Front Porch Politics The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s

Michael Stewart Foley

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

430 Pages



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The 1960s are widely seen as the high tide of political activism in the United States. According to this view, Americans retreated to the private realm after the tumult of the civil rights and antiwar movements, and on the rare occasions when they did take action, it was mainly to express their wish to be left alone by government—as recommended by Ronald Reagan and the ascendant New Right.

In fact, as Michael Stewart Foley shows in Front Porch Politics, this understanding of post-1960s politics needs drastic revision. On the community level, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of innovative and impassioned political activity. In Southern California and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, tenants challenged landlords with sit-ins and referenda; in the upper Midwest, farmers vandalized power lines and mobilized tractors to protect their land; and in the deindustrializing cities of the Rust Belt, laid-off workers boldly claimed the right to own their idled factories. Meanwhile, activists fought to defend the traditional family or to expand the rights of women, while entire towns organized to protest the toxic sludge in their basements. Recalling Love Canal, the tax revolt in California, ACT UP, and other crusades famous or forgotten, Foley shows how Americans were propelled by personal experiences and emotions into the public sphere. Disregarding conventional ideas of left and right, they turned to political action when they perceived, from their actual or figurative front porches, an immediate threat to their families, homes, or dreams.


Praise for Front Porch Politics

"A bold, ambitious work that offers a refreshingly vivid reinterpretation of American politics during the 1970s and 1980s....[W]ill doubtless in spire a new generation of scholars to revisit this fascinating era....Foley seeks, by focusing on 'front porch politics,' to demolish two long-established interpretations of the 1970s and 1980s: that the main story in town was a conservative political realignment, and, conversely, that it was a widespread retreat from civic life. Foley provides an 'on-the-ground history' of countless ordinary Americans—'accidental activists'—who, motivated by an immediate, and often ominous, sense of threat and danger (whether from government, corporations, the law, or fellow citizens with opposing interests) 'followed their concern, their anger, their outrage into the streets.' In little more than three hundred pages, Foley takes us on a dizzying journey that covers a huge variety of campaigns from across the political spectrum and all over the U.S. that span more than two decades."Simon Hall, University of Leeds, American Historical Review

"A useful, vibrant account of a neglected chapter in our activist history."—Bill McKibben, founder of and author of The End of Nature

"In Front Porch Politics, Michael Stewart Foley illuminates an era of creative populist organizing that needs to be remembered and emulated. This is a wise and gracefully composed book—and essential reading for anyone who cares about the past and future of democracy in America."—Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation and editor of Dissent Magazine

"Michael Stewart Foley is one of our best historians of Americans' long experiment with democracy. In Front Porch Politics, he demolishes the myth of post-1960s political exhaustion and gives us instead a fascinating account of grassroots politics in the 1970s and 1980s, an era when millions of Americans fought for a moral capitalism and social equity."—David Farber, author of The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism

"Michael Stewart Foley has flipped the dismal decade! In place of America's years of despair, this lively, well-crafted study reveals a tremendous mix of citizen-based political initiatives. Whether it was environmental issues, family values, or factory closings, the government wasn't doing it for these local activists, so they stood up and did it themselves. This rich and engaging tale of the grass roots delivers the reader far beyond the clichés of the decade. Maybe this wasn't the ‘me decade' after all. Maybe it was the decade of self-reliance—collectively pursued."—Jefferson Cowie, award-winning author of Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

"Michael Stewart Foley brilliantly captures the hidden grassroots history of the 1970s and 1980s. Richly detailed and sweeping in scope, Front Porch Politics sees past the easy cliché of a decadent ‘me generation' to document the countless ways ordinary people in those decades lived up to the civic ideal of engagement with the public good. Foley's new synthesis of a much misunderstood era demands to be read."—Robert O. Self, author of All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s

"In this beautifully written, highly readable account, Michael Stewart Foley takes us on a journey into the small towns, cities, suburbs, factories, and farms where Americans of all political stripes became what Foley calls ‘accidental activists.' These were men and women who, in response to upheavals within their own communities, collectively created a robust civic culture that has been—up until now—largely forgotten. This is a wonderful book that should permanently lay to rest the claim that the 1970s and 1980s were decades of simple conservative domination or political quiescence."—Natasha Zaretsky, author of No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968–1980

"Foley counters the conventional take that there was a sharp and sudden letdown in civic activism after the sixties . . . [An] antidote for those still demoralized by decennial mythologies."—The Nader Page

"In this remarkable history, Michael Stewart Foley makes the case that [the 1970s and 80s] cannot be understood in terms of a simple partisan shift from left to right, or liberal to conservative. Nor, he suggests, can these years be seen as a time of quiescence or retreat. Instead, they were characterized by an intense, angry, and impassioned style of activism on issues that spanned the political spectrum . . . Foley's book is packed with vivid accounts of the battles he covers, many of which will be unfamiliar to readers today."Kim Phillips-Fein, Dissent Magazine

"By chiefly examining small-scale, local efforts, Foley builds a case that the '60s movements influenced civic action across the political spectrum, changing the look of democracy in the United States, at least for a while . . . Foley has done important work by assembling these disparate histories into a single, readable volume. And his snappy formulation of 'front porch politics'—the glass-half-full counterpart to Daniel Rodgers's 2012 analysis of the same political era as an 'age of fracture'—helps to advance an understanding of the era that cuts across well-worn ideological lines. His focus on accidental activists is helpful, too, in challenging the easy opposition of extreme politicos and complacent Middle Americans: Once upon a time, even Middle Americans held marches and staged sit-ins. Yet this model risks oversimplifying the issues. Foley's assertion, for instance, that ACT UP members were merely 'pushed . . . out of their homes and into the streets' in the '80s by the 'existential threat' of AIDS downplays the role of the veteran organizers who brought their expertise to the new organization, and points to a problem that doubtless underlies many of his other narratives as well."—Bookforum

"Carefully researched and vividly written."Booklist

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Read an Excerpt


This Is the Dawning of the Age of Self-Reliance
The volatile political and economic conditions of the 1970s profoundly affected the way ordinary Americans thought of themselves and their country. A great many felt betrayed...

Read the full excerpt


  • Michael Stewart Foley

  • Michael Stewart Foley is the author of Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War, winner of the Scott Bills Memorial Prize from the Peace History Society. He has edited or coedited three other books and is a founding editor of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture. Raised in Boston, he teaches American history at the University of Sheffield in England.

  • Michael Stewart Foley © Anthony Giacchino