Gerald Ford: The American Franchise

Gerald Ford: The American Franchise

The United States observed its 200th birthday in the summer of 1976. The great celebrations that marked the occasion contrasted sharply with President Ford's assessment of the state of the union eighteen months earlier, which he described bluntly as "not good." These widely divergent snapshots of the nation's mood only hinted at the magnitude of the political, economic, cultural, and demographic changes that buffeted America during the mid-1970s.

Immigration and Demography

Population growth in the United States slowed considerably during the 1970s. The number of Americans grew from just over 203 million persons in 1970 to about 226 million persons in 1980, the smallest percentage growth in any ten-year period since the 1930s. This deceleration cast the changes then taking place in immigration in even starker relief. Nearly five million immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1970s, the greatest influx of people to America since the 1920s. Of these five million, the vast bulk came from countries in Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America; more immigrants came from Mexico during the 1970s than from any other country.

These trends resulted largely from the landmark revision of American immigration laws in 1965, the effects of which became clear only during the second half of the 1970s. First, the new immigration system permitted relatives of American citizens or permanent residents to enter the United States without being counted against the yearly immigrant quotas. Thus, during the 1970s, actual immigration outdistanced the annual limits established by Congress. Second, the 1965 law eliminated restrictions on the entry of immigrants from Asia and South and Central America. In short, more immigrants from different countries arrived in the 1970s than at any previous time in American history.

These newcomers came with a wide array of economic skills. Among the 1.5 million Asian immigrants who arrived during the 1970s were thousands of well-educated technical workers and professionals, and even more low-skilled or unskilled laborers, who found back-breaking and low-paying work in restaurants, hotels, and the garment industry. Immigrants from South and Central America generally fit this employment profile as well, although a significant number of these immigrants found work in the agricultural sector. Many of these newcomers helped revitalize depressed parts of American cities and enrich the nation's culture.

The other important demographic trend of the 1970s was the continued rise of the Sunbelt, a region stretching across the southern half of the United States from the Carolinas to southern California. The explosive population growth in this area was fueled largely by economic development. In the South alone, two million jobs were created during the 1970s, a sharp contrast to the Northeast, where one million jobs disappeared. The growth of large cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, in the South—and Phoenix, Arizona, in the West—were indicative of the shift underway. And with larger populations and economic might came political power and prominence. Indeed, every President elected since John F. Kennedy has claimed roots in the Sunbelt. The modern Republican Party—the dominant party in American politics since the 1970s—came to power because of Sunbelt voters.

Economic Troubles

The American economy ground to a halt in the mid-1970s. President Ford spent much of his administration battling inflation and unemployment (the tandem that economists referred to as "stagflation"), as well as energy shortages (see Ford Domestic Affairs section.) But America's economic woes during the Ford years were symptomatic of a longer-term decline in the nation's economic health. The American economy had soared in the post-war years in large part because it dominated international markets. But by the 1970s, foreign competitors, especially West Germany and Japan, had recovered their economic strength, and the United States no longer retained such a commanding international position. Indeed, the United States was routinely running trade deficits, the result of Americans spending more money on foreign goods than foreigners paid for U.S. exports. As the United States position in the international economy eroded, so did profits and job creation at home.

At the same time, the U.S. economy was undergoing a serious transformation that began in the late 1960s. During the first two decades after World War II, the American manufacturing and industrial sectors provided well-paying and plentiful jobs. But because of greater international competition and questionable leadership, these sectors of the economy had moved into a serious and sustained decline by the late 1960s. The service sector replaced industry and manufacturing as the fastest growing segment of the American economy, but at a significant cost. Service industry jobs were poorer paying, offered employees fewer benefits and opportunities for advancement, and were less likely to be unionized. The magnitude of these economic problems, though, can only be appreciated when viewed in historical context. The mid-1970s economic downturn was surely the most severe since the Great Depression. For the first time in thirty years, median family income stagnated and would have declined were it not for Americans working more hours and women and teenagers joining the labor force in larger numbers. Since World War II, Americans—and experts on the nation's economy—had always assumed that the next generation would enjoy a higher standard of living. This belief, and the confidence that accompanied it, came crashing down in the 1970s as the American economy stumbled.

Race Relations

American race relations entered yet another contentious period in the mid-1970s. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s had produced significant gains—greater numbers of blacks voted, attended colleges and universities, and had access to better-paying jobs—but significant problems still remained. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the nation's northern cities, where the flight of white, middle-class city dwellers that had begun in the late 1940s accelerated. In many northern cities, middle-class whites lived in the suburbs, while working-class white ethnics, middle-class and working-class African-Americans, and new immigrants lived in urban neighborhoods. The result was rigid segregation by neighborhood and school.

The Supreme Court attempted to solve the persistent problem of school segregation by mandating in 1971 that communities could and should bus students to achieve racial balance between schools (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County School District). The Court's decision meant that white students would be bused to predominantly black schools and black students to predominantly white schools. By the mid-1970s, as school boards and federal judges put these plans into action, working-class whites in Pontiac, Michigan, Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, were loudly voicing their opposition. In Boston, resistance took a violent turn in 1974 as anti-busing whites hurled insults at black children, rioted to protest integration plans, and sometimes attacked innocent blacks. The integrationist ideal of the 1960s civil rights movement supported by both blacks and whites—already weakened in the early 1970s by the white reaction to black nationalism—withered further.

Women's Movement

The gains won by the women's movement in the first half of the 1970s were very real and transformed American life. Female politicians won offices at the local, state, and national levels, and by the mid-1970s women were playing a larger role in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Women were also enrolling in medical and law school in larger numbers. At the same time, the women's movement fought tirelessly to win greater protections for victims of sexual abuse. Throughout the early 1970s, feminists won a series of court decisions that made it easier to prosecute rapists. At the grass-roots level, rape crisis centers and anti-rape task forces proliferated. Finally, the women's movement won a major victory in 1973 when the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, legalized abortion.

But the defining women's issue during the Ford presidency was the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA would have amended the Constitution by declaring that "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of sex." Congress passed the ERA in March 1972 and, as required by law, sent it to the states for ratification. Feminists were optimistic—and with good reason. By 1977, thirty-five states had ratified the ERA, just three states short of the thirty-eight needed to make the ERA part of the nation's Constitution.

Conservative Backlash

The Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade and the efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment—like the busing plans to integrate school districts—aroused the passionate opposition of millions of Americans who began organizing as effective political action groups. The highly vocal Right to Life movement denounced Roe v. Wade and won a major victory in 1977 when Congress passed the Hyde amendment, which permitted states to ban the use of Medicaid to pay for abortions. Meanwhile, conservative author and activist Phyllis Schlafly formed the group "STOP ERA" in 1972, launching a sustained and effective attack on the ERA. Schlafly warned that the ERA would drastically expand the powers of the federal government and that it would destroy women's place in American society. Schlafly's leadership was one of many social and political factors that led to the ultimate defeat of the ERA during the Reagan administration.

The Right to Life Movement and STOP ERA, along with the opponents of busing who took to Boston's streets, symbolized an important shift in American politics. Participants in these protest movements believed that liberal politicians and their interest-group allies were imposing an excessively liberal political, social, and cultural agenda on local communities. Two distinctive parts of the American polity fueled this backlash against liberalism. First, white, often Catholic, working-class people from the urban North and Midwest emerged as some of the fiercest opponents of busing and increasingly announced their opposition to abortion.

Second, American evangelicals, whose numbers grew by leaps and bounds in the 1970s, rallied in opposition to abortion, pornography, homosexuality, radical feminism, and sexual permissiveness, all of which evangelicals saw as attacks on "family values." Millions of Americans joined groups like the evangelical Assemblies of God and the evangelical faction within the Southern Baptist Convention, or tuned-in to television evangelical preachers such as Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. These individuals found comfort in a shared religious doctrine, a sense of community, and like-minded political and social beliefs. While a large number of evangelicals supported Jimmy Carter's run for the presidency in 1976—Carter himself was an evangelical, although with a liberal cast that he disguised well—they migrated increasingly to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. During the 1980s, evangelicals were by-and-large fervent supporters of Ronald Reagan.