to political organizing and voting.

This crisis speaks deeper than the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. If Trump wins, the ongoing crisis will likely only intensify and get more militant, especially if he appoints an additional Judge to the Supreme Court and imposes his all-American Gestapo to enforce social order. If Biden wins, and the Democrats gain control of the Senate, the social crisis, while being moderately contained, will intensify as the neoliberal policy of economic inequality intensifies. And if Biden wins the presidency and the Republicans continue control of the Senate, a stalemate not unlike what gripped Obama’s last couple of years in office will likely paralyze the nation.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.