The "New American Revolution": cultural politics, new federalism, and the 1976 Bicentennial
Myhaver, Virginia J.
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This dissertation delineates the ways in which the political vicissitudes, economic restructuring and cultural fissures of the 1960s and 1970s shaped the commemoration of the Bicentennial of American Independence and elucidates how, in turn, the Bicentennial helped catalyze the eventual emergence of the cultural formations and political economy of neoliberalism. Using cultural studies frameworks to analyze archival policy memoranda, planning, curatorial and design records, journalistic accounts, photographs and audio-visual recordings, I demonstrate that the Bicentennial became a crucible in which Americans across the political spectrum reframed historical narratives, reconceived national identity and debated the proper role of the federal government. This study argues that political, economic and cultural elites mounted events that answered social movement demands for inclusiveness but contained their potential to effect radical change. The corporate sponsorships devised for Bicentennial projects profoundly expanded the role of corporations within the cultural sphere, enabling museums to adapt to the dismantling of the "welfare state" and laying the groundwork for the public-private partnerships that became the cornerstones of neoliberalism in the1980s. Chapter 1 examines a traveling Smithsonian exhibition, "Workers and Allies: Female Participation in the American Trade Union Movement 1824-1876," to illuminate the challenges of conducting public history in a moment when national narratives are highly contested. Chapter 2 argues that the Nixon administration imposed its overriding policy agenda of New Federalism upon the Bicentennial planning process to help engender a conservative realignment of American values and the electorate. Chapter 3 chronicles the transformation of the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife from a small celebration of deep-rooted folkways with counterhegemonic aims into a grand multicultural Bicentennial spectacle that advanced the ideological and economic prerogatives of the Smithsonian's liberal leadership, of conservative politicians, and its major corporate sponsors. Chapter 4 explores the launch and exhibition design of the American Freedom Train, which marshaled substantial economic and political resources of the federal government and four American corporations - Pepsico, Prudential, Kraftco, and General Motors. This single most widely-circulated project reasserted a teleological narrative of steady economic, technological, and social progress and affirmed the cultural authority of its corporate stewards and the success of privatization.