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29. The Rise of the Right

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Activist Phyllis Schlafly campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Bettmann/Corbis.Phyllis Schlafly campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Bettmann/Corbis.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 *Click here to view the current published draft of this chapter*

I. Introduction

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Speaking to Detroit autoworkers in October of 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan described what he saw as the American Dream under Democratic President Jimmy Carter. The family garage may have still held two cars, cracked Reagan, but they were “both Japanese and they’re out of gas.” The charismatic former governor of California suggested that a once-proud nation was running on empty, but he held out hope for redemption. Stressing the theme of “national decline,” Reagan nevertheless promised to make the United States once again a “shining city upon a hill.” His vision of a dark present and a bright future triumphed.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Reagan stood at the head of a powerful political movement often referred to as the New Right, in contrast to their more moderate conservative predecessors. During the 1970s and 1980s the New Right evolved into the most influential wing of the Republican Party and contributed to its stunning electoral success. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, after decades of liberal dominance, conservative leaders and grassroots activists wrenched the country fully onto a new rightward course. The conservative ascendency built upon the steady unraveling of the New Deal political order during the previous decade and drew in new “Reagan Democrats,” blue-collar voters who lost faith in the old liberal creed, and the emergent religious right, a coalition of conservative religious activists. All the while, enduring conflicts over race, economic policy, gender and sexual politics, and foreign affairs fatally fractured the liberal consensus that had dominated American politics since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The rise of the right affected Americans’ everyday lives in numerous ways. The Reagan administration embraced “free market” economic theory, dispensing with the principles of income redistribution and social welfare that had animated the New Deal and Great Society. Conservative policymakers tilted the regulatory and legal landscape of the United States toward corporations and wealthy individuals while weakening the “rights” framework that had undergirded advancements by African Americans, Mexican Americans, women, lesbians and gays, and other marginalized groups.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In many ways, however, the rise of the Right promised more than it delivered. Battered but intact, the programs of the New Deal and Great Society survived the 1980s. Despite Republican vows of fiscal discipline, both the federal government and the national debt ballooned. Conservative Christians viewed popular culture as more vulgar and hostile to their values than ever before. In the near term, the New Right registered only partial victories on a range of public policies and cultural issues. Yet, from a long-term perspective conservatives achieved a subtler and more enduring transformation of American politics. In the words of one historian, the conservative movement successfully “changed the terms of debate and placed its opponents on the defensive.” Liberals and their programs and their policies did not disappear, but they increasingly fought battles on terrain chosen by the New Right.

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II. Conservative Ascendance

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 The “Reagan Revolution” marked the culmination of a long process of political mobilization on the American right. In the first two decades after World War II the New Deal seemed firmly embedded in American electoral politics and public policy. Even two-term Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower declined to roll back the welfare state. To be sure, National Review founder William F. Buckley tapped into a deep vein of elite conservatism in 1955 with his call to “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” Senator Joseph McCarthy and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch stirred anti-communist fervor. But in general, the far right lacked organizational cohesion. Following Lyndon Johnson’s resounding defeat of Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, many observers declared American conservatism finished. New York Times columnist James Reston wrote that Goldwater had “wrecked his party for a long time to come.”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 The Conservative insurgency occurred within both major political parties, but the New Right gradually coalesced under the Republican tent. The heightened appeal of conservatism had several causes. The expansive social and economic agenda of Johnson’s Great Society reminded anti-communists of Soviet-style central planning and enflamed fiscal conservatives worried about deficits. Race also drove the creation of the New Right. The civil rights movement, along with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, upended the racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow South. All of these occurred under Democratic leadership, pushing the South toward the Republican Party. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black Power, affirmative action, and court-ordered busing of children between schools to achieve racial balance brought “white backlash” to the North, often in cities previously known for political liberalism. To many ordinary Americans, the urban rebellions, antiwar protests, and student uprisings of the late 1960s unleashed social chaos. At the same time, declining wages, rising prices, and growing tax burdens brought economic vulnerability to many working- and middle-class citizens. Liberalism no longer seemed to offer ordinary Americans a roadmap to prosperity, so they searched for new political solutions.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Former Alabama governor and conservative Democrat George Wallace masterfully exploited the racial, cultural, and economic resentments of working-class whites during presidential runs in 1968 and 1972. Wallace’s record as a staunch segregationist made him a hero in the Deep South, where he won five states as a third-party candidate in the 1968 general election. Wallace’s populist message also resonated with blue-collar voters in the industrial North who felt left behind by the rights revolution. On the campaign stump, the fiery candidate lambasted hippies, anti-war protestors, and government bureaucrats. He assailed female welfare recipients for “breeding children as a cash crop” and ridiculed “over-educated, ivory-tower” intellectuals who “don’t know how to park a bicycle straight.” Yet, Wallace also advanced progressive proposals for federal job training programs, a minimum wage hike, and legal protections for collective bargaining. Running as a Democrat in 1972 (and with anti-busing rhetoric as a new arrow in his quiver), Wallace captured the Michigan primary and polled second in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. In May 1972 an assassin’s bullet left Wallace paralyzed and ended his campaign. Nevertheless, his amalgamation of older, New Deal-style proposals and conservative populism emblemized the rapid re-ordering of party loyalties in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Richard Nixon similarly harnessed the New Right’s sense of grievance through his rhetoric about “law and order” and the “silent majority.” But the New Right remained restive under Nixon and his Republican successor, Gerald Ford.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Religious conservatives also felt themselves under siege from liberalism. In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court decisions prohibiting teacher-led prayer (Engel v. Vitale) and Bible reading in public schools (Abington v. Schempp) led some on the right to conclude that a liberal judicial system threatened Christian values. In the following years, the counterculture’s celebration sex and drugs, along with relaxed obscenity and pornography laws, intensified the conviction that “permissive” liberalism encouraged immorality in private life. Evangelical Protestants—Christians who professed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, upheld the Bible as an infallible source of truth, and felt a duty to convert, or evangelize, nonbelievers—comprised the core of the so-called “religious right.” The movement also drew energy from devout Catholics. The development of the religious right was not inevitable for several reasons. First, many evangelicals had for decades eschewed politics in favor of spiritual matters; moreover, evangelicalism did not necessarily lead to conservative politics (Democrat Jimmy Carter was an evangelical). Second, Roman Catholics had a long record of loyalty to the Democratic Party. Third, the alliance between evangelicals and Catholics had to overcome decades of mutual antagonism. Only the common enemy of liberalism brought the groups together.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Beginning in the early 1970s the religious right mobilized to protect the “traditional” family. Women comprised a striking number of the religious right’s foot soldiers. Catholic activist Phyllis Schlafly marshaled opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, while evangelical pop singer Anita Bryant drew national headlines for her successful fight to repeal Miami’s gay rights ordinance in 1977. In 1979, Beverly LaHaye (whose husband Tim—an evangelical pastor in San Diego—would later co-author the Left Behind novels) founded Concerned Women for America, which linked small groups of local activists opposed to the ERA abortion, homosexuality, and no-fault divorce.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Activists like Schlafly and LaHaye valorized motherhood as the highest calling of all women and abortion therefore struck at the core of female identity. More than perhaps any other issue, abortion drew different segments of the religious right—Catholics and Protestants, women and men—together. The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling outraged many devout Catholics, including Long Island housewife and political novice Ellen McCormack. In 1976, McCormack entered the Democratic presidential primaries in an unsuccessful attempt to steer the party to a pro-life position. Roe v. Wade also intensified anti-abortion sentiment among evangelicals (who had been less universally opposed to the procedure than their Catholic counterparts). Christian author Francis Schaeffer cultivated evangelical opposition to abortion through the 1979 documentary film Whatever Happened to the Human Race? arguing that the “fate of the unborn is the fate of the human race.” With the procedure framed in stark, existential terms, many evangelicals felt compelled to combat the procedure through political action.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This book cover succinctly demonstrates the mindset of many conservatives in the Reagan era: what happened to the human race? http://users.aber.ac.uk/jrl/scan0001.jpg. This book cover succinctly demonstrates the mindset of many conservatives in the Reagan era: what happened to the human race? http://users.aber.ac.uk/jrl/scan0001.jpg.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Grassroots passion drove anti-abortion activism, but a set of religious and secular institutions turned the various strands of the New Right into a sophisticated movement.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In 1979 Jerry Falwell—a Baptist minister and religious broadcaster from Lynchburg, Virginia—founded the Moral Majority, an explicitly political organization dedicated to advancing a “pro-life, pro-family, pro-morality, and pro-American” agenda. Business-oriented institutions also joined the attack on liberalism, fueled by stagflation and by the federal government’s creation of new regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Conservative business leaders bankrolled new “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. These organizations provided grassroots activists with ready-made policy prescriptions. Other business leaders took a more direct approach by hiring Washington lobbyists and creating Political Action Committees (PACs) to press their agendas in the halls of Congress and federal agencies. Between 1976 and 1980 the number of corporate PACS rose from under 300 to over 1200.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 Grassroots activists and business leaders received unlikely support from a circle of “neoconservatives”—disillusioned intellectuals who had rejected liberalism and become Republicans. Irving Kristol, a former Marxist who championed free-market capitalism as a Wall Street Journal columnist, defined a neoconservative as a “liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Neoconservative journals like Commentary and Public Interest argued that the Great Society had proven counterproductive, perpetuating the poverty and racial segregation that it aimed to cure. By the middle of the 1970s, neoconservatives felt mugged by foreign affairs as well. As ardent Cold Warriors, they argued that Nixon’s policy of détente left the United States vulnerable to the Soviet Union.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 In sum, several streams of conservative political mobilization converged in the late 1970s. Each wing of the burgeoning conservative movement—disaffected blue-collar workers, white Southerners, evangelicals and devout Catholics, business leaders, disillusioned intellectuals, and Cold War hawks—turned to the Republican Party as the most effective vehicle for their political counter-assault on liberalism and the New Deal political order. After years of mobilization, the domestic and foreign policy catastrophes of the Carter administration provided the head winds that brought the conservative movement to shore.

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III. The Conservatism of the Carter Years

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 brought a Democrat to the White House for the first time since 1969. Large Democratic majorities in Congress provided the new president with an opportunity to move aggressively on the legislative front. With the infighting of the early 1970s behind them, many Democrats hoped the Carter administration would update and expand the New Deal. But Carter won the presidency on a wave of post-Watergate disillusionment with government that did not translate into support for liberal ideas. Events outside Carter’s control helped discredit liberalism, but the president’s own policies also pushed national politics further to the right. In his 1978 State of the Union address, Carter lectured Americans that “[g]overnment cannot solve our problems…it cannot eliminate poverty, or provide a bountiful economy, or reduce inflation, or save our cities, or cure illiteracy, or provide energy.” The statement neatly captured the ideological transformation of the county. Rather than leading a resurgence of American liberalism, Carter became, as one historian put it, “the first president to govern in a post-New Deal framework.”

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In its early days the Carter administration embraced several policies backed by liberals. It pushed an economic stimulus package containing $4 billion in public works, extended food stamp benefits to 2.5 million new recipients, enlarged the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income households, and expanded the Nixon-era Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA)­. But the White House quickly realized that Democratic control of Congress did not guarantee support for the administration’s left-leaning economic proposals. Many of the Democrats elected to Congress in the aftermath of Watergate were more moderate than their predecessors who had been catechized in the New Deal gospel. These conservative Democrats sometimes partnered with Congressional Republicans to oppose Carter, most notably in response to the administration’s proposal for a federal office of consumer protection.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 At a deeper level, Carter’s own temperamental and philosophical conservatism hamstrung the administration. Early in his first term, Carter began to worry about the size of the federal deficit and killed a tax rebate he had proposed and Congressional Democrats had embraced. The president’s comprehensive national urban policy veered to the right by transferring many programs to state and local governments, relying on privatization, and endorsing voluntarism and self-help. Organized labor felt abandoned by Carter, who remained cool to several of their highest legislative priorities. The president offered tepid support for national health insurance proposal and declined to lobby aggressively for a package of modest labor law reforms. The business community rallied to defeat the latter measure, in what AFL-CIO chief George Meany described as “an attack by every anti-union group in America to kill the labor movement.” In 1977 and 1978 liberals Democrats rallied behind the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act, which promised to achieve full employment through government planning. The bill aimed not only to guarantee a job to every American but also to re-unite the interracial, working-class Democratic coalition that had been fractured by deindustrialization and affirmative action. “We must create a climate of shared interests between the needs, the hopes, and the fears of the minorities, and the needs, the hopes, and the fears of the majority,” wrote Senator Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president and the bill’s co-sponsor. Carter’s lack of enthusiasm for the proposal allowed conservatives from both parties to water down the bill to a purely symbolic gesture. Liberals, like labor leaders, came to regard the president as an unreliable ally.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Carter also came under fire from Republicans, especially the religious right. His administration incurred the wrath of evangelicals in 1978 when the Internal Revenue Service established new rules revoking the tax-exempt status of racially segregated, private Christian schools. The rules only strengthened a policy instituted by the Nixon administration; however, the religious right accused Carter of singling out Christian institutions. Republican activist Richard Viguerie described the IRS controversy as the “spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.” Race sat just below the surface of the IRS fight. After all, many of the schools had been founded to circumvent court-ordered desegregation. But the IRS ruling allowed the New Right to rain down fire on big government interference while downplaying the practice of racial exclusion at the heart of the case.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 While the IRS controversy flared, economic crises multiplied. Unemployment, which had fallen in Carter’s first years in office, rose above 7% by 1980. The rate of inflation averaged 11.3% in 1979, sending prices upward. In another bad omen, the iconic Chrysler Corporation appeared close to bankruptcy. The administration responded to these challenges in fundamentally conservative ways. First, Carter proposed a tax cut for the upper-middle class, which Congress passed in 1978. Second, the White House embraced a long-time goal of the conservative movement by deregulating the airline and trucking industries in 1978 and 1980, respectively. Third, Carter proposed balancing the federal budget—much to the dismay of liberals, who would have preferred that he use deficit spending to finance a new New Deal. Finally, to halt inflation, Carter turned to Paul Volcker, his appointee as Chair of the Federal Reserve. Volcker raised interest rates and tightened the money supply—policies designed to reduce inflation in the long run but which increased unemployment in the short run. Liberalism was on the run.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The “energy crisis” in particular brought out the Southern Baptist moralist in Carter. On July 15, 1979, the president delivered a nationally televised speech on energy policy in which he attributed the country’s economic woes to a “crisis of confidence.” Carter lamented that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” The president’s push to reduce energy consumption was reasonable, and the country’s initial response to the speech was favorable. Yet Carter’s emphasis on discipline and sacrifice, his spiritual diagnosis for economic hardship, sidestepped deeper questions of large-scale economic change and downplayed the harsh toll of inflation on regular Americans.

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IV. The Election of 1980

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 These domestic challenges, combined with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the hostage crisis in Iran, hobbled Carter heading into his 1980 reelection campaign. Many Democrats were dismayed by his policies. The president of the International Association of Machinists dismissed Carter as “the best Republican President since Herbert Hoover.” Angered by the White House’s refusal to back national health insurance, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy challenged Carter in the Democratic primaries. Running as the party’s liberal standard-bearer and heir to the legacy of his slain older brothers, Kennedy garnered support from key labor unions and leftwing Democrats. He won the Michigan and Pennsylvania primaries—states where Democrats had embraced George Wallace eight years earlier. Carter ultimately vanquished Kennedy, but the close primary tally betrayed the president’s vulnerability.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Carter’s opponent in the general election was Ronald Reagan, who ran as a staunch fiscal conservative and a Cold War hawk. He vowed to reduce government spending and shrink the federal bureaucracy while eliminating the departments of Energy and Education that Carter created. As in his 1976 primary challenge to Gerald Ford, Reagan accused his opponent of failing to confront the Soviet Union. The GOP candidate vowed steep increases in defense spending and hammered Carter for canceling the B-1 bomber and signing the Panama Canal and Salt II treaties. Carter responded by labeling Reagan a warmonger, but events in Afghanistan and Iran discredited Carter’s foreign policy in the eyes of many Americans.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The incumbent fared no better on domestic affairs. Unemployment reached 7.8% in May 1980, while the Fed’s anti-inflation measures pushed interest rates to an unheard-of 18.5%. On the campaign trail Reagan brought down the house by proclaiming: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job, and a depression is when you lose your job.” Reagan would pause before concluding, “And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.” Carter reminded voters that his opponent opposed the creation of Medicare in 1965 and warned that Reagan would slash popular programs if elected. But the anemic economy prevented Carter’s blows from landing.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Social and cultural issues presented yet another challenge for the president. Despite Carter’s background as a “born-again” Christian and Sunday School teacher, he struggled to court the religious right. Carter scandalized devout Christians by admitting to lustful thoughts during an interview with Playboy magazine in 1976, telling the reporter, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Although Reagan was only a nominal Christian and rarely attended church, the religious right embraced him. Reverend Jerry Falwell directed the full weight of the Moral Majority behind Reagan. The organization registered an estimated 2 million new voters in 1980. Ellen McCormack, the New York Catholic who ran for president as a Democrat on an anti-abortion platform in 1976, moved over to the GOP in 1980. Reagan also cultivated the religious right by denouncing abortion and endorsing prayer in school. The IRS tax exemption issue resurfaced as well, with the 1980 Republican platform vowing to “halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta launched by Mr. Carter’s IRS commissioner against independent schools.” Early in the primary season, Reagan condemned the policy during a speech at South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, which had recently sued the IRS after losing its tax-exempt status because of the fundamentalist institution’s ban on interracial dating.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Jerry Falwell, the wildly popular TV evangelist, founded the Moral Majority political organization in the late 1970s. Decrying the demise of the nation’s morality, the organization gained a massive following, helping to cement the status of the New Christian Right in American politics. Photograph, date unknown. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jerry_Falwell_portrait.jpg. Jerry Falwell, the wildly popular TV evangelist, founded the Moral Majority political organization in the late 1970s. Decrying the demise of the nation’s morality, the organization gained a massive following, helping to cement the status of the New Christian Right in American politics. Photograph, date unknown. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jerry_Falwell_portrait.jpg.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Reagan’s campaign appealed subtly but unmistakably to the racial hostilities of white voters. The candidate held his first post-nominating convention rally at the Neshoba Count Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. In his speech, Reagan championed the doctrine of states rights, which had been the rallying cry of segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s. In criticizing the welfare state, Reagan had long employed thinly veiled racial stereotypes about a “welfare queen” in Chicago who drove a Cadillac while defrauding the government or a “strapping young buck” purchasing T-bone steaks with food stamps. Like George Wallace before him, Reagan exploited the racial and cultural resentments of struggling white working-class voters. And like Wallace, he attracted blue-collar workers in droves.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 With the wind at his back on almost every issue, Reagan only needed to blunt Carter’s characterization of him as an angry extremist. Reagan did so during their only debate by appearing calm and amiable. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” he asked the American people at the conclusion of the debate. The answer was no. Reagan won the election with 51% of the popular vote to Carter’s 41%. (Independent John Anderson captured 7%.) Despite capturing only a slim majority, Reagan scored a decisive 489-49 victory in the Electoral College. Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since 1955 by winning 12 seats. Liberal Democrats George McGovern, Frank Church, and Birch Bayh went down in defeat, as did liberal Republican Jacob Javits. The GOP picked up 33 House seats, narrowing the Democratic advantage in the lower chamber. The New Right had arrived in Washington, DC.

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V. The New Right in Power

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Harkening back to Jeffersonian politics of limited government, a viewpoint that would only increase in popularity over the next three decades, Ronald Reagan launched his campaign by saying bluntly, "I believe in states' rights." Reagan secured the presidency through appealing to the growing conservatism of much of the country. Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Reagans_waving_from_the_limousine_during_the_Inaugural_Parade_1981.jpg. Harkening back to Jeffersonian politics of limited government, a viewpoint that would only increase in popularity over the next three decades, Ronald Reagan launched his campaign by saying bluntly, “I believe in states’ rights.” Reagan secured the presidency through appealing to the growing conservatism of much of the country. Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981. Wikimedia.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 In his first inaugural address Reagan proclaimed that “government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” In reality, Reagan focused less on eliminating government than on redirecting government to serve new ends. In line with that goal, his administration embraced “supply-side” economic theories that had recently gained popularity among the New Right. While the postwar gospel of Keynesian economics had focused on stimulating consumer demand, supply-side economics held that lower personal and corporate tax rates would encourage greater private investment and production. The resulting wealth would “trickle down” to lower-income groups through job creation and higher wages. Conservative economist Arthur Laffer predicted that lower tax rates would generate so much economic activity that federal tax revenues would actually increase. The administration touted the so-called “Laffer Curve” as justification for the tax cut plan that served as the cornerstone of Reagan’s first year in office. Keynesian logic viewed tax cuts as inflationary, stifling the economy. But Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, an early supply-side advocate and co-sponsor of Reagan’s tax bill, promised that it would unleash the “creative genius that has always invigorated America.”

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The Iranian hostage crisis ended literally during President Reagan’s inauguration speech. By a coincide of timing, then, the Reagan administration received credit for ending the conflict. This group photograph shows the former hostages in the hospital before being released back to the U.S. Johnson Babela, Photograph, 1981. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DF-SN-82-06759.jpg. The Iranian hostage crisis ended literally during President Reagan’s inauguration speech. By a coincide of timing, then, the Reagan administration received credit for ending the conflict. This group photograph shows the former hostages in the hospital before being released back to the U.S. Johnson Babela, Photograph, 1981. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DF-SN-82-06759.jpg.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The tax cut faced early skepticism from Democrats and even some Republicans. Vice president George H.W. Bush had belittled supple-side theory as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 Republican primaries. But a combination of skill and serendipity pushed the bill over the top. Reagan aggressively and effectively lobbied individual members of Congress for support on the measure. Then on March 30, 1981, Reagan survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. Public support swelled for the hospitalized president. Congress ultimately approved a $675-billion tax cut in July 1981 with significant Democratic support. The bill reduced overall federal taxes by more than one quarter and lowered the top marginal rate from 70% to 50%, with the bottom rate dropping from 14% to 11%. It also slashed the rate on capital gains from 28% to 20%The next month, Reagan scored another political triumph in response to a strike called by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). During the 1980 campaign, Reagan had wooed organized labor, describing himself as “an old union man” (he had led the Screen Actor’s Guild from 1947 to 1952) who still held Franklin Roosevelt in high regard. PATCO had been one of the few labor unions to endorse Reagan. Nevertheless, the president ordered the union’s striking air traffic controllers back to work and fired more than 11,000 who refused. Reagan’s actions crippled PATCO and left the American labor movement reeling. For the rest of the 1980s the economic terrain of the United States—already unfavorable to union organizing—shifted decisively in favor of employers. The unionized portion of the private-sector workforce fell from 20% in 1980 to 12% in 1990. Reagan’s defeat of PATCO and his tax bill enhanced the economic power of corporations and high-income households; the conflicts confirmed that a conservative age had dawned in American politics.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 The new administration appeared to be flying high in the fall of 1981, but other developments challenged the rosy economic forecasts emanating from the White House. As Reagan ratcheted up tension with the Soviet Union, Congress approved his request for $1.2 trillion in new military spending. Contrary to the assurances of David Stockman—the young supply-side disciple who headed the Office of Management and Budget—the combination of lower taxes and higher defense budgets caused the national debt to balloon. (By the end of Reagan’s first term it equaled 53% of GDP, as opposed to 33% in 1981.) Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker continued his policy from the Carter years of combating inflation by maintain high interest rates—they surpassed 20% in June 1981. The Fed’s action increased the cost of borrowing money and stifled economic activity.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 As a result, the United States experienced a severe economic recession in 1981 and 1982. Unemployment rose to nearly 11%, the highest figure since the Great Depression. Reductions in social welfare spending heightened the impact of the recession on ordinary people. Congress had followed Reagan’s lead by reducing funding for food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, eliminated the CETA program and its 300,000 jobs, and removed a half-million people from the Supplemental Social Security program for the physically disabled. The cuts exacted an especially harsh toll on low-income communities of color. The head of the NAACP declared the administration’s budget cuts had rekindled “war, pestilence, famine, and death.” Reagan also received bipartisan rebuke in 1981 after proposing cuts to Social Security benefits for early retirees. The Senate voted unanimously to condemn the plan, and Democrats framed it as a heartless attack on the elderly. Confronted with recession and harsh public criticism, a chastened White House worked with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neil in 1982 on a bill that restored $98 billion of the previous year’s tax cuts. Despite compromising with the administration on taxes, Democrats railed against the so-called “Reagan Recession,” arguing that the president’s economic policies favored the most fortunate Americans. This appeal, which Democrats termed the “fairness issue,” helped them win 26 House seats in the autumn Congressional races. The New Right appeared to be in trouble.

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VI. Morning in America

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Reagan nimbly adjusted to the political setbacks of 1982. Following the rejection of his Social Security proposals, Reagan appointed a bipartisan panel to consider changes to the program. In early 1983, the commission recommended a one-time delay in cost-of-living increases, a new requirement that government employees pay into the system, and a gradual increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67. The commission also proposed raising state and federal payroll taxes, with the new revenue poured into a trust fund that would transform Social Security from a pay-as-you-go system to one with significant reserves. Congress quickly passed the recommendations into law, allowing Reagan to take credit for strengthening a program cherished by most Americans. The president also benefited from an economic rebound. Real disposable income rose 2.5% in 1983 and 5.8% the following year. Unemployment dropped to 7.5% in 1984. Meanwhile, the “harsh medicine” of high interest rates helped lower inflation to 3.5%.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 While campaigning for reelection in 1984, Reagan pointed to the improving economy as evidence that it was “morning again in America.” His personal popularity soared. Most conservatives ignored the debt increase and tax hikes of the previous two years. Reagan’s Democratic opponent in 1984 was Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president and a staunch ally of organized labor. In the Democratic primaries Mondale had faced civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who rose to prominence in 1972 as George McGovern’s campaign manager and took office two years later as one of the “Watergate babies.” Jackson offered a thoroughly progressive program but won only two states. Hart’s platform—economically moderate but socially liberal—inverted the political formula of Mondale’s New Deal liberalism. Throughout the primaries, Hart contrasted his “new ideas” with Mondale’s “old-fashioned” labor-liberalism. Mondale eventually secured his party’s nomination but suffered a crushing defeat in the general election. Reagan captured 49 of 50 states, winning 58.8% of the popular vote.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Mondale’s loss demoralized Democrats. The future of their party belonged to post-New Deal liberals like Hart and to the constituency that supported him in the primaries: upwardly mobile professionals and suburbanites. In February 1985, a group of moderates and centrists formed the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) as a vehicle for distancing the party from organizing labor and cultivating the business community. Jesse Jackson dismissed the DLC as “Democrats for the Leisure Class,” but the organization included many of the party’s future leaders, including Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The formation of the DLC illustrated the degree to which to the New Right had transformed American politics.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Reagan entered his second term with a much stronger mandate than in 1981, but the GOP makeover of Washington, DC stalled, especially after Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986. Democratic opposition prevented Reagan from eliminating means-tested social welfare programs; however, Congress failed to increase benefit levels for welfare programs or raise the minimum wage, decreasing the real value of those benefits. Democrats and Republicans occasionally fashioned legislative compromises, as with the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The bill lowered the top corporate tax rate from 46% to 34% and reduced the highest marginal rate from 50% to 28%, while also simplifying the tax code and eliminating numerous loopholes. Both parties—as well as the White House—claimed credit for the bargain, but it made virtually no net change to federal revenues.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 One of Reagan’s most far-reaching victories occurred through judicial appointments. He named 368 district and federal appeals court judges during his two terms. Observers noted that almost all of the appointees were white men. (Seven were African American, fifteen were Latino, and two were Asian American.) Reagan also appointed three Supreme Court justice­s: Sandra Day O’Connor, who to the dismay of the religious right turned out to be a moderate; Anthony Kennedy, a solidly conservative Catholic who occasionally sided with the court’s liberal wing; and arch-conservative Antonin Scalia. The New Right’s transformation of the judiciary had limits. In 1987, Reagan nominated Robert Bork to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Bork, a federal judge and former Yale University law professor, was a staunch conservative. He had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, affirmative action, and the Roe v. Wade decision. After acrimonious confirmation hearings, the Senate rejected Bork’s nomination by a vote of 58-42. African Americans read the nomination as another signal of the conservative movement’s hostility to their social, economic, and political aspirations.

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VII. African American Life in Reagan’s America

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Ronald Reagan’s America presented African Americans with a series of contradictions. Blacks achieved significant advances in politics, culture, and socio-economic status. African Americans continued a trend from the late 1960s and 1970s by gaining control of municipal governments during the 1980s. In 1983, voters in Philadelphia and Chicago elected Wilson Goode and Harold Washington, respectively, as their cities’ first black mayors. At the national level, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson became the first African American man to run for president when he campaigned for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1984 and 1988. Propelled by chants of “Run, Jesse, Run,” Jackson achieved notable success in 1988, winning nine state primaries and finishing second with 29% of the vote.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Jesse Jackson was only the second African American to mount a national campaign for the presidency. His work as a civil rights activist and Baptist minister garnered him a significant following in the African American community, but never enough to secure the Democratic nomination. His Warren K. Leffler, “IVU w/ [i.e., interview with] Rev. Jesse Jackson,” July 1, 1983. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003688127/. Jesse Jackson was only the second African American to mount a national campaign for the presidency. His work as a civil rights activist and Baptist minister garnered him a significant following in the African American community, but never enough to secure the Democratic nomination. His Warren K. Leffler, “IVU w/ [i.e., interview with] Rev. Jesse Jackson,” July 1, 1983. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003688127/.The excitement created by Jackson’s campaign mirrored the acclaim received by a few prominent African Americans in media and entertainment. Comedian Eddie Murphy rose to stardom on television’s Saturday Night Live, and achieved box office success with movies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. In 1982 pop singer Michael Jackson released Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. Oprah Winfrey began her phenomenally successful nationally syndicated talk show in 1985. Comedian Bill Cosby’s sitcom about an African American doctor and lawyer raising their four children drew the highest ratings on television for most of the decade. The popularity of The Cosby Show revealed how class informed perceptions of race in the 1980s. Cosby’s fictional TV family represented the growing number of black middle-class professionals in the United States. Indeed, income for the top fifth of African American households increased faster than that of white households for most of the decade.Middle-class African Americans found new doors open to them in the 1980s, but poor and working-class blacks faced continued challenges. During Reagan’s last year in office the African American poverty rate stood at 31.6%, as opposed to 10.1% for whites. Black unemployment remained double that of whites throughout the decade. By 1990, the median income for black families was $21,423, 42% below white households. The Reagan administration did little to address such disparities and in many ways intensified them. Furthermore, the New Right threatened the legal principles and federal policies of the rights revolution and the Great Society. Reagan appointed conservative opponents of affirmative action to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) and the Civil Rights Commission while sharply reduced their funding and staffing levels. Federal spending cuts disproportionately affected AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch, and job training programs that provided crucial support to African American households. In 1982 the National Urban League’s annual “State of Black America” report concluded that “[n]ever [since the first report in 1976]…has the state of Black America been more vulnerable. Never in that time have black economic rights been under such powerful attack.”The stigma of violent crime also hung over African American communities during the Reagan years. Homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between 15 and 24, occurring at a rate six times higher than for other Americans. Nonetheless, sensationalistic media reports encouraged widespread anxiety about black-on-white crime in big cities. Ironically, such fear could by itself spark violence. In December 1984 a thirty-seven-year-old white engineer, Bernard Goetz, shot and seriously wounded four black teenagers on a New York City subway car. The so-called “Subway Vigilante” suspected the young men—armed with screwdrivers—planned to rob him. Pollsters found that 90% of white New Yorkers sympathized with Goetz. Race relations often seemed more polarized than ever during the 1980s.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 The attempts by the Reagan administration to roll back affirmative action and shrink welfare programs did not always succeed. By the end of the decade, “diversity” programs were firmly entrenched in private sector employment. Nonetheless, Reagan’s policies and rhetoric had altered the course of racial politics in the United States. Full economic and social equality remained elusive for African Americans in the 1980s.

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VIII. Bad Times and Good Times

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Working- and middle-class Americans, especially those of color, struggled to maintain economic equilibrium during the Reagan years. The growing national debt generated fresh economic pain. The federal government borrowed money to finance the debt, raising interest rates to heighten the appeal of government bonds. Foreign money poured into the United States, raising the value of the dollar and attracting an influx of goods from overseas. The imbalance between American imports and exports grew from $36 billion in 1980 to $170 billion in 1987. Foreign competition battered the already anemic manufacturing sector. The appeal of government bonds likewise drew investment away from American industry.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 1 Continuing a recent trend, many steel and automobile factories in the industrial Northeast and Midwest closed or moved overseas during the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen, the bard of blue-collar America, offered eulogies to Rust Belt cities in songs like “Youngstown” and “My Hometown,” in which the narrator laments that his “foreman says these jobs are going boys/and they ain’t coming back.” Meanwhile, a “farm crisis” gripped the rural United States. Expanded world production meant new competition for American farmers, while soaring interest rates caused the already sizable debt held by family farms to mushroom. Farm foreclosures skyrocketed during Reagan’s tenure. In September 1985 prominent musicians including Neil Young and Willie Nelson organized “Live Aid,” a benefit concert at the University of Illinois’s football stadium designed to raise money for struggling farmers.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 At the other end of the economic spectrum, wealthy Americans thrived thanks to the policies of the New Right. The financial industry found new ways to earn staggering profits during the Reagan years. Wall Street brokers like “junk bond king” Michael Milken reaped fortunes selling high-risk, high-yield securities. Reckless speculation helped drive the stock market steadily upward until the crash of October 19, 1987. On “Black Friday,” the market plunged 800 points, erasing 13% of its value. Investors lost more than $500 billion. An additional financial crisis loomed in the savings and loan industry, and Reagan’s deregulatory policies bore significant responsibility. In 1982 Reagan signed a bill increasing the amount of federal insurance available to savings and loan depositors, making those financial institutions more popular with consumers. The bill also allowed “S & L’s” to engage in high-risk loans and investments for the first time. Many such deals failed catastrophically, while some S &L managers brazenly stole from their institutions. In the late 1980s, S & L’s failed with regularity, and ordinary Americans lost precious savings. The 1982 law left the government responsible for bailing out S&L’s out at an eventual cost of $132 billion.

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IX. Culture Wars of the 1980s

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Popular culture of the 1980s offered another venue in which conservatives and liberals waged a battle of ideas. Reagan’s militarism and patriotism pervaded movies like Top Gun and the Rambo series, starring Sylvester Stallone as a Vietnam War veteran haunted by his country’s failure to pursue victory in Southeast Asia. In contrast, director Olive Stone offered searing condemnations of the war in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Television shows like Dynasty and Dallas celebrated wealth and glamour, reflecting the pride in conspicuous consumption that emanated from the White House and corporate boardrooms during the decade. At the same time, films like Wall Street and novels like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities satirized the excesses of the rich. Yet the most significant aspect of 1980s’ popular culture was its lack of politics altogether. Rather, Steven Spielberg’s E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and his Indiana Jones adventure trilogy topped the box office. Cinematic escapism replaced the serious social examinations of 1970s’ film. Quintessential Hollywood leftist Jane Fonda appeared frequently on television but only to peddle exercise videos.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 New forms of media changed the ways in which people experienced popular culture. In many cases, this new media contributed to the privatization of life, as people shifted focus from public spaces to their own homes. Movie theaters faced competition from the video cassette recorder (VCR), which allowed people to watch films (or exercise with Jane Fonda) in the privacy of their living room. Arcades gave way to home video game systems. Personal computers proliferated, a trend spearheaded by the Apple Company and its Apple II computer. Television viewership—once dominated by the “big three” networks of NBC, ABC, and CBS­—fragmented with the rise of cable channels that catered to particular tastes. Few cable channels so captured the popular imagination as MTV, which debuted in 1981. Telegenic artists like Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson skillfully used MTV to boost their reputations and album sales. Conservatives condemned music videos for corrupting young people with vulgar, anti-authoritarian messages, but the medium only grew in stature. Critics of MTV targeted Madonna in particular. Her 1989 video “Like a Prayer” drew protests for what some people viewed as sexually suggestive and blasphemous scenes. The religious right increasingly perceived popular culture as hostile to Christian values.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 The Apple II computer, introduced in 1977, was the first successful mass-produced microcomputer meant for home use. Rather clunky-looking to our twenty-first-century eyes, this 1984 version of the Apple II was the smallest and sleekest model yet introduced. Indeed, it revolutionized both the substance and design of personal computers. Photograph of the Apple iicb. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apple_iicb.jpg.The Apple II computer, introduced in 1977, was the first successful mass-produced microcomputer meant for home use. Rather clunky-looking to our twenty-first-century eyes, this 1984 version of the Apple II was the smallest and sleekest model yet introduced. Indeed, it revolutionized both the substance and design of personal computers. Photograph of the Apple iicb. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apple_iicb.jpg.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Cultural battles were even more heated in the realm of gender and sexual politics. Abortion became an increasingly divisive issue in the 1980s. Pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans grew rare, as the National Abortion Rights Action League enforced pro-choice orthodoxy on the left and the National Right to Life Commission did the same with pro-life orthodoxy on the right. Religious conservatives took advantage of the Republican takeover of the White House and Senate in 1980 to push for new restrictions on abortion—with limited success. Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced versions of a “Human Life Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that defined life as beginning at conception; their efforts failed, though in 1982 Hatch’s amendment came within 18 votes of passage in the Senate. Reagan, more interested in economic issues than social ones, provided only lukewarm support for these efforts. He further outraged anti-abortion activists by appointing Sandra Day O’Connor, a supporter of abortion rights, to the Supreme Court. Despite these setbacks, anti-abortion forces succeeded in defunding some abortion providers. The 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibited the use of federal funds to pay for abortions; by 1990 almost every state had its own version of the Hyde Amendment. Yet some anti-abortion activists demanded more. In 1988 evangelical activist Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue, an organization that targeted abortion clinics and pro-choice politicians with confrontational—and sometimes violent—tactics. Operation Rescue demonstrated that the fight over abortion would grow only more heated in the 1990s.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 The emergence of a deadly new illness, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), simultaneously devastated, stigmatized, and energized the nation’s homosexual community. When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, most of its victims were gay men. For a time the disease was known as GRID—Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disorder. The epidemic rekindled older pseudo-scientific ideas about inherently diseased nature of homosexual bodies.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 The Reagan administration met the issue with indifference, leading Congressman Henry Waxman to rage that “if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent…rather than among gay males, the response of both the government and the medical community would be different.” Some religious figures seemed to relish the opportunity to condemn homosexual activity; Catholic columnist Patrick Buchanan remarked that “the sexual revolution has begun to devour its children.” Homosexuals were left to forge their own response to the crisis. Some turned to confrontation—like New York playwright Larry Kramer. Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which demanded a more proactive response to the epidemic. Others sought to humanize AIDS victims; this was the goal of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a commemorative project begun in 1985. By the middle of the decade the federal government began to address the issue haltingly. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, an evangelical Christian, called for more federal funding on AIDS-related research, much to the dismay of critics on the religious right. By 1987 government spending on AIDS-related research reached $500 million—still only 25% of what experts advocated. In 1987 Reagan convened a presidential commission on AIDS; the commission’s report called for anti-discrimination laws to protect AIDS victims and for more federal spending on AIDS research. The shift encouraged activists. Nevertheless, on issues of abortion and gay rights—as with the push for racial equality—activists spent the 1980s preserving the status quo rather than building on previous gains. This amounted to a significant victory for the New Right.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 The AIDS epidemic hit the gay and African American communities particularly hard in the 1980s, prompting awareness campaigns by celebrities like Patti LaBelle. Poster, c. 1980s. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Don%27t_listen_to_rumors_about_AIDS,_get_the_facts!%22_Patti_LaBelle.A025218.jpg. The AIDS epidemic hit the gay and African American communities particularly hard in the 1980s, prompting awareness campaigns by celebrities like Patti LaBelle. Poster, c. 1980s. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Don%27t_listen_to_rumors_about_AIDS,_get_the_facts!%22_Patti_LaBelle.A025218.jpg.

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X. The New Right Abroad

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 If the conservative movement recovered lost ground on the field on gender and sexual politics, it captured the battlefield on American foreign policy in the 1980s­—­for a time, at least. Ronald Reagan entered office a committed Cold Warrior. He held the Soviet Union in contempt, denouncing it in a 1983 speech as an “evil empire.” And he never doubted that the Soviet Union would end up “on the ash heap of history,” as he said in a 1982 speech to the British Parliament. Indeed, Reagan believed it was the duty of the United States to speed the Soviet Union to its inevitable demise. His “Reagan Doctrine” declared that the United States would supply aid to anti-communist forces everywhere in the world. To give this doctrine force, Reagan oversaw an enormous expansion in the defense budget. Federal spending on defense rose from $171 billion in 1981 to $229 billion in 1985, the highest level since the Vietnam War. He described this as a policy of “peace through strength,” a phrase that appealed to Americans who, during the 1970s, feared that the United States was losing its status as the world’s most powerful nation. Yet the irony is that Reagan, for all his militarism, helped bring the Cold War to an end. He achieved it not through nuclear weapons but through negotiation, a tactic he had once scorned.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Reagan’s election came at a time when many Americans feared their country was in an irreversible decline. American forces withdrew in disarray from South Vietnam in 1975. The United States returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1978, despite protests from conservatives. Pro-American dictators were toppled in Iran and Nicaragua in 1979. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan that same year, leading conservatives to warn about American weakness in the face of Soviet expansion. Such warnings were commonplace in the 1970s. “Team B,” a group of intellectuals commissioned by the CIA to examine Soviet capabilities, released a report in 1976 stating that “all evidence points to an undeviating Soviet commitment to…global Soviet hegemony.” The Committee on the Present Danger, an organization of conservative foreign policy experts, issued similar statements. When Reagan warned, as he did in 1976, that “this nation has become Number Two in a world where it is dangerous—if not fatal—to be second best,” he was speaking to these fears of decline.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries, formed an alliance that benefited both throughout their tenures in office. Photograph of Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David, December 22, 1984. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thatcher_Reagan_Camp_David_sofa_1984.jpg. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries, formed an alliance that benefited both throughout their tenures in office. Photograph of Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David, December 22, 1984. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thatcher_Reagan_Camp_David_sofa_1984.jpg.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 The Reagan administration made Latin America a showcase for its newly assertive policies. Jimmy Carter had sought to promote human rights in the region, but Reagan and his advisers scrapped this approach and instead focused on fighting communism—a term they applied to all Latin American left-wing movements. Reagan justified American intervention by pointing out Latin America’s proximity to the United States: “San Salvador [in El Salvador] is closer to Houston, Texas, than Houston is to Washington, DC,” he said in one speech, adding, “Central America is America.” And so when communists with ties to Cuba overthrew the government of the Caribbean nation of Grenada in October 1983, Reagan dispatched the United States Marines to the island. Dubbed “Operation Urgent Fury,” the Grenada invasion overthrew the leftist government after less than a week of fighting. Despite the relatively minor nature of the mission, its success gave victory-hungry Americans something to cheer about after the military debacles of the previous two decades.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 Operation Urgent Fury, which the U.S. invasion of Grenada came to be called, was broadly supported by the U.S. public, even though it was violation of international law. This support was in large part due to incorrect intelligence disseminated by the U.S. government. This photograph shows the deployment of U.S. Army Rangers into Grenada. Photograph, October 25, 1983. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Army_Rangers_parachute_into_Grenada_during_Operation_Urgent_Fury.jpg. Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, was broadly supported by the U.S. public. This photograph shows the deployment of U.S. Army Rangers into Grenada. Photograph, October 25, 1983. Wikimedia.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Grenada was the only time Reagan deployed the American military in Latin America, but the United States also influenced the region by supporting right-wing, anti-communist movements there. From 1981 to 1990, the United States gave more than $4 billion to the government of El Salvador in a largely futile effort to defeat the guerillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Salvadoran security forces equipped with American weapons committed numerous atrocities, including the slaughter of almost 1,000 civilians at the village of El Mozote in December 1981. The United States also supported the contras, a right-wing insurgency fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan, overlooking the contras’ brutal tactics, hailed them as the “moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.”

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 The Reagan administration took a more cautious approach in the Middle East, where its policy was determined by a mix of anti-communism and hostility to the Islamic government of Iran. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the United States supplied Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with military intelligence and business credits—even after it became clear that Iraqi forces were using chemical weapons. Reagan’s greatest setback in the Middle East came in 1982, when, shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon, he dispatched Marines to the Lebanese city of Beirut to serve as a peacekeeping force. On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber killed 241 Marines stationed in Beirut. Congressional pressure and anger from the American public forced Reagan to recall the Marines from Lebanon in March 1984. Reagan’s decision demonstrated that, for all his talk of restoring American power, he took a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. He was unwilling to risk another Vietnam by committing American troops to Lebanon.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Though Reagan’s policies toward Central America and the Middle East aroused protest, it was his policy on nuclear weapons that generated the most controversy. Initially Reagan followed the examples of presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter by pursuing arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union. American officials participated in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Talks (INF) that began in 1981 and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in 1982. But the breakdown of these talks in 1983 led Reagan to proceed with plans to place Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe. Reagan went a step further in March 1983, when he announced plans for a “Strategic Defense Initiative,” a space-based system that could shoot down incoming Soviet missiles. Critics derided the program as a “Star Wars” fantasy, and even Reagan’s advisors harbored doubts. “We don’t have the technology to say this,” Secretary of State George Shultz told aides. These aggressive policies fed a growing “nuclear freeze” movement throughout the world. In the United States, organizations like the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy organized protests that culminated in a June 1982 rally that drew almost a million people to New York City’s Central Park.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 President Reagan proposed space- and ground-based systems to protect the United States from nuclear missiles in his 1984 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Scientists argued it was unrealistic or impossible with contemporary technology, and it was lambasted in the media as “Star Wars.” Indeed, as this artist's representation of SDI shows, it was rather ridiculous. Created October 18, 1984. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Laser_Satellite_Defense_System_Concept.jpg.President Reagan proposed space- and ground-based systems to protect the United States from nuclear missiles in his 1984 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Scientists argued it was unrealistic or impossible with contemporary technology, and it was lambasted in the media as “Star Wars.” Indeed, as this artist’s representation of SDI shows, it was rather ridiculous. Created October 18, 1984. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Laser_Satellite_Defense_System_Concept.jpg.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 Protests in the streets were echoed by opposition in Congress. Congressional Democrats opposed Reagan’s policies on the merits; congressional Republicans, though they supported Reagan’s anti-communism, were wary of the administration’s fondness for circumventing Congress. In 1982 the House voted 411-0 to approve the Boland Amendment, which barred the United States from supplying funds to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. A second Boland Amendment in 1984 prohibited any funding for the anti-Sandinista contra movement. The Reagan administration’s determination to flout these amendments led to a scandal that almost destroyed Reagan’s presidency. Robert MacFarlane, the president’s National Security Advisor, and Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, raised money to support the contras by selling American missiles to Iran and funneling the money to Nicaragua. When their scheme was revealed in 1986, it was hugely embarrassing for Reagan. The president’s underlings had not only violated the Boland Amendments but had also, by selling arms to Iran, made a mockery of Reagan’s declaration that “America will never make concessions to the terrorists.” But while the Iran-Contra affair generated comparisons to the Watergate scandal, investigators were never able to prove Reagan knew about the operation. Without such a “smoking gun,” talk of impeaching Reagan remained talk.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 1 Though the Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the Reagan administration’s image, it did not derail Reagan’s most significant achievement: easing tensions with the Soviet Union. This would have seemed impossible in Reagan’s first term, when the president exchanged harsh words with a succession of Soviet leaders—Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. In 1985, however, Chernenko’s death handed leadership of the Soviet Union to Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, a true believer in socialism, nonetheless realized that the Soviet Union desperately needed reform. He instituted a program of perestroika, which referred to the restructuring of the Soviet system, and of glasnost, which meant greater transparency in government. Gorbachev also reached out to Reagan in hopes of negotiating an end the arms race that was bankrupting the Soviet Union. Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva, Switzerland in 1985 and Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986, where, although they could not agree on anything concrete—thanks to Reagan’s refusal to limit the Strategic Defense Initiative—they developed a rapprochement unprecedented in the history of US-Soviet relations. This trust made possible the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, which committed both sides to a sharp reduction in their nuclear arsenal.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 By the late 1980s the Soviet empire was crumbling. Some credit must go to Reagan, who successfully combined anti-communist rhetoric—such as his 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall, where he declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace…tear down this wall!”—with a willingness to negotiate with Soviet leadership. But the real causes of collapse lay within the Soviet empire itself. Soviet-allied governments in Eastern Europe tottered under pressure from dissident organizations like Poland’s Solidarity and East Germany’s Neues Forum; some of these countries were also pressured from within by the Roman Catholic Church, which had turned toward active anti-communism under Pope John Paul II. When Gorbachev made it clear that he would not send the Soviet military to prop up these regimes, they collapsed one by one in 1989—in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s proposed reforms, rather than bring stability, instead unraveled the decaying Soviet system. By 1991 the Soviet Union itself had vanished, dissolving into a “Commonwealth of Independent States.”

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XI. Conclusion

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Reagan left office with the Cold War waning and the economy booming. Unemployment had dipped to 5% by 1988. Between 1981 and 1986, gas prices fell from $1.38 per gallon to 95¢. The stock market recovered from the crash, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average—which stood at 950 in 1981—reached 2,239 by the end of Reagan’s second term. Yet, the economic gains of the decade were unequally distributed. The top fifth of households enjoyed rising incomes while the rest stagnated or declined. In constant dollars, annual CEO pay rose from $3 million in 1980 to roughly $12 million during Reagan’s last year in the White House. Between 1985 and 1989 the number of Americans living in poverty remained steady at 33 million. Real per capita money income grew at only 2% per year, a rate roughly equal to the Carter years. The American economy saw more jobs created than lost during the 1980s, but half of the jobs eliminated were in high-paying industries. Furthermore, half of the new jobs failed to pay wages above the poverty line. The economic divide was most acute for African Americans and Latinos, one-third of whom qualified as poor. Trickle-down economics, it seemed, rarely trickled down.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 The conservative triumph of the Reagan years proved incomplete. The number of government employees actually increased under Reagan. With more than 80% of the federal budget committed to defense, entitlement programs, and interest on the national debt, the right’s goal of deficit elimination floundered for lack of substantial areas to cut. Between 1980 and 1989 the national debt rose from $914 billion to $2.7 trillion. Despite steep tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the overall tax burden of the American public basically remained unchanged. Moreover, so-called regressive taxes on payroll and certain goods increased the tax burden on low- and middle-income Americans. Finally, Reagan slowed but failed to vanquish the five-decade legacy of economic liberalism. Most New Deal and Great Society proved durable. Government still offered its neediest citizens a safety net, if a now continually shrinking one.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 Yet the discourse of American politics had irrevocably changed. The preeminence of conservative political ideas grew ever more pronounced, even when as controlled Congress or the White House. Indeed, the Democratic Party adapted its own message in response to the conservative mood of the country. For better or worse, the United States was on a rightward path.

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