Signs of the 70's

News & SocietyPolitics

  • Author Larry Farmer
  • Published June 12, 2022
  • Word count 1,433

Signs of the 70’s

Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 and ushered in a conservative era which would last until the Obama presidency. I never saw it coming, but I should have. The signs were there in abundance, and I was aware of them; I just didn’t connect the dots.

In many ways the 1970’s was one of the more interesting and transitory decades in American history even though many treat it as simply a footnote. The bold, vibrant colors and outlandish fashions like extra wide ties and leisure suits are laughable according to the standards of most any age. Looking back, the architecture of the period was one big running joke. Glitz, gaudiness, and inferiority prevailed from the baseball stadiums in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia to the multi-purpose sports and entertainment facility known as the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia to the executive inn hotel and entertainment centers in Evansville, Indiana; Owensboro, Kentucky; and Paducah, Kentucky. On the surface they looked marvelous, but serious flaws lurked underneath. None of the above mentioned structures are around today and haven’t been for some time.

There were, however, some saving graces. Some of the best movies ever were made. One would have to look far and wide to find anything approaching the excellence of The Godfather; The Godfather, Part II; Taxi Driver; or The Deer Hunter. It was also a time of great creativity and maturity in music. Heavy medal in rock and the outlaw movement in country defined the times. There was a blip backwards with disco, but it was just a quick, passing fad.

For most of the decade, the liberal political traditions unleashed by the Great Depression continued unabated. And yet, changes here and there were taking place that would pave the way for a massive realignment. During Watergate and its aftermath, Ronald Reagan was almost a forgotten figure. He was passed over by the Republican establishment when two vice presidents, Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, were appointed. At 65 years of age in 1976, he was considered too old to be taken seriously, but he challenged a sitting President of his own party and came close to succeeding.

Religion has long played a prominent role in American history. The social gospel, a liberal theology based on uplifting the poor and underprivileged, dominated American Protestantism from the late 19th century until the 1970’s. Beginning in the middle to the latter part of the decade, evangelicalism became the rage. It was the conservative alternative to the social gospel. The emphasis was on a back to basics philosophy, and after a time the movement became political when Jerry Falwell, a popular TV evangelist, formed the Moral Majority. Southern Baptist churches make up the largest protestant denomination in the United States. Its convention has always been slightly conservative, but it usually avoided politics like the plague. Also, it was quick to steer clear of any theological controversy. In 1979 the convention took a sharp turn to the right on religious teaching when it elected fundamentalist leader Adrian Rogers as its president.

In 1978 John Paul I was elected Pope of the Catholic Church. Most were excited about his selection as he seemed to be a down to earth person who was intent on improving relations with other religions. What he would have done as leader of the church will forever remain a mystery as he only lived for about a month after his elevation. After his death, John Paul II was chosen, and he became a conservative force throughout the world. John Paul II was from Poland, and he was determined to free his homeland from Communist oppression. At the same time he promoted conservative Catholic religious principles while maintaining a positive relationship with Protestantism.

Howard Jarvis of California was known as a grumpy old man. He was forever running for office and losing and also promoting conservative initiatives that had no hope of succeeding. In 1978 he finally struck pay dirt. In that year he got Proposition 13 placed on the ballot and it carried the day. Basically it limited the amount of property taxes local governments could collect. The vote was a stunning victory for conservatism, and the idea of limiting taxation became a national sensation. The suggestions of Congressman Jack Kemp, journalist Jude Wanniski, and economist Arthur Laffer to lower the income tax rates were suddenly taken seriously.

Lowering taxation and scaling back socialism was a theme advanced by Margaret Thatcher when she became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979. Before her election many people, me included, didn’t quite know what to make of her. She was called the Iron Lady, and although she was not overly attractive, she had a certain sex appeal. Later she added a strong stand against Soviet Communism to her resume, and for the next 12 she was a power with which to be reckoned. Along with Reagan and John Paul II, she became a true conservative hero.

The Shah of Iran had long been a puppet of the United States, and he had more or less transformed his country into an American client state. In addition to doing things to advance American security, he promoted Western cultural ideals in Iranian life. Women’s rights, in particular, became a widespread trend. By 1978 the Shah was in serious trouble as the religious leaders began to push back with a vengeance. They rallied around the Ayatollah Khomeini, an exiled political and religious leader living in France. The Revolution in Iran was a long and complicated struggle, but it eventually ended with the Shah fleeing the country and Khomeini setting up a religious theocracy. The bottom line is that the Iranian Revolution was a conservative movement. It had its liberal admirers, and it advanced hatred of America at every turn; but it was a long way from being communistic, socialistic, or even progressive. If you are a believer in liberal democracy, the Iranian Revolution is not your cup of tea.

Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a historic peace agreement in 1978. The two men probably hated each other, and they were polar opposites in most respects. Nevertheless, each was the best conservative option in his respective country. Sadat had once been a collaborator with Nazi Germany and an ally of Gamal Abdel Nasser. After becoming President of Egypt in 1970, he began cutting ties with the Soviets who had surrounded Nasser. Toward the end of the 1970’s, he had established a positive working relationship with the United States. Begin was a Jewish hardliner in Israel’s struggle for independence. It would not be too extreme to call him a terrorist. However, he differed from most of the founders of Israel who organized the country according to the principles of Fabian socialism, a popular philosophy among the intellectuals of Great Britain. When Begin became Prime Minister, he moved his country away from hard core socialism and toward a more capitalistic economy.

China has had a turbulent history for well over a century. Western Imperialism, a Revolution in 1911, war with Japan, a civil war, and the infamous Cultural Revolution of the late 60’s and early 70’s were some of the major upheavals. Mao Tse-tung, the larger than life dictator, tried to institute pure communism along the lines of Pol Pot in Cambodia. At the time of his death in 1976, China was a mess. A complicated, massive, and intricate power struggle resulted. By the late 70’s it was evident that Deng Xiaoping had emerged as the man in charge. Deng engineered capitalistic changes that have made the Chinese economy second only to the United States. He also lowered the anti-Western rhetoric that was so prominent under Mao. With the policies of Deng, China became more of a friend than foe. If not exactly a conservative in the true sense of the word, he was one of the more positive and consequential figures of the 20th Century.

All of the above mentioned developments pointed to a change coming in American politics. As a result, it should not have been surprising, when arch conservative Ronald Reagan triumphed over lukewarm liberal Jimmy Carter in 1980. If one could have connected the dots or read the tea leaves, it was pretty obvious what was going to take place. I must admit I didn’t see the future, but I loved it when it happened. One of the happier days of my life was reading a headline in the ultra liberal Louisville Courier Journal: ‘Reagan Sweeps to Early Victory.’ The words of Bob Dylan come to mind when analyzing the signs of the 70’s—“The Times They Are A-Changin.”

I received a bachelors degree in 1967 and a masters degree in 1971 from Western Kentucky University. I taught school for 44 years. One year was spent at Fordsville High School, 17 at Ohio County High School, and 26 at Trinity High School in Whitesville. The subjects I taught were government, history, and English. At Trinity I also served as coach, athletic director, and dean of students. I fancy myself a fairly good writer, and my main interests are sports and politics.

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