The Magazine

Defining a Decade

The lines in the sand are not yet redrawn.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Living in the Eighties

Defining a Decade

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.” 

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