The (Dis)United States

A Review of Fault Lines — A History of The United States Since 1974

Source: Shutterstock

The May 4 shootings were viewed very differently by conservatives and liberals; most conservatives endorsed the National Guard’s actions and at best wrote off the shooting as a tragic accident, at worst as the protesters’ just desert — a position that liberals and the left found unimaginable.

Half a century later, America is arguably even more divided. A history of these turbulent decades and the fractured state of civil discourse has long been a favorite course of students at Princeton University titled “The United States since 1974.”

With a wide-angel lens, this book traces the political, economic, racial, and sexual divisions in modern America, but also the cultural and technological changes that confronted and contorted the country along the way. Following these fault lines, in both sense of the term, we examine the history of our divided America.

At about 360 pages, the book offers a wide-range covering of a half century of American history. Without getting too in the weeds, I will share some of the major themes along with a bit of economic history lurking in the background that I feel has been unfairly glossed over — not by the authors in particular, but by society at large.

1970s — The “Decade of Disillusionment” (Lost Trust)

Source: Time Magazine

During the 1970s, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the soundness of “the establishment” suddenly seemed in doubt. President Lyndon Johnson had left the White House with his credibility shattered by the war abroad, and then President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace over scandal at home. In the aftermath, Americans wondered if the entire nation was following its presidents to ruin.

So begins the first chapter on the 1970s. Nixon’s Administration literally and figuratively seemed to represent the erosion of whatever trust in government Americans had left. Along with this came and increasing distrust in the strength of the economy. The growth and widely-shared prosperity from the post-World War II economy began to wain in the 1970s. The fragility of the overall system was exposed in the 1973 Oil Crisis and the decline of the American auto sector.

Source: Wikipedia

Stagflation and turmoil overseas only deepened the division and discord within the electorate. The actual strength and vitality of the economy had been severely weakened, leaving many fearful about how the nation could ever recover…With basic economic indicators in horrible shape, few Americans could rekindle the kind of optimism that had existed in the 1950s and 1960s. An era of grand expectations had given way to a decade of disillusionment.

The 1970s also were associated with a deepening of racial division in America. African Americans, Mexicans, and Latinos largely developed “nationalistic” identity cultural movements, which was also replicated by white ethnics. While these movements preserved the individual cultures of these groups, they eroded any remaining sense of a national identity and deepened the fault lines. So to did the movements in gender, sexuality, and shifting family values of the 70s. While many of these reforms were liberalizing, they stoked a counter-reaction on the right which viewed the reforms as an attack on their sense of “traditional America.”

1980s — Reagan Era & “The New Right” Emerges

Source: National Review

the fault lines that emerged in the decade would prove impossible to reverse and would soon have a transformative effect on the foundations of American society

Making matters worse, the Reagan Administration essentially shot itself in the foot on numerous fronts. The Iran-Contra Affair led to a 16% drop in the President’s approval rating in a single month, the single largest drop in Gallup’s history of presidential polling. Although an amazing victory for world peace, the Fall of the Berlin Wall during the administration took away Americans’ common enemy (the Soviet Union) and allowed them to once again focus on hating each other. This was reflected in the strong protests against the Bork Nomination for Supreme Court and the divided views on the AIDS epidemic.

1990s — Rapid Disruption Driven by Technology

Source: ABC News
Source: Wikipedia

2000s — The Post 9/11 World and the War on Terror

Bush’s Impromptu “I CAN Hear You” Speech at Ground Zero (Source: U.S. News)

The Cold War had been replaced by the war on terror. And much as the struggle against Communism had shaped the domestic life of the mid-twentieth century, the fight against terrorism would shape the contours of 21st century life.

The 2000s saw the liberal movement regain its footing in the media with shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Report as well as with the rise of online blogs. These critics of the administration had a field day over the Bush Administration’s abysmal failure to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Additionally, during this time the administration began the infamous NSA PRISM program that unconstitutionally conducted mass surveillance on American citizens.

2010s —Partisanship and Dysfunctional Government

Source: Wikipedia

The question that the United States of America now faces as a divided country is whether we can harness the intense energy that now drives us apart and channel it once again toward creating new and stronger bridges that can bring us closer together. Whether the fault lines of the past four decades will continue to fracture, or whether these rifts will finally start to heal, is a chapter yet to come.

It’s uncanny to read that and know that it was published before the coronavirus epidemic. Obviously, the next chapter is completely going to be taken over by a focus on the virus and its devastating impact — especially economically. Overall, this review/summary has just scratched the surface of the book and I highly encourage all readers to grab a copy for yourself. But I also need to point out the economic history lurking in the background that appears to be wiped from our global consciousness. That is the history of Nixon’s Abandonment of the Gold Standard in 1971 and the fiat currency & modern monetary theory (MMT) system run amok that has completely destabilized the global economy and destroyed the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes.

While Kruse and Zeliver began in 1974, they really should be starting in 1971.

The year that Nixon took the United States off the Gold Standard set off a cascade of economic effects that has lead to extreme wealth inequality and economic fragility. While the academically-reinforced group think of Keynesianism has vilified anyone who dare challenge the mainstream narrative, data unequivocally shows that this failed experiment in monetary policy is at the core of the economic divisions in our country (and in the world) today.

I would also argue that much of the division in American politics which the authors have detailed stems from the inequality and systemic economic fragility that is directly attributable to Nixon’s decision in 1971 to abandon the Gold Standard.

Using some of the charts from Twitter users MrCoolBP and HeavilyArmedClown (hosts of the Bitcoin Echo Chamber podcast), which are aggregated at wtfhappenedin1971.com, a case can be made that Kruse and Zelizer should consider the impacts of the Nixon abandoning the Bretton Woods system.

Source: wtfhappenedin1971.com
Source: wtfhappenedin1971.com
Source: wtfhappenedin1971.com
Source: howmuch.net

Conclusion — Absolutely Buy the Book

I would not have taken the time to write such a long review if I didn’t love this book. To be honest, I am seriously jealous of all the Princeton students who got to take the original class behind the book. Despite what I see as a missed opportunity to consider the abandonment of the Gold Standard and its impact on the economic and political divide in the country since the 70s, I still rate the book 9/10 as it is an exceptionally well-written account of modern American history. You should consider grabbing a copy for yourself.

Investor at MassVentures, BCO Board Member, & Stanford UIF Alum. Previously at Greenspring Associates & JKS Ventures. Elon ’18. | All opinions my own