Popular Culture of the 1980s in the USA. The Reagan Administration and the Use of Nostalgia

Essay 2014 7 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Reading Report


Marcus, Daniel. “The Conservative Uses of Nostalgia.” Happy Days and

Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics. New Brunswick, New Jersey & London: Rutgers Univ Pr, 2004. 36-59.

Marcus, Daniel. “Nostalgia Embodied.” Happy Days and Wonder Years: The

Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics. New Brunswick, New Jersey & London: Rutgers Univ Pr, 2004. 60-91.


1. Which were the main components of the attacks on the Sixties and how were the Fifties revalidated within these attacks?
2. How did the Reagan administration put nostalgia in action?
3. How strong of an influence did the New Right/New Right social issues, according to Marcus, have on the administration’s policies?
4. How did President Reagan himself establish a relation to the past? Which past was rejected? Which past was embraced?
5. Which impression of the 1980s did you get from reading Marcus’ argument?

Ronald Reagan, president of the United States of America from 1981 to 1989, is one of the most controversially discussed presidents. Perceived as a very charismatic man and liked by most Americans, his politics were and are still very unpopular. By the end of the Seventies, the American society faced several problems: social and economic decline, unemployment and poverty. The government and the people had to deal with the turmoil and disorientation of the failed Vietnam War and the counterculture of the Sixties. For many Americans, this was a hard time, particularly because of the lack of a strong leadership. The 1980 election was the chance to change the situation, but the options were limited: Should the Americans reelect Carter, with whom they were already dissatisfied or should they vote for Reagan, a conservative with whose ideas they did not agree? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the election of 1980, the Americans decided to vote for Reagan and his politics. In this essay I will discuss the main ideas and concerns of the conservatives displayed in Marcus’ text, how conservatives presented their core values and how they put their agenda in action. Furthermore, I will flesh out the role of Ronald Reagan and his attitudes towards the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. At the end of this essay, I will describe the impressions that Marcus’ work on the Eighties aroused for me and then I will summarize the main points.

In the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s, the United States experienced an immense recession and social decline. For conservatives, the Sixties, its political movements and the corresponding counterculture are clearly to blame for these problems (Marcus, 36). They define the Sixties as a violent and destructive decade, in which core values of the American society had been attacked and thrown into turmoil (Marcus, 58, 77). The institution of the family shrank in importance, social roles changed dramatically and common hierarchies had been eradicated (Marcus, 37). In the opinion of the conservatives, excessive government spending on the Great Society programs in the mid-1960s led to irresponsibility, indolence, hedonism and parasitism among young and particularly African American people (Marcus, 37, 44). Furthermore, the increased social spending nourished and supported non-traditional family structures (Marcus, 44). Beside these points, conservatives also attacked three of the most important political alterations of the 1960s: the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and “the Warren Court’s invalidation of traditional and social practices” (Marcus, 38). Daniel Marcus highlights the attacks on feminist and gay liberation in particular (39). Social conservatives held these two movements responsible for the challenges to traditional values, above all the social and familial malaise in which the United States was situated according to them (Marcus, 39, 40). The deconstruction of the institution of the family entailed the loss of domestic tranquility for most Americans; however, the Sixties are also blamed for economic recession and the decline of the international dominance (Marcus, 39). The damage to the social and economic order led to the loss of the American optimism and self-assurance (Marcus, 37).

Therefore conservatives came to the following conclusion: “[…] the Sixties had been disastrous for the nation.” (39). In opposition to the disastrous image of the Sixties, conservatives fleshed out the Fifties as “the golden age” (Marcus 36-37). According to them, the 1950s provided stable family structures, international dominance, economic growth and a reserved government (Marcus, 36). “For conservatives, the Fifties represented social and family stability, free enterprise, and military strength, while the Sixties represent social and family chaos, excessive and injurious government spending, and attacks on nationalist values” (Marcus, 58). From this follows that the Sixties are to blame for the decline of the American nation, and the only chance to overcome these problems and to recover the “nation’s economic vitality and social equilibrium” is to go back to the Fifties and revive the public policies and social values of this time (Marcus, 36). By picturing the Fifties as a simpler, but also more victorious and successful decade, conservatives were trying to revalidate the Fifties within the attacks on the Sixties (Marcus 37).

Ronald Reagan was cast as the incarnation of the 1950s values and virtues (Marcus, 61). The conservative administration particularly focused on economic, foreign and social policies to establish their nostalgic agenda (Marcus, 51). In general, they put their main focus on the economic package to rebuild a strong economy, cut domestic social welfare programs, extended the financial support for military operations and lowered the taxes (Marcus, 51). Reagan and his administration placed special emphasis on the market and the business interests, which is an important change in economic policy to reestablish the prosperity of the Fifties (Marcus, 51-52). To achieve this restored economy, taxes and social spending were cut (Marcus, 52). In addition, the administration extended the military budget (Marcus, 55). The reason for this was that the United States had lost their military power and certainty over the last two decades and Reagan wanted to reestablish this superiority (Marcus, ibid.). His justification was the fact that the Soviet Union overtook America concerning military power (Marcus, 55). An immense remilitarization started (Marcus, ibid.). Until the 1980s, remilitarization was a controversially discussed topic. The problem was Vietnam War, an unwinnable, extremely expensive, and embarrassing war for the United States and its controversial reception by the people (Marcus, 50). Reagan invented an image of the Vietnam War which was acceptable for everybody: The motives for the war were right, but the commencement of the war was wrong, because it was unwinnable (Marcus, 50-51). This image eased the burden of guilt for the American people and they could rebuild their military power (Marcus, 51). Finally, the Reagan administration managed to send troops to fight Marxists in, for instance, Nicaragua and Guatemala (Marcus, 55). But where did the money to support military service come from? The government clearly favored to spend its money on the military and financial reconstruction of the country by cutting social spending (Marcus, 51). The Reagan administration limited the Great Society programs partially, but significantly, and only the New Deal programs were kept intact (Marcus, 57). This had an impact on the working poor in particular (Marcus, 53). Still, the Reagan administration did little in social policy, but the conservative and nostalgic attitude of Reagan influenced “the era’s social tenor” a lot (Marcus, 58). For example, at the subcabinet level, Reagan employed fewer women and people of color, because of his pre-feminist and anti-countercultural values (Marcus, 54, 58). Acts like the Family Protection Acts were meant to secure traditional values of the 1950s family and to support non-working housewives (Marcus, 56). In addition, stronger laws against pornography and the teaching of homosexuality were passed (Marcus, ibid.). Daniel Marcus argues that it was possible to enact such regulations because of Reagan’s judicial appointments (58). Furthermore, the New Right movement supported Reagan’s conservative intentions.

The New Right is a social movement which antagonized the welfare achievements and social developments of the Sixties (Marcus, 40). This movement propagated very conservative views of social issues like the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, emancipation, gay and lesbian liberation and religion (Marcus, ibid.). New Right principles defended old-fashioned, traditional values, e.g. the family as the core of society (Marcus. 41). In the movement’s opinion, the family is the place to which individuals retreat to escape the social and economic environment (Marcus, ibid.). Actually, the ideas of the New Right on social issues fit the concept of the conservative politicians, but nevertheless only small parts of the New Right agenda were transferred into law (Marcus, 56). The New Right prevailed more or less at the margins of contemporary discussions, e.g. abortion and was regional limited (Marcus, ibid.). Therefore, Daniel Marcus concludes that “The New Right […] was unable to dominate the administration’s domestic policies” (57). He underlines his conclusion by stating that the Reagan administration focused on economic proposals, such as increased military spending, tax decreases and cuts in welfare programs (Marcus, 51). Also Congress was able to withstand the New Right principles (Marcus, 58). From this follows that the New Right did not have a strong influence on the administration policy, because the administration favored “financial and military restructurings” and mostly ignored social issues (Marcus, 51, 56). Nevertheless, the New Right affected the social mood of the period and according to Marcus, was very strong represented through Reagan (58).



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Reagan Nostalgia Eighties 1980 1980s 80s Ronald Reagan New Right Uses of Nostalgia




Title: Popular Culture of the 1980s in the USA. The Reagan Administration and the Use of Nostalgia