REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS #2

 

Was there a Reagan Revolution, or was it more of the same? What did the Reagan administration want to achieve? How far did it succeed? What forces or contradictions prevented it from achieving its goals, domestic and foreign? What constituencies was it bound to disappoint?

 

This class will be structured loosely as follows:

 

*Conservatism and the Political Right

What are the different styles or shades of conservatism? Think for instance of moral vs economic conservatism, anti-Communism, etc. How did these co-exist in the US prior to the 1970s?

 

We hear a lot about the New Right and the new conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s. Was there really a New Right? What motivated it? Was it so new? When people use the term “New Right,” what is the ideological message implied in this usage? Is the phrase normally used in a sympathetic or hostile way?

 

What is neo-conservatism?

 

Why did the New Right grow so sharply in significance during the 1970s? How much of the growth was ideological, how much was owed to new forms of raising support, eg direct mail fundraising?

 

Did the New Right deploy a “politics of resentment”?

 

What issues caused the greatest strain to the old New Deal coalition that had sustained the Democrats since the 1930s?

 

What role did demographic factors play? How about religious factors? Regional factors? Gender concerns? Class concerns and tensions?

 

How do Jewish issues reshape political alignments? What about Catholic issues?

 

Why did issues such as guns and gun control prove so potent in mobilizing conservative activism?

 

In what ways did liberal critics of the new conservatism fail to appreciate their enemy? How far was their understanding of the Right based on misleading stereotypes? Did an ideological blindness prevent them organizing an effective response?

 

Who were the “Reagan Democrats”?

 

How far had Jimmy Carter already gone in his term to acknowledging conservative concerns?

 

How did racial politics feed into other concerns?

 

How is America’s crisis portrayed in gender terms, as a betrayal of traditional manliness?

 

What role do changes in campaign financing and fund-raising play in shifting political realignments?

 

Major question – so what are the major components of the conservative coalition by the end of the 1970s? What are the pressing issues of each group? How far do the concerns of one faction agree with or conflict with the issues beloved of another group?

 

What are the major issues of concern to conservatives by 1980? What themes do they have in common? What did they want to change? Which aspects of “the sixties” were they most able and most enthusiastic to change? Which aspects would be more difficult?

 

*Ronald Reagan

 

What was Reagan’s background?

 

What were the major episodes in his life that shaped his outlook?

 

How did he attain national visibility?

 

How was he regarded by various political factions in the 1960s and 1970s? What did liberals think of him?

 

How did his views change over time?

 

Why did Reagan gain such overwhelming support in 1980?   How far do you think his victory resulted from immediate concerns arising from the horrors of that year, and how far from deeper concerns and issues? How could we test either view?

 

Did a social and cultural shift to the Right accompany or precede the conservative election triumph of 1980? How could we test this view?

 

In American history, certain elections are regarded as critical in marking major and lasting party realignments – eg 1896, 1932, 1968. Does 1980 belong in this epoch-making category?

 

Did he retain his vast following in the early years of his presidency? What went wrong for him in 1981-1982?

 

How did he recover his stature in 1983-84?

 

How far was his decline and his subsequent recovery a function of his own decisions, and how far was it the result of external conditions? Which ones?

 

In 1986-87, the Reagan administration suffered a near-terminal political crisis. Why? How far was the crisis the result of Reagan’s own personality and personal management style? Why and how did he survive politically?

 

Overall – looking at the whole period, what did the Reagan administration want to achieve? How far did it succeed? How far does it become institutionalized?                

 

What was Reagan’s greatest failure in what he wanted to achieve?

 

How far were his views the same as those of the supporters who voted for him in 1980? What forces or contradictions prevented it from achieving its goals, domestic and foreign? What constituencies was it bound to disappoint?

 

*The Reagan Revolution

 

The key question - Was there a Reagan Revolution? If so, what part if any did Reagan play in accomplishing it?

 

As far as we can speculate about such things, if Carter had won in 1980, how might his presidency have been the same or different?

 

Though the changes of this time are discussed in terms of Reagan and presidential politics, those developments occur quite independently from vital changes in American society, in business and the economy, in the media and newsgathering, in family and gender relations, etc.  How far do these changes make possible the political aspects of the “Reagan Revolution”? Put crudely, how far was Reagan himself doing things, and how far was he riding waves already in progress? What were the wider trends working in his favor, that would have benefited whoever happened to be sitting in the White House at that time? Think also in terms of demography, international affairs, natural resources ….

 

And a question that runs through all these others: how would you test assertions about what the Reagan revolution did or did not achieve? How might these arguments be researched? What kind of local or other case-studies might confirm or undermine broad assertions about political or cultural life in these years?