Reagan Era

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Reagan in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1982

The Reagan Era or Age of Reagan is a periodization of recent American history used by historians and political observers to emphasize that the conservative "Reagan Revolution" led by President Ronald Reagan in domestic and foreign policy had a lasting impact. It overlaps with what political scientists call the Sixth Party System. In the view of historian and journalist Sean Wilentz, in his 2008 book, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, Reagan dominated this stretch of American history in the same way that President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal legacy dominated the four decades that preceded it, whereas Rossinow (2015) calls the 1980s in particular "the Reagan era."

The Reagan Era included ideas and personalities beyond Reagan himself; he is usually characterized as the leader of a broadly based conservative movement whose ideas dominated national policy making in areas such as taxes, welfare, defense, the federal judiciary and the Cold War. Liberals generally lament the Reagan Era, while conservatives generally praise it and call for its continuation in the 21st century.

Campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Barack Obama interpreted how Reagan changed the nation's trajectory:

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think that people... he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.[1]


Most historians begin the era in 1980, when Reagan was elected president, and usually probe back into the 1970s for the origins of the Reagan Era. For example, Kalman (2010) explores multiple crises of the 1970s that eroded confidence in liberal solutions: the rise of the religious right and the reaction against feminism and the ERA; grass roots reactions against busing ordered by federal judges; the defeat in Vietnam, the collapse of détente and fears of Soviet power; the challenge of imported cars and textiles, the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt, soaring inflation, stagflation, and the energy crisis, as well as the humiliation the nation suffered during the Iran hostage crisis and the sense of malaise as the nation wondered if its glory days had passed. She shows step by step the process by which one political alternative after another collapsed, leaving Reagan standing.[2]

The endpoint of the Reagan Era is usually seen as the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.[3] Midterm Elections in 2010 and United States elections, 2014 seemed to cast doubt on a true end of the Reagan Era as conservative Republicans claimed two major victories claiming both the House and later the Senate. However, the sweeping policies pursued by the Obama Administration constituted a clear break with Reagan Era economics and social issues, as Americans became more supportive of social issues like gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana.

The Clinton presidency (1993–2001) is often treated as an extension of the Reagan Era, as is the Bush presidency (2001–2009).[4]

Popular culture[edit]

Tom Clancy wrote three best-selling novels that illuminate the Reagan era: The Hunt for Red October (1984), Red Storm Rising (1986), and The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988). They reflect Reagan-era Cold War values. The Soviet Union as an evil empire and the superiority of American values and technology are all themes both of Clancy's thrillers and Reagan's rhetoric. Policy elites used these novels (and the filming of one of them) to promote their ideas of national security to the American public.[5]


Many scholars take an international perspective, linking the Reagan Era with the Thatcher Era in Britain. As a socialist scholar explained,

Throughout many of the capitalist democracies in Western Europe and in North America, the recession that began with the sharp rise in petroleum prices in 1973-74 signaled an epochal shift in the patchwork of growth- based economic and social policies....The demise of Keynesianism which followed meant far more than the obsolescence of an economic doctrine that had been used to justify a broad range of economic policies. It represented a significant retreat from a vision of society—the Keynesian welfare state—that had motivated state strategies to harmonise interests through social policy, to politically regulate the market economy and thereby reduce class and diverse social conflicts, and to promulgate for the state a tutelary role in securing business and trade union acquiescence (and less commonly approval) for a limited set of important economic policies.[6]


Historian Doug Rossinow reported in 2007, "As of this writing, among academic historians, the Reagan revisionists—who view the 1980s as an era of mixed blessings at worst, and of great forward strides in some renditions—hold the field."[7] Other scholars agree on the importance of the Reagan Era.[8]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Carlisle, Rodney P. and J. Geoffrey Golson. Turning Points—Actual and Alternate Histories: The Reagan Era from the Iran Crisis to Kosovo (2007)
  • Collins, Robert M. Transforming America: Politics and Culture during the Reagan Years (2007)
  • Conlin, Joseph R. "Morning in America: The Age of Reagan 1980-1993", ch. 50 in Conlin, The American Past: A Survey of American History (2008)
  • Ehrman, John. The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (2005),
  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980 (2007); The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 (2009)
  • Hixson, Walter L. "'Red Storm Rising': Tom Clancy novels and the cult of national security," Diplomatic History, Fall 1993, Vol. 17 Issue 4, pp 599–613
  • Phillips-Fein, Kim. "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and Making of History," Enterprise and Society, Volume 8, Number 4, December 2007, pp. 986–988.
  • Ponce de Leon, Charles L. "The New Historiography of the 1980s", Reviews in American History Volume 36, Number 2, June 2008, pp. 303–314
  • Rossinow, Doug. The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s (2015)
  • Straub, Whitney. "Further into the Right: The Ever-Expanding Historiography of the U.S. New Right," Journal of Social History, Volume 42, Number 1, Fall 2008, pp. 183–194
  • Troy, Gil. The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2009)
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008)
  • Wirls, Daniel. Buildup: The Politics of Defense in the Reagan Era (1992). 247 pp.
  • Woods, Randall B. "Chapter 13: The Culture of Narcissism: The Reagan Era," in Woods, Quest for Identity: The U.S. Since 1945 (2005)


  1. ^ Quoted in "In Their Own Words: Obama on Reagan," New York Times
  2. ^ Laura Kalman, Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (Norton, 2010)
  3. ^ John Kenneth White, Barack Obama's America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era (2009); Marjorie Williams and Timothy Noah, Reputation: portraits in power (2008) Page xiv
  4. ^ Jack Godwin, Clintonomics: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution (2009)
  5. ^ Walter L. Hixson, "'Red Storm Rising': Tom Clancy novels and the cult of national security," Diplomatic History, Fall 1993, Vol. 17 Issue 4, pp 599-613
  6. ^ J. Krieger, "Social policy in the age of Reagan and Thatchers," Socialist Register 1987
  7. ^ Doug Rossinow, "Talking Points Memo," in American Quarterly 59.4 (2007) p. 1279.
  8. ^ See Troy (2009); Hayward (2009); Wilentz (2008); Charles L. Ponce de Leon, "The New Historiography of the 1980s", Reviews in American History, Volume 36, Number 2, June 2008, pp. 303-314; Whitney Strub, "Further into the Right: The Ever-Expanding Historiography of the U.S. New Right," Journal of Social History, Volume 42, Number 1, Fall 2008, pp. 183-194; Kim Phillips-Fein, "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and Making of History," Enterprise & Society, Volume 8, Number 4, December 2007, pp. 986-988.