Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970’s
Frederick G. Dutton,
McGraw-Hill Books, July, 1971 269 pages
Few would argue that political and social change unfolds in a vacuum. Social unrest, discontent and the eventual showdown of political ideologies erupt with sudden convulsion, catching bench sitters by surprise.
The cultural and political transformation that took place in the 1970’s was more than just a temporary or fleeting disaffection of the status quo.
While a few books have been written regarding the irreversible decade of cultural, social and education forces that changed our perspective and our national directions ever since, Frederick Dutton’s still stands out as the most insightful and comprehensive source to date.
Dutton, a Washington D.C., lawyer and political strategist, depicts the many elements necessary — beyond the political–that created the showdown between the majority of entrenched traditional conservative carriers of continuity and the agents of change.
Dutton brought his keen observations of American politics to the book having served as Secretary of the Cabinet for President John Kennedy, Assistant U.S. secretary of State for Congressional Relations and a Regent of the University of California.
It was Dutton’s belief, without a doubt, that the sixties illuminated a divided government that steadily evolved from rhetoric to dissatisfaction and eventually to the struggle for power from a new generation.
Throughout the book, Dutton offers examples of how and why the 1970’s would bring in the massive shift of power. He wrote that “…widespread social and political turmoil of the last half-dozen years and more has generally been considered in terms of the Vietnam war, the unrest of the young, black militancy and the responding backlash.”
To an extent, but more so these erratic breakdowns in law and order, the shifting of economic opportunities from the urban centers out to the suburbs (The Industrial Revolution was becoming suburbanized) and strong dissatisfaction with leadership lead to what Dutton described as the opportunity that created national regeneration that shaped the political landscape for decades that followed. No one predicted that a “George Wallace,” effect: a new Southern leader that appealed to a population that felt left out of the new educational opportunities, sophistication and activist new and younger elements.
Thirty years later, “The Changing Sources of Power” still holds the preeminent position as the most comprehensive and perceptive study written about the political shift of the 1970’s.
In comparison, Boston University history professor, Bruce Schulman, author of “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, Da Capo Press, focused more on the cultural elements of Village People and disco than the deep underpinnings of the political affects that were coming apart during the decade of ambiguity.
David Frum, a conservative pundit and author of How We Got Here: The 70’s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life For Better Or Worse, Basic Books, offered a keen understanding of the impact of political upheaval Dutton predicted would happen if politicians would face urgent problems head on.
Frum cleverly observed that we “left behind a country that was more dynamic, more competitive, more tolerant; less deferential, less self-confident, less united; more socially equal, less economically equal; more expressive, more risk-averse, more sexual; less literate, less polite and less reticent.” However, in Frum’s account he never explains why the 70’s sustained its influence far into the 80’s while other political movements dissolved. There is never a main point about the decade except to say movement leaders tried to change social and economic programs of earlier decades.
A small but telling contrast ignored by both Schulman and Frum include the significant pieces that led up the political melee is Dutton’s observation. Dutton points out that the Free Speech movement of 1964 could never have occurred anywhere in the country except in California and at UC Berkeley. This is a simple sentence, but a major point about the cultural differences that participated in the move east of unrest “New Left.”
Dutton wrote: “Generational politics exploded in California not just on the periphery but in the political mainstream well before, and more several than, they have erupted in the rest of the country.”
Changing Sources of Power, written in 1972, ends with a profound and still relevant observation that reinforces the brilliance of this book lacking in the others. He wrote: “We will not easily move on during this decade. But what could be blowing in the wind with the newer elements is a national reinvigoration that will occupy American society for much of the rest of this century.”
One wonders what Dutton would say today?
Geri Spieler is the author of, “Taking Aim At The President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford,” Palgrave Macmillan.
She is a former investigative reporter and has written for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. She was a research director for Gartner and is an award winning public speaker and past president of the San Francisco/Peninsula California Writers Club.