1980s beyond Reagan’s America

Top Gun in the 1980s

When I first started teaching about the 1980s, I felt alone and afraid. I put on the self-confident, know-it-all style that Tom Cruise embodied in Top Gun, but deep down I worried because I knew that I was flying solo. There was no mother “goose” to protect or guide me. I had never heard a professor get into that decade, and although I had lived through the decade, I did so playing with lego toys, watching G.I. Joe cartoons, and believing that Hulk Hogan was a real “American hero”. But now, the decade has a rich literature, especially to explain the rise and dominance of Ronald Reagan’s new conservatism. If I were to attend graduate school now, I imagine that works by Gil Troy, Darren Dochuk, and Kim-Phillips-Fein would be part of my comprehensive examinations.

Both Hist and Major Problems focus on the rise of the “new right” in the 1980s. Hist even titles the chapter “Reagan’s America.” In 1980, he won the presidency with 50% of the vote (Carter only received 41%) but 90% of the Electoral College. In 1984, Reagan won with almost 59% of the popular vote. And it is true, Reagan put his stamp on the United States during those years. His new deregulated conservatism stood against the New Deal-Great Society liberalism created by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But as one whose first political button was for Michael Dukakis (I think I would refer to him as “Dewey” when stumping on his behalf to my middle school classmates in 1988), I’ve been in search of a way to fold Reagan’s conservatism into broader themes, rather than see it as the central theme. So here goes.

To teach the 80s this time, I’m going to focus on the concept of “top gun” – from the top grossing movie of 1986 (by the way, Crocodile Dundee was second and Platoon was third). Top Gun, the film, shows so many aspects of historical change. It showcases Vietnam Syndrome (as the fighters are training to overcome the poor American performance in Vietnam and Tom Cruise struggles with the demons of his dead father from the war), a war movie where there is little warfare (typical of the “Cold War” notion that it was more a battle of ideology than armies, although there was plenty of hot and dirty war in the decades), and workplace relations in a nation transformed by feminism (as Kelly McGillis struggles as Maverick’s supervisor with how to be sexual with him without compromising her authority).

Carl Lewis … really fast

But there’s another aspect of “top gun” that applies to the 1980s. This was a decade when the United States actively set its sights to become the world’s top gun. Reagan’s White House built up the arms race so effectively that the Soviet Union couldn’t keep pace. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Americans marveled at their medal count as they cheered Mary Lou Retton, Michael Jordan, and Carl Lewis. The United States finished with 174 total medals, while West Germany finished a distance second with 59. The top gun mentality and experience hit its high-water mark when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States easily pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War. As of 1991, the United States was the lone superpower, Reagan’s former vice-President George H. W. Bush was on top of the political world, and historians prophesied an “end of history.”

Television highlighted the rise to the top of many Americans. The Cobsy Show became the most famous sitcom about African Americans – replacing Good Times from the 1970s. And the distinction couldn’t be more telling. On The Cosby Show, Claire Huxtable was an attorney; Heathcliff was a physician, and this firmly upper class probably voted Democrat (the family enjoyed its civil rights heritage with regular references to historically black colleges and universities) but also savored its interactions with Nancy Reagan (as the time when she brought her “just say no” anti-drug message to the program).

Joe Montana … not fast, but accurate

Within the “top gun” universe, California seemed to be at the summit. Reagan’s conservatism was forged on the western frontier and came out of the 1960s and 1970s conservative backlash in California. In football, the San Francisco 49ers and their “West Coast” offense was not just winning Superbowls, but redefining the sport for television as it rose to prominence. In basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers and their up-tempo basketball style known as “Show Time” was outpacing the “tough” Boston Celtics and “nasty” Detroit Pistons. The state’s economy outperformed the rest of the nation’s with personal incomes and wages growing at a robust rate throughout the 1980s. As of 1991, California’s economy constituted about 1/8 of the entire nation’s economy and its gross product was 60% greater than the second state in the nation, New York. As of 1990, it had almost 30 million people with New York a distance second at 18 million.

Another theme, which I stress as well, is the rise of material prosperity during the decade. Nothing seems as emblematic as the contrast between the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” (where the high-pitched vocalists stand in front of empty, smashed up inner-city homes) with Madonna’s “Material Girl” (where she dances through an abundance so full that even her name is the commodification and sexualization of a sacred, poor, sorrowful virgin).

So what themes do you stress??? Next time, I’ll post about our conversation from Major Problems on the new right and Clinton’s “third way.”

18 thoughts on “1980s beyond Reagan’s America

  1. After reading this post, there is no doubt in my mind that Reagan completely transformed the United States in a positive direction that was necessary.
    I think that one of the most important things that people can take from the 80s is the newfound national pride amongst the population. With the economy improving, the sports being redirected into a more competitive nature, a strong president who is willing to take charge, America now had hope again. After the devasting previous decades (the Great Depression, Vietnam, ect.) the people could now trust their president and know that he was willing to do what he believed was best for the country, and it turned out to be a positive. For the first time in years, the United States was once again a superpower and they were establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

    Haley Palmer

  2. In Chapter 15 of Major problems, primary source #6. Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls America Back to the Bible, 1980; Falwell believes that because of abortion, homosexuality, pornography, humanism and the fractured American family have fractured American society. He states that America will not make it to the 20th century if a moral revival is not undertaken. Well I guess he was wrong. It seems puzzling to me that Right-wing America would want the government involved in matters so personal while at the same time call for less government in public matters such as social welfare bills or the environment for example.

  3. The article I will be discussing is Chapter 15, “Surgeon General Everett Koop Defends His Crusade on AIDS, 1987.”

    The thing that interested me was when Dr. Koop “went to Congress to testify in favor of condom advertising [his wife said], “well I’m glad your mother’s dead.” Doctors, such as Koop advocating condoms was a new sight to see, since parents of course doesn’t want their children to had the thought of being intimate, especially the older generations. Although, with the rise of AIDS this was the best option. I can see why many people don’t want to speak or think about the rise of a new virus that is incurable, but not informing others, especially young students is a terrible idea. As others tried to cover up certain areas of this topic, people lives could be ruin. I like how Koop defends his idea of trying to help people with this illness instead of being judge that they are unusual/ different. He is trying to bring awareness to protect, yet this contradicts the strong and tough vision of America. In fact, with the rise of known of AIDS, many people might feel insecure that this colorful new dream of the 80’s may collapse, especially after what everyone been through in the pass couple of decade. However, if Koop didn’t advocate the idea of being protected, how would one feel when they are the victim of this virus and everyone is blaming them for reason for it?

  4. The document I am discussing is the 2nd document in Chapter fifteen (The Rise of the New Right) of Major Problems entitled Country Singer Merle Haggard is Proud to be an “Okie from Muskogee,” 1969.

    Although Merle is expressing his American pride, it seems more like he is singing about his pride in the country and where he’s from. I got the feeling that he was against the rapid growth of the west, specifically California and the liberal nature, especially in San Francisco. He talks about not making a party out of loving and even says, “we don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do.” The only sense of complete American pride I got out of this song is when he mentions football being the “toughest thing on campus.” As football was big at schools in the country, the west coast was catching up as the San Francisco 49ers redefined the sport with their “west coast offense.”
    It interested me that even with California booming on all aspects, there were people that still seemed to dislike them. How could people dislike a state that was contributing the most to the United States as a whole? If anything I think people should have been happy with the west taking off so that it wasn’t just New York.

  5. The document I will be discussing is document 5 in chapter 15 called “Californian’s Revolt Against Taxes-and Government.” This article discusses Howard Jarvis and his strategies to legitimize proposition 13.
    The author of this document is obviously on Jarvis’s side, because of his use of language to describe him, and his motives for the California proposition 13. First he starts to explain that the California property taxes are way too high. If left unchecked the tax could sky rocket and drive people out of their houses. Most prominently, the rising tax would greatly affect the elderly, who can get kicked out of their houses for not meeting the tax, and young couples in which property tax is so high that they are unable to buy a house. Jarvis wants to help these people by encouraging and promoting prop 13. Jarvis is also, at the same time, spreading the ideal of new conservatism with the belief of tax cuts and less government intervention in the rights of individuals.
    What I think the author is implying is that he admires Jarvis’s idea that the government should not meddle with the people’s rights to own property. After all, owning property is a right and should not be taken away by the government. The author I believe sees Jarvis as one of the heroes and initiators of the new conservative movement.

  6. The document I am going to discuss is from Chapter 15 of Major Problems, document 7 titled “President Ronald Reagan Sees a Revitalized America.”

    In his second address, President Reagan expressed the confidence that he had in his fellow Americans and the American Way. In his speech Reagan begins by discussing how much things have changed since George Washington was president, 50 Presidents ago. Although Reagan admits that a lot has changed since that time, he still sees that “we stand together as we did two centuries ago.” When he took the oath for the first time, Reagan did so in a time of great economic trouble but he makes the argument that “there is always a better tomorrow.” One final concept that Regan discusses is the role that government has played as a servant to the people. Reagan did argue that “for a time, we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give.” This document was interesting to me because the reader is able to see the connections that Reagan makes to two centuries ago and then discusses the current situation that the country is in.

    Devin W

  7. The document I will be writing about is from chapter 15 of Major Problems, titled “Sierra Club Attacks the President’s Policy, 1988.”

    I chose this document because it talked bout the environmentalists’ viewpoint on Reagan’s policies. They referred to his era as the “end of the environmental movement.” The Sierra Club believed all of Reagan’s appointees were not environmental activists and were actually hurting the environment more. Nothing was being done anymore to protect the environment and in politics, and the “patterns set by Reagan’s policies could have irreversible consequences in ten, or twenty, or thirty years.” What they believed was needed was self-discipline and better policies. I thought it was interesting because we really can see negative effects today in the environment and if at the time political leaders had made an effort maybe we would have less problems with things such as global warming.

  8. The document I am going to discuss is, “Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls America Back to the Bible, 1980”

    I chose this document because Falwell’s opinion interest me. Falwell says that America needs to ‘come back to basics’. He sees that our morals, values and patriotism have changed, He thinks this is due to abortion, homosexuality, pornography, humanism, and the fractured family. He believes that we need a moral revive in America in order to survive the twentieth century. I agree and disagree with Falwell I don’t think that America needs to revive the authority of the Bible because not everyone believes and follows under the Bible, but I do believe that America needs to go back to some old values. Americans “do not even consider love to be important,” when did having a divorce become so normal? And when did pornography become so open and ok?

  9. The document I found interesting is “Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls American Back to the Bible, 1980.”

    I picked this document because I definitely agree with it. We very much so need to go back to some of our old values. I look at today and wonder what had changed us so much. Times back in the 80s were more classier than us now and had better morals. We do whatever we want now, marry whoever and get a divorce as if it was nothing, and some may even not even want to get an education. Times sure have changed and they need to be turned around. Also in today’s word, there are so many raunchy television show, movies etc. We need to get back some of our values that we lived by back in the day. As Falwell says ,” we need to come back to basics.”

  10. In the past people were living on false hope. Reagan however, was the president that brought back hope and people were able to see improvement in society with his positivity. The “change” that was supposedly supposed to take place, finally was happening in front of their eyes. In the reading, “President Ronald Reagan Sees a Revitalized America”, he acknowledges that things have not always been great, but doesn’t blame the system and explained that things just got rapidly out of control and we didn’t know how to handle it. His positivity reflected onto the citizens and it restored hope in America once again! “History is a ribbon, always unfurling: history is a journey. An as we continue our journey, we think of those who travelled before us…”

    P.S. This was a pretty awesome blog because I have an 80’s themed party coming up and this sparked some ideas!
    P.S.S. It’s about time the niners start rising once again!

  11. In the seventh document from Chapter 15 of M.P, “President Ronald Reagan Sees a Revitalized America, 1985,” Reagan is re-elected as president and is speaking about the accomplishments and progress of the last four years. He praises Americans for coming so far and the progress that is yet to be made. He talks about past failures and how far America has come. The United States is at an all time high and ready to go even higher. He is proud to be and American and, it seems, so are the people. he states, “It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage, that’s our song.” Reagan is optimistic and proud, mirroring the feelings and the pride of the American people as a whole. He seems confident and ready to move the country forward as a whole and make even more progress. I found this document inspiring today, I can only imagine how inspiring it was in 1985!

  12. After reading the document “Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls America Back to the Bible, 1980” I find his viewpoints interesting, yet not shocking. The opinions of a Reverend will almost always want to revert back to the Bible when talking about issues such as abortion, homosexuality and pornography. Falwell states that if America has any expectations of surviving to the twentieth century they need the spiritual and moral revival of the Bible. I find it hard to completely agree with Farwell as much as I have my own religious viewpoints, it is difficult to categorize everyone the same way and expect everyone to have the same opinions on issues such as these.

  13. I am choosing the article, “Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls America Back to the Bible, 1980” because I think it demonstrates what many people were feeling at the beginning of the 80’s, and also because I disagree wholeheartedly with it. After the Civil Rights movement, Gay Liberation movement, and poor economy following the 70’s people knew there needed to be a change. Just as with any push for change, there will be a backlash from those who do not want to change the status quo. In the 80’s people were tired of protests, and some lost interest in defending the rights of others. Reverend Jerry Falwell was one such person, and was looking for something to blame for the problems facing the time. He blames the country’s problems on lack of values. However, the country’s real problem was the economy. Ridding America of homosexuality and pornography would not help the economy, but it gave him something tangible to focus on. After the creation of no fault divorce the divorce rate did skyrocket, but then it leveled out. The American family was not in danger of extinction, but he played on Americans’ fear none the less. This is just one example in history of a popular figure taking a complex problem and creating unrelated issues to focus the blame.

  14. I think a theme we didn’t cover quite enough in class was the War on Drugs, as mentioned in chapter 28 of Hist. The repercussions of it are still being felt today, It was, in the end, a pretty spectacular failure. Billions of dollars are still spent every year enforcing drug laws domestically and with foreign aid. Yet drug cartels not only continue to smuggle in their contraband, but they pursue a bloody war in their home countries (Mexico, Columbia, etc) with weapons smuggled out of the USA. We are also fighting a battle on illegal immigration today that I think is partly stemming from the violence, corruption and failing infrastructure of Latin American countries suffering the worst in the drug trade.

  15. While attempting to create a blog for our Hist 110 website, I came across a unique form of music that was extremely anti-Reagan. 1980’s punk rock groups such as the Dead Kennedy’s, Reagan Youth, and LA’s Wasted Youth went on rants in their songs often accusing Reagan of “killing” the American economy. They were outraged by his “supply side” economics and some felt that it would ruin the economy for America’s next generation. This led to a huge popularity in the teenage crowd hence the band names like “Reagan Youth” or “LA’s Wasted Youth”. This music may seem to only apply to Southern California surfer punkers, but it was extremely political music that reached out to teens nationwide.
    Shane P Hist 110

  16. The document I will be discussing is from Chapter 15 and it is called “Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls American Back to the Bible, 1980.” This man claims that the lack of society’s current moral values with God are the reason for the economlic situation the people in the 1980’s were having. He would pinpoint certain values in life such as homosexuality and abortion, then make judgement based on what the bible has to say about it. For example, on the homosexuality part he states the bible clearly designates it as a sin. And when he talks about abortion, he uses a lot of pathos to try and get the reader to sympathize on how sad it is to kill unborn babies. This may be true, but I disagree on a lot of things he says because I am more open-minded about the values he discusses. For example, I believe homosexuality is not a sin, and that it should be okay for two people of the same sex to get married if that is what they want to do.

  17. I found two documents from Major Problems intersting, document number 2: Country singer Merle Haggard Is Proud to Be an “Okie From Muskogee,” 1969 and document number 6: Reverend Jerry Falwell Calls America Back to the Bible.

    I think these two documents go hand in hand. The song is cute and humerus in my opinion and oddly relevant today in light of the pot legalization issues we have going on today. But mainly the song talks about the singer sticking to his ‘good moral family values’ which is what the Reverend Jerry Falwell is calling america back to today.
    at the risk of sounding like a bible thumper,I agree with Falwell. The bible talks about having freedom in Christ (Gal 1:5), to me it means having freedom from being legalistic in our daily lives, no longer to we have to do unnecessary religious practices. God will not hate us, nor are we going to hell if we dont go to church weekly, its ok to watch tv and listen to ‘secular’ music, but this doesnt permit blatantly going against the values the Bible puts forth. I think during the 80s this freedom began to be explored and people went from having freedom in Christ to rebellion and Falwell was scared of what it might lead to. The end of the document he wrote “I am convinced that we need a spiritual and moral revival in America if America is to survive the twentieth century” …we we have survived, but I think all can agree that we have seen better days. as far as having a question for this document I wonder what Fawell would think if he saw us today.

  18. “Sierra Club Attacks the President’s Policy, 1988” caught my attention in Major Problems. The article talks about the Sierra Club’s disappointment when Reagan wins the election of 1980. Few pro-environment candidates won and it was clear that environmental policy was going to be put on the back burner.I consider myself to be sort of an environmentalist and I would prefer to have a pro-environment government. According to NBC News, the environmental movement ended with Reagan’s victory and that was sad enough, but I was amazed that his policies concerning the environment were so bad that he motivated more people to join environmental organizations than all the presidents before him combined. the article talks about how his 8 years in office could have irreversible consequences, and it makes me think about our situation today. Although it’s clear that we’re having issues with climate change, among other things, it feels like we’re still struggling to get everyone on board. Having a leader that’s almost anti-environment would be devastating.

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