U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Stranger Things: What Is Happening to the History of the Eighties

I spent the past two weeks at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, where I attended a Summer Institute on the history of economic thought. The institute’s program itself was extremely intellectually generative and I may say something more about it in a later post, but I also did some research at the Rubenstein Library’s excellent collection of the papers of various economists. I spent most of that time looking at the papers of Tibor Scitovsky, a Hungarian-American economist who was at Stanford for most of his career and is probably best known for his 1976 work The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction, which is fairly well summarized here.

Most of Scitovsky’s papers are from the 80s and 90s, and something stood out to me: there were almost no references to Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton had a considerable presence. I found that this result was somewhat duplicated as I leafed through correspondence from those two decades in the collections of a few other economists, though admittedly my browsing among those boxes was much less thorough. And yet we have tended to think of the 1980s as peculiarly dominated by the personality of Reagan, while I have never heard anyone speak of the 1990s as the “Age of Clinton” or the “Clinton Era.”

I certainly don’t want to extrapolate this little oddity into a full-blown theory, but it dovetails with a trend that I’m starting to see in the historiography of the 1980s, and below the fold I’d like to muse a bit on a paradigm shift I think may be under way.

When I say the historiography of the 1980s–or perhaps it may be more accurate to say the historiography of the post-Vietnam War era, as the epoch I’m thinking of is a bit longer than a decade–may be undergoing a paradigm shift, that is not because of some single path-breaking or frame-busting monograph or article. Rather, the shift has occurred almost subliminally, and for three reasons. The first reason is, simply, the changing political climate today and, the second, the emergence of a new cohort of younger scholars whose historical perspective is necessarily different.

The third reason has to do with the nature of archival work, and is the one I encountered while reading Scitovsky’s papers: what tends to jump out at us from previously untapped sources is–quite naturally–what is surprising, what doesn’t fit received notions of what happened or how much weight to give to one thing rather than another. That’s a rather subjective reason, I’ll grant you, but it’s paralleled, I think, by a more objective one: it’s not just that we look for the roots for our revisionism in the archive, but that the archive actually does contain different kinds of material from those sources that historians and journalists have already mined to write the first draft of history. The archive doesn’t duplicate the public record (and thank goodness for that). But the novelty it provides has less to do with the privateness of its content (in the sense of holding secrets that have been kept from public view) and more, I think, to do with its miscellaneousness, its variety: the loose ends and abandoned projects, the interests or allegiances someone held that didn’t show up in print. The archive, I feel, is more useful as a repository of alternatives and supplements to standard history than as a crypt for the secrets which lie beneath the official account.

Well, that’s a bit of a detour, so let me return to the first point: the changing political context. By that I do not mean the 2016 election but rather the two terms of Barack Obama. The primary historiographical effect of the Obama years was the disruption of the growth of the “history of conservatism” as a coherent scholarly project. The clear line from Goldwater to Bush/Rove/Cheney no longer seemed so straightforward, and the intellectual and political history of neoconservatism seemed no longer to be the highest priority. But very close in significance was the rapid recovery of the financial sector, contrary to the expectations not only of historians but also of economists. The ability of the financial sector to revert to something very close to normal after the crisis of 2007-2008 and more or less to shrug off Dodd-Frank taught perceptive scholars a valuable lesson: to have absorbed so much damage with so little apparent effect meant that the system was much more deeply entrenched, and to dig down to its roots we would need much heavier equipment.

Both the election of Obama and the demonstration of finance’s political clout served to lessen the explanatory power of conservatism as a framework for understanding the decline of the welfare state or the “New Deal order.” This has necessarily demoted such ideas as the “Reagan Revolution” and the “Reagan Democrat” from indispensable to equivocal: they still seem important, but no longer probative.

And what a change this makes. The history of the Eighties used to belong to Ronald Reagan. The decade would go down in the textbooks as his in the same way that FDR owned the 1930s or Jackson possessed the 1830s. But a funny thing happened on the way to the printers: Reagan’s place as the decade’s single dominant presence had been secured largely on the basis of his seemingly incontestable role as the slayer of the New Deal order. Reagan was the culmination of a conservative counterrevolution that had shattered the New Deal electoral coalition and had begun to dismantle the New Deal state. When historians looked for an explanation for the erosion of New Deal liberalism, they found Reagan.

That is no longer true. Now, instead of a story about the New Deal order falling to attacks from outside the city walls, historians increasingly tell of its rotting from within or its betrayal by its own leaders. It is not Reagan who provides the answer “who killed the New Deal?” but Carter and the Clintons. Within the frame of neoliberalism, Reagan is not an insurgent but rather an upholder of a coalescing logic he inherited when he elected. This shift is not total—numerous books still tell the older story of Reagan smashing the New Deal order and there remains much to be written about his pre-Presidential career, where he demonstrated considerable political ingenuity.

But in the longer arc of the history which is now being written, Reagan sits neither at the origin nor at the apex. The scales are tipping toward the “destroyed from within” narrative, and part of that movement surely derives from the way Obama disappointed the hopes of many on the left that he would not follow a Clinton-like playbook on welfare and regulation, but would instead rebuild the welfare state and recommit the federal government to reining in corporate power. The nomination of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders aggravated this disappointment into something sharper and more potent: it is likely that the Clintons and other New Democrats will assume even greater prominence moving forward in accounts of how the New Deal was lost. The presence of Clinton and the absence of Reagan in the archival collections I examined may turn out to be prophetic.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Yes! OK, I have to type more than 15 characters. This is why, when other changes were happening in my life at the same time, after a brief 1996 stop with Clinton, I went from Republicans to Greens, where available, and if the SPUSA gears up its act on the ballot side, it will get more consideration.

  2. Some sweeping and provocative statements in the post, but after writing and deleting something semi-coherent I’m going to confine myself mainly to one point relating to the collapse of the New Deal electoral coalition.

    Part of that, I think, was a result of the shift of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican party, which in turn was mostly a result of the civil rights movement, the enfranchisement of black voters in the South, and the end of de jure segregation. [*] That all predates Reagan’s 1980 campaign for the presidency, which contributed to the further undermining of the New Deal electoral coalition via Reagan’s appeal to working-class voters in various parts of the country (and in the ’80 campaign issues involving race also played a role, albeit not such an overt or prominent one). So the collapse of the New Deal electoral coalition had more than one source.

    [*] For an argument that ‘the belated democratization’ of the South, completed by the 1970s, is at the root of partisan and ideological polarization in the contemporary U.S. electorate, and that “in many respects…the South’s racial politics have gone national,” see R. Mickey, S. Levitsky, and L. Way, “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2017).

  3. On this passage: “But a funny thing happened on the way to the printers: Reagan’s place as the decade’s single dominant presence had been secured largely on the basis of his seemingly incontestable role as the slayer of the New Deal order. Reagan was the culmination of a conservative counterrevolution that had shattered the New Deal electoral coalition and had begun to dismantle the New Deal state. When historians looked for an explanation for the erosion of New Deal liberalism, they found Reagan.”

    I think this may be the product of your reading, or perhaps some overstated histories of the 1980s—a still developing historiography, to be sure.

    For my part, I’ve always read the history (and histories) of the decade to see overturning the New Deal as merely aspirational of Reagan and his cohort. Nearly all point out an oppositional Congress, and his deficit spending, and other missteps. The whole “Age of Reagan” thing has more to do with his charisma, wit, and outsized persona—as well as the go-go- Wall Street money-making enabled by deregulation and the lack of enforcement. The cultural sensibility is more important with regard to Reagan than his economic policy aspirations (which were still considerable on the ground). Reagan’s vocal opposition to “Big Government” (stated in a variety of ways) mattered as much the “Age of” perceptions than real effects.

    Still, backing away from Reagan and Clinton, its difficult to get one’s head around the fullness of history around both because the historiography is in motion. – TL

  4. I really loved this quote for how it conveys the politics of the archive: “The archive, I feel, is more useful as a repository of alternatives and supplements to standard history than as a crypt for the secrets which lie beneath the official account.”

    Of course ,the archive is never an ontological space of truth with a capital T, but a constructed space that articulates many truths, often conflicting, often depending on what is included and excluded, and how.

    About the “rapid recovery of the financial sector,” it is interesting now to look back at the different reactions and expectations surrounding the economic crisis–particularly the latter, in terms of affect, the pessimism and even the hope–that the crisis would lead to an interventionist state. Of course, many folks–particularly in the left but also more moderate liberals–have felt that Dodd-Frank and the other measures taken by the Obama administration were mostly toothless and enabled the financial sector. One might wonder then what would have happened if said sector was confronted much more forcefully by the state, but then again this kind of hypothetical is not a very productive thought experiment–at least in my part of the world. 🙂

  5. Louis,
    “the collapse of the New Deal electoral coalition had more than one source.” Absolutely. No disagreement here. I think what is different about this newer story, though, is that it is less keyed to the timing of electoral politics–in other words, it’s not saying that there wasn’t a massive electoral shift, but that it can’t be narrated simply by interpreting quadrennial or biennial electoral returns. Those elections are not independent of deeper structural shifts, and an analysis of those structural shifts tend to deprioritize the previously dominant narrative of the Reagan Revolution of 1980. At least, that’s how I see it.

    Tim,
    That’s a fair point, but I don’t think even the more overblown versions of the Reagan Ascendancy pretend that he was able to roll back the New Deal single-handedly and all at once. The question is, though, whether we see him as the breakthrough toward that end or not. The “Age of Reagan” historiography definitely positioned him in that role, and it imagined Bill Clinton as captured within the new paradigms Reagan had set, such that the price of a Democratic victory in 1992 was a lurch toward the right. But as I see it, the newer trends in historiography are pointing away from Reagan as the breakthrough of neoliberalism as the dominant philosophy of governance.

    Kahlil,
    Totally with you on the constructedness of the archive, and that is very important to emphasize.
    As for Dodd-Frank, I think it has encumbered the financial sector to the extent that certain shadow banking activities have become slightly more onerous or less profitable (otherwise why the push for its repeal?), but yeah, those are not serious obstacles, and most financial institutions have been able to build out around the regulations easily. I suppose the issue really is that the new regulations simply did not change the incentives for these behaviors in any serious respect, and without changing the incentive structure, there is unlikely to be any change in what people end up doing–they’ll just invent new financial vehicles or accept slightly more red tape to do it. How those incentives could be altered (the threat of criminal prosecution?) might be part of that thought experiment, I suppose.

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