The Eighties

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Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2005. 296 pages. $17.33.



--Mlinhart 21:21, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)

John Ehrman calls the eighties, ‘above all a time of transition.’ (209) The transitions nether began nor ended in the Reagan years from 1981 to 1989. Ehrman examines three areas, politics, economics and social change. Central to his ideas are notions of liberalism and conservatism, neither of which can be rigidly defined or described. Despite the lack of rigid definitions, and despite many inconsistencies and variations, liberalism and conservatism can explain and illuminate mindsets, or at least some of the mindsets and some of the attitudes and some of the rationales for political and economic and even social viewpoints of some of the people some of the time.

Ehrman, with similar caveats, states ‘liberals generally seek greater social equality and look to the federal government to take the leading role in addressing social problems but prefer to avoid intervention in the sphere of individual rights and privacy.’ (3) Conservatives ‘emphasize individual responsibilities rather than rights ‘and seek to limit government’s social role while promoting what they view as individual morality.’ (3) Thus liberals tend to favor social welfare programs and protection of civil rights. Liberals do not object to governmental activism, regulation and intrusiveness for the right purpose. Conservatives, on the other hand, ‘seek to limit the government’s social role while promoting what they view as traditional morality’ (4) and disfavor government activism and expansion (except for a strong and expensive military). During the eighties, liberals and conservatives both supported capitalism, but liberals wanted government to take a stronger hand in economic matters ‘manipulating demand through taxes, spending and monetary policy.’ (4) Conservatives favored free markets, ‘minimal government regulation and low taxes.’ (4)

Ehrman focuses on Reagan’s first and second terms. He examines the elections during this time period and discusses the state of American life. Ehrman confines his study of the Reagan years to the domestic scene although he discusses the Iran-Contra scandal and blames Donald Regan, White House Chief of Staff, because Regan ‘lacked the political sense to tell the President to quash the idea.’ (141) Ehrman is generally sympathetic to Ronald Reagan’s administration. ‘Inflation had been controlled, unemployment cut, and growth restored.’ (205) Income tax rates ‘had been lowered dramatically.’ (205) On the other hand, federal budget deficits had skyrocketed. Ehrman faults Reagan’s ‘lack of attention to details of his administration.’ (143) The Iran Contra affair, the mismanagement of the Bork nomination, scandals at EPA and HUD and Ed Meese’s problems all hurt Reagan’s popularity in his second term.

--Mlinhart 21:21, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Throughout the 1970’s, the economic situation in the United States began to exhibit radical changes. America’s industrial dominance in the world was ending; no longer would the United States be able to compete with other nations in the global market that had come into existence in the post-World War II era. No one however, was willing to admit that the nation’s run was over. Instead of looking to the future and what America could be doing, political leaders at home, feeling tremendous pressure from special interest groups, continued to keep alive a dying institution. Under the leadership of the Democratic Party, the federal government continued to subsidize and bail out businesses that were simply incapable of producing a profit. Anything less was considered to be unacceptable to the voters who the party relied on to keep their control of the legislative branch of the government. However, by 1980, even blue-collar workers understood that band-aids would no longer hold back the blood from spilling out of the various wounds that nation had. What was needed instead was a new direction – leadership that would bring America back from the depths of double-digit inflation and high unemployment. The voters of the nation quickly turned to one of the most unexpected sources for hope – the far right led by Ronald Reagan, the former governor of the state of California.

In his book The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan, John Ehrman attempts to explain why voters in the United States decided to travel down the conservative road at that particular time. For the author, what made Reagan attractive to the voters was above politics. Determined not to make the same mistakes that Barry Goldwater had made in the ’64 election, Reagan looked beyond politics and ideology to get his agenda accepted by America. According to Ehrman, “Without a foundation of useful ideas – that is, those that can be grasped easily, made sense intuitively and address the concerns of ordinary people – political success is difficult in the American system” (p. 7). Reagan was able to use his past experiences as an actor and governor of the largest state in the nation to break down his argument into words that could be understood by ordinary citizens while still holding true to his right of center ideology that he believed could save the nation from the fate of previous empires that had declined over time.

By beginning his book with a brief overview of Ronald Reagan’s early life and the experiences he had that were significant in developing his philosophies on government, Ehrman is providing to the reader a better picture of who Reagan really was. Believing that Reagan was in fact not an accidental president; instead, Ehrman sees Reagan as like his fellow citizens – an ordinary American. As the author argues, “Although neither an intellectual nor a man given to deep reflection, Reagan was perfectly capable of thinking through complex issues and making up his mind, and the handwritten drafts of his letters and speeches show…. moreover … Reagan had a simple model of the world that defined minimal government and liberal democracy as unquestionably good, Communism as absolutely evil and success as available to anyone who worked hard” (p. 21). Clearly, Reagan was a man of simple values who saw the world as being black or white – there was not middle ground to be muddled over. When a decision had to be made, all one had to do was compare it to these values and create the solution through this lens.

In the body of the text, Ehrman provides a summary overview of the events of each of Reagan’s two presidencies, along with the Democratic response to each of the elections of Reagan to the presidency. While the length of his book does not allow for the author to truly examine these topics in depth, Ehrman is able to provide to the reader enough of a background of the major policies that Reagan believed that it was his job to attach and change in order to save the country from losing its status in the world. For Ehrman, the details of these policies and their success or failure is not their most significant aspect; instead, one must see in Reagan a willingness to not force extreme policies down the throat of America. Reagan was willing to compromise part of his plan and come back to fight another day than to stand his ground and lose the war. He saw within his attempt to solve America’s problems the long-term picture and was not concerned by short-term setbacks. By developing a thought process within the nation that was fueled by steady economic recovery, Reagan not only hoped to solve the problems faced by the nation but to also lay the groundwork for the Republican Party to govern beyond his eight years in office. This, more than anything, was the key to Reagan’s success.

While the book does an excellent job of examining the topics that are important to a better understanding the Reagan presidency, there is one major defect that I believe the book has. The author spends too much time examining how the Democrats dealt (or were unable to deal) with Reagan. This book is about the conservative movement in the 1980’s and how it was able to radically change America’s outlook on the future. Too much time is spent on what the Democrats did wrong to bring this change to a halt. While it is important to understand how the Democrats were reacting to this situation, Ehrman seems to give too much credence to the notion that more than any single factor, Reagan was able to achieve success because the Democrats were unable to unify and present to the American people a viable alternative. I simply do not accept this argument. The Democratic Party was unable to come up with a solution to the problem because one did not exist that fit into their philosophy – they had been given 20 years to fix the problem and had been unable to do so. Even Ehrman admits that the only reason the Democrats were able to recapture control of the Senate in 1986 is because their candidates ran on platforms that sounded very Reagan-like. The author seems unable to understand this problem. Roosevelt and his New Deal liberalism was dead – the only people unable to accept this fact was the Democratic Party that created it.--Tdemharter 22:02, 5 Dec 2005 (EST)

--Mlinhart 21:21, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)


Mary Linhart, Spring 2006

Race relations and immigration were central areas of social change. Ehrman asserts the 1980s were an era of ‘missed opportunity’ (187) for the rise of a leader who could combine different minorities as well as whites and build a national coalition. Ehrman believes Jesse Jackson was a possibility for filling this role but Jackson’s efforts were stalled by his attitude towards Jews and the fears of the Democratic Party that he could not appeal to moderates and suburbanites. Ehrman may be more than a little optimistic in even supposing that a liberal coalition under a black leader could succeed in an era of conservatism. It appears more likely that a conservative or middle of the road black may be the first viable candidate for a national executive branch office.

Ehrman claims the Democrats ‘problems largely were the result of not having ideas to put into action.’ (212) Republicans did a better job of maintaining a ‘cohesive party structure and internal discipline.’ (208) The Democrats, a coalition party, were ‘too fractious to agree on new ways’ (208) and thus failed to compete successfully. He proves his point with his analysis of the Carter campaign of 1980 and the Dukakis campaign of 1984.

Ehrman claims ‘vital center liberalism’ ‘unraveled with surprising speed after the mid 1960s.’ (26) ‘Vital center’ liberals were defined by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. as cautiously reformist and strongly anti-Communist. (24) They had become disillusioned by the failings of the Great Society; racial troubles, rioting, campus unrest, the Vietnam War, and the growth of the New Left. (26) Ehrman claims the leading liberal intellectuals of earlier years were not succeeded by a generation willing to develop a ‘dominant analytical framework.’ (27) Rather than develop ‘politically realistic alternatives,’ (74) they reacted to Reagan by ‘indulging in dire warnings of disaster.’ (74)

Ehrman observes that in the eighties which he considers a time of relative prosperity and civil order, many individuals, particularly on the left, felt uneasy and concerned about American society. American academic and intellectual life reacted to the changes of the Reagan years. According to Ehrman, ‘racial and political conflicts, particularly in the humanities and social sciences broke into bitter public disputes.’ (193) Campus populations had grown and diversified and with increasing specialization, ‘the academy ‘was becoming isolated from the main stream of American life.’ (194) Universities were benefiting from prosperity but increased funding was mainly going to fields like ‘business, computer science, engineering and mathematics.’ (195) ‘Academics became receptive to strange ideas’ such as deconstruction which ‘could be used to justify anything’ because of its ‘denial of absolute values.’ (196) Attitudes about the impossibility of finding truth may have pernicious consequences if universities attempt to develop critical faculties without any basis for judgments. ‘Identity politics’ created a climate that led some schools like Dartmouth and the University of Michigan, to ‘place restrictions on speech.’ (201) Presumably their students had not been trained to make their own judgments about politically incorrect speech.

Ehrman asserts the conservative policies led to ‘greater innovation’ and rising productivity,’ (127) rising living standards for most Americans, (121) and a rise in consumption. (126) Ehrman believes Reagan’s critics drew ‘mistaken conclusions from flawed data.’ (120) For example, the decline in the proportion of people in the middle income ranges was not because the people were moving down but because they were moving up. He observes that the proportion at the bottom declines, but the proportion at the top rose. (215, Table 5) Unlike Kevin Phillips (The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath), Ehrman believes that changes in the economy in the eighties were ‘overwhelmingly for the good.’ (127)

--Mlinhart 21:21, 18 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

As previously noted, the predominate theme of Ehrman’s work is that the 1980’s were a time of change, both economically and culturally, in American History. Overall, I believe that Ehrman does a solid job of proving his theory, using economic data as well as evidence from the social conflicts of the time. However, I would argue that there are several issues with his work.

My main issue is that although Ehrman is addressing domestic issues, rather than foreign policy issues such as Iran-Contra or the Soviet Union, he does not take into account the effect that foreign and military affairs had on domestic policy during the Cold War. For example, when discussion economic policy, Ehrman argues that one of major problems of the 1980’s was the national debt, and how the Untied States went from being a creditor nation to a debtor nation. While he discusses the problems that arise from this situation, and some of the reasons behind it, he does not address one of the major reasons for American debt during the 1980’s, that being the massive military build-up during the Reagan Presidency, which was a result of Reagan’s policies towards the Soviet Union and Communism in general.

My other main critique of Ehrman’s work is his assumption that the Democratic Party had little or no new ideas during the Reagan Presidency. Rather than being a sign of weakness as a party, I would argue that during this time the Democrats were starting a transition period where some in the party stayed inline with their policies of the New Deal and Great Society Democratic Party, while some began a move to the center. This is illustrated by the creation of the Democratic Leadership Committee during the Reagan Presidency. I would argue that when a party undergoes these kinds of changes, it does not mean that there is a lack of ideas, but rather a time of transition for the party. Overall, I would argue that Ehrman is able to prove his argument that the Reagan Presidency is a time of transition for American society.

Lisa Harry, Spring 2007

Ehrman does not try to hide the fact that he believes Reagan was a good president and a great man. However, his obvious admiration for the Reagan does not seemed to have hindered his ability to give fair coverage of Reagan’s successes and failures during his two terms as President. If anything the way Reagan handles his failures only makes him look better in the eyes of Ehrman. Ehrman asserts that Reagan was a “warm and caring man” that was always “sunny and optimistic” when it came to his dealings with the American people even during the darkest of times.(46) This is a fact that Ehrman believes endeared Reagan in the hearts of the American people. Something that gave him slight edge over Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan’s electoral vote landslide obscured the fact that he assumed office with the lowest public approval ratings of any incoming president ever. Ehrman asserts that “the belief that Reagan’s victory represented the start of a revolution overstated the case.” (47) The 1980 vote was more of a repudiation of Carter than an affirmative mandate for Reagan. While Carter was rejected for the main part because of his “poor economic record” there was also something else at play according to Ehrman.(48) One reason the many Americans were willing to try Reagan on trial basis was that they were ready for a president that would stand with them during their hard times while trying to pull them out. They wanted a president that was willing to try new things to solve their woes and at the same time wouldn’t put the blame for their problems on their shoulders. Ehrman believes that Carter committed “political suicide” and lost the vote of many Americans on July 15, 1979 when he did just that. In a speech introducing his energy initiatives Carter described the nations ills and placed the blame or them on the American people. Ehrman’s coverage of Carter and Reagan is similar to that of William E. Leuchtenburg’s coverage of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in his book Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. According to Leuchtenburg, Hoover was simply “never able to convince the nation that he cared deeply how people were suffering and that he shared with them the sorrows and the blighted prospects the depression had brought.” In addition, he was very negative. From the beginning of the depression “he had approached problems with a relentless pessimism.” This is how Carter is portrayed by Ehrman. Roosevelt on the other hand was able to connect with the people. According to Leuchtenburg the instillation of hope and courage in the American people was “Roosevelt’s single greatest contribution to the politics of the 1930’s.” He had faith in the future and projected that. He took a very active role in the recovery of the nation. From the very beginning Roosevelt’s administration had an “immense sense of movement.” Leuchtenburg asserts that even though Roosevelt and his programs encountered many difficulties he “remained high-spirited and untroubled.” He always projected a positive outlook on the situation and that permeated into the hearts of the American public. According to Ehrman, Roosevelt’s positive outlook and optimism can be seen in Reagan as well.

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

John Ehrman’s primary focus is the changes which occurred in American politics, economics and society between 1981 and 1989. He begins by providing background on Ronald Reagan’s life during the pre-White House years, primarily his involvement in the Screen Actors Guild, his participation in political campaigns for the Democratic Party and the beginning of his political career as Governor of California. During the Carter administration, Daniel Bell, an intellectual, stated “Our political institutions do not match the scales of economic and social reality…The national state has become too small for the big problems of life and too big for the small problems” (41). He also discusses the events and policies which shaped the presidency of Jimmy Carter, eventually leading to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980.

During the Reagan years American politics began to shift from a liberal viewpoint to a more conservative one. In spite of the shift to conservative politics, the American people remained “more liberal and tolerant on social issues [such] as the ending of institutionalized racism, expansions of individual rights, and acceptance of the changing roles of women” (2-3). Ehrman described liberals as those who “seek greater social equality and look to the federal government to take a leading role in addressing social issues but prefer to avoid intervention in the sphere of individual rights and privacy” (3). According to Ehrman, “conservatives emphasize individual responsibilities rather than rights and seek to limit government’s social role” (4). “Reagan gradually shifted from anti-Communist liberalism to conservatism during the 1950s” (13). By the time he sought election to his first public office as Governor of California in 1966, Reagan had not only become a conservative, but he had also shifted his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican running “as a citizen against enlarged government and higher taxes” (14). This remained a key point for Reagan throughout his political career. Had he run for the office of president in 1800 rather than 1980, he probably would have been a member of the Anti-Federalist Party.

Ronald Reagan’s ideology regarding the federal government is repeated throughout the book. According to Ehrman, Reagan’s writings reveal “a simple model of the world that defined minimal government and liberal democracy as unquestionably good” (21). Reagan’s view of government’s role continued to affect policy during the administrations of subsequent presidents. Ehrman states, “The most important innovation in social programs between 1980 and the Medicare reform of 2003 – the reform of welfare in 1996- was a measure designed to reduce the role of government, not increase it” (207). As Governor of California, Reagan proposed welfare reform during his second term which required able bodied Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients to seek work or job training (17). Ironically, he did not propose national welfare reform due to his “belief that federal social programs accomplished little” (207). This is most likely a result of his belief in reducing the power of government.

During his 1980 campaign, “Reagan’s public pronouncements were sunny and optimistic, reflecting his personal belief that the United States was a land of opportunity filled with honest, hard-working people for whom anything was possible” (46). This optimism about America and Americans was still apparent in his speech to the Republican National Convention in 1988, “Every promise, every opportunity is still golden in this land…Our children can walk into tomorrow with the knowledge that no one can be denied the promise that is America” (84). In these speeches he vocalized the hopes and dreams of all Americans, endearing people from all walks of life.

Ehrman mentions some international events which affected the Reagan presidency but does not focus on them. His stated focus involves domestic issues rather than foreign affairs, I believe his argument would have been weaker had he attempted to incorporate foreign affairs into his text. The strength of his argument lies in the focus on the domestic issues which permeated the Reagan administration rather than on the foreign affairs which threatened to destroy his credibility. --Blclark 12:18, 17 November 2008 (UTC)

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