The Seventies Shift: When Michael Barone Began His Career as a Political Observer, Los Angeles Was like Des Moines by the Sea and America Was Transfixed by the Vietnam War and the Counterculture. Nobody Saw the Deeper Forces That Were Beginning to Transform the Nation

By Barone, Michael | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The Seventies Shift: When Michael Barone Began His Career as a Political Observer, Los Angeles Was like Des Moines by the Sea and America Was Transfixed by the Vietnam War and the Counterculture. Nobody Saw the Deeper Forces That Were Beginning to Transform the Nation


Barone, Michael, The Wilson Quarterly


ON WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10, AT 6:17 PM, WITH A FEELING of calm relief, I finished writing my share of The Almanac of American Politics 2010. This is the 20th edition of the book, and the moment came almost exactly 39 years from the time Grant Ujifusa, whom I had known as a fellow editor of The Harvard Crimson, asked me to be a coauthor of the first. Grant's idea was to prepare a portrait of every state, congressional district, and member of Congress for students protesting President Richard M. Nixon's decision in the spring of 1970 to send U.S. troops into Cambodia, but as we began working--equipped, in my own ease, with a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter and a pocket calculator, then an incredibly high-tech device--it occurred to us that our guide could be useful to Americans with all kinds of political views. After months of work and the providential finding of a publisher, Lovell Thompson's Gambit, Inc., The Almanac of American Politics 1972 appeared a few months before the year began.

I expected the book to make only a tiny splash as it fell into the depths of the vast pool of American political writing. Instead, it proved to be a commercial and critical success. We had found a market niche: The community of Washington journalists and lobbyists--which I may have been the first to call "K Street'--had just gotten large enough to provide a market for a volume that described and gave relevant statistics for every member of Congress and every state and congressional district. New editions have appeared every two years, published since 1983 by National Journal. Through 20 editions I have processed something more than 15 million words, including 1,000 state profiles and most of the 8,700 descriptions of the 435 congressional districts. In 1998 I met a goal I had set early on, to at least touch down in each of those districts, when I landed at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska.

A forced immersion in the minutiae of American politics and demographics like mine provides a unique perspective on the past four decades. What is surprising about what has happened in those years is not that America has grown--from 203 million people in 1970 to 305 million, according to a Census

Bureau estimate last year--but that it has grown in such different ways from what people expected. We didn't see it when we began working on the Almanac, but the years around 1970 were a hinge point in U.S. demographic and political history, a moment of rapid transition from postwar America, as we called it then, to the America of the era in which we are living and for which we still have no convenient name.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The postwar baby boom is generally dated from 1946 to 1962, but the abrupt drop in birthrates in the mid-1960s was considered for some time a temporary aberration. In 1972, Congress approved an immediate 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits coupled with automatic cost-of-living increases in the future on the assumption that the baby boomers would soon begin producing as many babies (and future taxpayers) as their parents had. That, like so many predictions based on straight-line demographic extrapolations, did not come to pass.

Among the demographic changes that did occur was a sharp shift in the geography of growth. Hard as it is to believe now when population growth in the Northeast and industrial Midwest is minimal, the fastest-growing parts of the country from World War II through the 1970 Census included industrial Michigan and Ohio and the thickly populated bloc of counties clustered along Interstate 95 from New Hampshire to northern Virginia--an area dubbed "Megalopolis" in the 1964 book of that name by geographer Jean Gottmann. In the South, only Florida, Texas, and Virginia were growing faster than the national average.

Around 1970 that pattern changed. Between 1940 and 1965, blacks had migrated from south to north in massive numbers, spurred initially by the job-killing advent of the mechanical cotton picker and the labor demands of wartime defense plants, and also by a vision of achieving freedom from the South's legally and violently enforced racial segregation. …

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