[Paleopsych] Christianity Today: Who Invented the 1980s?

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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
                               University Press
                               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
    popular music.

    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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