It Begins in 1970

As I continue to read Meg Jacob’s Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s I am fascinated by the things I am learning. I was alive in 1973 — I turned six that year — and there’s not a lot I remember about the time. I was too fascinated by what remained of the space program (Skylab!) and Sesame Street, and spent a lot of time playing outside. That’s what remains in my consciousness of 1973.

But I see the beginning of our era in this. A conservative president who resorts to New Deal price controls and supply management to deal with a crisis that seems completely out of control. The makings of the oil crisis of early 1970s were already in place by 1970 — steeply increasing consumption coupled with stagnant or declining production and an increasing reliance on imported crude oil to make up the difference — when the Arab states of OPEC increased prices and then completely embargoed sales of crude oil to the United States (and the Netherlands) in October, 1973, following the US resupply of military equipment to Israel in the midst of the October War.

According to Jacobs, most Americans did not believe the crisis was real. Rather, the country was being cheated by oil companies withholding supplies in order to raise prices and reap windfall profits. Most Americans did not understand how the petroleum refining and distribution systems worked, and had no idea the US even imported any oil at all.

It didn’t help that the Nixon administration was in free fall over Watergate and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew during the miserable and eventful October of 1973.

A worsening situation, one with no clear end in sight, stoked social antagonisms. When asked to sacrifice, many Americans responded by defending their right to maintain their lifestyle while questioning the right of others to do so. The political direction in which the energy crisis was moving the country was hard to pin down. Even as many Americans railed against the business world and expressed frustrations with the Nixon White House, liberal reforms that had generated controversy before the energy crisis now came under attack as luxuries the nation could no longer afford and should not have to. High on the list was federally backed school integration by busing, which in the early 1970s reached a peak of controversy. “Why must I avoid visiting a friend or running an errand when buses all over the country are driving children back and forth across cities?” one Tennessee housewife asked a sympathetic Nixon. Another Tennessee woman protested “this sinful practice of hauling defenseless children for miles upon miles through city streets,” a practice she blamed as a “major reason for this gaosline shortage.” (65)

A war a half-world away changed the willingness of Americans to be charitable toward each other.

But not just each other.

… For others, the energy crisis, along with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions [inflation mostly], made the cost of American interests in Vietnam too high. “My job is in jeopardy. Why should my tax dollars be used to subsidize foreign economies when my work is being taken from me?” a North Carolina man who supported the ban [on oil shipments to Southeast Asia] wrote to the White House. Wasn’t it unfair to ask Americans to sacrifice while, as one California woman put it, “you are sending millions of barrels of oil to Cambodia and So. Vietnam? We should come first!”

As future prospects grew worse, the public became angry at government officials in Washington. If business contrived the shortage to make a profit, as many believed, the government failed to take effective action, either because of incompetence or because of some general notion of “politics.” A Harris poll revealed increasing blame for business and government, with 83 percent of the public attributing fault to oil companies and 75 percent also pointing the finger at politicians. As the shortages continued, it appeared that Washington was lacking solutions. As one young mother from Toledo put it, “Is there anyone who cares, will listen, and Do Something?” (68)

The embattled Nixon administration, peaching a gospel of the free market, acted instead by regulating oil and refined crude products even more heavily. And the burden of the restrictions imposed by both the administration and Congress, as Jacobs notes, “seemed to have consequences greater than what Americans felt they could live with.”

Which led to a series of wildcat strikes by independent, long-haul truckers, who would use the then relatively new technology of citizens band radio to coordinate massive stoppages of trucks on major interstate highways and bridges that would block traffic for hours and many tens of miles.

These truckers were some of the core members of Nixon’s — and the GOP’s — constituency. (Though Jacobs notes that Nixon wanted to build an electoral coalition independent of the GOP.) They were socially conservative, upwardly mobile in their aspirations, supported the war in Vietnam, were for law and order and against protestors, rioters, and hippies, and believed in tough government to protect their livelihoods and way of life.

In short — they were Trump voters.

These conservatives voted against welfare and busing, two programs that they felt doled out benefits from their hard-earned tax dollars to those who did not deserve them. Al Trafford, who was married, had four children, and owned a home in Westchester, New York, believed he could easily distinguish the difference between “niggers” and “colored.” The former were on welfare and did not have good jobs; the latter owned their own homes, earned a decent income, and educated their children. “When they live on my block, they’re colored,” he said. “The coloreds on my block are my friends. They’re so nice that after a while you don’t know they are colored.” (76)

Remember, while this thinking was likely never far from the surface, Trafford is quoted saying these things because of a war a half-a-world away and an embargo enacted by governments of tiny countries he had probably never heard of.

The energy crisis was more than they could take. They needed relief, and for that they turned to the government to hold down prices at the pump, give them more fuel, and get the oil companies to comply. As the journalist Harry Maurer explained, the crisis “dealt a stunning shock to the truckers’ philosophical and political framework. They believed passionately in free enterprise but they were going broke. They voted for Richard Nixon but he was ignoring them. They called themselves independent but their livelihoods clearly hinged on the Arabs, the government, the oil companies — and on each another. It was a time for a change in their thinking.” (76)

That change, however, did not mean more social solidarity. It would mean less. The political system was beginning to break, and no one in the country was up to fixing it.


As an aside, Jacobs focuses a lot on Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the hawkish liberal from Washington State who led the Democratic opposition to the Nixon administration’s handling of the energy crisis. A lot is focused today on Jackson’s hawkish proteges and their lasting influence on American foreign policy. But Jacobs notes that Jackson was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 (and he used the energy issue to batter Nixon and the GOP), and in his advocacy of rationing and price controls, Jackson may have been the last serious and committed New Dealer in Congress. It’s interesting to consider what would have happened to the United States had Jackson, and not Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, become president in 1976.

Reverting to Type

I picked up a copy of Meg Jacobs’ Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s at the library (a book! A real book! In my hands! Words and ideas in my head!) and am finding it to be an interesting history.

Jacobs begins her telling of America’s energy story in the Permian Basis of West Texas immediately following the end of WWII by looking at the wildcatting career of George H. W. Bush. Along the way, she talks briefly about oil production in the US and elsewhere (all ground covered by Daniel Yergin in The Prize), as well as the regulatory environment in the United States for oil and natural gas.

Among the interesting things she notes, in passing, was the mess the Republican Party found itself in following the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the role George H. W. Bush played in attempting to reorganize at least a portion of the GOP in the 1960s:

Bush instantly became part of a group of Republicans whose principal concern was shifting economic policy to the right. He developed a close friendship with Wisconsin representative William Steiger, another freshman, who, along with his intern Richard Cheney, called for budget austerity and fiscal conservatism amid the growing deficits resulting from Vietnam. They joined Donald Rumsfeld, a young congressman from Illinois first elected in 1962, who had helped stage a coup, after the 1964 electoral disaster, to depose the House minority leader, Charles Halleck, and replace him with Michigan’s congressman Gerald Ford in 1965. For them, race relations, social policy, and red-baiting were not the main concerns. Economic deregulation was at the heart of their conservatism. Limiting the imprint of the federal government on economic relations was the key, Bush and his allies thought, to a robust American economy. While Bush fought hard to defend subsidies for the oil patch, he opposed Washington’s efforts to dictate managerial decisions about production. The Texan wanted to deregulate the economy in order to free oil and other types of markets. (21–22)

What’s interesting is that Jacobs suggests this path Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ford tried to forge was a midway between the popular conservatism of “the John Birch Society or the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade the propelled Ronald Reagan to the California governorship” and the Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller who “had accommodated himself to the work of big govenrment.” This deregulatory conservatism was the work of insiders, people who were comfortable in the corridors of power and knew how to make government work.

Nixon was the perfect embodiment of that “middle way” because he

… understood that for a Republican to survive in the 1960s, he had to work within the world of the New Deal and the Great Society, not around it. In 1968, even as he burnished his reputation as an anti-New Deal Republican, which he was, he knew better than most that he would be under pressure to continue with and even expand the regulatory apparatus of Washington. (24)

Granted, Jacobs is making Bush central to her story, noting that in 1968, “there was even some speculation that Nixon would pick Bush as a vice presidential running mate.” But I believe there is some truth to what she is doing — that this “less government better run” conservatism became the main force behind elite conservatism beginning in the late 1960s. It would live uneasily with much more populist conservatism, needing such energy as opposition to civil rights and militant, conspiratorial anti-communism (and later Christian conservatives, who arose at a nexus between the two) to mobilize constituencies for elections, but it would attempt as much as possible to keep such people as far away from government as they could.

Where I think the GOP is, and has been, floundering is that this elite economic conservatism was a spent force after 1992, when the alliance of the Bushes and the Bakers lost the presidency and control of the GOP started to slip out of their hands. In the mid–1990s, the populists began to slowly retake the party. Whatever George W. Bush may have owed James Baker for his election, he did not repay the long-time family ally by listening to him. The GOP governing consensus built around the Bush-Baker relationship and fostered in the Nixon-Ford administrations, was gone by the time W inherited the White House.

It may be that the GOP, in surrendering to the kind of populist energy focused on social policy, race relations, and what passes for red-baiting (Clinton-, foreigner-, and Muslim-hating) in the post-Soviet world (on the very far right, there are people convinced communism never went away, and is merely biding its time in Washington and Brussels as it waits to take over the world) as it has floundered about the last 20 years, the Republican Party is reverting to some kind of type. Paranoia and conspiracy theory was always close at hand, lurking in the shadows of the conservatism I remember growing up in the suburbs of Southern California. Absent a Great War hero with unbeatable administrative experience, or even a Nixon brilliant (and venal) enough to ride them all to victory, there is nothing to knit together the various inchoate strands that all call themselves conservatism.

And it may also be the GOP is struggling to figure out who it is in a world where it has won a great deal but has still not won enough to think it is victorious. This is what happens, I think, when political programs become theological or even eschatological in nature — and much of the paranoid right has lived in a world in which victory was absolutely necessary or else absolute evil would win. And with the victory of evil, our freedoms, lives, and even mortal souls were at risk. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoid right as the rantings of a tiny handful — whether with mimeograph machines or blog sites — but much of the story the populist right tells itself about who it is and what’s at stake is grounded in the kind of conspiratorial paranoia anti-communists (and later birthers) have spun and woven since the 1950s.

It may be that the GOP of Donald J. Trump is reverting to type — a party that rages at a world it doesn’t fully understand but desperately wants to subdue and control. That energy got some brilliant politicians elected, but it’s hard to see how Trump could be one of them. He isn’t a Reagan. Or a Nixon. Or even a Bush.