Reagan's America

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Reagan's America is a broad topic encompassing an era of turmoil and change in the 1980s when political, cultural, and social trends, clashed, mixed, and mingled. Alienated by what was perceived as an attack on traditional morals and values, political and religious conservatives formed a coalition of previously unconnected groups to dramatically alter the political landscape. Conservatives blamed liberals for the economic and social problems of the 70s. Racial turmoil, crime, drugs, school problems, declining sexual morality, and breakdown of the traditional family structure all contributed to a sense of loss of traditional values, which conservatives attributed to government. Reagan believed that economic prosperity was the answer to all problems. He introduced supply-side economics and increased defense spending to spur economic activity. Reagan resisted government programs to address social issues, believing that government was the problem and not the answer. However, social problems only increased during the Reagan era as the rich became richer and the poor fell further behind.

The story of Reagan's America is a complicated one, full of contradictions. There were many successes accompanied by many failures, a complex mixture of bold initiatives that achieved planned results and misguided actions with unintended consequences. Reagan's forceful foreign policy and defense buildup helped end the Cold War, while his failed intervention in Lebanon and the Iran-Contra affair marred his presidency. Reaganomics ended the ruinous inflation of the 70s but burdened the country with high deficits and increased economic inequality. Reagan left major New Deal programs intact, and even took major steps to ensure the soundness of Social Security, but racial unrest and social problems did not decrease on his watch.

Historians differ widely in their assessment of the Reagan era. Some praise him effusively; some condemn him; and some apportion credit and blame to him.

  • John Ehrman. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
John Ehrman calls the eighties, ‘above all a time of transition.’ He examines three areas, politics, economics and social change. Ehrman focuses on Reagan’s first and second terms. He examines the elections during this time period and discusses the state of American life. Ehrman confines his study of the Reagan years to the domestic scene.
John Ehrman's primary focus is the changes which occurred in American politics, economics and society between 1981 and 1989. What were those changes and why were they important? During the Reagan years American politics began to shift from a liberal viewpoint to a more conservative one. According to Ehrman, "conservatives emphasize individual responsibilities rather than rights and seek to limit government's social role" (4). This was the viewpoint adopted by Ronald Reagan during the 1950s and the basis for his 1966 Republican campaign for Governor of California, "as a citizen against enlarged government and higher taxes" (14). Erhman describes Reagan as a optimist with a sunny disposition who believed "that the United States was a land of opportunity filled with honest, hard-working people for whom anything was possible" (46). This optimism about America and Americans was still apparent in his speech to the Republican National Convention in 1988, "Every promise, every opportunity is still golden in this land...Our children can walk into tomorrow with the knowledge that no one can be denied the promise that is America" (84).
  • James T.Patterson, Restless Giant: the United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Patterson provides a comprehensive overview of political, economic, social, and cultural events in America from the resignation of Nixon in 1974 to the election of George W. Bush in 2000. His coverage of the Reagan era is generally positive. He finds that while Reagan was fortunate to ride a conservative wave, he exploited that wave deftly and accomplished his goals of winning the Cold War, restoring traditional values, and spurring economic growth. Patterson finds Reagan to be the most consequential president since FDR.

  • Gil Troy. Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980's. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Troy offers a mixed view of Reagan's legacy, asserting that Ronald Reagan was the greatest President since FDR while acknowledging that he did little to alleviate social problems. Troy believes that Reagan was consistently underestimated and had considerably more depth than he was given credit for. He argues that Reagan "...saved the Presidency from irrelevance, showing the ability to shift the national conversation and set the national tone..." (p. 347) Reagan,he argues, resurrected confidence in America, and restored the entrepreneurial spirit. The book is a chronological year-by-year account of the Reagan presidency and the 1980s as a phenomenon of that presidency. Troy shows how political, social, and cultural trends both clashed and mixed as TV and movies reflected and influenced American values.
This book is a collection of essays that provide a response to the overwhelming opinion that the economic and political policies of the Reagan and G. H. W. Bush Administrations brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The editor’s intent is to show that this Triumphalist interpretation of events by the right over emphasizes the impact of conservatism and hides the real causes for the events of the 90s. The editor has assembled nine historians with solid liberal credentials to provide chapters within the broad categories of Intellectuals, Economics, the Past, and the Present.
  • Sean Wilentz. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. New York: Harpers, 2008. Wilentz views the past thirty five years in relation to the eight years that Ronald Reagan was president. He believes that the administrations of Ford and Carter, while distinct and important in their own right, were essentially preludes to the Reagan administration. The three presidents who followed Reagan are defined as reacting to or building on the Regan years. Despite the monumental importance Wilentz places on the Reagan administration, he argues that it was a categorical failure. Wilentz is critical of virtually every area of Reaganism. He argues that Reagan was unable to significantly undermine the New Deal legacy (besides breaking apart the Democratic New Deal coalition). The Federal Government actually expanded and the deficit reached unprecedented levels. The worst part (and possibly most influential to George W. Bush) of Reagan’s administration was the blatant disregard for the law and Congress. Wilentz sees the Savings and Loan crisis in conjunction with the Iran-Contra scandal as the defining characteristics of the years.

Wealth, Work, and Poverty

  • Kathryn Marie Dudley. The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994
Kathryn Marie Dudley provides a sociological case study of Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of the initial cities to develop and prosper from the auto industry. Beginning with Thomas Jeffrey in 1901 and ending with the closing of the plants Chrysler purchased from AMC Motors in 1986, Kenosha and the thousands of people that called the city home came to depend upon the production of cars for their very dependence. For these blue-collared workers, life without these factories and the jobs that they provided was incomprehensible.

Martin Gilens book Why Americans hate welfare, learn of the complex relationship between America and the concept of Social Welfare. Gilens arguement, that Americans support charity but oppose welfare, is based on the American belief in a series of racially-based assumptions about welfare. These assumptions call into question the conceptual integrity of welfare and the people who receive it. His work is well supported with hard statistics, but struggles due to the suthor's biases.

  • Michael B. Katz. In the shadow of the poorhouse : a social history of welfare in America. New York BasicBooks, 1996
Kevin Phillips asserts ‘since the formation of the Republican Party in the mid-1850s there have been ‘successive presidential party supremacies.’ (33) He identifies these as the ‘Civil War Republican era (1860-96), the industrial Republican era (1896-1932), the Democratic New Deal era (1932-68)’, and the ‘civil-disturbance Republican era (1968 and thereafter)’ (34) or at least until 1990 when this book was published. Phillips calls the 3 Republican eras ‘Republican heydays.’ (55) Phillips identifies 10 major characteristics of the heydays. They are: conservative politics, reduced voice for government, difficulties for labor, large scale economic and corporate restructuring, tax reductions, disinflation or deflation, two tier economy, concentration of wealth, increased debt and speculation and ultimately speculative implosion.’ (56-58)
  • What happened to the counterculture during the Regan Era? Two works, Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism and Sueiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Post War New York, suggest that a segment of the counterculture morphed into relatively unrecognizable cultural movements from their 1960s and 1970s image. More specifically, as Fred Turner labels them “New Communalists” in From Counter Culture to Cyberculture (33), morphed into the cyberculture of the nineties. In The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, these “new communalists’ became the landlords and localist political activists of Brownstone Brooklyn.

Foreign Affairs

  • Coral Bell. The Reagan Paradox: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1980s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University, Press, 1989. ISBN 0-8135-1473-8 (cloth), ISBN 0-8135-1474-6 (paperback) 182 pages.

Written at the beginning of the first George Bush administration, The Reagan Paradox argues "any assumption that the Republicans have been, in operational policy (as against rhetoric), demonstrably more careless of the maintencance of peace is rather at odds with the historical record." (vii)

Australian professor Coral Bell asserts that Reagan was a paradox: "Who would have expected that a President who came to power on a well-orchestrated campaign against detente, and in particular against rash arms-control dealings with the dangerous Russians would contemplate (as Mr. Reagan did at Reykjavik and after) weapons cuts whose prospect initially sutnned his NATO commanders and his West European allies?" (1) In other words, his words often belied his actions.

  • Theodore Draper. A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs. Hill & Wang, 1991. 690 pages.
  • Frances FitzGerald. Way out there in the blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the end of the Cold War. New York Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Frances Fitzgerald describes the enormous military buildup of the Reagan administration. Her principal focus is on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense program suggested by Ronald Reagan in 1983 and eventually fully supported by conservative hardliners in his administration. During the Reagan years, SDI was always a dream and never a reality. Fitzgerald believes it was a technical impossibility.
  • Stephen Kotkin. Armageddon averted: the Soviet collapse, 1970-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Professor Kotkin challenges the commonly stated position that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were the direct result of the policies of the Reagan Administration specifically its military build-up. Instead the author argues that the internal structure of the Soviet State contained the seeds of its own destruction. In the author’s view American policies during the 80s at best only hastened an outcome already in progress. Further, the dismantling of the Soviet superstructure continued well past the fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1991.
  • William M. Leogrande. Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992. University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 790 pages. and Carothers, Thomas. In the Name of Democracy: US Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1991. 330 pages.
William LeoGrande demonstrates exhaustive research on the development and implementation of American policy during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, focusing primarily on El Salvador and Nicaragua. Thomas Caruthers focuses on the development of American foreign policy in Latin America from the perspective of an insider seeking to evaluate whether the United States influenced the development of democracy in the region positively or negatively
  • Oberdorfer, Don. From the Cold War to a new era: the United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1991. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Consumerism in Reagans' America

Historians are just starting to unpack this important part of Reagan's America and one insightful look into a major phenomenon is Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and Walk-Mart. In this work, the link between conservative Christian values and the free market economy is explored. Wal-Mart was able to achieve growth in part because they were able to link low wage service jobs with the notion of Christian 'service'. in addition, Wal-Mart recruited heavily form local colleges and worked to create a 'mission' style national student group to promote its agenda and create a pool of potential managers. See: To_Serve_God_and_Wal-Mart


William Pemberton’s Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan blends together traditional styles of biography with psycho-analysis in an attempt to understand the “real” Ronald Reagan. Pemberton suggests that as a child of an alcoholic, Reagan created fantasy worlds and developed a vivid imagination to protect him from emotional pain. He also began to always look for the bright side of things and hope for a better tomorrow. His imagination led him to a career in acting, where he would learn the lessons of following directions, reading from a script, and letting those around him take care of the dirty work. All these traits can be seen in President Reagan. Those around him often remarked at his ability to only remember the things in his past that were good (and even those did not necessarily always exist). His optimism and sunny demeanor was one of his greatest assets in getting elected. Reagan was also the most “hands-off” president in the modern era. He was content to let his senior advisors take care of the day-to-day business. Pemberton concludes that Reagan was much more intelligent than usually assumed--just not in the way that people expect president's to be intelligent. He was good at mimicking people and memorizing lines, knew how to read people, and was a master at saying the right thing at the right moment. Usually people expect their presidents to be calculating and good with details, which Reagan was not.

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