By Gil Troy and Vincent J. Cannato, HNN, 2-08-10
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. Vincent J. Cannato is Associate Professor of History at the University Massachusetts of Boston. Their book, Living in the Eighties was just published by Oxford University Press as part of its acclaimed Viewpoints on American Culture Series.
Once upon a time, back in 1980, when people heard about “AIDS,” they thought of assistants or helpers, not a deadly disease. An “Apple” was something you ate, not something you would boot up. Windows could break, but did not crash. “Trump” was a term from bridge, not the brand name of a celebrity tycoon. “Madonna” evoked feelings of spirituality rather than provoking controversy about a pop star’s aggressive sexuality. The “Moonwalk” referred to the astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on the moon, not the singer Michael Jackson’s silky-smooth dance move. And most people thought PC meant “partly cloudy,” not “personal computer” or “politically correct.”
By 1990, the new meanings for these words reflected a new world. American politics were more conservative. American capitalism was more aggressive. American society was more individualistic. American culture was more indulgent. It is important to appreciate and analyze the vast social, economic, and political changes that occurred during the decade of the 1980s, placing them in historical perspective.
In the “decades derby” that so many people play when discussing the twentieth century, it is easy to caricature the 1980s as frivolous. It was indeed the decade of the difficult-to-solve Rubik’s Cube and the ever-so-lovable Cabbage Patch Kids. It was a time defined by movies such as “The Big Chill,” which showed how a group of Baby Boomers went from being idealistic Sixties hippies to self-involved Eighties “yuppies”––Young Urban Professionals, a term that would become shorthand for spoiled and self-indulgent. Those were also the years of Wall Street executives in power suits and red suspenders like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie “Wall Street.” The 1980s was also the era of arcane financial instruments such as junk bonds and the debuts of CNN, MTV, New Coke, and “E.T.” – both the daily celebrity television showcase which debuted in 1981, “Entertainment Tonight,” and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie about the cuddly extraterrestrial.
But the headlines of the 1980s were about more than just trivial matters. At the start of the decade, relations between the communist world and the free world grew even tenser. Anticommunists abroad such as Pope John Paul II, Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were just starting to convince the world that communism might be a fleeting failure, not a permanent fixture. For the United States, a decade that began with Iranian Islamic radicals holding 52 American hostages in the American embassy would also be punctuated by terrorist attacks, including a Hezbollah-backed suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983; Palestinian terrorists hijacking the cruise ship the Achille Lauro in 1985, then throwing a wheelchair-bound American Jewish tourist named Leon Klinghoffer overboard; and Libyan intelligence agents bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people, including 180 Americans.
Meanwhile, at home, Americans debated the political power of evangelical Christians such as “The Moral Majority” as well as the effectiveness of the “War on Drugs.” In the wake of the economic problems of the 1970s, Americans witnessed a tremendous prosperity during the 1980s. But this was not without controversy. The decade saw a real debate over economics and capitalism, about the effectiveness and justice of tax cuts, and about how best to reduce poverty. Man-made disasters, such as the lethal poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill that fouled the Alaska coast with millions of barrels of oil, focused the world’s attention on the fragility of the environment.
Amid all of this, President Ronald Reagan would come to define the 1980s for many Americans. In his 1981 inaugural address, he tried to reorient American politics when he declared that in the present economic crisis, government was the problem and not the solution. He celebrated America’s subsequent prosperity as a vindication of his free market ideology and proof of the nation’s enduring greatness. And he reignited the flames of the Cold War by refusing simply to coexist with communism. During a visit to Berlin in 1987, he demanded of his Soviet rival, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan left office in 1989, retreated from public view because of Alzheimer’s in 1994, and died in 2004. Yet his legacy has shaped the debate of every subsequent presidential campaign.
Today, some see the 1980s as a Golden Age, a “Morning in America” when President Ronald Reagan, American conservatives, and baby boomer entrepreneurs revived America’s economy, reoriented American politics, reformed American society, and restored Americans’ faith in their country and in themselves. Others see the 1980s as a new “Gilded Age,” an era that was selfish, superficial, divisive, and destructive. The financial meltdown of 2008 intensified the debate, as Democrats rushed to declare the Reagan era “over.” The Obama presidency has raised the stakes further, with Barack Obama envying Reagan’s impact while condemning Reagan’s philosophy.
Viewed in these stark terms, the debate about the 1980s often continues the cultural and political clash regarding the legacy of the 1960s. The “Golden Age” narrative is a story of recovery from the moral degradation, ideological confusion, military weakness, and political failures of the 1960s. Those who think that the United States “came back” in the 1980s see the 1960s as a time when the country was derailed. They view President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs that expanded government to fight poverty, achieve racial justice, and provide health care to the elderly and poor as a great failure, which yielded high taxes, onerous regulations, and more crime, while doing little to end poverty. They see the ethos of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” as a blight on society that undermined morality at home and American strength abroad, especially in Vietnam.
At the same time, many critiques of the 1980s as a “Gilded Age” are tinged with nostalgia for the 1960s. For these critics, the narrative is one of “backlash,” of resentful white males depriving blacks, women, and the poor of whatever gains they made during the 1960s. They see a rise in corporatism and selfishness at the expense of idealism. From this point of view, the 1960s was the time of great heroics and the 1980s was the time of great sellouts. One popular journalistic history of the decade, published in 1991, was dismissively titled Sleepwalking Through History.
Most of the writers who contributed to our new Oxford University Press volume, “Living in the Eighties” answer the either/or question of whether the 1980s was a Golden Age or a Gilded Age with a resounding “yes.” Many of us argue that there were both good and bad elements, noble moments and embarrassments during the decade. Rather than arguing about whether the decade was good or bad, we should push the conversation from the political to the historical, from the polemical to the analytical, from quick, partisan judgments to a more nuanced understanding of where the country was then and where it is today.
Placing the decade of the 1980s in a greater historical perspective will help readers better understand the contemporary political and cultural divide of America into “red states” and “blue states.” The Reagan administration’s reductions in taxes and regulations and its encouragement of entrepreneurial capitalism helped create the new era of economic globalization, whose problems became apparent in the 2008 subprime mortgage and credit crises. And the 1980s holds many lessons on the eternal question of what America’s proper role in world affairs should be.
Trying to write the history of a decade is a daunting task. How can you capture, with any degree of authority or authenticity, what 250 million proudly individualistic Americans were thinking, doing, feeling, and experiencing at any one time? We chose to try to understand America during the 1980s from many different angles. Rather than sharing one interpretive lens or one methodological focus, our co-authors come from different political persuasions, ideologies, and vantage points. Together, we hope to push the conversation about Reagan and the 1980s beyond the dualistic “Golden Age” or “Gilded Age” question and toward an appreciation of the longstanding forces and contingent events that shaped the period. It is a vast oversimplification to call the 1980s, as some do, a decade of greed or rabid conservatism.
Despite its frequent use by historians and journalists, the term “backlash” to describe conservatism and the 1980s is unhelpful. It implies that history inexorably moves only in one direction. Any opposition to that movement is deemed a backlash, rather than a legitimate debate, criticism or alternative point of view. Labeling Reaganism or conservatism a kind of “backlash” marginalizes and denigrates, suggesting that these movements and ideas were hampering the natural forces of progressivism. Somehow, no one ever calls the New Deal a “backlash” against laissez faire capitalism. Moving beyond the Golden Age/Gilded Age dualism and the simplistic “backlash” against liberalism idea, we wanted to highlight the greater complexity in the interplay of ideology, politics, and social relations during this decade. Although the country did shift somewhat to the right during the 1980s, it was a modified conservatism that actually incorporated and mainstreamed many of the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s. The powers of the presidency expanded, but the limits to how much a president could change the system also became apparent. A sense of American patriotism and optimism returned after the cynicism and pessimism of the 1960s and 1970s, but distrust in government still lingered. Much of the nation’s optimism was also tinged with worry that the economic boom might be fleeting or limited to a lucky few. Still, the Age of Reagan represented the revival of military strength, economic vitality, optimism, and entrepreneurship that Americans so desperately yearned for in the 1970s.
But the Reagan Revolution may not have been the great victory that many of its supporters hoped for and many of its critics feared. Ultimately, 1960s-style liberalism continued to thrive in the 1980s as it adapted to the new realities of the era. Many once-radical social movements of the 1960s — feminism, civil rights, environmentalism, gay rights — increasingly became mainstream in the 1980s. American society became more open and more multicultural, with a greater sense of informality in dress and manners. Traditional family structure continued to witness a decline.
We need to understand the 1980s as a decade of dissolution, an age of fragmentation, when individualism trumped community, particularist affiliations frequently overrode national sensibilities, niche marketing became pervasive, and the traditional bonds that bound Americans weakened. The twentieth century was a centrifugal century, spinning individuals away from traditional structures, values, and allegiances. Tom Wolfe aptly labeled the 1970s as the “Me-Decade,” when many Americans turned inward, becoming more concerned with making their bodies buff and their psyches strong rather than reforming their society or saving the world.
These trends continued in the 1980s. Liberalism became more rights-based with an increased emphasis on civil liberties. Conservatism became more consumption-based, anti-government, and individualistic. Despite their clashes, both liberalism and conservatism further individuated Americans, while weakening communal ties. The bigger shifts during the decade tended more toward fragmentation than cohesion. Thirty years after the 1980s began, we can now appreciate it as one of the more fascinating and transformative decades in the twentieth century, a time of dramatic political, economic, and cultural shifts, which most Americans will be grappling with for years to come.