A Forgotten Era of Activism

Historian Michael Stewart Foley explains that the 1970s and 1980s were actually full of political activism.

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When historians talk about grass-roots organizations and social change, the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s are usually the focus. But as Michael Stewart Foley, historian and professor of American political culture at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, explores in "Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s," the decades following did not see a retreat from civic engagement. Foley spoke with U.S. News about how Americans became unintentional activists in reaction to issues they felt threatened them, their families and their ways of life. Excerpts:

Why isn't the history of post-1960s politics better known?

Historians have, for the most part, focused on the politics of this period from a national perspective. That means they've looked at electoral trends, and these trends tell a story of American politics becoming more conservative. But as I point out in the book, there are so many examples of grass-roots politics, of ordinary Americans who didn't come from an activist background but became activists in the '70s out of what they sensed was necessity.

What were some of the period's key activist achievements?

There are a number of campaigns that are overlooked but are really important in demonstrating the kind of robust civic culture that existed at the time. Americans in the 1970s woke up to the fact that companies had been dumping toxic waste in communities all over the country.

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What was unique about the grass-roots activism that took place during that decade as opposed to what took place during the 1960s?

The main distinction is that when we think about the archetypal movements of the '60s, we think of a certain measure of idealism and people acting on behalf of others and on behalf of the larger society. University kids from California and Michigan and Boston go to Mississippi to fight alongside African-Americans who are experiencing segregation in a front porch way. Then, in contrast, in the '70s and '80s, there's not so much of this acting on behalf of others. For the most part, it's mostly people who are responding based on their own experience. Almost always people join social movements because they're having a visceral reaction to some kind of issue, but the difference in the '70s and '80s is the emotional reaction that comes from their own personal experience.

What issues today inspire a similar sort of activism to that seen in the '70s and '80s?

We don't see as much of this kind of activism. You could say that Occupy Wall Street [attracted] people who felt betrayed by the banking system and by the government regulators. It's more likely you'll find people engaged with environmental issues. Fracking, whether you're for or against it, can be a front porch issue. People in the Catskills in New York are living in an area that's seriously economically depressed, so the most pressing front porch issue for them is paying bills. When a gas company comes along and says we'll give you all this money for the rights to your land, they want you to invite them in for a front porch reason. But then equally there are all the people who are afraid they're going to have fire coming out of their water faucets and that their families will be endangered by this process. They're mobilized by sort of primal, existential reasons, too.

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Would today's tea party have been at home during this era?

For me, the tea party is not really a grass-roots movement because it's so obvious that much of this is driven by monied interests. This is not to dismiss any of the success that the tea party has had because they obviously marshaled a lot of votes to support candidates. But it's not the same thing as the grass-roots movements where we've seen tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in the '70s and '80s mobilizing and participating in grass-roots activism across the country.