Defining a Decade

From The Weekly Standard

Living in the Eighties
Edited by Gil Troy and Vincent J. Cannato
Oxford, 240 pp., $21.95

On the cover of Living in the Eighties there are three photos: one of Ronald Reagan, smiling, with an American flag behind him; one of the classical façade of the New York Stock Exchange; and the third of Madonna, barely out of her teens, wearing her no-longer-unmentionable lingerie as performance rig and her natural hair color with an incongruous and outsized belt buckle inscribed “Boy Toy.”

What brand, do you suppose, could cover those three things, if not the decade named in the title?

The need to brand decades, like other things, is essentially a marketing tool, but political branding has this peculiarity: that the brand itself always represents a political struggle. Were the eighties the decade of greed and excess, as those who were out of power for most of it now maintain, or were they a golden age when America won the Cold War and Reaganomics brought prosperity to more Americans than ever?

To their credit, Gil Troy and Vincent Cannato make some effort to treat this marketers’ mêlée evenhandedly. They have collected a dozen essays by as many different hands on many different aspects of the decade, and they lay out in their introductory essay the two rival viewpoints into which they naturally fall. On the one hand, there is what they describe as “The ‘Golden Age’ narrative,” which sees Reaganism as a long-delayed return to normalcy after the cultural and political aberration of the sixties. On the other are those “critiques of the 1980s as a ‘Gilded Age’ ” that are themselves “tinged with nostalgia for the 1960s. For these critics, the narrative is one of ‘backlash,’ of resentful white males depriving blacks, women and the poor of whatever gains they made during the 1960s.”

So which is it to be, Golden or Gilded? The editors claim that “many of us argue that there were both good and bad elements,” but I have to say that my reading turned up precious few such fence-sitters — and few, too, who hold to the Golden Age position. As you might expect from a collection of academics, nearly everyone is anti-Reagan. Troy, a professor of history at McGill, contributes a fairly even-handed account of Reagan’s first year, and Edwin Meese, very much the odd man out in this company, gives the orthodox Reaganite view of the administration’s successes. Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution makes the case, though it is not an uncritical one, for Reagan’s instrumentality in the fall of the Berlin Wall 10 months after he left office, while Kim Phillips-Fein of the Gallatin School at NYU writes of Reaganomics as “The Rebirth of the Free Market.”

But it turns out that Phillips-Fein is no fan of the free market which, she believes, creates what she describes, mixing her metaphors, as an “accelerating gap between rich and poor.” As for the partisans of a second Gilded Age, Joseph Crespino of Emory reproduces a standard left-wing talking point about how Reagan sought to exploit racial divisions for political gain, even if he was not personally racist; David Greenberg of Rutgers writes of “the Reorientation of Liberalism in the 1980s,” but from an unashamedly liberal point of view that regards the “synthesis” of Bill Clinton’s brand of liberalism as a temporary phase on the way back to a more robust liberalism under Barack Obama.

Sara M. Evans writes of the “backlash” against feminism that she and other hearty souls of the movement are said to have “survived” — this even though the editors in their introduction scold her proleptically but not by name for the progressivist (not to say Marxist) assumptions behind the use of a word like “backlash.” What Evans, a professor emerita at the University of Minnesota and a historian of feminism, calls “the virulent, even vicious, opposition to feminism in the 1980s” led, she thinks, to a reaction whose result was “to make feminists more invisible in the media and even to themselves.”

Even the essays that are not primarily about Reagan or party politics are mostly on the left side of the cultural divide that we now think of as a feature of the last two decades but that got its start during the eighties. Record producer Steve Greenberg’s account of popular culture and popular music emphasizes a reaction to what he calls (quoting approvingly from Dave Marsh) “the ruthless laissez-faire heyday of upper and lower-class criminality that characterized the ’80s.” Not to mention “a backlash” — there’s that word again — “against the perceived dominance of black and gay culture in white America.” Lauren F. Winner of Duke has the wit to examine not only “how did the politically conservative activist evangelicals of the Religious Right shape American culture and politics during the 1980s,” but also “how did larger cultural shifts during the same decade reshape, however subtly, evangelicalism?” Yet she never quite gets around to explaining this in detail, or how and why it happened that “during the late 1970s and 1980s, abortion gelled as a central plank of evangelical political life.” In what way was this an example of evangelicalism which “had once again adapted itself to the mainstream American culture that it sought to transform”?

Bruce J. Schulman of Boston University sees the social problems of the decade in relation to Reaganite enthusiasm for private and voluntary action over that which was public and government-run. In common with the other anti-Reagan partisans, Schulman represents his bugbear’s pernicious ideas as being far more powerful than in fact they ever were—implying that they were unchallenged, unquestioned, and uncriticized at the time and since: “Reagan’s once- controversial arguments about the superiority of the private sphere and the futility of public action had become an almost unchallenged assumption of American life.” This is so wildly at odds with the recognizable realities of life in America today that you might almost think it had been written around 1990, when despairing liberals were beginning to think that Reaganism might go on forever.

Come to mention it, Schulman has this in common with most of the other contributors whose views, pro and con, on the decade seem to have changed little if at all in 20 years. Journalistic cliché though it is, Philip Graham’s dictum that journalism is “the first draft of history” is actually a hopeful thought, since it implies that the second, third, and subsequent drafts will refine and improve the rough and ready insights of our less-than-sober or judicious media culture. But just as so many of today’s historians aspire to be journalists — it’s a far surer route to fame and fortune — so Living in the Eighties, though it must be somewhere around draft five, still burns with the partisan passions of the decade itself. Nowadays, even President Obama has good things to say about Ronald Reagan, but here the old hatred lives on. There is little sense of any perspective, no judicious reassessment of the period in the light of further experience. These are essays by those who, like the Bourbons, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

That is particularly unfortunate because, from today’s vantage point, the eighties appear in retrospect to have been almost a Golden Age — if you’ll pardon the expression — of comity and national unity. The depth and bitterness of the split between left and right in the late 1960s and ’70s had lessened with the failures of Carterism, while the split between the cultural left and right of the nineties had not yet made itself felt to most people. Americans were generally at peace with the various “liberation” movements of the 1970s — either because their achievements had become accepted and even institutionalized, as with civil rights or the sexual revolution — or because there had been enough of a return to the status quo ante for it to be described by Sara M. Evans as a “backlash.”

Indeed, Madonna represented a new strain of feminism to which her generation of feminists were blind or dismissive — though looking backwards, once again, it appears to have had more staying power than her own brand. Partly because of that retrograde Boy Toy, lots of women felt a different kind of liberation in the freedom to think that it was okay for them to be sexy and feminine again, just as it was okay to flex America’s military muscle again or push back against some of the more unpopular social programs of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The prosperity built on Reagan’s economic policies also served to bind the country together by success in what was seen by large majorities as a common enterprise.

In Living in the Eighties, however, the battle lines are drawn with the firmness of today’s most vehement partisans. As a result, one’s final impression from this collection amounts to nothing more than that some people think one way, others another. This latest draft of history is little more enlightening than the first.

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