Looking back on the Reagan decade, two distinct generalized oversimplifications arise. The first arose in the early 1990s. The 1980s were characteriz Looking back on the Reagan decade, two distinct generalized oversimplifications arise. The first arose in the early 1990s. The 1980s were characterized as a decade of “vapid, hedonistic, amoral years” or capitalism, yuppies and greed on Wall Street” (16); Bill Clinton defined this era as one of “private gain over public obligations, special interests over common good, wealth and fame over work and family…a gilded age of greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, excess, and neglect.” (16)
After Reagan’s death, however, another view repeatedly came up in the punditry. Reagan’s reign was one of “renewal and idealism, of national unity and glory.” At the time, contemporaries attacked Reagan’s unilateralism and hard-line anti-communism, but after the end of the cold war, these measures seem not only vindicated, but near genius. His approach of unwavering optimism shaped the decade. To conservatives, explained CNN’s Bill Schneider, “1980 is the year one.” (17)
Troy’s book attempts to “go beyond the clashing oversimplifications.” America in the 1990s became the hedonistic decade many Reagan skeptics worried the 80s would become. Reaganism paved the way for Clintonism. (17) The 1980s were a watershed decade that promoted and made mainstream many vestiges left over from the 1960s. “Granola and blue jeans, Naderism and environmentalism, the 1980s did more to advance the 1960s agenda than to dismantle it.” (19)
- Reagan was not a revolutionary; instead, he was more conciliatory. He reconciled the 1960s liberalism with his own brand of conservatism; Reagan “stayed within the New Deal-Great Society governing status quo, fine-tuning it more than destroying it.” (333) - Political analysis cannot fully explain Reagan’s appeal to Americans. TV shows such as Dallas and Dynasty reveal the opulence of the Reagan Era; these shows would probably not sell during Carter’s era of malaise. CNN, MTV and other cable networks spoke to the full acceptance of rampant capitalism. Lee Iococca and Donald Trump embodied the uber-successful businessman of the ‘80s, and Ben and Jerry, former hippies turned businessmen, were the ultimate 60s to 80s transformation. - Motion Pictures rallied against communism and struggled to redeem America from Vietnam. Rambo, Red Dawn, and similar films touted militarism, so much so that G.I. Joe toys (and a cartoon) returned to popular culture. Back to the Future reveals a nostalgia for the 1950s, as did the return of ‘50s themed doo-wop in popular music. The 1983 film the Big Chill also testififes to the reconciliation of 60s rebellion and Reagan conservatism.
Agrees with: - McElvaine’s The Great Depression, in that Reagan redistributed wealth back to the elites and further impoverished the lower classes. ...more
Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan, 2005
Reagan’s presidency did not mark a shift of the American electorate towards the right.Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan, 2005
Reagan’s presidency did not mark a shift of the American electorate towards the right. True, the 1980s began a new conservative era in American politics, but most Reagan supporters remained centrist. On the heels of liberalism’s decade of decline and in the footsteps of Carter’s failures—most notably inflation—Reagan courted centrist voters who were willing to try Reagan’s alternatives to failed liberal policies. These voters did not drastically change their views, nor did Reagan push them to. He took his victories where he could. Supply-side economics was his most lasting economic ideology, and it appealed to voters because of its simplicity and pragmatic timeliness. In short, Reagan did not usher in any “revolution,” but instead incremental changes in how the government interacted with the economy and American life.
Ehrman’s book agrees with Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan. Both argue that this is a political era dominated by Reagan-esque politics. Clinton’s victories in the 90s both had less than 50% of the popular vote and were plagued by republican congresses.
- The 1980s were not a time of conservative change or Reagan’s revolution. The changes were more gradual than that. - Reagan ushered in an end to the decaying liberalism of since the New Deal. His actions were not drastic, but gradual changes that slowly changed the way Americans viewed government’s role in society. Economically (supply side) this change was profound. o A less tangible change was an increase in consumer /business confidence after an era of stagflation. o Lower Taxes, less job security, rapid technological innovation, investing, and the culture wars were all breakthroughs of the 80s that became commonplace in the 1990s.
Ehrman’s book is vague and non-committal. It does not take a firm stand on the Reagan presidency nor the decade in which he presided. Instead, Ehrman notes that the 80s have set the pace for an era of political centrism shaped by anti-liberal conservatism. He does little to address foreign policy and the Cold War; instead, economic changes are his focus. ...more
Sean Wilentz is best known for his political and social histories of 19th century America, most recently The Rise of American Democracy. Why, then, woSean Wilentz is best known for his political and social histories of 19th century America, most recently The Rise of American Democracy. Why, then, would this Princeton historian tackle the most contemporary of political histories? His motives seep through The Age of Reagan, a work that reads critically but fairly of its main subject. Despite the book’s title—a clear nod to Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson—Wilentz contends that Reaganism cannot be synonymous with conservatism. Instead, Reaganism remained a combination of three simple goals which Reagan himself pursued myopically: the reduction of big government, a reaffirmation of American military might, and finally an end to the cold war. Wilentz sees some of these goals emerging n the Ford and Carter administrations, but they only became fully realized under our fortieth president. It took Regan’s humor and humanity, simple folk notions of national pride and possibility, and finally an unwavering hope in American Exceptionalism, for Reagan to help lift America out of malaise, the memory of Vietnam, and the economic and strategic stagnation of the 1970s.
Reagan differed from his conservative colleagues in a number of ways. First, his policies were not myopically neo-conservative. His shifting views on Soviet Union foreign policy are a prime example. Reagan’s hard line campaign rhetoric softened around 1984 (hardly a “reversal,” as one scholar has put it) revealing a willingness to put faith in people (i.e. Gorbachev) over ideological constructs. Second, Reagan single-handedly overturned long established Cold War doctrines of nuclear defense. He established SDI, an arguably quixotic proposal for space-based nuclear defense “shield.” In his second term, Reagan took arms reduction further than any of his predecessors. For example, he abandoned the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) and instead pursued a more progressive tract: the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START. The financially strapped Soviet Union jumped at this proposal, but throughout these negotiations Reagan stuck to his SDI program unwaveringly, baffling his staff and advisers.
Wilentz shines in analyzing the post-Reagan myth-making spearheaded by neo-conservatives. First, he shows that many neocons were highly critical of Reagan’s softening stance towards the U.S.S.R. in the last two years of his presidency. After the fact, these same neocons—including Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney—reinvented the Reagan myth by proposing a long term vision of outspending the then floundering Soviet Union. Such myths are convenient in a post-Bush II era in which voters reminisce about a older and supposedly more successful conservatism. Yet these same conservatives desperately tried to distance themselves from the the Iran-Contra affair, and for good reason. In the most critical point of his presidency, Reagan engaged in a clearly unconstitutional act, to trade arms for hostages, a move that not only challenged Congress but the highest laws of the land. Reagan even contradicted his own hard line stance of never dealing with terrorists. Nevertheless, Reagan escaped from this constitutional crisis, thereby marking a final triumph of executive privilege and lawlessness that Richard M. Nixon could not achieve.
In his final chapters, Wilentz recaps two Bush administrations as well as Clinton’s reign as president. These chapters show both Clinton’s flawed character, but also his deftness at finding a middle ground to pass legislation. Wilentz shows how Clinton reversed the trends set by Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush: he finally lowered the deficit, passed legislation that helped the middle class, and achieved the lowest unemployment rate of any of these previous administrations. All the while, conservatives attacked Clinton on culture war issues and assumed credit through supply-side economic policy. (Conservatives, however, fail to admit that Reagan increased federal spending more than any of his contemporaries.) Clinton achieved much domestically, but failed in his two primary goals: welfare reform and a revamping of the health care system. His foreign policy was also off the cuff, and for good reason. George H.W. Bush established a “new world order” that was lacked any sort of, well, order. Bush’s realism post-Reagan left the Middle East in a quagmire, while crises it the Middle East, Bosnia and elsewhere tested the ideological will of the Clinton administration.
Wilentz comes across as a little partisan in these final sections, showing a clear admiration for first lady Hilary Rodham Clinton. Yet his disgust for the complete dismantling of the electoral process—not to mention clear partisan tampering by the Supreme Court—are vitriolic passages that, frankly, need to be read by conservatives and liberals alike. If the age of Reagan culminated in the eschewing of constitutional law, then hopefully the age of McCain or Obama will be different. ...more