- The United States since 1980, and: America Transformed: Globalization, Inequality, and Power
During these early years of the twenty-first century a number of historians have fixated on unique aspects of the twentieth in assessing the change which occurred. Most of the authors involved with this analysis staked out periods within the century in which the operative label was 'unique', 'transitional', or, better yet, 'transformational'. That centuries other than the twentieth have not escaped the historian's urge to categorize is evidenced by Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (2007). Series volumes such as those recently from Oxford–David Kennedy's Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (1999) and James Patterson's Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1971 (1996) and Restless [End Page 828] Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (2005)—in their own way also argue for period uniqueness.
That the twentieth century was a historical watershed dominated two works which I reviewed recently in this journal. 'Change' was incorporated in the title of Claude Fischer's and Michael Hout's Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years (2006); Richard M. Abrams did these authors one better; he used both transformation and change in America Transformed: Sixty Years of Revolutionary Change, 1941–2001 (2006). The former is unique in that it deals with the entire century.
The authors of the volumes reviewed here are, compared to Fischer/Hout and Abrams, minimalists, working only the last quarter century. Their parallel chronology notwithstanding, Baker, the economist, and Hytrek and Zentgraf, both sociologists, write history that accords with their respective disciplines. For Baker the year 1980 is crucial because it marked the triumph of the Reagan presidency, that is, Reaganism. Put another way, the America which had long prospered from a postwar boom lapsed in the early 1970s into economic malaise characterized by 'stagflation'. To Reaganites the election 1980 was a mandate to move away from both an outmoded New Dealism and Nixonian scandal. The author explains this new economic policy of America:
The years following 1980 saw changes in a whole set of economic policies, all of which had the effect of redistributing before-tax income upward. The policy areas include trade policy, immigration policy, rules governing labor-management relations, macroeconomic policy, deregulation of major industries, and the minimum wage . In each of these areas, the government adopted policies during this period that had the effect of weakening the bargaining power of workers in the middle and at the bottom of the wage distribution, thereby improving the relative situation of those at the top. . . . As a result, for most of the population of the United States, the quarter century from 1980 to 2005 was an era in which they became far less secure economically, and the decrease in security affected their lives and their political attitudes. It is important to realize that this decrease was the result of conscious policy, not the accidental workings of the market(pp. 3–5).
Baker's full story is revealed in his chapter headings: The first is "Turning Away: The United States Breaks Ranks;" chapter 2: "Setting the Scene: The United States in 1980;" three is "The Reagan Revolution: Running to the Right" followed by (four) "The Reagan Revolution Becomes Institutionalized;" chapter five is "The Republican Tidal Wave and the Clinton Boom;" the sixth is "The Bush Administration and the War on Terrorism;" and the last is "The United States in 2005: The Impact of the Last Quarter Century."
Like James T. Patterson in his Restless Giant Baker seizes on diverse domestic issues such as religion, sexual orientation, gender, race, and health, to define the epoch. Yet there is a difference between Patterson's and Baker's take on it. Patterson is upbeat, dwelling on America's resilience and achievements after the 1970s...