Clayton E. Cramer
Shortly after my wife and I married in 1980, she insisted on getting rid of my disco shirts. No, I never went to discos in the 1970s; I was far too shy and sweet of a guy to be successful in that scene. I did take a disco dance class, but I was so uncoordinated that I think I was in more danger of hurting myself than being mistaken for John Travolta. But I did have some shirts that were rather in that style, you know what I mean?
The uncanny resemblances to that time are just a bit overwhelming to me right now—and no, this is not a nostalgic flashback. When I had to drop out of college in 1975, it was primarily because jobs were extremely scarce. I could not get a job flipping burgers—even minimum wage jobs (which paid $1.65 per hour) were extremely scarce. And those awful times are with us again. My son is a college student. He has been looking for a part-time job all semester long—and even a full-time summer job is pretty much impossible.
He went to a sandwich shop that recently advertised an opening, and as soon as he arrived, he realized that applying was a waste of time. It was not just that there were 50 people lined to apply for one minimum wage job. It was that he was competing not just with high school and college kids; he was also competing with people who had brought their kids. When primary breadwinners are lined up for a minimum wage job—things are bad.
There are some other similarities to that unfortunate period. In 1976, Americans reacted viscerally to Republicans, turning out Gerald Ford (a well-meaning, although not terribly impressive President) for Democrat Jimmy Carter. Carter’s major virtue was—he was not a Republican. Nixon had pretty well damaged the brand—enough so that there were people that doubted that Republicans would gain control of the White House of Congress for at least a generation. But by the end of Jimmy Carter’s four years, he had done something that seemed most unlikely in 1976: the peanut farmer from Georgia had created a generation of Republicans prepared to vote for someone that the media just hated.
How did he do that? Carter presided over an economic collapse almost as bad as what we are now suffering. The national debt had grown enormously in the 1970s, both because of the War in Vietnam, and dramatic expansions of the welfare state. In the midst of a stagnant economy, runaway inflation reared its ugly head, something that Keynesian economists knew could not happen. Soon, we had a new word to describe it: stagflation. And what do you know? It’s back!
These days, Ronald Reagan has this little halo over his head in the popular imagination, but in 1979, when Reagan was running for President, he was as hated as Sarah Palin. Like Palin, Reagan was accused of being ignorant. (Unlike Palin, Reagan’s missteps were not just verbal flubs or quotes of context, but often significantly ignorant statements—although seldom as severe as Barack “Austrian” Obama.)
Like Palin, Reagan was considered a right-wing extremist. (Reagan’s beliefs about economics, such as inflation is caused by deficit spending and fiat money creation, are today quite mainstream.) Like Palin, Reagan’s social views were only conservative compared to the chattering classes, not compared to ordinary Americans; Reagan opposed abortion, although it was not a major focus of his campaign. And like Palin, The Great Communicator was extremely effective at communicating with ordinary people—you know, the kind who cling to their guns and Bibles.
Now, there were a lot of people who just cringed at the prospect that Ronald Reagan was going to be the Republican nominee. That included me. I was so upset with Nixon’s embrace of left-wing economics (such as wage and price controls) that it was the late 1980s before I could stomach voting Republican again. In many respects, it would have been good to have had someone who could express conservative ideas in ways that did not rub the chattering classes’ fur backwards. But as someone observed recently about Palin, “You have to go to war with the army you have.”
There is one other similarity to those dreadful days in the late 1970s: Jimmy Carter was not far enough left to make many Democrats happy. How many of you know that Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980? This alone is not what caused Reagan to easily defeat Carter in 1980—but it certainly helped. And that’s why it does my heart good to see left-wing Democrats upset at Obama’s willingness to embrace bits and pieces of Bush’s foreign policy.
As long as we don’t have to listen The Knack sing “My Sharona” again, I can relive 1979!
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer in Idaho; he also teaches history at a community college, and writes history books. His web page is http://www.claytoncramer.com.