[Paleopsych] Christianity Today: Who Invented the 1980s?
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Mon Apr 11 21:59:57 UTC 2005
Who Invented the 1980s?
Who Invented the 1980s?
The Carter decade.
by Philip Jenkins
Morning in America:
How Ronald Reagan
Invented the 1980s
by Gil Troy
400 pp., $29.95
When Ronald Reagan died last year, Senator John Kerry neatly captured
the public mood when he declared that Reagan "was our oldest
president, but he made America young again." Millions of Americans
remembered Reagan not just as an elder statesman but as a kind of
secular savior, the man who saved the country from a long period of
national traumas and disasters. While "the Seventies" are commonly
remembered as a time of weakness and malaise, "the Eighties"--the
Reagan years--are associated with vigorous growth, with a confident
assurance epitomized by the president himself. The transition between
eras is perfectly symbolized by the cumulative disasters of 1980, the
year of the Iran hostage crisis. The message, in short, is that Jimmy
Carter led the nation to the verge of ruin, but Ronald Reagan pulled
us out of the mess.
It can scarcely be denied that Reagan was a great national leader,
arguably the greatest U.S. president of the 20th century (and given
greater length, I'd be happy to explain why I would rank him above
FDR). Yet having said this, the conventional contrast between the
Carter and Reagan years, between decades and presidencies, is much too
stark, and overemphasizes the role of individuals. Even if "the
Eighties" designates a meaningful historical era, Reagan deserves only
limited credit for defining the decade.
In Morning in America, Gil Troy makes an excellent case for Reagan's
capacity as a leader, and for the real achievements of his
administration. We live in a "Reaganized America." Fortunately, the
more of Reagan's notes and speeches that have appeared in print, the
less time a historian need waste in confronting the canard about the
president as an amiable dunce. Reagan had a sharp mind and a clearly
defined sense of historical mission, grounded in fundamental moral and
political principles. He was also blessed with the ability to convey
his confidence, his evident belief both in himself and in American
values. Troy rightly identifies the turning point in the presidency in
1983-84, when the Grenada invasion and the Los Angeles Olympics
provided dual foci for renewed patriotism, ably exploited by the White
House. In retrospect, even Reagan's cockiest and most implausible
visions have been vindicated by history. In all honesty, how many
informed analysts in the early 1980s believed that Soviet Communism
would evaporate within a decade, or that Reagan's confrontational
nuclear policies would really lead to a massive reduction of global
tensions? Yet Reagan believed these ridiculous things, and on both
points, he was ridiculously right.
Troy's readable book is impressive in its integration of political and
social history, while he rightly recognizes that popular culture can
provide an effective gauge of the public mood. Thus, he effectively
uses the television series Hill Street Blues to illustrate attitudes
towards crime and race, and throughout, he uses television, film, and
Troy is anything but a Reagan cheerleader, and he stresses the still
contentious nature of the Reagan record. Apart from the obvious
liberal critics, fiercely defensive "Reagan zealots" will challenge
Troy's balanced approach. As he dryly remarks, "Studying Ronald Reagan
is not for the faint-hearted--or the untenured." To the extent that he
is being shot at from both sides, Troy thus emerges as impeccably
fair-minded. But I would still argue that his sharp focus on Reagan
and the 1980s leads him to over-estimate the presidential achievement.
To take an obvious issue, just how different was Reagan from his
predecessor? In terms of popular memory, the contrast seems absurd:
the Gipper versus the Wimp. But Carter and Reagan had much in common.
Carter was more conservative than is often recalled, and Reagan more
liberal. On issues of gender and morality, Reagan had a distinctly
moderate record, having endorsed the ERA and opposed California's
anti-gay Briggs initiative. His two terms as governor included liberal
measures on abortion rights and no-fault divorce, not to mention a
fairly progressive tax policy and a respectable environmental record.
At times, he looked like the kind of politician the Reaganites were
warning about. The two men also shared much in their idealistic moral
vision and their religious sense of national purpose. Both saw
national problems in moral terms, as issues of the human heart.
Neither was reluctant to invoke moral justifications for policy or to
see a divine hand in political destiny, and both were attacked for
religious sentiments that the secular-minded regarded as naïve or
While any reconstruction of alternative realities must be speculative,
we might reasonably ask just how different the America of the Eighties
would have been if Jimmy Carter had won the 1980 election--and that
could have happened quite easily. Any number of events might have
transformed the political landscape of that year. Carter's Tehran
hostage rescue might have succeeded in April 1980, while through the
summer, Reagan supporters worried that Carter might arrange an October
Surprise, a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough that would bring the
hostages home in time for the election.
And in that case, how different would the 1980s have been? After all,
the New Cold War was already in progress following the Afghanistan
crisis of 1980. Other areas of crisis in the early 1980s would
certainly include Poland and Central America, while the United States
would have to respond to recent Soviet missile deployments in Europe.
It would have been natural for any U.S. administration to try and
weaken the Soviet bloc through proxy forces, who would receive
clandestine support or training from the United States. Well before
the 1980 election, Carter began U.S. support for Afghan mujaheddin
guerrillas. In the last days of his presidency, Carter was
sufficiently alarmed by the imminent collapse of the Salvadoran regime
to restore U.S. military aid. In December 1980, he warned the Soviet
government against military intervention in Poland. Throughout 1980,
we can discern the stark anti-Communist mood of the Reagan years, the
renewed patriotic upsurge, and the quest for decisive leadership.
When comparing the 1970s with the Reagan 1980s, we often forget how
many of the characteristic trends and symbols of the Eighties
originated in the Carter era, a point rarely made or pursued by Troy.
Usually regardless of federal attitudes or policies, America was
simply becoming more socially conservative in these years. The drug
war, most famously directed against cocaine and crack cocaine under
Reagan, originated in the anti-PCP ("angel dust") panic of 1977-78,
and was in full flood by the early 1980s. Already under Carter,
American society was becoming much more penally oriented, with the
dramatic upsurge of incarceration rates, and the restoration of
capital punishment. Fears of rape and child sexual abuse, which so
reshaped attitudes towards gender and sexuality, again originated in
the late 1970s. Increasingly, the roots of domestic Reaganism seem
rooted in the debates and conflicts of 1977, in that year's attacks on
feminism and electoral attempts to reverse gay rights. Even the AIDS
scare, so often cited as the symbolic end of the sexual revolution,
was closely prefigured by the herpes panic of 1980-82. Of course
herpes was nothing like so lethal in its effects as AIDS, but looking
back at the herpes literature now, we must be struck by how precisely
it pioneers the rhetoric of the AIDS years, with the language of
epidemic, plague, and scarlet letters. Reagan succeeded so thoroughly
because he inherited a country alarmed by the extent of recent social
revolutions, a country seeking an opportunity to be "scared straight."
In economics too, the Carter/Reagan divide seems much more permeable
than Troy implies. It was in late 1979 that the financial policies of
Fed chairman Paul Volcker imposed the credit crunch that created the
ghastly economic downturn of 1980-82. Reagan was dreadfully unpopular
in 1981-82, when the Left enjoyed a significant revival, and
Washington and New York witnessed some of the largest demonstrations
in their history, especially in the name of the nuclear freeze
movement. Reagan's approval ratings approached Carterian levels. But
the Fed policy worked, so that the economy returned to boom conditions
from late 1982, beginning an eight-year run of splendid success. Often
forgotten in this picture is the role of oil prices, which
conveniently crashed in mid-decade, reinforcing the U.S. recovery
while further crippling the Soviet Union. If Jimmy Carter was still
president in 1983-84, he too would have enjoyed a sunny national mood,
as the United States basked in historic prosperity. Under whichever
party, a confident and wealthy nation would have been far more willing
to confront its overseas enemies while suppressing criminals and
social deviants at home. Had he weathered the storms of 1980, perhaps
Carter would today be enjoying the credit for national salvation that
actually adhered to Reagan. Of course, that assumes that Carter would
not have exercised his uncanny talent to snatch defeat from the jaws
of victory, which he might well have done.
In awarding Reagan the palm as "inventor" of the 1980s, Troy
exaggerates the ability of any president to overcome underlying
circumstances and trends. In support of this argument, we might point
to the more general success of "Reaganite" policies and movements
around the world, in nations not subject to that particular
administration--not least in Thatcher's Britain. Such parallels surely
suggest that more widespread global trends were in progress, whether
economic, cultural, or demographic.
In short, Gil Troy has written a valuable and enjoyable book; but I
reject his subtitle.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious
Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His new book, Darkening
Vision: How America Retreated from the 1960's, is forthcoming from
Oxford University Press.
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