This is a popular history of the 1970s, with the thesis that the 1970s sociocultural changes are responsible for today's modern attitudes and social conditions.
Part I concerns a widespread collapse of trust in many institutions, especially government and civil authorities. Frum believes the collapse started with Vietnam, was intensified by Watergate, and branched out from distrust of the federal government into a distrust of civil government and civil authorities. A web of petty corruption scandals appeared on all levels, from the presidency to various civil officials; and the police were no longer believed competent or honest.
Part II: At midcentury and before, Americans had a fairly strong devotion to duty. But around 1970, the ethic of responsibility fell apart, and was replaced by a very brazen ethic of self-centeredness.
This allowed such things as an explosion in no-fault divorces, and many blatant expressions of self-centeredness in advertising and pop culture--such as a bestseller on self-centeredness titled "Looking Out For Number One" and commercials with taglines like "This I do for me." Because the worst effect of the new self-centeredness was in marriage, the old linear progression of flirting to courtship to marriage disappeared, and was replaced by a paradigm of individuals going through "a series of relationships," which is often the case today. Frum says that between about the 1920s and 50s, attitudes toward love and marriage were highly unromantic and stoic: love was expected to feel bad, and marriage to be unpleasant, but the thought was that if you endured marriage in good faith, it might not be so bad. Leaving your spouse and especially your children without a good material excuse was socially unacceptable. Post-1970s attitudes find it ridiculous at best and shameful at worst to stay in an unhappy or unsatisfying marriage or relationship.
Individualism also eliminated the universal willingness to serve in the military; this is probably the main reason, other than the defeat in Vietnam, why military morale was so low in the 70s. Other manifestations were an unusual strong fear of children, which showed up in several popular movies and television shows, and people's suddenly becoming eager to talk at length--about themselves (in opposition to the previous American tradition of being a relatively quiet people) , which institutionalized itself in the appearance and popularity of television programs, in various genres, that depicted, discussed, and showed a fascination with individuals' misbehavior or psychological problems, no matter how bizarre or disgusting, and often sympathized with them. Example: Phil Donahue.
Part III concerns Americans' new anti-Rationalism in the seventies. There was a sudden dislike for technology, standardization, central planning, and rationalism. This was a reaction against the strong acceptance of those things by government and the public which peaked in the 1950s. People turned against because it was seen as simply having gone too far; Frum implies they saw it as complicit in the Vietnam War atrocities--specifically, the use of the defoliant Agent Orange.
The new anti-rationalism manifested itself in a new popularity for pre-modern architecture, esp. brick buildings, and a backlash against modernist architecture; a growth in environmentalism; a removal of "pretentious" home decor styles, all the way down to removing wallboard and carpet; a preference for food that was not mass produced, and wearing rough "close to the earth" clothing styles. The only popular technology was stereo equipment. There were also, among other thingd:
-A dumbing-down of educational standards nationwide
-Health and fitnesses crazes; first widespread anti-smoking laws and hatred of smoking.
-An unusual vulnerability to cults, crackpot theories and dubious self-improvement schemes.
-Christian revival in the late 70s, but only in evangelical churches; churches emphasized forgiveness over conduct; and services were more emotional. Ever since then, the character of evangelical Protestantism has been now different in two main ways. People before 1970 went to church as a social duty as much as for spiritual nourishment, and it was the mainline Protestant churches that they went to. And, as Frum says, these churches preached an ethic of conduct--in other words, they primarily urged members to avoid sin. The popular Protestant churches since the 1970s are all evangelical, emphasizing forgiveness over conduct; their services are more emotional; and, according to Frum, they treat their members as "audiences to a performance" rather than "witnesses to an event."
IV: Desire: This part concerns new self-centered trends in individual health, fitness and especially sexuality.
-Porn magazines sold more copies than ever before, and new titles started up.
-Various fitness crazes, especially jogging.
-Interest in natural foods; huge rise in consumption of wine and Perrier.
-A national obsession with safety, leading to many new safety regulations, especially motorcycle and bike helmet laws, and antismoking laws.
VI: Regeneration: Discusses the lowest points of the slide, and concludes that both laissez-faire capitalism and socialism have been rejected, and the American public now expects some sort of middle ground.
During this time, there was as much anger over high taxes, and rising cynicism and class envy among the lower classes, as concern over inflation.
Other Interesting Discernments:
-According to Frum, midcentury American culture was "materially egalitarian but intellectually hierarchical," meaning that there was not as huge an economic gap between the wealthy and everyone else, but we recognized that some ideas can be superior to others, and popular culture at least tried to respect high standards of sophistication. But since the 1970s, these attitudes have flipped to their exact opposite. We are intellectually egalitarian and materially hierarchical. Middle-class people aren't usually offended by Bill Gates's wealth, but our culture treats all ideas as equal and would find it bigoted to do otherwise.
Industry: American industry started to have a serious problem with quality around the 1970s; it was turning out junk. In a survey, both workers and consumers largely said they are or would be embarrassed buying the products they made. But for some reason, industry responded not by raising quality, but by offering more unneeded features,luxuries and gimmicks. This resulted in what Frum calls "a vast tsunami of shlock" in the 1970s; eight-track players and tapes were part of that.
The cynicism of the 1970s spawned several new trends in popular entertainment, many of which are institutions now. One is investigative reporting with a strong and deliberate tendency to smear people who had done nothing wrong with false accusations.
Another new trend was talk shows that made no attempt whatsoever to give the interviewee any sort of respect. Another was the comedy of Steve Martin as a deliberate expression of the new cynicism. Martin's material was, according to Frum, made deliberately unfunny, in order to mock the idea that any comedian's material could be funny.
Frum believes that the new individualism was so strong as to form a deliberate and strident religion of the self. The obsessions with health and fitness were so strong that you could be harangued by a grocery store checker if you bought food products they disapproved of, and especially if you smoked. This was the decade in which antismoking laws and social ostracism for smokers suddenly took off, and Frum believes it was because to consciously do something as toxic as smoking constituted blasphemy against the "new religion of the self."
America's industrial revolution, economic growth, and consumer prosperity have all been financed on credit far more than the same things were in Great Britain, and almost all the wealthiest people in American history, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, used credit freely. Also, Frum claims the growth in credit borrowing is responsible for the growth in business success since the eighties, but also blames credit borrowing for "the often low character of American commercial morality." All of these are possible because American bankruptcy laws are some of the most lenient in the world.