Perlstein’s Hindsight

If you’ve read Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge–or one of his two earlier books, for that matter–or are thinking about hefting the tome onto your bedside table, you should read Harold Pollack’s interview with the author at Wonkblog today. (There’s even an “extended version” at Ten Miles Square covering questions WaPo edited out for length).

In the course of the interview Perlstein explains that his whole multi-book history of the rise of the conservative movement has always been intended to conclude in the early 1980s, when his own personal recollections begin to emerge (he was born in 1969). He appears to have immersed himself not just in the politics but in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and the tone of The Invisible Bridge is very much affected by his surprise at how crazy the mid-70s actually were. Indeed, he wants readers his age and younger to understand that a powerful undertow against the disillusionments of the era directly explains the rise of Ronald Reagan and his pervasive legacy in a self-consciously reactionary conservative movement and Republican Party.

In popular stereotypes about the 1970s, there’s usually an understandable emphasis on the breakdown of “traditional” culture that began in the 1960s but became a mass phenomenon in the 70s. Perlstein makes it clear there was an equally dramatic breakdown in trust in major institutions, and in the ancient creed of American Exceptionalism. By blaming the loss of trust on Big Government, and reasserting American Exceptionalism, Reagan addressed a powerful psychological need for an awful lot of people. And in that sense, his legacy definitely lives on.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.