Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death last week reinforces my new realization that the most pivotal year in post-World War II America might just be 1979, the year she was elected to an office she held for 11 years. Almost every year leaves its imprint on human history, but some years are collectively remembered as being more significant than others.
The 1960s, perhaps particularly 1968, is often recalled as having the biggest impact in changing America between World War II and the end of the 20th century. While the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the resulting urban unrest combining with the street violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago earns 1968 consideration as the most pivotal year, it left the U.S. too unsettled to have a clear impact. 1968 may have jolted American society, but it did not directly usher in a new era of politics and policy.
There are respectable books each arguing the importance of almost each year of the 1960s. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought us close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union; 1963 is certainly memorable for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 50th anniversary will be this Nov. 22. The years 1964 and 1965 are remembered for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and the federal creation of Head State, Title 1 aid to local schools and the beginning of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the escalation of the Vietnam War.
For more than a decade, I have argued that 1973 was the most pivotal year in American post-war political history. This is the year of Roe v Wade, the OPEC oil crisis, the end of the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War and the important Watergate events of John Dean testifying against President Richard Nixon and Nixon’s firing of the Watergate prosecutors.
A widely held view is that the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan was the beginning of a new era in American politics. Without discounting the economic, social and foreign policy impact of the Reagan Administration, several factors suggest that Ronald Reagan rode a wave of shifting public opinion about the role of government rather than being the primary cause of that shift. Furthermore, significant deregulation began in the Carter Administration as did adopting environmental legislation that required state involvement rather than more federal control.
Hedrick Smith, author of "Who Stole the American Dream?", which I reviewed last month, argues that 1978 was the critical year for the shifting of financial resources away from the middle class. This year also saw the first state and local tax limitation initiative, Proposition 13, passed in California setting off a movement felt in many states, including Missouri’s adoption of the Hancock Amendment in November 1980.
Somewhat unexpectedly, my reading over the past few months has pointed me to 1979 as the most pivotal political year up until September 11, 2001. Looking back, after surviving the assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, there was a growing and persistent tide of concern about the role of government and fears that the path that President Jimmy Carter personified was not the correct one.
The single most important event of that year was Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence Speech” on July 15, 1979, now better remembered as the “malaise speech,” though Carter never used that term. He did, however, identify American social trends of increased consumerism, greed and energy use as threats to our social and economic stability. Reading the speech 34 years later reveals how much political rhetoric has changed. The speech itself is not as depressing as is suggested by the term “malaise,” but Carter’s delivery and tone is certainly downbeat. In 2013, no president, or even local politician, would be so pointed and frank with the American people. American politicians have learned time-and-time again not to directly blame the American people — especially “your base” — even when we are uninformed, inconsistent and overspend our own incomes.
Carter’s July speech was preceded by the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident and followed in November by the beginning of the 444 day Iranian hostage crisis. All in all, 1979 was not a good year for Carter or for America.
Thatcher’s election to prime minister in May of 1979 was due to a British political climate very similar to that of the United States. There was widespread uncertainly about the role of government, the state of the economy and the place of the nation in the international economy.
Both Reagan and Thatcher had good timing in sensing the political climate and demonstrated clear political leadership by offering policy proposals that were well-received by their publics. The year 1979 was pivotal in the re-direction of both the U.S. and Britain. The economic, social and international consequences of their leadership, both good and bad, are still with us.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.