- Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s by Meg Jacobs
In 1979, the historian Christopher Lasch described the 1970s as an age of diminishing expectations. More than the war in Vietnam and Watergate, the rising cost of energy and gas shortages fueled a collective sense that the post-World War II economic boom was over. The revelation of the energy [End Page 481] crisis—that the nation had grown dangerously dependent on foreign oil—came as a psychological shock not only to the American public but also to policy makers who struggled to adapt to the new reality. In this smart and textured account, Meg Jacobs traces how successive policy makers over the 1970s puzzled through the crisis and sought remedies for it. What emerges is more than a compelling blow-by-blow history of the energy crisis (although the book provides that). Rather, Jacobs uses the crisis as an illuminating lens for understanding how conservatives were able to take the reins of power by decade's end.
The energy crisis was a crucible that raised fundamental questions about the proper role of government within the nation's economic life. Should the government use regulatory tools—mandatory allocations, price controls, and rationing—to provide the public with access to affordable energy, as New Deal liberals maintained? Or would the crisis be resolved by getting rid of governmental controls altogether and letting market remedies do their work, as a new generation of young conservatives countered? This latter group emerged from the Sun Belt, felt liberated from the constraints of earlier New Deal thinking, and placed economic deregulation at the heart of its political project. For this group of conservatives, the energy crisis represented what the Great Depression had been for an earlier generation of liberal reformers: an opportunity to remake government along new lines.
This remaking would be no easy task. One of the book's insights is that these conservatives struggled mightily to advance their agenda in the face of considerable opposition. This pushback came from liberal Democrats who insisted that affordable energy was a fundamental economic right in need of government safeguarding, as well as from environmentalists who believed that the nation's energy future would best be secured through conservation and a turn to renewable sources of energy. Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s is no simplistic tale of a conservative hegemonic takeover proceeding seamlessly or without resistance. Instead, Jacobs paints a complex portrait of contestation in which New Deal liberalism maintained a powerful practical and psychological hold, even as conservatives crafted a new common sense that prized market remedies over regulatory ones. This common sense would come to fruition with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who viewed the energy crisis as proof of governmental incompetence.
So why did conservatives prevail? Again, Jacobs provides a clue: both political parties gradually adopted a neoliberal worldview. In the early 1970s, Republican president Richard M. Nixon had nominally opposed the New Deal, yet he used regulatory controls to attempt to stave off the worst economic effects of energy shortages. By decade's end, however, the political situation had flipped. Democratic president Jimmy Carter nominally supported the New Deal, yet he championed deregulation, the shrinking of government, and fiscal trimming as solutions to the energy crisis. Thus the crisis revealed how the conservative turn was propelling both parties right of center. The final revelation of the crisis was also the most ominous. The turn to market remedies went hand in hand with greater reliance on militarization, as the United States assumed a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf in order to prevent future [End Page 482] shortages and ensure the free flow of oil. As this book reveals, the energy crisis augured a new era in which military intervention in the Middle East supplanted governmental intervention in the domestic economy as an...