“Let me make the songs of a nation,” the Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher once declared, “and I care not who makes its laws.” The eminent political journalist Ronald Brownstein makes a similar case in his recent book Rock Me on the Water — 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics. Brownstein’s narrative history traces the spectacular cultural pinnacles achieved in Los Angeles in 1974 in the separate industries of movies, music, and television — though often the artists responsible for those breakthroughs were working only blocks apart. These achievements helped Los Angeles in that year to exert “more influence over popular culture than any other city in America,” according to Brownstein, and indeed “the city dominated popular culture more than it ever had before, or would again.” Ultimately the breakthroughs that took place in LA in 1974 would not only transform the culture industries, they would act as a conduit channeling the radical ideas of the 1960s into the American mainstream.
In this podcast interview, CNN senior political analyst and Atlantic senior editor Ronald Brownstein discusses the creative summits achieved in LA in 1974. In Hollywood, these included the release of “New Wave” masterpieces such as Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation, along with the filming of other notable works including Nashville and Jaws. On television, 1974 was the only year that CBS broadcast the Saturday night lineup often considered “the greatest night in television history,” which included such breakthrough series as All in the Family, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. And in music, 1974 saw the release of career-defining albums from principal creators of the Southern California sound including Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The art across all these industries, according to Brownstein, “was socially engaged, grappling with all the changes and critiques of American life that had rumbled through society during the 1960s: greater suspicion of authority in business and government, more assertive roles for women, more tolerance of premarital sex, greater acceptance of racial and sexual minorities.” LA’s culture industries in 1974 were at the forefront of the clash between an ascending Baby Boom generation bent on change and older generations opposing that change. In the short term, conservative politics triumphed. But Brownstein argues that the clear lesson for today’s political-cultural clash of generations is that “while voices resistant to change may win delaying battles in politics, they cannot indefinitely hold back the future.”
Ronald Brownstein: Pop culture is galloping off into a future, and in politics you are seeing a very powerful movement that is built around the idea of stopping that future from coming into being. And as I said before, you can win elections with that argument, but what you can’t actually do is stop the future.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by Ronald Brownstein, one of America’s most distinguished political journalists.
He was for many years the national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and he is currently senior political analyst for CNN (where he also writes the Fault Lines column) and senior editor at the Atlantic. He’s the author of numerous books, including most recently the compulsively readable Rock Me on the Water — 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics. Welcome, Ron!
Ronald Brownstein: Hey, thank you. Thank you for those nice words. Good to be with you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great to have you here. I know that Rock Me on the Water came out about a year ago, but I wanted to have you on the podcast because I felt that the book was amazing but also got less of a reception than it merited because of the continuing COVID chaos of last year. So somewhat belated congratulations to you!
Ronald Brownstein: Thank you. Yes, it came out right in the middle of COVID. But you know what? I still think it definitely struck a nerve. I was basically happy with the reception. It did make the New York Times bestseller list. I was just struck by how many people, including people who were younger than the period, related to some of the things that we’ll be talking about in a minute, about some of the things that went on then. Because it really was a turning point in pop culture.
Geoff Kabaservice: I have to be honest… I don’t really relate to a lot of what you were writing about. But I have read the book three times now because that’s how interesting I found it. So we’ll talk about some of that. I should add that this is not your first book on the movie world, since you published The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection all the way back in 1990 — which was kind of a pathbreaking book in its way.
Ronald Brownstein: Well, it’s interesting… I wrote The Power and the Glitter… Basically, my professional life, I’ve just bounced between DC and LA. I got out of college, lived in DC for seven years, ended up covering national politics and the White House for National Journal. Then I moved out here to LA and the first thing I did, really, was write The Power and the Glitter, which is a history of the relationship between Hollywood and politics. And then I went to work for the LA Times covering national politics out of here.
I went back to DC and lived in DC for 20 years, from the Clinton administration through the second term of Barack Obama. And when I moved back to LA — just because I had been in DC for 20 years; it was really nothing much more profound than I really like California and I felt the need to be out of DC to just kind of see something else — but when I moved back here in 2014, I had in my back pocket the awareness (which I think anybody does who writes about Hollywood) that there have been two great golden ages of Hollywood.
People talk about 1939 to 1946, and the other great golden age is basically 1967 to 1976 — basically Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate to Network and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Godfather and Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces in between. So I knew that that was a really special period in movies. And when I got out here, I started listening (more than I did when I was growing up) to the Southern California music that was coming out around the same time: the Eagles and Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Brown.
And I remember thinking that was kind of interesting: “That’s happening at the same time as the movies.” But when the tumblers all really clicked into place, fittingly enough, it was coming back from a political event. It must have been in 2015. And Elizabeth Warren came to Los Angeles doing an event around her book, but also obviously testing the waters for the 2016 campaign. And she did an event at Norman Lear’s house, Geoff…
Geoff Kabaservice: Because he’s chair of People for the American Way?
Ronald Brownstein: Right, and he’s Norman Lear also. So I’m in Norman Lear’s house and there’s all this great art but also all this kind of memorabilia. And I remember thinking on the way home — that was when the last tumbler clicked into place. I was driving home with my wife. I was like, “Wait a minute. So Norman Lear was doing All in the Family and The Jeffersons and Good Times at the same time that The Eagles and Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt were here. And at the same time, Hollywood was going through this golden age.” And it was really then that I said, “Well, hey, there’s something here worth looking at,” that all of this was going on at once. And that’s when I started exploring the ideas that became Rock Me on the Water.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, terrific. Like I said, you have done this kind of work before with The Power and The Glitter. And there are some well-known political figures in this book, Rock Me on the Water, including Jerry Brown, who was first elected California governor in 1974, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, who were kind of a left-wing power couple at that point. But this really does feel more like a labor of love than your normal political reporting and analysis. And I wonder if maybe it was even psychologically healthy for you to research and write about things like this at the same time that you were also writing about Trump-era politics?
Ronald Brownstein: Yeah. It’s a really perceptive question. I mean, it felt at times like a vacation from the very grim, polarized, quasi-Cold War Trump-era. As I often said, Trump governed as a wartime president, but it was for Red America against Blue America. And obviously we heard his speech at CPAC the other day where he said, “I will be your retribution,” kind of taking it even further.
So, yes, at one level… The book unfolded at two levels for me. One initially was just this idea, as I said, that all of this was going on at once: Norman Lear and James L. Brooks with Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Gelbart and Alan Alda with M*A*S*H*; and Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne; and these two generations of Hollywood directors, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols and Alan Pakula making great movies at the same time as the Baby Boom directors were making their first movies, Spielberg and Scorsese — and then Coppola as kind of the bridge in between.
That all of this was happening at the same time, in the same place, just seemed to me an extraordinary confluence of talent that has never gotten its due. It is really comparable to early ’50s New York with the art and TV and theater, or ’20s Paris. ’20s Paris is pretty high, with the art and the novelists. But there was just this incredible concentration of innovation and excellence on all three lanes: movies, music, and television.
But what became clear as I went deeper into it was that there was a whole other level here, and that essentially the pop culture of the early 1970s is when the critique of American life that developed in the 1960s was sort of cemented into our consciousness. It really is through these great movies and TV shows in particular that ideas like more suspicion of authority, more autonomy for women, renegotiating the terms of gender relations, more demands for inclusion by marginalized groups — all of those ideas really become part of our psychic firmament through their integration into pop culture in this era.
And that ultimately is the story that I tell, which is how a relatively small group of very brilliant and creative artists working predominantly in LA — literally blocks from each other in the early 1970s — become the bridge between what had been vanguard ideas a decade earlier and what became a mass American audience. And the politics and the culture moved in different directions. I mean, Nixon and then Reagan were winning elections promising to stop the social change of the 1960s.
And as I say in the book, you can assemble political majorities at any given moment promising to stop social change. What you can’t actually do is stop the change, however. And the culture in that way was a better predictor of what American life was going to become than the election results. And that’s kind of the deeper level of the story that I tell, along with a lot of fun about how Chinatown and Shampoo and All in the Family and Late for the Sky got made.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, there is a lot of fun here. And just to sort of go over some of what you already just said… 1974 in LA saw the pinnacle of the New Wave in Hollywood, the release of films including Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, the Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds. That was also when Nashville, Jaws, and Shampoo were filmed, although they didn’t come out until later, and also when George Lucas produced the screenplay draft of Star Wars.
Ronald Brownstein: Yes. A pretty good year!
Geoff Kabaservice: Exactly. And you just mentioned on television, 1974 was I think the only year that CBS had that murderer’s row of amazing, groundbreaking shows on Saturday night, including provocative, socially conscious shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H*, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Carol Burnett. And then 1974 also saw the release of that kind of classic-Southern-California-sound albums from LA-based artists like Joni Mitchell and The Eagles and Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, all of whose destinies were sort of overseen by record mogul David Geffen. And I want to say that Joni Mitchell recorded in his living room, right?
Ronald Brownstein: Right. She lived in his house for a while and recorded — I don’t know if she recorded there, but she certainly honed the songs and wrote the songs there. That was a great recitation of all that was happening in ’74, plus Hayden and Fonda going to DC to kind of climb in from the edge and begin their journey back toward more mainstream American politics and movies. Jerry Brown gets elected in November around many of the same themes as we see in some of this pop culture, including Chinatown, which Newsweek reviewed as “Watergate with real water.” And we shouldn’t forget that Nixon resigned that summer.
That is the sole night, as you point out, that those shows appeared together. And it has been called, I think justifiably — I know there are some Thursday nights from NBC that would beg to compete — but that Saturday night, that one year of Saturday night on CBS of All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H*, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett has been called the greatest night in television history, with I think reasonable justification. We just passed the anniversary of the final episode of mash, which was still I think the most watched scripted TV episode ever — over 100 million people, a Super Bowl-level kind of audience for that.
These are pop culture landmarks in part because they’re so excellent, but they are landmarks because they are commenting on their moment. I mean, before All in the Family, it was not a given that television was considered a suitable medium from which to comment on the world around you. In fact, it had been the opposite. Through the decade of the 1960s, television had not absentmindedly but very deliberately turned away from everything that was happening in American society. It got no closer to Vietnam than McHale’s Navy and Gomer Pyle. And campuses are burning and we’re getting Dobie Gillis and The Beverly Hillbillies.
The dominant theory in television in the ’60s was what was called the “least objectionable program.” And that programming had to be acceptable to the broadest possible audience, which in effect gave a veto to rural, small-town sensibilities that might be offended by anything that had a flavor of the way the country was changing. So on television, you would watch Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley for half an hour about all the ways in which American society was coming apart at the seams, and then they would spend the next three-and-a-half hours trying to make believe that none of it was happening.
But then ultimately, of all people, this guy named Robert Wood — who comes out of Southern California, comes out of KNX-TV (which was also the inspiration for the newsroom of Mary Tyler Moore strangely enough), a very conservative guy, a USC graduate, football booster, Nixon/Reagan fan — he becomes president of CBS. And he ultimately is receptive to the argument of the business staff that “We may have the biggest audiences” — and they did, they were dominant in the ’60s — “but we don’t necessarily have the best audiences.” And his view ultimately was memorably summarized by the LA Times’ TV writer in 1971 who said that “CBS concluded that how many farmers you have doesn’t matter unless you’re trying to sell tractors.”
And so Robert Wood, of all people, who canceled the Smothers Brothers as one of his first acts after taking over in 1968, he decides to take a flyer and put on CBS this show that had been rejected twice by ABC called — ultimately, eventually — All in the Family by Norman Lear, which was based on a British show originally. He did two pilots for ABC, and ABC couldn’t quite get over the hump of doing something so different. But Robert Wood wanted something, as he said, that would start a conversation. And All in the Family went on the air in January 1971, and TV was never the same. I mean, it is the absolute… You can argue about whether it’s the best show in TV history, although I saw it did just win the readers’ poll in the Boston Globe. They did kind of a NCAA-style bracket, and it beat Breaking Bad in the semifinals and Seinfeld in the finals.
Whether or not you think All in the Family is the best TV show in history, I think it is certainly the most important TV show in history. Because it established, irrevocably, the idea that TV was in fact a suitable medium through which to comment on the society around you. I mean, Archie and Edith and Mike and Gloria lived in the same world as the viewers did, and that was something that had never been true before. Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith and Dobie Gillis and the Clampetts did not live in the same world that you did. Marlo Thomas a little bit more in That Girl, or The Mod Squad a little bit more, Room 222… All in the Family was right there. It took the whole generation gap and condensed it into a single living room. And all of a sudden, all of the different sides of every argument in America could see themselves on the screen looking back at them. And that was something that hadn’t been true before, and I think it really changed the world.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned this, I was really struck that you actually went back and found out what was showing on the night of May 4th, 1970, which was the day of the Kent State shootings. And the CBS evening broadcast opened with Gunsmoke, Here’s Lucy, Mayberry R.F.D., Andy Griffith, and Doris Day. These were all things that had their roots in either the ’50s or, in Doris Day’s case, in World War II. And when we try to ask “Why LA?” and “Why 1974?” it’s because there is an overhang, particularly in TV and film, of an older generation, which has concerns that go back to an older, even a more rural America. And then it’s coming into conflict with the buying power of this younger baby-boom generation. So you point out Robert Wood is making a capitalistic decision, which ultimately translates into the culture.
Ronald Brownstein: Robert Wood did not view himself as a cultural revolutionary. He did not view himself even as exercising a cultural trust. He did not feel he had an asset that had an obligation to do something for the society. He wanted to sell — what did someone say? — he wanted to sell beer and cars. I mean, he was an ad guy originally. But he recognized, as the studios ultimately recognized, that they had to connect to the society around them more in order to connect with what was becoming a growing share of their audience, which was this massive Baby Boom.
The story of Hollywood in the ’60s had been very similar to the story of the networks. They were defiantly ignoring everything that was happening around them, in Vietnam. You’re getting The Longest Day, which is a recounting of D-Day, and you’re getting Mary Poppins and Sound of Music and My Fair Lady — great movies, but not necessarily connected to what was going on. And it really is only in ’67 that you see the first kind of punches in the wall with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. And then the wall comes tumbling down in ’69 with Easy Rider, which shows that there is an audience for movies that can connect with the younger generation.
And interestingly, Geoff, the late Todd Gitlin let me see some of his interviews that he did for a book in the 1980s about TV. And one of the CBS executives talks about — and then I found another interview with Robert Wood where he talks about how much Easy Rider influenced him in terms of what he put on TV. He said he felt that he was in danger of losing the younger generation to this edgier entertainment. And that is in part what set him off on finding something that he said could start a conversation, which led him to All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H*.
But after Easy Rider, the door is open. And you get Midnight Cowboy, and you get Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge and The Conversation and The Last Detail and Godfather and Godfather II and Chinatown — just this really great era of deeply personal films that are imbued with essentially the same critique of American life as emerged in the social movements of the 1960s. Of course, the irony here is that it is the older generation of directors who are interested in telling those stories. And when the actual Baby Boomers get their hands on the controls… There’s Taxi Driver from Scorsese and there’s Coppola as kind of a bridge figure, born in ’39, who did want to make those kinds of movies. But Spielberg, De Palma, ultimately Scorsese, and Lucas — they had a very different set of goals. I mean, they wanted to go back to just kind of bright-color storytelling with heroes and villains. And they did it brilliantly, but they also led Hollywood away from what had been this window of deeply personal and socially aware movies.
You get at how there actually are structural economic forces behind the different kinds of transitions in each of these industries. So it’s actually Hollywood’s going into free fall, relative to the revenues that it had enjoyed in most of the post-World War II era, that gives an opening for these older directors to in effect channel the spirit of European avant-garde, French and Italian New Wave films.
Ronald Brownstein: Which they loved, right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. But on the other hand, the music industry had channeled the buying power of the Baby Boomers earlier than those other two industries that were more mainstream.
Ronald Brownstein: Yeah, and that’s logical, right? You would think it would come to the music industry first because a bigger share of their audience, of their consumer base are young people than for Hollywood or TV. The progression was music first — Pet Sounds, Sergeant Pepper — and then everything that follows from that, the idea that music can be more than just two-minute AM Cousin Brucie. They go first, then The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider Hollywood, and then moved to TV last.
And of course, in some ways it was the most remarkable that this happened in TV, because TV was still making money. I mean, the movie industry was really struggling. And essentially the deal that became on offer at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s was, “Well, we’re not going to give you a lot of money to make your movie, but we’re going to give you more freedom than you’ve ever had.” That was the deal. And then things started getting better for Hollywood and you started to see movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, and The Sting raise the ceiling on what was thought to be possible in terms of box office receipts.
But it’s really — and I know Spielberg hates being cast as the bad guy, and he’s not really the bad guy — but it is Jaws that shows how big “big” could be, with massive nationwide opening and international audiences. And a few years later, these kind of blockbuster movies increasingly commanded the attention and money in Hollywood.
In the book I parallel something that’s really never, I think, been done before or looked at this way before. Jaws and Nashville are filmed in tandem and then released in tandem. They’re filmed together in the spring and summer of ’74, and they’re released 10 days apart in June ’75. And that really is the hinge point, because people thought Nashville was going to be a giant hit.
Now, as Joan Tewkesbury, the screenwriter, said to me, “Why anybody thought that about a three-hour movie without a central plot or an identifiable star is an open question.” But nonetheless, people thought it was going to be a huge hit. And while Nashville is not the best movie of the early ’70s — I would say that’s The Godfather and Chinatown — it is to me kind of the Moby Dick of early ’70s film. Because in Nashville, Robert Altman, like Melville in Moby Dick, tries to wrestle all of the big themes into one story, this big sprawling canvas.
For people who have not seen it — it’s not the TV show — basically it’s America with the seams coming off, seams coming apart. It’s a very Nixon-era story of entertainment and political corruption and greed and random violence and untrustworthy authority — all of the big themes. And it’s flawed, but it is brilliant in its own way as sort of a summation of early ’70s filmmaking. And it’s not the last one because movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Network followed. But in many ways, to me, Nashville is the culmination.
And then Jaws, which was released at the same time, is really the beginning of what comes next. It’s the turn back to the blockbuster — which I’m not saying as a pejorative because it is brilliant entertainment. I mean, you cannot say anything against the artistry with which this next generation revived the great storytelling of the ’40s and modernized it. Lucas and Spielberg and Scorsese are brilliant filmmakers, every bit as if not more talented than the ones who were there in the early ’70s. But they did not have the same sense of mission about using film as a way to x-ray the flaws in society. That was not what they were trying to do.
Spielberg at one point says — he’s talking about Close Encounters, which started off as much more, as he described it once, as Watergate meets UFOs and evolved in a very different way — he said, “I didn’t really want to be the spokesman for the paranoid ’70s.” That’s not what he wanted. In his first movie, Sugarland Express, the only truly admirable character is the cop. How many Baby Boomers were making statements celebrating police in 1974 when that came out?
So the transition in Hollywood that I talk about is a reminder that these kind of moments of cultural innovation can be brief. The window can be small. But you never go back to square one — that is kind of the other point I make. Yes, Hollywood moved away from Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge. But it didn’t go back to My Fair Lady. What emerged was something of a hybrid.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s true. But Jaws kind of points the way toward the need of Hollywood to make tentpole films to the exclusion of those kind of smaller, more intimate, more auteur works.
Ronald Brownstein: They moved to prestige TV. I mean, that’s sort of the inheritors of… Fleabag is kind of the inheritor of Carnal Knowledge or Five Easy Pieces. Or Breaking Bad is the inheritor of — what? Maybe The Conversation. But I’m just trying to think of a movie that’s about the rottenness, the corruption at the core of the American dream from the early ’70s. You could trace a line from that to Breaking Bad. And that’s sort of how it evolved. The movies are now the descendants of Jaws and Star Wars, and the prestige TV is the descendant of the early ’70s auteur movies, I think.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m a Generation X person, so a lot of what you’re talking about is the Baby Boomers and their taste in film. And the legacy is interesting. You are talking about a lot of masterpieces here, but also there’s some negative aspects to it as well. So in terms of film, yes, you have this sort of suspicious attitude — “Trust no one!” — and that’s part of the problem that we face in our politics right now. You’d mentioned Todd Gitlin. He had pointed out that in ’60s music there’s a really strong strain of libertarianism, which also acts against any kind of collective action. And there’s also an appealing portrait you paint…
Ronald Brownstein: “Don’t follow leaders.” Isn’t that what Dylan says?
Geoff Kabaservice: Exactly. There’s an appealing portrait you paint of all these people hanging out in Laurel Canyon, and they’re trading guitars and they’re sleeping with each other and they’re writing songs for each other, and it’s a kind of democracy within an aristocracy. But they all want to make a gazillion dollars and sell 200 million albums — and indeed The Eagles will. And they’re one of the central bands in this group, and they seem too much of an aristocracy and too commercial to a later generation — which is, I think, of all of the people you describe probably most taken with Joni Mitchell and her individual and poetic vision. So it seems that there are some ambiguous legacies even in this cultural renaissance you’re describing.
Ronald Brownstein: Well, most immediately in what you’re describing, if there was a California dream that was reflected in the movies and music most directly, it was essentially a ’60s dream of greater personal liberation and greater personal autonomy, however we want to describe that, and the idea of greater equality and equity. By the ’70s, it was a pretty tough decade. You Gen Xers won’t remember much of it until the end, but two sets of gas lines and Watergate and inflation and defeat in Vietnam and near-nuclear war in the Yom Kippur War. I mean, it was a tough decade.
And as the decade went on, all of that kind of Laurel Canyon — and it wasn’t even Laurel Canyon, I think, by the time I’m writing it, it was even more Malibu, maybe both — all of that optimism seemed really kind of faded and yellowing. You could write an alternative history of the early ’70s from the Lower East Side of New York where you basically get the emergence of the punk movement and then the New Wave movement, which very much — and I quote various people — explicitly saw itself as a counter to this gauzy California lifestyle fantasy, cowboy boots and patched jeans versus combat boots and army jackets on the Lower East Side.
And so all of that emerges, very much so, as an alternative to… It’s tougher. Music kind of bifurcates after the dominance of the Southern California sound in the early ’70s. Down the one vein, you get this political (in its own way) but kind of nihilist punk movement. And then the other side, you get the pure entertainment which is disco, like escapism. And I would argue that TV and movies more follow the disco track. They move toward more pure entertainment. I mean, you get Happy Days. The show that supplants All in the Family after five years at number one is Happy Days, which was…
Geoff Kabaservice: Very symbolic.
Ronald Brownstein: And not only symbolic. Michael Eisner, who was then at the head of ABC, or the programming guy, he explicitly developed Happy Days as the reverse, as the alternative to All in the Family, because he thought people were tired of litigating the arguments of the ’60s every night in their living room and wanted an escape. And then of course when Fred Silverman comes in at ABC, we not only get Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, we get Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels, and we’re moving very far away. And then as we said, in the movie side, we’re going from Chinatown and Nashville and Five Easy Pieces to Jaws and Star Wars. So most entertainment by the late ’70s, with the exception of the punk movement, is going toward, “Okay, we don’t want to be fighting about this anymore.”
But I do think that the baseline changed. And the world that you grew up in — you, Gen X and everybody… You know that a majority of Americans have now been born since 1980. Did you know that? So the world that all of these people have grown up in was shaped by the changes, the critique of the status quo that emerged in the ’60s that I believe was ultimately cemented into pop culture and thus into the water system — the kind of fluoride of our lives — through the pop culture of the early 1970s.
I mean, it’s hard to imagine that before the late ’60s that 70% of Americans said you could trust government to do what’s right most of the time. Mary Tyler Moore went on slightly before All in the Family, and CBS would not let Mary Tyler Moore be divorced. The character was supposed to be divorced and they would not permit it. And then of course, as I say in the book, six/seven years later when they need to write themselves out of the dead end they’re at in Rhoda, they have her get divorced and no one bats an eye.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, and Maude had an abortion, which still seems kind of shocking, frankly.
Ronald Brownstein: Yeah, but it’s a different world. It’s just a whole different world. And the idea that you would put a show on television while America was still fighting in Vietnam — albeit with far less direct American involvement, but we were still there — and you would put a show on TV lampooning war and lampooning the war effort, with only the thinnest of fig leafs that it was in Korea… And of course we’re talking about M*A*S*H*. And Alan Alda is essentially a ’70s male dropped into a ’50s world and bringing his enlightenment to them. It’s more complex than that, because he was a great actor and it was a brilliantly written show. But the idea that you could do that… Can you imagine in 1966 CBS doing that? It’s inconceivable.
So the hardest thing, I think, when writing history (or living in history) is to understand how different things were. The past is another country and all of that. It’s true. And so we all grow up with all of these ideas: that Mary Tyler Moore did not have to be married by 30 in order to have a fulfilled life, and that she could have her career and a dating life, and she’s taking the pill. These are ideas that we can’t imagine a world before them, but there was a world before them. And this is the moment where I think that hinge begins to snap into place.
Geoff Kabaservice: Would you want to go back to LA in 1974?
Ronald Brownstein: Yes, short answer. If you could step into the hot tub time machine and come out in a hot tub in The Colony in 1974, yes. Look, obviously there are enormous limitations in this world. Women and people of color were still marginalized in all of the spheres that we’re talking about. More of their stories were being told in front of the camera than had been true before, although still pretty marginal. Behind the camera, they were still invisible. I mean, this is a world with a lot of blind spots in it.
But LA in the early 1970s seems like a really fun place to be — because I’m focusing on the main story of how this cultural transition happened. I mean, I don’t even deal with John Lennon and David Bowie and Billy Joel and just all the people who are kind of passing through. I read an interview in the LA Times this week where Billy Joel said that he wrote “Piano Man” based on his experiences in LA, not on Long Island. I did not know that until just now.
Geoff Kabaservice: I didn’t either.
Ronald Brownstein: I knew that he was here for part of the period that I was writing about, but I did not know that. He said that “Piano Man” was based on the bar at the Ambassador Hotel – huh! And “the waitress who was practicing politics” he married, he said.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interesting.
Ronald Brownstein: Anyway, slightly off the point. But yes, I think it was a period in which it was a lot of fun. Ultimately, it became pretty self-destructive. I think cocaine had a really negative influence, when it all kind of graduated from pot and the occasional LSD trip to rampant cocaine… I think that really tore through all of these industries that I’m writing about — maybe TV the least, but certainly movies and music. And eventually you get Roman Polanski and the 14-year-old girl and all the kind of decadence that went with it. But I do think it was a period of just enormous experimentation — in a lot of ways, but experimentation artistically in which people recognized that they were part of something special.
I should say, real quick, that I interviewed a lot of the people who were there: Jackson Browne and Jane Fonda and Linda Ronstadt and Norman Lear and Graham Nash and Rob Reiner and Mike Farrell — all sorts of folks who were doing this. And what’s interesting to me is they were all really aware of it being a period of ferment and excitement in their vertical. They were less conscious of what was happening in the other verticals around them.
And I think people really related to the idea that this was all really part of one big change, that they were all part of one big change that was all rooted in the growing buying power of the Baby Boom and the need for these cultural industries to respond to that. And when the book came out — the title is a Jackson Browne song, “Rock Me on the Water” — he said he was really happy that it was his title. And he said to me, “I just cannot believe what you made of this, what you saw in this. Because we all knew what we were doing — we were all kind of picking away with our little pickax at our little piece of the mountain — and then there’s this whole thing that wasn’t always apparent right away. And when you step back, you see the bigger, wider panoramic picture.” And it was. It was a period like Paris in the ’20s or New York in the ’50s.
Geoff Kabaservice: I can’t help but point out that although all this is going on, the governor of California throughout the entirety of 1974 is Ronald Reagan, in his last year there. And you draw some interesting comparisons between 1974 and today in that there still is this older generation in charge politically with a vision of an older and much more culturally and racially homogenous America. And then there’s a generation coming up that wants to change things and has some good ideas and some bad ideas for doing this as well — because we can’t get into Bert Schneider and his dalliance with the Black Panthers, but that pretty clearly seems like even more nihilistic than anything the punks came up with, put it that way. So how do you see today’s political situation with reference to what you were writing about back then?
Ronald Brownstein: The electorate is older than the society overall, and certainly older than the audience for pop culture. So in that sense, politics is always going to reflect more of the demands of older generations than pop culture. Politics will be downstream from culture, as they say — but not only downstream from culture, it will be delayed. And when you have periods of big social change, I think it is fair to say that pop culture will reflect that before politics does. And in fact, politics will not only in many cases fail to reflect it, it will be defined actively in opposition to it.
Nixon’s core appeal, and even Reagan’s in his own way — although Reagan’s was broader, I think — was to stop the social changes of the 1960s. I mean, Nixon, his “silent majority” was about making America great again. They didn’t even have to say “again” then. It was just trying to hold on to what had been and resisting all of the ways in which social arrangements were being renegotiated: the relations between men and women, between kids and parents, premarital sex, the use of drugs, the role of women in the workplace, the role of Black people in society, the visibility of same-sex relationships.
All of this was winning in popular culture. It was still losing politically. And like I say at one point — I’m trying to remember if I say this in the book or I just said it in interviews — Archie Bunker did not think he was winning even after Nixon won 49 states. I mean, Nixon won 49 states and Archie Bunker did not think he was winning. Every week, he saw the world that he understood eroding around him and receding around him.
And in many ways, I think we are in a similar place. We’re crossing all of these demographic milestones in the last few years. A majority of the under-five population were kids of color, then that was a majority of the under-18 population, and then it was a majority of high school graduates. That was last year, I think. Last year was when whites fell below the majority of high school graduates for the first time. Next year or the year after, it’ll be the majority of entering college students.
And you see that in Gallup polling 20 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ, somewhere on that spectrum. That may be a high number, but it is what it is. They’ve now gotten that result two years in a row. And you see this diversity of experience and orientation and background reflected in our pop culture. It has limits in that it may be a little more narrowcast than it should be at specific audiences, and there isn’t as much incentive to try to speak to everybody, except for Marvel movies. But nonetheless it is allowing, with the era of peak TV and all of this streaming — we have more stories from more perspectives that are getting on the air or through the wires than ever before, and people are being exposed to it.
And once again, as in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we are seeing the power of a political message that says “We are going to make all this stop. We are going to make America great again. People who are demanding more racial equity — they are the racists. We’re going to make this kind of gender nonconformity stop.” I saw Ron Desantis speak on Sunday, and the one standing ovation he got was when he said, “We should not be teaching second-graders that they can choose their gender.” I don’t know how many second-graders are really being taught they can choose their gender, but the fear of that goes to this larger set of cultural anxieties.
And as you know, I believe that the fundamental dividing line in American politics is between those who are comfortable with the way America is changing — economically, culturally, and demographically — and those who either fear it or feel marginalized by it or feel hostile to it. The coalition of transformation, which is the Democratic coalition, and the coalition of restoration. And so we are in a period very much like the late ’60s and early ’70s where pop culture is galloping off into a future, and in politics you are seeing a very powerful movement that is built around the idea of stopping that future from coming into being.
And as I said before, you can win elections with that argument, largely because the electorate is older than the society, but what you can’t actually do is stop the future. And once again, I think the pop culture is telling us how we are going to be living in 10 years. It’s not telling us who’s going to win every election in 10 years. But it is telling us that a world of greater acceptance on a whole series of variables, including sexual orientation and gender nonconformity and all of that, that’s where we’re headed, even if you can win elections now by promising to stop it.
Geoff Kabaservice: You had a quote from Norman Lear speaking up in defense of Archie Bunker in the early ’70s where he said that Archie wasn’t motivated by hatred, he was motivated by fear of the future.
Ronald Brownstein: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: And in the original song to All in the Family, the stanza they didn’t include has — I don’t quite remember, but it’s like “People seemed to be content, fifty dollars paid the rent, freaks were in a circus tent.” And then it ends, “I don’t know just what went wrong” — so that sense of loss. And I was reminded of that actually in your recent brilliant interview in the Atlantic with Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who was kind of calling an end to a different kind of era of the New Democrats. But he said there that at the core of Donald Trump’s emergence has been a narrative of what he calls “the white tribe rallying around itself, and the sense of grievance, the sense of loss, the sense of decline.” And that is so reminiscent of that same Archie Bunker kind of era that we’re talking about.
Ronald Brownstein: Totally. This message, the Trumpian stop-the-clock message, it does have appeal to culturally conservative Latino voters and some culturally conservative Black voters — especially men in each case. But the core of it, 85% of his votes, were from white voters. And they tend to be white voters who are overwhelmingly uneasy with the way the country is changing. In different polls, 90% of Trump voters say Christianity in America is under assault. 70% to 75% say discrimination against whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. 65% to 70% say the growing number of immigrants is undermining American traditions. And over 60% say society now punishes men just for acting like men and/or society is becoming too soft and feminine.
It is a comprehensive recoil. It’s not one thing. It’s not just “I don’t like pressing 7 for Spanish,” or “I think that immigrants are going to come into my town and commit crimes.” It’s also about gender relations and it’s also about demands for racial equity and a more secular society. I think I am correct that among people under 35, seculars now outnumber white Christians — I think that is correct — in the Public Religion Research Institute data.
So it is a comprehensive set of society’s changing in a way that makes many feel threatened or excluded. Trump says, “I am your champion” — “I am your retribution,” in the ’24 version, which is going to be even darker than the ’20 or ’16 version — American carnage squared. And it is a very powerful emotional appeal and it can work electorally, although it does not represent a majority of the country. It’s close enough that, the way all the quirks in the system work, it can win elections. But you can’t… The future gets the last word. And pop culture is kind of our preview of that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, so as the last question to you, Ron… I think that Ron DeSantis is going to run for the presidency, and I think in a way he’s actually going to run against California…
Ronald Brownstein: He is.
Geoff Kabaservice: … and everything that it represents, as opposed to the Florida conservative counter-revolution. And you say in your Acknowledgements that “Los Angeles is the capital of the future in American life, the place that more than any other points the way to what America is becoming.” And so I guess the question is, if it is Florida against California, if that’s what it comes down to, which side has the advantages?
Ronald Brownstein: The California side still barely has 270 Electoral College votes. You saw in this midterm election — and this will go to my modification of my acknowledgements there… LA points to the future of Blue America, right? Red America seems more intent on setting its own future that departs from that than it did even five or 10 years ago. Look, I think one of the biggest, most important things that is happening is that red states and blue states are diverging at an accelerating speed across an enlarging number of issues on pretty much everything: what we teach our kids, what the abortion rules look like, what the gun rules look like, what it requires to vote, whether you can do public protest or not.
If you follow any of the newsletters that track what’s happening in the states, on the same day Michigan, with the new Democratic majority in the legislature, adds sexual orientation and gender identity to its non-discrimination laws, on the same day Arkansas and I think Tennessee — no, Tennessee’s already done it, it was Arkansas and Iowa maybe — pass a ban on gender-conforming surgery for minors. It’s happening across the board. In the midterm election, the blue states and even four of the key purple states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona — all emphatically said no to the conservative social agenda that is spreading across the red states. The red states shrugged. There was no real backlash.
In states where abortion is still legal, voters said as clearly as they could, “Do not bring your abortion bans here in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania” — I’ll come back to Arizona. But apart from Arizona, in no state that actually banned abortion was there a backlash against a Republican governor or a Republican legislature who did it and who have been doing all these other things on LGBTQ rights and classroom censorship and book bans.
There seems to be a majority in the red states that may not like all of this, but it didn’t matter to them enough to overcome all the other reasons they feel more comfortable voting for Republicans. And so, even compared to Jim Crow, I think we are heading for a more fundamental fissure. Jim Crow may have been a deeper fissure, but that was about a dozen states. We’re talking about half the country here. Half the country is going one way and half the country is going the other way. The distance between them is widening. Each side has proposals to extend their vision to the other at the national level. I don’t know if either of those will pass anytime soon, given how close the national balance of power is.
And if that’s the case, the basic rules of daily life, your rights and liberties, will look very different in Red America than in Blue America. And of course there are red parts of the blue states and blue parts of the red states that feel as if they’re caught behind enemy lines. But I think that is the reality that we are living in. So when I say LA points to the future of the US, I think it does overall, and certainly in the blue states. But I think the red states where Republicans are in control due to dominance of small town, rural, exurban and stronger performance in suburbs than elsewhere — I think they are moving in a more determined fashion to say no to that, to that future that LA symbolizes. And as a result, I think this is the most dangerous decade for the country since the 1850s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, given that you are the author of The Second Civil War, we’ll see how we get through this. But in the meantime, Ron, thank you so much for all that you’ve done to illuminate our understanding of the political moment. And thanks for giving us Rock Me on the Water, which is just a great, fun, really illuminating read.
Ronald Brownstein: Well, I really appreciate you enjoying it, especially as a Gen Xer having to go back. And real quick, have you seen all of these movies or did you go back and see some of them?
Geoff Kabaservice: I have seen all of them. And I like these kind of paranoid films like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View or Network…
Ronald Brownstein: The Conversation, yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: And yet at the same time, I kind of think, God, in comparison to how things turned out, the ’70s was like the last golden era. I mean, this is when you have the neoliberal turn. Some would say that the working class hasn’t actually gained real income since then. The country had so many strengths that it didn’t actually perceive because of all the political turmoil, but that was what got us through the ’80s and the ’90s and the good times. And this millennium has just been a bummer by comparison.
Ronald Brownstein: This millennium has been pretty rough.
Geoff Kabaservice: I kind of feel that those who were around to be teenagers in 1974, like yourself, got to have a lot of good experiences that those of us coming along missed out on. But then again, the younger generation could very well say the same thing about us. The ’90s was actually a time of great optimism, and I’m glad that I lived through that.
Ronald Brownstein: That’s true. I tell you, the cost of education, among other things, was so different. And like I said, part of my story… I mean, there was an undeniable sense of optimism in all of this pop culture that came out of LA in the early ’70s. Even the movies that were so critical, they were critical because they thought that by shining a light, society would get better. They were not hopeless, they were hopeful — maybe not The Parallax View, but most of them were kind of hopeful. And as the ’70s go on, that becomes more untenable. Anyway, we could do this all day. Thanks so much for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, it’s a real pleasure, Ron. Thank you very much for coming in.
Ronald Brownstein: All right. Take care.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegnieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.