The New 1970s
The U.S. is a confused, unsettled nation. But green shoots are quietly sprouting.
Happy 4th of July! I think I’ll make it a tradition to do a sort of a “state of the union” post on the 4th. You can read last year’s post here. I think it’ll be fun to watch how the series evolves over the years; already, you can see that I’m a little more optimistic than I was in the summer of 2022.
Obviously, any historical analogy for our current times will be riddled with inaccuracies and caveats. But after reading Rick Perlstein’s excellent book Nixonland, I can’t help thinking of the 2010s as the New 1960s. Both decades were eras of social unrest and rapid cultural change. The 60s upheavals began in the Black community, with the Watts riot in 1965; the 2010s unrest began in 2014 in Ferguson. In both eras, an even greater uprising followed a few years later — in 1968 and in 2020. Unrest in both eras provoked an instantaneous backlash in the form of the election of a leader with authoritarian stylings (Nixon and Trump), who later departed the presidency ignominiously after trying to misuse his executive power. And in both eras, unrest spread from the Black community to every corner of American society, prompting reckonings and cultural shifts over gender, religion, and national identity.
There are, of course, plenty of departures as well — too many to list here. The “Vietnam” of the 21st century happened earlier, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 1960s saw more violence from the political left (as chronicled in Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage), while the 2010s saw more from the right. But the parallels between the Trump and Nixon eras just feel too powerful to ignore. It almost feels like a cycle; a periodic convulsion that America has to go through every half century or so. Peter Turchin — who predicted almost a decade in advance that unrest would peak in 2020 — certainly thinks so.
So if American unrest is a cycle, where are we now? The answer has to be that the 2020s are the new 1970s — a decade of exhaustion, confusion, and retrenchment that follows an explosion of unrest. If Nixonland was the book to understand the 2010s, then its sequel The Invisible Bridge is about our present, post-Trump moment.
From unrest to exhaustion and confusion
The era from August 2014 to January 2021 featured all the hallmarks of unrest — riots, rising rates of violent crime, bitter political battles, domestic terrorism, and so on. In August of 2021, though, I went out on a limb and predicted that unrest had seen its peak, and would now slowly diminish.
Two years later, things are looking fairly good for my prognostication. There have been no more major riots or mass nationwide protests, even after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Race-related protests, like the ones over the killing of Jordan Neely on the New York subway, have been much smaller than they were last decade. Defeated in most cities around the country, the anti-police movement has focused all its energy on a long-running but seemingly ineffectual protest campaign against a police training facility in Atlanta. There has been only one significant act of domestic terrorism that I know of — the shooting of 13 Black people by a White supremacist in a Buffalo supermarket in 2022.
And now crime might even be decreasing as well. The 1970s crime wave resulted in massive urban flight and disinvestment, which helped perpetuate high crime levels into the early 90s. But as crime analyst Jeff Asher reports, murder has fallen in 2023 so far:
[T]his spring, I’ve found something that I’ve never seen before and that probably has not happened in decades: strong evidence of a sharp and broad decline in the nation’s murder rate…
Murder is down about 12 percent year-to-date in more than 90 cities that have released data for 2023, compared with data as of the same date in 2022. Big cities tend to slightly amplify the national trend—a 5 percent decline in murder rates in big cities would likely translate to a smaller decline nationally. But even so, the drop shown in the preliminary data is astonishing.
Of course, the murder rate bounced around a fair amount in the violent 70s and 80s, so I wouldn’t be so certain that 5 months of data mean the end of the crime wave. But at least things don’t seem to be getting worse.
On the intellectual side of things too, a number of data sources show that the anger and intellectual ferment that characterized the 2010s is beginning to ebb. Already, discussion of “wokeness” seems a little bit quaint and outmoded. There are still bitter fights over trans issues and abortion, but overall the 2020s culture war feels more like what Americans have become used to. Tucker Carlson, the most divisive and inflammatory media figure on the right, is out of a job, shouting into the wilderness on Twitter. Politically, the 2022 midterm elections produced no big wave, and Trump’s hand-picked candidates — who ran on a denial of the 2020 election result — went down to flaming defeat.
Meanwhile, bipartisan cooperation, though still not common, has increased; this has included measures to “Trump-proof” the U.S. election system against a coup attempt in 2024.
So while it’ll take many more years of hindsight to know for sure, I’m feeling a bit more confident that 2020 was the peak of American unrest.
In its wake, that unrest has left a country that’s remarkably bitter and pessimistic. Satisfaction with the direction of the nation remains at a low ebb:
Economic confidence is low despite rapid growth and high employment rates — the so-called “vibecession”. Much of that pessimism is probably due to the decline in real wages last year, but some might be a spillover from social divisions. Approval ratings for both parties and all major national politicians are in the toilet. Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech from 1979 (which did not actually contain the word “malaise”) seems somewhat applicable to the national mood of 2023.
To add to that national exhaustion, our politics are becoming increasingly confused. An era of unrest produces its own sort of clarity, in the sharpness of the battle lines we draw — the late 2010s featured Trump and his allies vs. the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies, and you basically aligned yourself with one of those two factions. But with the decreasing salience and intensity of that conflict, interests and coalitions are once again becoming more fragmented.
The most prominent example is the Supreme Court decision to outlaw racial preferences in college admissions. The successful lawsuit against Harvard was made on behalf of Asian Americans, rather than White people. Many progressive activists ignore that fact, choosing to portray the Asian plaintiffs as puppets of White supremacists, or even to ignore them outright. But SCOTUS was on the side of popular opinion here — not just among Whites, but among Asians and Hispanics as well.
Meanwhile, the epidemic of mass shootings that some in the 2010s interpreted as politically or racially motivated is starting to look more like a nationwide outbreak of nihilism and PTSD. There were two mass shootings of Asian people in January, but the shooters themselves were Asian. Latino-on-Latino mass shootings continue to make headlines as well, including the notorious Uvalde shooting last May.
America thus may still be a country at war with itself, but it’s looking less and less like a race war. In politics, too, racial polarization seems to be waning a bit.
American political coalitions have also been muddied by the war in Ukraine. Nativists on the right and some leftists have made common cause in their opposition to American support for Ukraine. But although the rightists have made some inroads with the GOP, support for arming Ukraine remains a majority position in both parties:
Eighty-one percent of Democrats, 56% of Republicans and 57% of independents favor supplying U.S. weapons to Ukraine, according to the latest poll…In other findings, the survey said large majorities of Americans - 67% and 73% - are more likely to support a candidate in next year's U.S. presidential election who will continue military aid to Ukraine and one who backs the NATO alliance.
Even the culture war over trans issues — the one thing that seemingly lines up around traditional Democratic-vs-Republican lines — has become a bit confused by the seeming defection of some religious Muslims from the progressive coalition on gender issues:
In 2015, many liberal residents in Hamtramck, Michigan, celebrated as their city attracted international attention for becoming the first in the United States to elect a Muslim-majority city council…This week many of those same residents watched in dismay as a now fully Muslim and socially conservative city council passed legislation banning Pride flags from being flown on city property…Muslim residents packing city hall erupted in cheers after the council’s unanimous vote[.]
It even seems possible that conservative Christians will ally with Muslims on the issue, reviving the doctrine of “co-belligerence” from the 1970s, when Evangelicals reached out to Catholics, Mormons, and Jews.
And in one more sign that the 2010s are over, Donald Trump — the avatar of everything the right loved and the left hated — now finds himself under attack from rival Ron DeSantis over gay rights and vaccines.
The U.S., in my reading, is simply in a confused, unsettled state right now. The certitudes that we clung to during the battles of the 2010s no longer make sense, even though we’re not quite sure those battles are entirely over. In 2020s America, as in the 1970s, no one quite knows their social place. We feel that we’ve just been through great changes, but we aren’t yet sure what the new social and political equilibrium will look like.
The green shoots of the era to come
And yet although pessimism and confusion rule the national mood, I think if we look closely, we can see some hints of what the new America will look like after the dust settles. And may of these are highly encouraging.
For example, there’s the factory construction boom. Driven by industrial policies like the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, America is building industrial plants at a greater rate than any time this century:
The 1970s saw a shift in our economic paradigm, toward deregulation, free trade, tax cuts, and financialization. The 2020s are seeing another big shift, but of a different kind. Industrial policy is the new thing, driven by the competition with China, by the threat of climate change, and by the general recognition that America needs to build a lot more physical stuff.
On the political side, we can also start to see coalitions emerging around the idea of building more. The YIMBY movement, which supports upzoning, permissive building regulations, and public construction, is starting to win political victories in California and elsewhere. Amazingly, there might even be action to limit the power of the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s souped-up version of NEPA that blocks new construction by tying it up with legal challenges:
Technologically, the green shoots are even stronger. Everyone knows about the AI boom, of course. Many are afraid of it, but I think a lot of this fear stems from the malaise of the times. Beyond AI, though, there’s a revolution in physical technology, from batteries and robots to biotech.
The 70s were a time of technological green shoots as well. The physical technology boom of the 1960s had petered out when oil got expensive, so many engineers and companies shifted to digital technologies. The seeds of the computer and internet revolution were all planted in the 70s; the general public didn’t really see the fruits until the following decades. I predict that even if they have some impact right away, the innovations of the 2020s will change our lives even more in the 2030s and 2040s.
Economically, the 2020s are giving us reason to believe that the engine of American prosperity is still running. We’ve been through inflation, the Great Recession, and before that the China Shock and the Rust Belt. But the Millennial generation just saw their average wealth double over the past three years, and their income has surpassed previous generations at a similar point in life. Like their parents, the Baby Boomers, Millennials may end up settling down after a rebellious youth.
And while the economic changes of the 70s led to a less economically equal country, there are hopeful signs that the 2020s might be different. Since the pandemic, wage inequality has begun to fall, and perhaps wealth inequality as well.
Politically, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will rediscover a shared national culture that will heal the left-right divide anytime soon. But I do think that the Ukraine War has reminded Americans that their country has the capacity to use its power to do great good in the world. That could help reverse some of the decline in our self-image that sprang out of the Iraq War and the War on Terror — just as it has improved our image abroad. The national self-doubt of the post-Vietnam 70s eventually gave way to the resurgent patriotism of the 80s and 90s, when we wisely shifted from occupying smaller countries to helping smaller countries resist Soviet occupation and domination. A surge of patriotism won’t erase our social divisions, but it could help moderate them, by reminding us that in some sense we’re all on the same team.
What about culture? It’s hard to say what that will look like in the years to come. But I think the fragmentation of the internet — the shift away from big centralized platforms like Twitter to smaller group interactions on Discord or push-media like TikTok — is a good sign. Americans all came together in the 2010s, but we came together to fight; fragmentation will give us space to cool down and rediscover our niches and subcultures.
My parents, and many writers of the Baby Boom generation, speak of the 70s as a disappointing time — a time of exhaustion and disillusionment, a long bitter comedown after the high of the 60s. But although I wasn’t alive in the 70s, from my vantage point it seems like that decade planted the seeds of everything I enjoyed about American society, technology, and culture during my youth.
The 2020s don’t feel like a great time for most Americans. But I think we can use this interregnum to prepare for better times to come.