Reconsidering Liberalism in the 1970s

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 8:30 AM
Edward A (Hyatt)
Donald Critchlow , St. Louis University, St Louis, MO
While historians,including myself, have given considerable attention to the conservative ascendancy begun during the "seventies," especially in relation to the "backlash" against civil rights, feminism, crime, government regulation, changing sexual mores and abortion rights, they have paid far less attention to the ways in which liberalism was--and was not--transformed in dealing with these issues.  While the "decade" approach to history exemplified in this sessions remains useful, we need to recognize its limits.  The self-consciously centrist liberalism that was attacked by conservatives and modified by liberals during the "seventies," a worldview that embraced the regulatory-welfare state, cultural pluralism within a broader civic nationalism, and containment of Communism, had been created in phases during the Progressive era, New Deal, and Great Society.

Specifically, my paper will examine the ways in which different factions, both in and out of government but particularly within the Democratic party, variously rejected, defended, and attempted to update the centrist liberal legacy.  While some liberals joined 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in advocating a guaranteed annual income, others saw such entitlements as an ignoble repudiation of the work ethic that had characterized the New Deal.  Groups advocating women's equality, affirmative action for African-Americans, and a more secular society viewed their positions as a belated fulfillment of liberalism's promise, but traditionalist Democrats saw instead an abandonment of core liberal values.  Although the containment of Communism was never rejected in principle, some liberals chastened by the Vietnam War tried to move anti-Communism to the periphery of the foreign policy agenda.  From 1977 to 1980, the Carter administration tried both to conciliate all factions and to dissolve inherent contradictions in a rhetoric of efficiency and moral uplift.  With Carter's defeat amid worsening "stagflation" and the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, a period of liberal descendancy definitively began.

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