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The Gipper Won: How Ronald Reagan Shaped Eighties America

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NEOAMERICANIST VOL. 4, ED. 1 (WINTER 08/09) | 1
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The gipper won: how ronald reagan shaped eighTies
america
A Review of:
Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and Making of Eighties America.
Philip Jenkins. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 344 pp. $28.00, ISBN 0-19-517866-1.)
Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.
Gil Troy. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. 417 pp. $32.95,
ISBN13: 978-0-691-09645-2.)
The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan.
John Ehrman. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. 296 pp. $27.50,
ISBN-10: 0-300-10662-9.)
by Joshua Avery
Historians who deal in the distant past often complain of the complexities that arise in writing
from limited extant sources. Scholars who seek to explain the more recent past face a different, equally
challenging dilemma: how to organize sources that are often an “embarrassment of riches.” Philip
Jenkins, Gil Troy and John Ehrman show that such a task is possible. Each scrutinizes the 1980s and
seeks to explain the role of Ronald Reagan in those waning years of the twentieth century. Though the
conclusions of these authors differ, they are united in their conviction that twenty-rst century American
society can only be understood in the shadow of the Reagan presidency. Decade of Nightmares stands
alone in its attempt to answer not only why conservatism seemed to enjoy such broad socio-political
hegemony, but also how it did so. Philip Jenkin’s ambition in addressing this difcult question makes
Decade of Nightmares the most satisfying read.
Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University,
argues that post-1975 cultural shifts were shaped but not caused by Ronald Reagan and his ideological
counterparts. Jenkins contends a climate of fear dominated the late 1970s and early 80s allowing
conservatives and “traditionalists” to benet from a collective social shift to the right. He begins his
analysis in the preceding decades. Insisting that American social culture of the 1970s was nothing more
than a “mainstreaming of sixties values,” Jenkins presents the 1970s as not strictly a time when liberal
values became culturally established, but also as an era of fear and gloom.1 By the end of the decade,
foreign policy controversies and Carter administration blunders fed the growing climate of apprehension
about the left. During these same years, social concerns about cults, drugs and especially child sexual
abuse mushroomed, as did anxieties over a rise in violent and predatory crime. Jenkins avers that a more
punitive attitude toward the prosecution of crimes owed out of these fears and made traditional liberal
notions toward law-breaking seem nonsensical.
The turbulent context of American life in the 1980s was exacerbated by events in Iran and
1 Philip Jenkins, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and Making of Eighties America (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2006), 24.
THE GIPPER WON: HOW RONALD REAGAN SHAPED EIGHTIES AMERICA J. AVERY | 2
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Afghanistan. Jenkins shows clearly that the twin terrors of Communism and Islamism further served to
push America toward the political right. By the time Mount St. Helens, a volcano in Washington State,
erupted in May 1980, tensions were so high that many believers in the Christian apocalypse saw it as
the beginning of the end, a time heralded by rumors of war, civil conict and natural disaster. Jenkins
argues that only by understanding the “thorough pessimism” of these years can the “amazing appeal” of
Ronald Reagan be properly understood. In his exploration of the culture of pessimism, Jenkins considers
a large number of popular books, movies and even television shows. His extensive use of such broad
sources makes for a book that conveys the climate of 1980s America with remarkable accuracy. It is a rare
book that so successfully knits cultural and political history as does Decade of Nightmares. Jenkins has
produced a solidly written text that provides insights that will seem fresh to both undergraduates and
seasoned academics.
Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, agrees with Jenkins that Reagan did not “create”
but rather shaped the 1980s. Yet he asserts that Reagan was not “simply lucky.” Rather, Troy claims
Reagan’s extraordinary skills found fertile soil and the “right political climate.” Throughout Morning
in America, Troy effectively traces the ways in which Reagan’s all-American outlook came to dene the
1980s. He pronounces the Reagan presidency as both a cultural and political phenomenon and seeks to
explain the depth of Reagan’s cultural, social and political inuence while strictly conning the scope of
his work to the years between 1980 and 1990. Each chapter is focused on a particular year and emphasizes
dening themes. The rst chapter deals with Reagan’s elections, which Troy summarizes as a defeat of
“defeatism.” Here he briey examines the previous decade and agrees with Ehrman and Jenkins that it
is “facile to conclude that in the 1970s the movements from the sixties agged.”2 Troy makes the bold
claim that in 1981, Reagan helped “invent the 1980s in a matter of months.”3 He argues that Reagan, with
the support of a hero-starved culture, established a new national tone. At the same time, however, Troy
contends that Reagan was also “shaped” by certain political realities. Troy notes that despite his aura of
great success and subtle successes, Regan would be plagued by the inability to create a public revolution.
Like Jenkins, Troy acknowledges that the 1980s offered competing narratives of crime, social
disorder, race, recession and Reaganism. It is in the areas of crime, social disorder and race that Troy
sees Reagan’s greatest failures. He stresses that “Reagan was not a racist,” though he suggests that his
anecdotal approach to race relations disguised a moral blindness.4 Troy points out more of Reagan’s
deciencies in the area of environmental policy. He contends that it is simplistic to focus on the antics
of Interior Secretary James Watt, who once boasted of leasing “a billion acres” of United States costal
waters.5 According to Troy, the Reagan administration added more acreage to the National Wilderness
Preservation System in the lower 48 states than any other presidency. However, Troy concludes, it
was Reagan’s opposition to environmental policies that ultimately strengthened the public’s desire to
meaningfully embrace local and global conservation. Despite these shortcomings, Troy praises Reagan for
his vision in domestic policy, and claims that he energized and revitalized the center.
2 Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
2005), 32.
3 Ibid., 51.
4 Ibid., 89.
5 “The Legacy of James Watt,” Time, Oct. 24, 1983.
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Despite its provocative title, Morning in America provides a balanced and illuminating look at the
age of Reagan. As in his earlier work, Mr. & Mrs. President, Troy is at his best when he combines his
political and cultural analysis. He has certainly produced another valuable addition to the eld of political
and presidential history for both students and scholars.
Less satisfying is John Ehrman’s The Eighties. Ehrman, a foreign affairs analyst, seeks to answer the
question: how was Reagan able to push a non-ideological political system, with centrist roots, toward the
right? His answer: Reagan was a shrewd politician, who proved palatable to voters “willing to experiment”
with alternatives to liberal and centrist politicians. Ehrman claims that Reagan was not elected because
America had become more conservative, but rather because many Americans viewed liberals as
simply unable to deal with the “difcult times” they faced. He postulates that all throughout the 1980s,
Americans never became truly conservative. Here Ehrman is at odds with both Jenkins and Troy. All three
authors agree that Reagan beneted greatly from a climate of fear and pessimism. While Troy and Jenkins
infer that many Americans did in fact shift to the right, Ehrman maintains that voters remained centrist
and allowed conservative ideals to triumph only because liberals were unable to provocatively package a
basic set of ideals. The popularity of President Clinton seems to offer credence to his theory.
Ehrman opens with a short political biography of Reagan and immediately launches into a short
analysis of American attitudes toward the policies of President Carter and other centrist liberals.
He critically sums up postwar liberalism as “out of ideas.”6 Into this vacuum stepped Reagan, whom
American voters chose largely in repudiation of Carter. Ehrman sees Reagan’s victory as a strictly political
triumph. Disappointingly, he provides no cultural or social context and examines the phenomena of
Reaganism only through the lens of politics. In chapters three and ve Ehrman examines the social and
cultural impact of Reagan’s changes in the lives of “ordinary” Americans. Though he avoids the trap
of offering readers shallow and anecdotal analysis of the American experience, the density of statistics
Ehrman provides leave the reader feeling anything but familiar with American social and cultural life. In
chapter ve, Ehrman launches a vitriolic attack on contemporary academia. He dismisses many scholars
of the period as “isolated…self-absorbed” and “receptive to strange ideas.”7 Ehrman concludes that most
of their claims to political involvement were nothing more than “posturing.” His propensity throughout
the book to engage in such denunciations detracts from the ow of his argument. Ultimately Ehrman does
an adequate job of explaining how Conservatism was able to dominate the 1980s. Yet his work would have
been far more stimulating if he had addressed the bigger and more challenging question of “why.”
In the end Jenkins, Troy and Ehrman remind us that explanations for Reagan’s success, failures
and legacy are as mixed as their own varied interpretations. As a chronicle of the Reagan years, Jenkins’
Decade of Nightmares is excellent. It is better balanced, informed and written than either Troy’s Morning
in America or Ehrman’s The Eighties. Nevertheless, read in tandem, the three works provide a cumulative
and fresh perspective on the Reagan years that all who are interested in the social history of late twentieth
century America will nd enlightening.
6 John Ehrman, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 45.
7 Ibid., 194, 196
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