[Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, in Washington. His books include Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton University Press, 2005) and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009). With Vincent J. Cannato, he edited an essay collection, Living in the Eighties (Oxford University Press, 2009).]
Most college students today were born during the 1980s or early 1990s, but they are far likelier to take a history course about the 1960s than about those decades. Market Data Retrieval, a service of Dun & Bradstreet, lists 525 college instructors teaching “the Vietnam era,” meaning the 1960s; courses on the 80s do not even merit a separate category. One publisher’s higher-education marketing manager estimates that although 100,000 students may be enrolled in courses on the 1960s, barely 10,000 take courses on the 1980s. This imbalance reflects the biases and passions of today’s professors far more than the interests or needs of today’s students. Even as many declare the Reagan era over with the rise of President Obama and the fall of the markets, we need more and better courses on the 1980s.
Ten years ago, when I started teaching an honors seminar on Ronald Reagan and the 1980s at McGill University, I could not have made this appeal in good conscience. At the time, I would begin my class with an apology, acknowledging the paucity of good books on the subject. David Stockman and Peggy Noonan had produced riveting memoirs about the Reagan years. But most books followed a predictable path, rehashing the conventional wisdom trailblazed by Garry Wills’s insightful Reagan’s America and Haynes Johnson’s colorful Sleepwalking Through History. We learned again and again about the hedonistic excess of the new Gilded Age and that the president of the United States for most of the decade was considered an “an amiable dunce,” in Clark Clifford’s memorably biting phrase. Too many books seemed formulaic, with diatribes against American greed leavened by anecdotes about Reagan’s declaring ketchup a vegetable (it was actually a Department of Agriculture pronouncement, not his) or Nancy Reagan’s having his presidential schedule dictated by an astrologer (which did occur occasionally). “This is a crucial, complex decade,” I told my students, “but we history profs have not done our job so that you can learn properly about this era.”
History was repeating itself, or actually replicating the politics of the times. Most historians treated Reagan and the 1980s as too anti-intellectual and too conservative to bother studying. The one Bigfoot studying Reagan, Edmund Morris, seemed defeated by the task, unable to complete it, and ultimately unable to keep his work nonfiction. In survey courses, as professors raced through the 20th century, most lingered on the New Deal and the 60s, then ended up sprinting through the 80s, failing to study it properly or situate it within the broader historiographical narrative. Those of us embarking on proj ects or trying to teach classes about the era were immediately suspect, assumed to be conservative renegades out to support the liberals’ Antichrist.
It is one of the great ironies of 20th-century scholarship. Most people yearn for peace and prosperity, but most intellectuals, including historians, seem to detest boom times. In the simplistic Kabuki theater of most 20th-century courses, students learn that the 1920s, 50s, and 80s were bad times, eras of greed and selfishness, of retreat from the great march of prog ress toward bigger and bigger government. By contrast, it is the traumatic times, like the Depression, or World War II, the “good war,” that are great.
From this perspective, the 60s are anomalous. The economy was strong, but so was the push for social justice; thus the attendant professorial approval. Nostalgia for the days of baby-boomer rebellion also feeds the boom in 60s studies. Most baby boomers, who today dominate the professoriate numerically and set the tone ideologically, are invested in justifying the 60s, and in glorifying their own roles in saving the world. In 1999, in Madison, Wis., a top record producer, Steve Greenberg, and I presented a paper for a conference supposedly dedicated to making sense of the decade. Our paper, the “Other Side of the 60s,” analyzed record sales from the time to argue that, on a typical Saturday morning during those halcyon days, far more teenagers and students were washing their cars and listening to bubblegum music like the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” than angrily marching on administration buildings singing about revolution. Many of the professors in the room, who were baby boomers, attacked our paper furiously. Many graduate students, who were Generation Xers, thanked us privately after the session for deviating from the usual self-congratulatory 60s narrative.
Related to this, American history is taught as cyclical, following the explanatory paradigm developed by the great father-son history team of Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. The Schlesingers taught that bursts of reform in America have always triggered periods of retrenchment. Thus the Progressive era ended with World War I and led to the benighted 1920s; the liberal dynamism of the 1930s and 40s resulted in the conservative complacency of the 1950s; and the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s ended with the counterrevolution of the 1980s. That thesis received a strong boost from Susan Faludi’s best-selling 1991 polemic, Backlash, which focused on feminism’s travails during the Reagan era. Given that ebb and flow, with all its emotional and ideological baggage, who wanted to be on the wrong side of history by teaching and writing about the bad old 1980s rather than the good old 1960s?
That view, says Vincent Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is ahistorical, deterministic, and prescriptive, assuming a correct logic to history. Events are caricatured as either contributing to “progress” or impeding it. This simplistic bias is particularly striking in regard to the dynamic setting up the 1960s versus the 1980s. Just this spring, at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle, a leading boomer-aged historian dismissed me when I dared to question her denunciation of the entire Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II years as a dark era of backlash against blacks, women, gays, and the enlightened among us. I argued that the sexual revolution, the civil-rights movement, gay liberation, environmentalism, and many other social movements had been consolidated, mainstreamed, and even advanced during and since the 1980s. How, I asked, could Barack Obama have been elected if the civil-rights revolution had been so stymied? In response, this senior colleague-who had greeted me warmly before the panel presentations began-gave me a withering look and shuddered.
The deification of the 1960s and the denigration of the 1980s reflect scholarship as advocacy and fantasy, with a dash of self-promotion. Most infamously, the great historian Joseph Ellis was embarrassed eight years ago by revelations that in lecturing about the 1960s, he had falsely injected himself into the narrative with invented tales about antiwar, civil-rights, and football heroics.
What sounds sometimes like a political conflict between 60s hippies and Reaganite conservatives is often a generational conflict, especially in the generally liberal milieu of the academy. As a post-baby-boomer, born, like Barack Obama, in 1961, I am old enough to be counted among that demographic surge but too young even to be able to lie credibly about going to Woodstock in 1969, as so many from that generation do. Those of us born in the early 1960s did not watch Howdy Doody when Bill Clinton watched. We had no Vietnam draft to dodge (or not dodge). We were children of Jimmy Carter’s sourpuss politics and Ronald Reagan’s optimism, shaped more by the goofiness of The Brady Brunch-Michelle Obama’s favorite show growing up-and the gritty chaos of that defining 1980s show, Hill Street Blues.
Obama’s rise and his titanic primary battle last year against Hillary Clinton demonstrated the clashing sensibilities, even amid fellow liberals. In January 2008, during the Nevada primary campaign, Obama confessed to admiring Reagan as a transformational leader. Clinton immediately tried to tie Obama to the GOP’s “bad ideas,” as if by acknowledging the scale of Reagan’s accomplishments Obama was endorsing the content of Reagan’s programs.
Needing baby-boomer votes to win, and aware that presidential campaigns are not forums for subtle distinctions, Obama stopped praising Reagan and stopped bashing boomers. But building up to his candidacy, most dramatically in his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama criticized baby boomers, be they left or right. He cast the Clintons and George W. Bush as too rooted in the 60s’ polarizing politics, which Obama vowed to change.
Certainly there is much to learn about the 1960s. It is remarkable how much those years shaped our world and our politics. But especially since the financial meltdown, and with the passage of time, we also have to do right by the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked a huge shift in tone, even as many of the phenomena unleashed during the 1960s and 1970s continued to change the world. I emphasize the Reagan Reconciliation. His rhetoric of counterrevolution tempered by his seeking the center helped synthesize the 60s with the 80s, incorporating and accepting the social, cultural, ideological, and lifestyle revolutions sweeping the country during his administration.
Conservatives, be they boomers or younger, are as guilty as 60s-loving liberals of romanticizing their favorite decade. They frequently forget how disappointed they were with Reagan’s shift toward the center during his presidency. Almost from the start, conservatives complained bitterly about Reagan’s moderate choices for the cabinet and his failure to advance their “ABC” agenda for counterrevolution, focusing on abortion, busing, and crime. And Reagan himself embodied the great conservative blind spot of the times. For all his rhetoric about tradition, he and his allies never acknowledged that the consumerist capitalism they celebrated helped further the social movements toward indulgent individualism they detested. The result was an era of conservative libertinism.
Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan
was the greatest president-meaning the most consequential leader-since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Finally, 20 years after his inauguration, historians have started looking at him and his era skillfully and intelligently. Since 2005 leading historians including James T. Patterson, the late John Patrick Diggins, and Sean Wilentz have published important, and surprisingly respectful, works about Reagan. Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan was the most surprising, as an iconic baby-boomer professor and liberal activist acknowledged how much Reagan’s era had changed and frequently improved America.
Even after the financial meltdown, we still live in the Age of Reagan. His legacy shapes the continuing fights about abortion, taxes, the budget deficit, and health care as well as the debates about greed versus altruism, individual versus community, tradition versus change in America. Moreover, just as we needed to understand Franklin Roosevelt to understand Ronald Reagan,
who modeled his presidency on the most influential president of his youth, we need to understand Reagan to help understand Barack Obama.
President Obama, thus, is leading us back toward studying the Reagan era, even as he tries to lead the country away from Reagan’s antigovernment assumptions. Today’s college students, who were born just as Reagan’s presidency was ending, deserve more opportunities to understand this president and an era that so shaped their America. It may be more fun for professors to trot out tie-dyed T-shirts than power ties as props. It may be more inspiring for students to be asked to chant together, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” the classic antiwar slogan, when they study the Vietnam era than to watch Michael Douglas in Wall Street declare, “Greed is good.” But in the 21st century, it is probably more important to understand Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” than John F. Kennedy’s classic “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
And the only way we can understand Barack Obama’s inaugural formulation that the “question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” and Bill Clinton’s declaration in 1996 that the era of big government was over, is by studying Reagan’s inaugural proclamation that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.” Even if we love teaching the 60s, it is our responsibility as historians to teach the 80s.
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