History and Historiography

Why the ’70s are a blueprint – but not a destiny – for the 2020s

Peter Grier Staff writer, Noah Robertson Staff writer

Protests. An ugly withdrawal from a botched foreign war. Inflation. Politics riven by anger and partisanship. Puff-sleeve peasant dresses. Shortages of consumer items. New music from ABBA.

This was the 1970s – and perhaps also the early 2020s. History often runs in cycles, and four decades after Watergate and the debut of “M*A*S*H,” the United States at times seems to have gone forward into the past, with the retreat from Afghanistan evoking the flight from Saigon, Black Lives Matter protests echoing ’70s civil rights and anti-war marches, and a spike in the cost of living reviving painful memories of a decadelong economic malady known as “stagflation.”

Remember vinyl LPs? They’re back, and if not bigger than ever, then big enough: They’re the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format. Swedish 1970s pop legend ABBA released “Voyage” in September, and it’s now the fastest-selling vinyl release of the century. Bucket hats are back, too, in all their floppy glory. Target’s even selling a tie-dye version. Loose-fitting pants are called “flares” now, but that shouldn’t fool anybody. They’re bell-bottoms by another name.

Why We Wrote This

The 1970s, which hold many parallels to the 2020s, offer lessons for how to handle social strife and problems of today. But the differences between the two decades also show how far society has evolved in key areas.

The 1970s and early 2020s are far from twins, of course. They differ in ways both small and profound. A half-century ago, the nation still had a common culture, with TV shows and music and mainstream news that most of the population consumed. The Vietnam War was seismic in the extent it spread disillusion and distrust in government. COVID-19 has no parallel in U.S. history since the influenza pandemic of 1918. Smartphones and social media have led to technical and cultural revolutions.

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