Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America
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Why did the youthful optimism and openness of the sixties give way to Ronald Reagan and the spirit of conservative reaction--a spirit that remains ascendant today?
Drawing on a wide array of sources--including tabloid journalism, popular fiction, movies, and television shows--Philip Jenkins argues that a remarkable confluence of panics, scares, and a few genuine threats created a climate of fear that led to the conservative reaction. He identifies 1975 to 1986 as the watershed years. During this time, he says, there was a sharp increase in perceived threats to our security at home and abroad. At home, America seemed to be threatened by monstrous criminals--serial killers, child abusers, Satanic cults, and predatory drug dealers, to name just a few. On the international scene, we were confronted by the Soviet Union and its evil empire, by OPEC with its stranglehold on global oil, by the Ayatollahs who made hostages of our diplomats in Iran. Increasingly, these dangers began to be described in terms of moral evil. Rejecting the radicalism of the '60s, which many saw as the source of the crisis, Americans adopted a more pessimistic interpretation of human behavior, which harked back to much older themes in American culture. This simpler but darker vision ultimately brought us Ronald Reagan and the ascendancy of the political Right, which more than two decades later shows no sign of loosening its grip.
Writing in his usual crisp and witty prose, Jenkins offers a truly original and persuasive account of a period that continues to fascinate the American public. It is bound to captivate anyone who lived through this period, as well as all those who want to understand the forces that transformed--and continue to define--the American political landscape.
themselves.” If the United States had to live with the Soviets, it was foolish to antagonize them. Only ideologues such as Reagan believed that Communism was a transient phenomenon, “a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.”3 Reagan’s vision became even starker and more religious after the attempt on his life in 1981, when he concluded that God had preserved him in order to accomplish a special destiny. In June 1982, Reagan
were the work of a sinister alternative government, a far-flung “assassination network.” For a few years, Assassination became reified as a free-standing menace, much as Terrorism has since 2001.18 Assassination theories boomed during 1973 following the release of the film Executive Action, a far-left speculation that blamed JFK’s death on a military-corporate network of cartoonish malevolence. The underground worlds of Watergate figures such as Howard Hunt pointed to the interlinked subcultures
conservatives were tracing the roots of that worldwide terrorist activity to Moscow and the KGB. Putting these different elements together—Soviet expansion, international terrorism, and the emerging presence of radical Islam—transformed a series of distinct and separate phenomena into a vast and troubling international menace, with a huge potential for future attacks on American interests. In the first half of 1980, an effective campaign deployed conspiracy concerns on behalf of the political
society.31 Internationally, Americans in the mid-1970s saw a world in which U.S. power and prestige stood at historic lows. One did not have to be an alarmist to ask how much further the process of decline would go within the next few years. But changing social patterns also offered rich opportunities to interest groups making claims about new threats and problems, and any attempt at explaining the redefinition of social problems in these years must of necessity look beyond the realm of purely
direction except forward. That observation would certainly apply to America at the start of the 1980s, following the credit crunch and the frightening brush with serious inflation. In retrospect, we know that Carter-era Federal Reserve policies had already begun the process of healing, but at the time, matters looked desperate. In January 1981, Time warned, “For starters, [Reagan] faces an economic situation growing more frightening by the moment.” The prime rate remained between 18 and 20