- L. Benjamin RolskyL. Benjamin RolskyHistory and Anthropology, Monmouth University
Few decades in the history of America resonate more with the American people than the 1960s. Freedom, justice, and equality seemed to define the immediate futures of many of America’s historically most ostracized citizens. Despite the nostalgia that tends to characterize past and present analyses of the sixties, this imaginative work is important to consider when narrating the subsequent decade: the 1970s. Such nostalgia in considering the 1960s speaks to a sense of loss, or something worked at but not quite achieved in the eyes of the nation and its inhabitants. What happened to their aspirations? Where did they retreat to? And, perhaps more importantly, to what extent did “the spirit” of the 1960s catalyze its antithesis in the 1970s?
In many ways the 1970s was a transitional period for the nation because these years were largely defined by various instances of cultural, or tribal, warfare. These events and their key actors are often under-represented in histories of late-20th-century America, yet they were formative experiences for the nation and their legacy endures in contemporary moments of polarization, division, and contestation. In this sense the 1970s were neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but instead laid the groundwork for such terms to calcify into the non-negotiable discourse now known simply as the culture wars. The tone of the time was somber for many, and the period may be best understood as having occasioned a kind of “collective nervous breakdown.” For some, the erosion of trust in America’s governing institutions presented an unparalleled opportunity for political and electoral revolution. For others, it was the stuff of nightmares. America had fractured, and it was not clear how the pieces would be put back together.