The early 1970s
In order to understand a system, it’s critical to understand how the system changes in response to external forces. And in order to understand the system that is America, you have to understand the early 1970s.
It’s common to see World War II cited as this immense pivot point for America, but our response to World War II was just a continuation of a national psyche that had been going on for decades. We were nearly collectivist, certainly anti-aristocratic, and the Great Depression heightened those tendencies. After the breakup of Standard Oil and the other big conglomerates, we were heavily anti-aristocratic, maybe even a little collectivist. “No screwing over the little guy” was the prevailing mood.
That’s not to say that we were somehow less capitalistic - far from it. We celebrated individual wealth-building. We celebrated bold initiatives to make something for oneself. The cowboy on the American West still remains part of our national psyche. But it wouldn’t do to get rich off the back of your fellow American without him having some share of it. Look at Henry Ford’s style. With zero government prompting or public action, he simply decided that it would make him more money in the long run to pay his workers an astonishing amount of money for the day. Workers got rich as Ford got rich, and it became incredibly hard to come after Henry Ford. Certainly harder than it was to come after Standard Oil.
The drunken stock gold rush of the 1920s was a weird time, though not out of trend. Massive segments of America felt very rich indeed. Stocks were big money for lots of people, so what if it wouldn’t do to look too hard at the underlying figures? Americans all felt richer, and that’s what mattered. The crash of 1929 and the aftermath in the early 30s showed that some Americans were still just fine while a lot more were starving, and that violated our national ethos. Hoover got one term to try his way before FDR entered the picture.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt represented the heyday of American collective action. Many of our most untouchable public efforts still stem from New Deal efforts. Social Security (which then spun out Medicare). The FDIC. The SEC. The Tennessee Valley Authority. It was an investment mindset. You invest in the collective, we raise the standards for everyone, and you still reap a reward. World War II springs up and we take that same mentality into battle. The Arsenal of Democracy comes from a massive industrial base of businesses (like Ford) that were built to serve individual consumers with money. None of that now. Contribute to the war effort like everyone else or we’ll just nationalize your assets and let someone else run them. All for one and one for all.
After the war ends, you certainly see companies trying to take advantage of the new environment. The military-industrial complex had grown huge servicing the United States war effort, and now that the war was over, a whole lot of people couldn't figure out how to retool for a consumer-oriented industrial base. Eisenhower rails against the military-industrial complex, but he still makes use of it to launch the interstate highway system. Kennedy continues the trend with the space program. Finally Johnson just goes to war, which brings us to the early 1970s: the time period which interests me so much. It's a change in the American system. Things start to crack.
All that industrial energy in the 1930s and 1940s was tailored toward one goal: whatever the American people wanted. Massive hydroelectric dams that provided cheap power to lots of people seemed great, so let's build them! Henry Ford's thinking that it would be pretty fantastic to have a wealthy user base to buy his cars, so he pays his factory workers well, knowing he's going to get lots of that money back anyway. Which was great! Ford got rich, his workers got cars and houses. Everyone's interests are aligned.
By the 1970s, those interests are starting to drift. If you're the owner of a factory that's producing tanks, you don't want to incur the cost to retool to build flying cars. You want a continued market for tanks. That market is starting to dry up, and the American people don't want tanks. So you've got factory owners who are saying "maybe I'll just sell all my gear to someone else and wind this thing down." But their workers don't want that, they own houses by that factory. The American people don't want those tanks even though those workers want to keep making them and keep getting paid for them, so what happens? Johnson gets into wars to necessitate buying more tanks. Eventually we'll drop the whole "war" pretense altogether and buy tanks that even the Army doesn't want, but that comes much later.
You've simultaneously got massive social changes as well. Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that separate but equal wasn't equal at all, Martin Luther King Jr. had just led America to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first round of the Baby Boomers are now becomig adults. Frank Sinatra's making resorts happen in the middle of the desert in California, why not? Lee Iacocca's launching the Mustang and Ford just beat Ferrari at Le Mans. Everything is smashing into everything else.
And then Kent State hits, and Nixon hits, and the energy just sort of deflates out of everything.
The last crewed lander to the moon flew in 1972. After 1976, we didn't touch anything down there at all until the 2000s.
Three Mile Island occurs in 1979 and we don't build any new reactors for decades. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission describes itself as "a system strangling itself and the economy in red tape."
Chrysler has to get a government bailout in 1979 (despite a major contract to build all those tanks referenced above).
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. ... There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ... And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. ... So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. -- Hunter S. Thompson, 1971
I'm fascinated by this early 1970s period because I think there's something to be learned about it to reverse it. We have this massive psychic desire for major things to happen - yet for some reason, we can't screw ourselves up to do it. And if everything flashed and reversed in a small time period, can we have the same thing happen again to go the other direction? What would that look like? What would it take for us to start re-making this society we envision?