For observers of Washington politics who remember the 1970s, the sense of déjà vu becomes stronger daily. Liberals freely compare the Iraq conflict with the latter stages of the Vietnam War, while scandals involving corruption and illegal leaks threaten the highest ranks of the Republican Party. Domestic controversies focus on intelligence abuses and dirty tricks, of clandestine surveillance in the name of national security. Pursuing these analogies, enemies of the Bush administration dream of a new upheaval like that of the mid-1970s, and a thorough defeat of the political Right. These visions may be accurate, and perhaps the nation really is re-entering the political world of 1976. But if the parallels are genuine, if in fact we have been here before, that thought should give us pause. The liberal triumph of the mid-1970s was very short-lived, and in fact led, inexorably, to a long era of conservative victories. Such a cycle need not recur, but liberals in particular should pay very close attention to the historical lessons. Be careful what you dream: you may see it come to life.
Ghosts of the mid-1970s are stirring in contemporary Washington. The worst problems facing the Bush White House arise directly from the legal apparatus created during that earlier era. If in fact a high official exposed Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent, then he (she?) was violating a law created to respond to the 1975 exposés that led to the murder of the CIA’s station chief in Athens. When the President authorized the NSA to bug electronic communications, he was overriding (and possibly violating) the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
In popular culture too, the world seems to have skipped a generation. As in 1976, the cinema produces a rich crop of conspiracy-oriented films dedicated to exposing official malfeasance, with the CIA and its corporate allies as prime villains. Change the clothes and hair-styles a little, and Syriana could easily pass for a big box-office item from the era of The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, or Three Days of the Condor. (The last of these concerned secret US plots to seize Arab oil by military force). If past precedent is any guide, any day now, we should start hearing allegations that the CIA was dealing drugs in order to finance its activities – presumably in Afghanistan.
Judging by their blogs – the Daily Kos is an interesting gauge of leftist opinion – liberals have high hopes of repeating their post-Watergate victories. With the White House caught up in endemic scandals, liberals would enjoy massive Congressional victories, allowing them to undertake searching investigations of intelligence abuses on the lines of the 1975-76 Senate probe headed by Senator Frank Church. Infuriated by daily revelations of intelligence horror-stories, of illegal bugging and break-ins and – who knows? – of violent interventions and assassinations, the public would support new legal restrictions on the intelligence community. Official powers would be sharply pruned, the CIA purged, and Congress would place ever-tighter restrictions on the president’s ability to undertake military or clandestine actions without full Congressional consent. 2008 would see a liberal landslide.
For many reasons, surveillance issues are not likely to be as explosive today as they were in 1976. In the aftermath of September 11, it would be tough to convince a majority of Americans that extensive surveillance is not a useful and necessary means of preventing future terrorist acts, even if official behavior sometimes violated strict legality. But let us assume for the sake of argument that scandals did cause a meltdown in the Bush administration, and that Congressional liberals succeeded in handcuffing the intelligence community, re-enacting the victories of 1976. How did similar events play out last time?
In the 1970s, triumphant liberals made two critical errors. Firstly, they acted as if their electoral successes in 1974 and 1976 represented a thorough-going mandate for their policies, both domestic and international, as opposed to a temporary public reaction against official corruption. This led to ever-more ambitious attempts to enact a liberal legislative agenda in areas such as affirmative action and gun control, which stirred intense public opposition. Responding to the Democrats’ radical misreading of the public mood, a potent New Right gained support for its own agenda of cutting government, which found sweeping expression in the Tax Revolt movement.
Internationally too, anti-CIA activists failed to recognize that the United States did indeed face authentic dangers overseas. Nor did they acknowledge the unpalatable fact that a superpower cannot operate without an effective intelligence service, which sometimes needs to intervene against the nation’s enemies. Accordingly, the Spirit of 1976 would have massive unintended consequences around the globe, as the US capacity to intervene overseas all but collapsed. As the US was reluctant to consider any military actions whatever, Soviet forces operated freely, filling the vacuum of influence left by Americans across Africa and Asia. US intelligence agencies were virtually crippled, with agents reluctant to violate the rules of what had become a highly risk-averse culture. The beneficiaries were the Soviets – again – but also the rising forces of radical Islam, which gained an epochal victory during the Iranian revolution of 1979.
In foreign affairs, as at home, the political Right won rich dividends from the successive crises. The New Right attracted supporters alarmed at growing signs of American failure and weakness, and who called for urgent rearmament. Such calls appealed to hawkish Democrats, including many Jews worried by the spread of radical Islam. These hawks gradually reconstituted themselves as neo-conservatives, and by 1980, this faction moved decisively towards the Republican Party. The Reagan Democrats, so critical to the politics of the 1980s, can be defined as those traditional supporters of the Democratic Party who abandoned it precisely because of the excesses of 1976. Meanwhile, disturbing signs of Islamic and Communist advance worldwide had a direct impact on American evangelicals, newly conscious of apocalyptic doctrines. A surging Christian Right now entered political life enthusiastically under the banner of the Moral Majority. In their different ways, all the segments of the triumphant coalition that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 were responding to the crisis of 1976. We are still living with the effects of the critical political realignment of those years.
Ronald Reagan succeeded because he masterfully deployed the rhetoric of rebuilding national strength and power, of reasserting American virility, and overcoming the heritage of the mid-1970s. The America of that era, the pitiful helpless giant, must be rescued and redeemed. And his message carried enough credibility to take him to victory even in such blue heartland states as New York, Massachusetts and California. He could not have won without the spectacular opportunities opened to him by the over-reach of liberal Democrats during the post-Watergate era. Contemporary politicians of both sides should be studying those earlier events carefully – and especially the blunders.
Philip Jenkins is the author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the 1960s and the Making of Eighties America.
UPDATE: Click here to read Jenkins debate Mark Lytle, author of America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon, on how to write an accurate history of the ’60’s & ’70’s and how the conventional wisdom of the era masks the conservative tide that Ronald Reagan rode to the presidency in 1980. Read their fascinating dialogue at Beatrice.com.