REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS 8

 

For this class, you will need to have ready the two page synopsis of your proposed paper, with annotated bibliography. Circulate copies of this to everyone in the seminar (preferably electronically) as a basis for in-class discussion.

 

NOTES FOR CLASS ON “AGAINST THE TIDE”

 

When people write about the Reagan years, they consider how the Republicans won and used power, but we should pay attention also to how and why the Democrats lost so badly and so repeatedly. Between 1969 and 2009, the Democrats will have held the White House for just twelve years out of forty. Now, things were not quite so bad as they seemed, since the party came close to victory in 2000 and 2004, but at least since the 1990s, the tide has definitely been running against them in Congress and in state races as well. What went wrong with the Democratic tradition in these years, that allowed Reagan to win such victories? Indeed, can we see the Reagan triumph not as a Republican victory, but as the political self-destruction of liberalism and the Democratic Party – at least in presidential politics (which is an important distinction)?

 

Note throughout that a lot of these issues have a powerful relevance today.

 

Let’s begin with a paradox: through the “Reagan era”, the Democrats did very well in the Congress. To summarize: in 1980, Democrats lost their majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954, but they retained control of the House throughout the decade. In 1984, “The Democrats retained their majority in the House , although it was diminished, and gained two seats in the Republican-dominated Senate. They recaptured the Senate, 55-45, in the 1986 midterm elections.” Republicans lost eight Senate seats in that year, a horrendous defeat. Critically, “During the Reagan presidency Democrats held a majority of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures.”

Conversely, the real political shift to the right comes long after Reagan, in 1994:

 

Republicans maintained control in the House, which they captured in the 1994 midterm elections by winning 54 more House seats (230) than they won in 1992 (176). Indeed, after 40 years of unrestrained Democratic domination in the House, the 1994 national rebellion against Clinton policies (Hillarycare et al.) devastated the House Democratic Caucus, a defeat from which the Democrats have yet to recover. In fact, a slew of Democratic defections in 1995 helped to increase the House Republican caucus to a peak of 236 members before the 1996 elections. Despite the fact that Democrats chipped away at the Republicans' House majority during the 1996 elections (nine seats), 1998 midterms (four seats) and 2000 elections (two seats), today Republicans control more House seats (232, including one vacancy) than they did on the morning after the 1994 election (230).” (http://washtimes.com/op-ed/20060121-104331-7163r.htm ).

 

What does all this tell us about the national mood in the so-called Reagan years?

Whatever the received wisdom says, are presidential politics a reliable indicator of American politics? Arguably, does the “Reagan era” affect only the executive branch? Or do Americans like to have real competition between branches of government? Or what? But in any case, how conservative was the public during the Reagan years?

 

How effectively did Democrats, liberals and other anti-Reagan groups oppose the trends of the new Reagan order?

 

In twentieth century America, what does the term “liberalism” generally mean? What was the liberal inheritance of the New Deal years?

 

Political liberalism was at its height in the 1960s, in the Kennedy-Johnson years, but the movement went into sharp decline thereafter. Why?

 

What issues caused the greatest strain to the old New Deal coalition? Who were the “Reagan Democrats”?

 

How does liberalism change its substance during the 1960s and 1970s, following the civil rights revolution? What is the New Politics? Note the change of substance from economic issues and social issues to themes of group rights and identity politics. What are some of the critical issues growing out of these years, that often prove uphill struggles in winning the electoral support of moderates?

 

How strong was the progressive left in these years? Does this surprise you? How effective was the progressive coalition formed in these years? What were its internal strains and divisions?

 

The radical activism of the 1960s and early 1970s had left many groups deeply committed to social change and popular organization. How did these fare in the new political environment? In each case, how did these movements or groups respond to the rightward shift of the late 1970s and 1980s? What were their main issues and grievances? What issues proved most successful in providing a focus for organization, activism and resistance? Were there particular scandals, incidents or causes celebres that particularly served to ignite activism? Think of these questions in the context of

 

African-Americans

Other ethnic minorities

Feminists

Gay groups

Pacifist and anti-war activists

Labor groups and unions

Environmental activists

The religious left

Immigrants’ rights groups

 

In 1984 or 1986, say, what are the great mobilizing issues for progressives? How do these issues strike ordinary or moderate voters?

 

How did radical trends affect the Catholic church?

 

What are the centers of power for progressive thought in the 1980s? How do they become established in the mass media; in the academic world, in the churches, in charitable foundations?

 

What are the left’s most potent and successful issues at home and abroad?

 

Are there any particular books or ideas that really affect or define progressive/liberal thought in these years? Which and why?

 

How do progressive movements project their ideas within the Democratic Party? What conflicts does their presence incite? As the party tries to mobilize the party faithful, does it separate itself from a mass popular constituency? Do the Republicans face similar issues, then or since?

 

How important is funding and fund-raising in determining the shape of the party, especially at national/presidential level?

 

Does the power of progressive activists distort the Democratic Party’s message in the 1980s? How far does that presence contribute to the electoral disasters of these years?

 

How do the activities of ‘60s style progressives actually damage Democratic hopes?

 

What goes wrong for the Democrats in 1984? Why is Mondale slaughtered so thoroughly? Could the party have done better in this social and economic setting?

 

What goes wrong for the Democrats in 1988? Why does Dukakis lose? What are the key issues in this campaign? Could the party have done better in this social and economic setting?

 

What goes wrong for the Democrats in 1992? Yes, I know Clinton won, but only after a very large proportion of the electorate voted for a third party candidate – Clinton won just 43 percent of the vote, Bush (I) got 37 percent, and Ross Perot won 19 percent! (though Perot carried no states). What are the key issues in this campaign? Could or should the party have done better in this social and economic setting? And don’t forget, the 1994 midterms are one of the worst disasters suffered by a major party in modern US history

 

What do the Democrats do WRONG in these years? How do they come to be viewed? Who are their main and most obvious public faces? What cultural message is sent by leaders like Jesse Jackson, Edward Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Jim Wright, Michael Dukakis….

 

Do Democrats fail to see the directions the currents the nation is moving in, especially in terms of economics? Why? How do they suffer from broader trends in the economy?

 

How did liberals analyze the success of Reagan and the Republican Party? Did they, so to speak, misunderestimate their enemy? How did this misjudgment affect their electoral strategies?

 

What are the perennial blind spots of the modern Democratic Party, in terms of issues that the Republicans can usually make their own? Think for example of handling themes such as violent crime, of patriotism and flag-waving, of national security and defense. How do the themes surface in the 1988 presidential election? How have Democrats past and present succeeded in getting around these difficulties?

 

How does the Democratic Party change in the aftermath of its disasters in the 1980s? What does the Democratic party of the Clinton-Gore years do that would have seemed unthinkable in the 1950s or 1960s? What does this suggest about the changing substance of liberalism?

 

In the early 1990s, conservatives like Pat Buchanan identified a “culture war” raging in the US, a massive struggle over basic issues of gender, sexuality, morality, right and wrong. What were some of the issues and incidents he announced as symptoms of this struggle? Was he right? How did this war affect party politics?

 

Parties long in opposition tend to drift to conspiracy theories – witness the Republicans in the early 1950s. By the late 1980s, Democrats too had their share of all-encompassing theories about sinister Republican plots, about drug-dealing and stealing elections. What is the appeal of conspiracy politics and paranoia? Why are they such an endemic part of American political life?

 

SOME MAJOR THEMES AND QUESTIONS?

 

Do the Democrats suffer because of an image of being the “Party of the 1960s”?

 

Especially at presidential level, do the Democrats suffer chiefly from shifting gender roles and attitudes?

 

“It’s the economy, stupid”  - is it always? Is it ever?

 

Knowing what we do about the 1980s, what lessons should the Democrats be learning for the present?