Author James T. Patterson, Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus, Brown University, former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; commentators Edward Berkowitz, Professor of History and Public Policy and Public Administration, and Director of the Program in History and Public Policy, George Washington University; Melvyn P. Leffler, Edward Stettinius Professor of History, University of Virginia and Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace, former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center
Liberals regard the years between 1974 and 2000 as an era of national decline and the triumph of conservatism. In a discussion organized by the Division of United States Studies and the Program in West European Studies, James T. Patterson, author of the latest volume in the Oxford History of the United States, disagreed with that assessment and pointed to the continuation of the domestic programs that were the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Americans, he noted, continued in their expectation that government would play an active role in their lives, and in fact the New Deal and Great Society programs received increased funding in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Democratic Party won congressional and presidential elections, the economy improved, and overall poverty declined. Real income increased, albeit within a "larger matrix of inequality," and the United States won the Cold War.
1974-2000 was also a time of expanding rights consciousness. The ideas of the civil rights era were picked up by movements for the rights of women, the elderly, and people with disabilities, as cultural liberalism was sustained by the baby-boom generation and adopted by the subsequent generations' youth. There was an atmosphere of increased tolerance. The anti-Catholicism that had manifested itself during John Kennedy's campaign for the presidency was absent during the later candidacy of John Kerry. Anti-Semitism also declined, and President Bill Clinton's continued 67 percent favorable rating in the face of the Lewinsky scandal indicated that Americans were more likely than ever to consider a politician's personal life irrelevant to the political sphere.
In short, Patterson argued, conservatives did make gains politically, but there were continued liberal cultural trends – so much so, in fact, that people on the right wing of the political spectrum became angry and frustrated. A general feeling of dissatisfaction marks much of this seemingly prosperous period, or, as James Q. Wilson observed, "Today, most of us...enjoy...a degree of comfort, freedom, and peace unparalleled in human history. And we can't stop complaining about it."
Commentator Edward Berkowitz lauded Patterson's latest volume, but thought it lacked in-depth exploration of the societal context in which policy was made. Inventions such as videos, cable television and cell phones, for example, altered the society permanently, but are not mentioned in Patterson's volume. Acknowledging that cultural phenomena are difficult for historians to weave into their narrative, Berkowitz added that he would have liked to have seen exploration of themes such as the rise of PCs and their revolutionary effect on the work force and on national habits, the impact of the nation's third great wave of immigration and the concomitant economic revival, and the effect of what he sees as an age of gender consciousness. Melvyn Leffler was impressed by Patterson's "even-handed, judicious assessments" but questioned what he viewed as a short-changing of foreign policy. Regarding the debate over who was responsible for winning the Cold War, Leffler contended that, while Ronald Reagan set the stage with his antinuclear views, Mikhail Gorbachev was the one mainly responsible for both ending the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tracing the rise of U.S. hegemony in foreign affairs, Leffler suggested that the combination of that hegemony and the simultaneous debunking of the role of government in that quarter century led to the "Giant's" current vulnerability and "anxious restlessness."