Reaganland Is the Riveting Conclusion to a Story That Still Isn’t Over (Review)Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Ronald Reagan, political history
If we indulge in the prevailing metaphor of America being an ongoing TV show (“the writers’ room is really on one these days!” chuckles someone on Twitter as federal agents throw American citizens into unmarked vans), the Jimmy Carter administration often seems like a meandering and lethargic later season. In the popular imagination, Carter’s presidency conjures a hazy but overarching sense of dull incompetence: gas lines, stagflation, hostage crises, Billy Beer. The most famous speech of Carter’s presidency was probably his notorious and chronically misremembered “malaise” address of July 1979. (The speech was initially judged a success, and Carter never actually used the word.) The second-most famous is one Carter himself didn’t even give, namely Ted Kennedy’s address at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, delivered on the heels of Kennedy’s unsuccessful primary challenge of his party’s sitting president.
In November of that year, Carter became the first elected incumbent since Herbert Hoover to seek reelection and lose, falling in an electoral rout to union leader–turned–conservative dogmatist Ronald Reagan. The forces that swept Reagan into office—an uneasy coalition of neoconservatives, small-government tax revolters, and evangelical Christians dubbed the “New Right”—would transform American politics.
The Carter years, and Reagan’s place within them, are the subject of historian Rick Perlstein’s latest book, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976–1980. At more than 1,100 pages, Reaganland is the fourth and final volume of Perlstein’s massive, sweeping history of American conservatism in the postwar era, following Before the Storm, Nixonland, and 2014’s The Invisible Bridge, which tracked Reagan’s trajectory from the early 1970s up to his own unsuccessful primary challenge of Gerald Ford in 1976. Reaganland is terrific, a work whose characteristic insight and soaring ambition make it a fitting and resonant conclusion to Perlstein’s astounding achievement. I think most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, would agree that the effects of the Reagan Revolution are still with us and that in many senses Reaganland is still the place we all live.
A hallmark of Perlstein’s work is his blending of political and cultural history, often a tricky balance. Cultural historians (I am one) can sometimes exaggerate the relationship of cultural cause and political effect, while political historians occasionally rely on an overly narrow and deterministic conception of who and what constitutes the “political” sphere. Reaganland chronicles the various tribulations of the Carter presidency while also devoting time to other contemporary events that provide something like a sense of general “vibe.” These include the Son of Sam killings and the Jonestown massacre—inexplicable bursts of violence and death that heightened Americans’ feeling that they were living in a senseless and perilous world—as well as blockbuster films like Star Wars and Superman, triumphalist works that, in Perlstein’s telling, spoke to the same desire for the clear-cut, good-vs.-evil terms that Reagan offered voters.
This approach also works because it is, in many ways, the most honest way of telling the story of the New Right, a movement consolidated on cultural fronts as much as political ones. As Perlstein notes, one of the biggest challenges to Reagan’s rise to the presidency was that most Americans didn’t actually agree with his views on policy. Indeed, one of the most valuable stories that his books tell is how, in a mere 16-year span, American conservatism rose from the landslide 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater to Reagan’s decisive victory in 1980, even though Reagan touted many of the same policy beliefs that had led Goldwater to be dismissed as a crank both before and after his 1964 debacle.
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