Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: What are some of the
major problems facing America in the 1970s
 and 1980s?

Reading: Loewen, pp. 260-270; Carter "Democratic
Acceptance Speech" (web)
; Reagan "The American
Spirit" (web)
; Trends in American Society in the 1970s

Video: Network

Daily Class Web Links

The 1970's Energy Crisis

The Environmental Movement
in the 1970s

Anxiety and Cynicism in the 1970s

The Investigation of the CIA and
FBI in the 1970s

The Rise of the Conservative Right

Daily Class Outline

1. America in the 1970s

2. The Rise of Conservatism and
the Religious Right in the 1970s

Daily Class Questions

1. According to Loewen, what were the larger causes
of the energy crisis in the 1970s.

2. Why does Loewen believe Americans are committed
to the "ideology of progress"?

3. According to Loewen, how does Americans' faith in progress work to undermine a clearer understanding of American history and society?

4. Do you think Americans' faith in progress was challenged by economic, political, and social trends in the 1970s?

5. What does Jimmy Carter mean when he argues that "we've seen a wall go up that separates us from our government"?

6.  What does Carter mean when he declares that "it's time for the people to run the government, and not the other way around"?

7. What does President Carter mean when he argues that America is "facing a crisis of confidence"?

8. According to Carter, why does Americans' declining faith in progress threaten American society and its future?

9. Does Carter offer any real solution to Americans' "crisis
in confidence" and growing loss of faith in progress?

10. How does Ronald Reagan propose to reduce what President Carter calls "Americans' crisis of confidence"?

11. Do you agree with Reagan that many of Americans' problem are caused by the growth of "big government'?

12. How does Reagan propose to revive the American Spirit and Americans' faith in their future?

Daily Class Notes

Trends in American Society in
the 1970s

1. Higher Divorce rates

2. Increased Pre-marital Sex

3. Fewer women having children

4. Increase in Couples living together

5. Increased Recognition of Homosexual lifestyle

6. Rise in female-headed households

7. Rise in Drug use

8. Rising crime rates

9. 10 to 15 percent annual inflation rate

10. Increasing costs of energy. Energy Crisis.

11. Growing concern about an environmental crisis

12. Increasing concern about carcinogens in food
and water

13. Declining standard of living

14. Increasing number of women working

15. More equality for Women and Blacks

16.Increasing use of sex to sell products.

17. Decline in mainstream, mainline Christian--
      Protestant and Catholic--church attendance
      among the white, American middle-class.

18. Growth of fundamentalist, evangelical churches--
      Baptist and Methodist--and television ministries
      among Southern whites and American working-class.

We can only understand the 1970s as a decade of disillusion, cynicism, bitterness, and anger by examining it in t he context of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the Cold War. The American people were increasingly disillusioned with the government and their democratic institutions in the 1970s. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Watergate damaged Americans' faith in their government and their leaders. Burdened with this political disillusionment, American society in the 1970s was also underseige by economic decline and declining standards of living. For many Americans, the 1970s became a decade of transition--marked by confusion, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling that America had lost its direction, as if the very future of the "American experiment" and the "American Dream" might be in question. In the 1970s, Americans were faced with unresolved conflict and problems that challenged the very heart of the post-war liberal consensus; they faced economic stagnation and recession, increasing poverty, decline in their standards of living, fears that the American Dream was becoming harder and harder to achieve, and bitter divisions over America's fundamental cultural values.

Let's look for a moment at some of the major problems that Americans faced in the 1970s. Many of these problems already existed before the 1970s, but seemed to many Americans to now be getting worse and more intractable. In the 1970s, we saw increasing divorce rates, with up to one in two marriages ending in divorce. We see a rise in female-headed households caused by these divorces, which forces single women to work to support their families. We see increasing numbers of women working, both to support their families and try to make up for their family's declining standard of living.. We see the increasing breakdown of the family, and a rise in juvenile delinquency. We see the increase in drug-use throughout all levels of society. We see increasing rise in crime and violent crime. We see the growth of equality and opportunities for both women and blacks. We see a rise in premarital sex and couples living together outside of marriage. We see the increasing presence of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in American society. We see the increasing use of sex to sell products to all levels of society. We see the liberal, white middle-class increasingly abandoning their churches and religions. We see working-class and conservative Americans returning to religion, and particularly the rise of TV ministries. We see the increasing loss of millions and millions of high-paying factory jobs. We see seventy percent of all new jobs created in the 1970s in low-paying service jobs. We see increasing numbers of women and children in poverty. We see ten to fifteen percent inflation per year in the 1970s. We see the real income of American workers fall on average two percent a year each year from 1973 to 1981. As a result of many of these changes, many Americans were losing their faith in the American Dream, their society, their government, and their future.

The real tragedy of the 1970s was that because Americans had increasingly lost their faith in their government, they did not trust or believe that their government could solve these problems. As the decade wore on and Americans perceived many of these problems to be getting worse, they only became even more disillusioned with their government. Many asked why their government didn't try to do something about what many saw as the decline of the American culture, society, and economy. Didn't the government care about the needs of the American people? Wasn't the government to help Americans overcome these problems?

In the summer of 1976, Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter sensed this growing American disillusionment with their government. He realized that if we was going to become President and lead the American people in trying to solve these problems, he would need their trust and support. But this is the enormous problem he faced: How could he as President win back the faith and trust of the American people after Vietnam, Watergate, and all the other revelations of government corruption and mismanagement? It got so bad that in the summer of 1976, the Congress had released evidence that the CIA had opened Americans' mail illegally, had assassinated foreign leaders, had overthrown democratic government, and even planted false stories in American newspapers. How could Carter overcome all this evidence of corruption and rottenness at the core of our government.

In his July 1976 speech at the Democratic Convention, Carter addressed American's growing distrust of government. He begins by laying it all on the line:

"In recent years, our nation has seen a failure of leadership. We've been hurt and we've disillusioned. We've seen a wall go up that separates us from our government."

Here Carter is describing the larger threat to our democratic institutions caused by the Cold War. The government has literally created a wall between itself and the American people. By lying to the American people, by not trusting them to make the right decision to lead our country, the government has denied the people their democratic right to shape and control their government and society. By creating this wall between the government and the people, the government was undermining our democracy and denying the people their right to give their right to control and shape the government.

Carter goes on to call for our country to heal from these wounds:

"It's now a time for healing. We want to have faith again! We want to be proud again! We just want the truth again! It's time for the people to run the government, and not the other way around."

But why should Americans trust their government? Carter now addresses a central wound that Americans are still angry about:

"It's time for our government leaders to respect the law no less than the humblest citizen, so that we can end once and for all a double standard of justice. I see no reason why big shot crooks should be free and the poor ones go to jail."

Here Carter is referring to Americans' anger over the Nixon pardon. It seemed to many that Nixon had got away with his crimes. Americans wanted their government and their leaders to not be above the law, and to carry out their legal obligations to protect our democratic institutions.

Faced with Americans distrust of their government and politicians, Carter closes his speech by reminding Americans that we are a democratic society in which, as Lincoln said, "government is of, by, and for the people":

"That all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that the power of government is derived from the consent of the governed."

But why would Carter have to remind Americans of this? Every school children should know this? But Carter understood that Americans had begun to question this, to no longer believe that their government represented them and acted to protect the common interests of all Americans. In order to restore peoples faith in their government and society, Carter would have to demonstrate to Americans that they could trust their government and that government could act to protect the interests of all Americans.

But in addition to Carter's diagnosis, there were other less democratic diagnoses of America's problems. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission, an international organization of leading politicians and industrialists from the United States, Europe, and Japan, released a report entitled, "The Crisis of Democracy." Unlike Carter, these global political and economic elites concluded that America was suffering from too much democracy.  According to Holly Sklar, the Commission concluded:

"The Trilateral Commission stated that "The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups." "...secrecy and deception...are...inescapable attributes of...government." as it tried to "solve" the "crisis" caused by an "excess of democracy" in the 1960s."

The Commission actually states that "democracy is only one way of constituting authority....[and] in many situation the claims of expertise, seniority, experience, and special talents may override the claims of democracy as a way of constituting authority." The Commission concludes that the only way for democracy to work is to encourage apathy and withdrawal from politics by Americans. Only by limiting democratic participation and relying on politicians and experts, the Commission concludes, will democracy work. They even admit that "this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively." This is precisely the kind of arrogance that has led the government to create a wall between itself and the American people. If government leaders don't trust the people to shape and control their government and society, we are not a democracy! And if the people don't believe that they can shape and control their government and society, then we're not a democracy! Notwithstanding the Trilateral Commission's conclusions, this is the real crisis of democracy in the United States in the 1970s.

It is this political arrogance and disdain for democracy that led American leaders to get us into Vietnam, to lie to the American people, and to try to silence the democratic voices of the people in the 1960s and 1970s. Having discovered the lies and this arrogance, Americans were angry, bitter, and disillusioned with their government. By 1979, this disillusionment was crippling Jimmy Carter's Presidency. I was impossible for Carter to bring the nation together and lead the Americans forward in the late 1970s. Facing his own failure to lead, President Carter called together intellectuals, writers, cultural critics, and religious leaders to advise him on what to do. After this two week process, Carter announced he was going to give a speech to the nation to diagnose and solve America's problems.

In his July 1979 speech, "America's Crisis of Confidence," Carter told Americans that they suffered from a malaise, a disease of the soul, a crisis of confidence in their government, society, and future. Carter quoted one American who said, "I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power." He argues that Americans are losing their faith "not only in government itself, but in their ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of democracy." He admits that some of this crisis of confidence was caused by government inaction and inability to address the growing problems facing America in the 1970s. Carter concludes with a desperate call for a renewal of confidence:

"We simply must have faith in each other. Faith in our ability to govern ourselves and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face."

But Carter doesn't give Americans any real reasons why they should now have confidence in their government and society. He has reminded Americans of our greatness in the past, but has offered no real program to return America to that greatness and confidence in ourselves in the future.

Confronted with a failed Presidency, Americans rejected President Carter in his campaign for re-election in 1980s and elect Ronald Reagan President. Reagan promised to restore American's confidence in their government, society, and economy. He promised to restore the American Dream and Americans' confidence that hard work and diligent would pay off in a bright, richer future for themselves and their children. Reagan won the election because he was not Carter. Americans desperately turned to Reagan, hoping that he could lead the nation out of its economic, social, and political crisis. But when Reagan himself lied to the American people, allowed the government to become corrupt and even criminal, and was caught selling arms to a terrorist nation and running arms to the Contras, both of which were against the law, many Americans became even more bitter about their government and society. They had placed all of their hopes in Reagan only to discover that he too was a part of the problem. Who could Americans now turn to to help lead America out of this mess? Would Americans be so gullible next time when a politician promised that he would restore American and people's faith in their government? In some ways, President Reagan only further damaged Americans' faith and trust in their government. So the legacy of bitterness, cynicism, anger, and distrust from the 1970s is still very much a part of American society in the 1980s and 1990s. What can restore Americans' confidence is still largely an unanswered question.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 19 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/anxiety.htm
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