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Read Orrin's interview with John Ehrman.

My main purpose was to answer a question that had nagged at me for some time. When I started on the project, in 1995, the 1980s had the reputation of being the "decade of greed," when the few did well and the many did badly. But, as I looked back at my experiences during the 80s, that didn't make sense to me--I had gotten out of school, gone to work, made a little money, bought a condo, and gotten married. Things seemed pretty good to me and, as I looked around me, they looked pretty good for most others. And so my question: was I just one of the lucky few, or were things better than generally portrayed? This led, of course, to more questions, and lots of research.

The book focuses on a few aspects of the 1980s: how conservatism displaced liberalism in American politics, how the economy changed, and who gained and who lost. I chose this approach, rather than trying for a comprehensive narrative, because I'm not very good at writing narrative and it allowed me to concentrate on the topic that I thought most important and most interesting. Another reason for looking at only selected parts of the 80s was external--Yale imposed a strict word limit. Like Greg Schneider [who reviewed my book], almost everyone has noticed that there is nothing on foreign policy in the book. That was intentional from the start, as I wanted to focus strictly on domestic matters and, anyway, once the word limit came into play foreign affairs simply could not fit. Nonetheless, I believe I cover enough important issues, and structure the book well enough to give a solid overall portrait of the era.
    -John Ehrman: How He Approached the 80s in His Book (John Ehrman, 5-27-05, CNET)

As Mr. Ehrman says above, though the title of his book suggests the possibility of narrative sweep it is in fact a more modestly targeted effort. For the most part he treats the '80s as a transitional era, as America went from a failing industrial economy to the exuberant information economy of the '90s and from a near universal acceptance of liberal New Deal/Great Society orthodoxy to the widespread belief, even among Third Way Democrats, in conservative approaches to social problems and the use of free market solutions to provide social services and fuel economic growth. Combined with for the most part ignoring foreign affairs this enables him to take a more sober look at Ronald Reagan than do many of the reverent analysts on the Right and the hysterical critics on the Left. In our hyperpartisan era, such dispassion is somewhat refreshing, but it does seem to make Mr. Ehrman overly cautious in offering assessments, as if giving President Reagan much credit for anything would betray an unforgivable bias. Too often that leads to a certain sense in the book that the changes that took place in the '80s were inevitable and Mr. Reagan just happened to be in office while they went on around him. Surely there's a middle ground between claiming that the Gipper walked on water and pretending that a second Jimmy Carter term, would have been indistinguishable from Reagan's first?

That said, there's one theme of the book that Mr. Ehrman handles especially well, a leitmotif that he traces through the decade to devastating effect: the complete failure of liberalism generally and the Democrats in particular to come to grips with the fact that conservatism was being re-established as a credible political philosophy in America, perhaps even its dominant one. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill; Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd; presidential candidates Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis; pundits and academics like Robert Reich, Lester Thurow, Paul Kennedy, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; are all portrayed as just flailing around, denying by turns the importance of Reagan's victory, the potential that Reaganomics could revive the economy, the possibility of prevailing in the Cold War, even the future of America. The occasional reformist voice on the Left--a Gary Hart or Ira Magaziner--was overwhelmed as: "Liberal intellectuals showed themselves still beset with economic anxieties and unable to break free from past perspectives, fear of foreigners [mostly Japan and the Soviets], or unproductive abstractions." Mr. Ehrman depicts the '80s, quite accurately, as a lost decade for liberalism. Many of its legislative achievements and the changes it had brought to institutions endured at decade's end, but they'd lost their intellectual justification. Significantly, when a Democrat did finally win back the presidency, it was a Southern moderate who ran against liberalism as much as against conservatism and still only managed 43% of the vote. Even Bill Clinton though seems not to have learned this lesson and by governing to the Left in his first two years lost long term control of Congress for the Democrats for the first time since the Great Depression and the party proceeded to nominate two garden variety liberals, Al Gore and John Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush, who ran well to the Right of where Ronald Reagan had governed. It will be possible for succeeding authors to extend Mr. Ehrman's theme into the '90s and well into the '00s. This gives the book an enduring significance, despite its weaknesses.


Grade: (B)


John Ehrman Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan by John Ehrman (Yale University Press)
    -ESSAY: John Ehrman: How He Approached the 80s in His Book (comment posted on CNET, the conservative list run by Richard Jensen, 5-27-05)
    -ARCHIVES: "john ehrman" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan by John Ehrman (Steven F. Hayward, The Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of The Eighties (ROBERT M. SMALLEY, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Eighties (Matthew Dallek, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Eighties (Paul Lettow, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Eighties (David Frum, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Eighties (David J. Owsiany, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1994 By John Ehrman (A. J. Bacevich, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectual and Foreign Affairs 1945—1994 By John Ehrman (JACK FISCHEL, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW: of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s by Gil Troy (Philip Jenkins, Books & Culture)