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It Feels Like 1979 Again

The Atlantic; Getty

Everything seems to be falling apart. The Russians are occupying a neighboring state. A foreign crisis is causing spikes in the price of oil. Inflation is the worst it’s been in some 40 years. A Democratic president is facing the lowest approval ratings of his term and has openly admitted that he knows the public is in a foul mood. A virus is on the loose and making a lot of people sick.

Even the music charts are a mess, a horrid stew of disco and wimp-rock hits.

Wait. Disco?

I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about 2022? I was actually reminiscing about 1979, the year I turned 19, when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution led to another round of oil shocks, inflation reached its worst levels since World War II, President Jimmy Carter was at 30 percent approval, and, yes, an influenza epidemic broke out.

Whether music is better now than at the end of the 1970s, I will leave to you. (I was not a fan of the charts in those days, but I will still take the Bee Gees over Harry Styles.)

The parallels with 1979 and 1980 are conspicuous as we head into the homestretch before midterms and the election sprint to 2024. President Joe Biden’s supporters worry that he is no longer up to the job, and that his admission of the country’s mood could be his “malaise” moment, echoing Jimmy Carter’s infamous July 1979 speech. (Carter never actually said the word malaise but might as well have when he blamed America’s sour mood on … Americans.) Republicans are delighted at the comparisons; the Republican National Committee is even blasting out a clever Back to the Future parody image with Carter and Biden as Marty McFly and Doc Brown.

[Derek Thompson: America’s most important economic storyteller is confused]

But the comparisons to 1979 can only go so far, and anyone who is indulging in this nostalgic gloom—but especially the Democrats—needs to snap out of it before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

First, Biden is dealing with the wreckage of a horrific pandemic. In 1979, we were trying to recover from an oil embargo, not a global disaster and the shutdown of entire societies. (Biden, of course, also must contend with his predecessor’s utterly incompetent policies. One million Americans are dead, and too many of them died needlessly because of the ways in which Donald Trump and the Republican Party politicized the pandemic response.)

And yet, even with the challenge of pandemic recovery, we are not facing “stagflation,” a word that ruled our economic lives 40 years ago and now is a term that I have to explain to my younger students. Stagflation was something that once seemed impossible: high inflation, low growth, and high unemployment all at the same time. This happened in the 1970s, but it isn’t happening now—or at least, it isn’t happening yet—and it’s one reason treating 2022 as if it’s 1979 doesn’t make much sense.

Let’s also admit an obvious political reality about the expectations of the American voter: Many of the people who are fed up with inflation in 2022 are angry mostly because until about a year ago, they’d never actually experienced it. Yes, it’s been a rough year, but in 1979 Americans were despairing because high inflation had already been around for several years. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Carter all tussled with it. We tried everything from wage and price controls to “Whip inflation now” sloganeering—as if consumers could join the fight by wearing buttons.

The same is true of interest rates. Today’s younger consumers may be shocked that mortgages are breaking 6 percent—but again, this is because they have become accustomed to ridiculously low rates. Even 50 years ago, the average rates were about 7 percent; they’ve been lower than that for two decades now. By 1979, however, mortgages were already past 11 percent and heading for almost 14 percent a year later. (Student loans were not immune from inflation, either: I took out my first college loans in the summer of 1979, at 13.9 percent.)

Another difference from the 1970s is that America in 2022 is dealing with a labor shortage, with unemployment at 3.6 percent. In the summer of 1979, unemployment was at 6 percent and climbing. Many Americans think of the 1990s and 2000s as the end of the great manufacturing boom, but this, as I have written about at length, is the nostalgia of selective memory. Deindustrialization was well under way in the 1970s, and jobs—as every Bruce Springsteen song of the time reminded you—were leaving us in despair outside the factory gates, trying to survive the darkness on the edge of town.

Growth in 2022 is slow (and will get slower as the Federal Reserve tries to cool inflation). Worrisome? Very. But have we reached “back to the 1970s” levels of bad? Not even close.

Ironically, the one area in which 2022 is worse than the end of the 1970s is foreign policy.

Biden faces a far greater foreign-policy challenge in 2022 than Carter faced in his last two years in office. The December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was a huge Soviet mistake, and one that would help bring about the end of the U.S.S.R., but it did not directly threaten the United States. In fact, the Soviet war in Afghanistan helped unite NATO and destabilize the Soviet Union while absorbing huge amounts of a Soviet defense effort that would otherwise have been aimed at the West. And even when Iranian militants seized American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in the fall of 1979, it was more of a national humiliation than an existential danger, despite the tragedy of those who were killed in a botched rescue attempt.

Biden, by contrast, is trying to keep NATO united in the face of the nightmare scenario dreaded by every post–World War II American president: a major Russian invasion of Europe. Russia is engaging in savagery and actual war crimes just miles from NATO borders, all while Vladimir Putin rattles his nuclear saber at the West. I never thought I would wish for the days of gray and dull Soviet leaders like Leonid Brezhnev, yet here we are.

[Neil Hauer: Russia has a plan for Ukraine. It looks like Chechnya.]

Americans largely support Ukraine, and that’s all to the good. Many of them, however, seem to have forgotten that had the Soviet Union in 1979 unleashed more than 100,000 soldiers to its west, menaced NATO’s borders, and raised its nuclear-alert levels, we would have considered it a national crisis of the first order, and it would have dominated almost everything in our national political life. Today, the war in Ukraine has faded back to being just another news story—even among those who understand the grave stakes—and Americans are focused instead on criticizing Joe Biden for not doing enough or for doing too much.

This political dynamic, perhaps, is the greatest difference between the 1970s and the 2020s. The Cold War was terrifying, and while I am glad it is over, the existence of the Soviet Union and the existential conflict between East and West required the United States to be a serious country capable of making serious decisions. We might have worn some silly clothes in 1979 (don’t ask me about the velour-trimmed tux I wore to a prom), but we were still, in the main, voting like sensible adults.

Depending on your tribal affiliations, you may not think much of Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, but their electoral contest in 1980 included a substantive discussion of national defense between two men who’d spent a long time thinking seriously about the subject. In fact, Reagan continued Carter nuclear-weapons programs such as the MX missile; in those days, the distance between a Republican and a Democrat on national defense was measured in inches and feet instead of miles.

(The Soviets, for their part, saw almost no difference between Reagan and Carter. As their former ambassador to the United States wrote in his memoirs, they actively hated Carter, and assumed that Reagan, for all his tough talk, would be a Republican dealmaker in the Nixon mold. They were soon to be surprised, to say the least.)

Awareness of the Cold War kept American political discourse within some sensible boundaries. We had to be able to envision presidents not only as politicians but as the people who might have to open a briefcase in the middle of the night and issue codes that would open the gates of hell. This induced a certain amount of sobriety even in the most partisan voters.

All of that is gone. In foreign policy, the party of Reagan now fears Democrats more than it fears the Kremlin. At home, millions of people talk about things such as secession and sedition with utter unseriousness. Grown men and women, actual citizens of the United States, fly Confederate battle flags (in those traditional rebel strongholds such as New York and Michigan) like defiant toddlers scrawling obscenities on a wall. They yell “Let’s go, Brandon” (a convoluted euphemism that means “Fuck Joe Biden”) like snotty teenagers in the detention hall trying to see if they can make the teachers mad. People old enough to collect Social Security drive around in expensive cars and trucks covered in flags and obscenities as if it’s their first junker and they’ve just had their first beers.

But other Americans are failing to do their part as well. We are all watching, on live television, the uncovering of a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. constitutional order, and yet we will be lucky if voters turn out in large numbers for the elections that could prevent a replay of the coup attempt. People who should be linking arms to save democracy are grousing about their student loans and the price of gas. These complaints are, of course, understandable. A recession would change many Americans’ lives for the worse. But the end of democracy in America is not just an abstract threat—it is a real danger.

[David Frum: The one witness at the January 6 hearing who matters most]

We are better off by almost any measure in 2022 than we were in 1979 and 1980. (And, yes, I realize that many of you are thinking about the end of Roe as a counterpoint. So am I.) But charlatans like Donald Trump and the Republican political remoras clinging to his belly are trying to convince us that we are reliving a nightmare. This is the same hallucination they sold, successfully, to millions of Americans in 2016. If they manage to get us to believe it one more time, then we will be complicit in the destruction of our own system of government.

It is our responsibility as citizens to take better stock of our priorities, and to ask if expensive gasoline and pricier milk are grounds to overthrow democracy—or reasons to stay home while others vote to trash the Constitution. Trump’s Republicans will try to promise Americans that the only way out of this bad-news déjà vu is by voting them into office. They are wrong. We can solve all of these problems—just as we did after the 1970s—but only if we still exist as a constitutional republic.