The Backlash Revisited
Two books reenvision the politics of the 1980s—and keep the Gipper on the sidelines
The Other Eighties:
A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan
by Bradford Martin
Hill and Wang
$26.00 List Price
Ronald Reagan dominated his era as no president had since Roosevelt and as no president has again. Today, he's endlessly lionized as the man who pulled the country out of its economic death spiral and won the cold war for the free world. Is it possible to produce a useful political history of the 1980s while writing the decade's central political figure out of it? Two new books more or less do just that, by consigning Reagan to the margins of the main story—one by design and the other coincidentally. For casual students of the political history of the late twentieth century, it seems a bit like chronicling the Cuban Revolution without mentioning Fidel Castro.
In The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan, historian Bradford Martin tries to lift the Gipper out of the decade's main political narrative. And The Other Eighties does capably revisit some of the surprising accomplishments and consolations the left won during this decade of reaction. But it's far from clear whether these provisional victories—on the emerging fronts of the culture wars and in feints over the conduct of late-imperial cold-war foreign policy—did much to soothe the anguish of Americans who bore the brunt of the high-deficit, tax-slashing Reagan economic program. On the crucial question of economic policy—where the supply-side revolutionary Reagan arguably left his greatest mark—a large part of the Democratic base was simply left to face its own grim fate.
This howling achievement gap gets inadvertently acknowledged in the Secret conceit of Martin's subtitle—though, in truth,