cover image Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

Paul Sabin. Norton, $26.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-63404-4

In this enlightening account, Yale history professor Sabin (Crude Politics) details how left-wing efforts in the 1960s and ’70s to reform “the cozy post-World War II alliance between government, business, and labor” helped pave the way for Reagan-era deregulation. Sabin details how public interest advocates such as Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Nader led crusades against government agencies for failing to properly regulate private industry and undertaking infrastructure projects that threatened the environment. By the time Jimmy Carter came to office in 1976, public advocacy groups and environmental law firms such as the Natural Resources Defense Council had become a potent part of the government regulatory process, filing lawsuits to halt construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and other development projects. But tensions soon emerged between reformers outside the new administration and those within it, who resented the relentless criticism. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 unleashed an unprecedented assault on regulatory agencies from within the government, eventually pushing liberal activists to soften their attacks on the administrative state. Sabin crafts a coherent historical narrative out of the alphabet soup of government agencies and public interest groups, and sheds light on major developments in American politics. This deep dive delivers plenty of rewards. (Aug.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council.