In Hearts of Atlantis, Stephen King channels the fabled lost continent as metaphor for the glorious promise of the sixties that vanished so utterly that nary a trace remains. Atlantis sank, King declares bitterly in his fiction. He has a point. If you want to chart the actual moments those collective hopes and dreams were swamped by currents of reaction and finally submerged in the merciless wake of a new brand of unforgiving conservatism, you absolutely must turn to Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, Rick Perlstein’s brilliant, epic political history of an era too often overlooked that surely echoes upon America in 2020 with far greater resonance than perhaps any before or since. But be warned: you may need forearms even bigger than the sign-spinning guy in the Progressive commercial to handle this dense, massive 914-page tome that is nevertheless so readable and engaging that your wrists will tire before your interest flags.
Reaganland is a big book because it is actually several overlapping books. It is first and foremost the history of the United States at an existential crossroads. At the same time, it is a close account of the ill-fated presidency of Jimmy Carter. And, too, it is something of a “making of the president 1980.” This is truly ambitious stuff, and that Perlstein largely succeeds in pulling it off should earn him wide and lasting accolades both as a historian and an observer of the American experience.
Reaganland is the final volume in a series launched nearly two decades ago by Perlstein, a progressive historian, that chronicles the rise of the right in modern American politics. Before the Storm focused on Goldwater’s ascent upon the banner of far-right conservatism. This was followed by Nixonland, which profiled a president who thrived on division and earned the author outsize critical acclaim; and, The Invisible Bridge, which revealed how Ronald Reagan—stridently unapologetic for the Vietnam debacle, for Nixon’s crimes, and for angry white reaction to Civil Rights—brought notions once the creature of the extreme right into the mainstream, and began to pave the road that would take him to the White House. Reaganland is written in the same captivating, breathless style Perlstein made famous in his earlier works, but he has clearly honed his craft: the narrative is more measured, less frenetic, and is crowned with a strong concluding chapter—something conspicuously absent in The Invisible Bridge.
The grand—and sometimes allied—causes of the Sixties were Civil Rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, but concomitant social and political revolutions spawned a myriad of others that included antipoverty efforts for the underprivileged, environmental activism, equal treatment for homosexuals and other marginalized groups such as Native Americans and Chicano farm workers, constitutional reform, consumer safety, and most especially equality for women, of which the right to terminate a pregnancy was only one component. The common theme was inclusion, equality, and cultural secularism. The antiwar movement came to not only dominate but virtually overshadow all else, but at the same time served as a unifying factor that stitched together a kind of counterculture coat of many colors to oppose an often stubbornly unyielding status quo. When the war wound down, that fabric frayed. Those who once marched together now marched apart.
This fragmentation was not generally adversarial; groups once in alliance simply went their own ways, organically seeking to advance the causes dear to them. And there was much optimism. Vietnam was history. Civil Rights had made such strides, even if there remained so much unfinished business. Much of what had been counterculture appeared to have entered the mainstream. It seemed like so much was possible. At Woodstock, Grace Slick had declared that “It’s a new dawn,” and the equality and opportunity that assurance heralded actually seemed within reach. Yet, there were unseen, menacing clouds forming just beneath the horizon.
Few suspected that forces of reaction quietly gathering strength would one day unite to destroy the progress towards a more just society that seemed to lie just ahead. Perlstein’s genius in Reaganland lies in his meticulous identification of each of these disparate forces, revealing their respective origin stories and relating how they came to maximize strength in a collective embrace. The Equal Rights Amendment, riding on a wave of massive bipartisan public support, was but three states away from ratification when a bizarre woman named Phyllis Schlafly seemingly crawled out of the woodwork to mobilize legions of conservative women to oppose it. Gay people were on their way to greater social acceptance via local ordinances which one by one went down to defeat after former beauty queen and orange juice hawker Anita Bryant mounted what turned into a nationwide campaign of resistance. The landmark Roe v. Wade case that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose sparked the birth of a passionate right-to-life movement that soon became the central creature of the emerging Christian evangelical “Moral Majority,” that found easy alliance with those condemning gays and women’s lib. Most critically—in a key component that was to have lasting implications, as Perlstein deftly underscores—the Christian right also pioneered a political doctrine of “co-belligerency” that encouraged groups otherwise not aligned to make common ground against shared “enemies.” Sure, Catholics, Mormons and Jews were destined to burn in a fiery hell one day, reasoned evangelical Protestants, but in the meantime they could be enlisted as partners in a crusade to combat abortion, homosexuality and other miscellaneous signposts of moral decay besetting the nation.
That all this moral outrage could turn into a formidable political dynamic seems to have been largely unanticipated. But, as Perlstein reminds us, maybe it should not have been so surprising: candidate Jimmy Carter, himself deeply religious and well ahead in the 1976 race for the White House, saw a precipitous fifteen-point drop in the polls after an interview in Playboy where he admitted that he sometimes lusted in his heart. Perhaps the sun wasn’t quite ready to come up for that new dawn after all.
Of course, the left did not help matters, often ideologically unyielding in its demand to have it all rather than settle for some, as well as blind to unintended consequences. Nothing was to alienate white members of the national coalition to advance civil rights for African Americans more than busing, a flawed shortcut that ignored the greater imperative for federal aid to fund and rebuild decaying inner-city schools, de facto segregated by income inequality. Efforts to advance what was seen as a far too radical federal universal job guarantee ended up energizing opposition that denied victory to other avenues of reform. And there’s much more. Perlstein recounts the success of Ralph Nader’s crusade for automobile safety, which exposed carmakers for deliberately skimping on relatively inexpensive design modifications that could have saved countless lives in order to turn out even greater profits. Auto manufacturers were finally brought to heel. Consumer advocacy became a thing, with widespread public support and frequent industry acquiescence. But even Nader—not unaware of consequences, unintended or otherwise—advised caution when a protégé pressed a campaign to ban TV ads for sugary cereals that targeted children, predicting with some prescience that “if you take on the advertisers you will end up with so many regulators with their bones bleached in the desert.” [p245] Captains of industry Perlstein terms “Boardroom Jacobins” were stirred to collective action by what was perceived as regulatory overreach, and big business soon joined hands to beat all such efforts back.
Meanwhile, subsequent to Nixon’s fall and Ford’s defeat to Carter in 1976, pundits—not for the last time—prematurely foretold the extinction of the Republican Party, leaving stalwart policy wonks on the right seemingly adrift, clinging to their opposition to the pending Salt II arms agreement and the Panama Canal Treaty, furiously wielding oars of obstruction but yet still lacking a reliable vessel to stem the tide. Bitterly opposed to the prevailing wisdom that counseled moderation to ensure not only relevance but survival, they chafed at accommodation with the Ford-Kissinger-Rockefeller wing of the party that preached détente abroad and compromise at home. They looked around for a new champion … and once again found Ronald Reagan!
The former Bedtime for Bonzo co-star and corporate shill had launched his political career railing against communists concealed in every cupboard, as well as shrewdly exploiting populist rage at long-haired antiwar demonstrators. As governor of California he directed an especially violent crackdown known as “Bloody Thursday” on non-violent protesters at UC Berkeley’s People’s Park that resulted in one death and hundreds of injuries after overzealous police fired tear gas and shotguns loaded with buckshot at the crowd. In a comment that eerily presaged Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark, Reagan declared that “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, you must expect … that people … will make mistakes on both sides.” But a year later he was even less apologetic, proclaiming that “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” This was their candidate, who—remarkably one would think—had nearly snatched the nomination away from Ford in ’76, and then went on to cheer party unity while campaigning for Ford with even less enthusiasm than Bernie Sanders exhibited for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many hold Reagan at least partially responsible for Ford’s loss in the general election.
But Reagan’s neglect of Ford left him neatly positioned as the front-runner for 1980. As conservatives dug in, others of the party faithful recoiled in horror, fearing a repeat of the drubbing at the polls they took in 1964 with Barry “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” Goldwater at the top of the ticket. And Reagan did seem extreme, perhaps more so than Goldwater. The sounds of sabers rattling nearly drowned out his words every time he mentioned the U.S.S.R. And he said lots of truly crazy things, both publicly and privately, once even wondering aloud over dinner with columnist Jack Germond whether “Ford had staged fake assassination attempts to win sympathy for his renomination.” Germond later recalled that “He was always a man with a very loose hold on the real world around him.” [p617] Germond had a good point: Reagan once asserted that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal,” boosted the valuable recycling potential of nuclear waste, and insisted that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”—prompting some joker at a rally to decorate a tree with a sign that said “Chop me down before I kill again.”
But Reagan had a real talent with dog whistles, launching his campaign with a speech praising “states’ rights” at a county fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. He once boasted he “would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” claimed “Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine,” and bemoaned the Voting Rights Act as “humiliating to the South.” A whiff of racism also clung to his disdain for Medicaid recipients as a “a faceless mass, waiting for handouts,” and his recycling ad nauseum of his dubious anecdote of a “Chicago welfare queen” with twelve social security cards who bilked the government out of $150,000. Unreconstructed whites ate this red meat up. Nixon’s “southern strategy” reached new heights under Reagan.
But a white southerner who was not a racist was actually the president of the United States. Despite the book’s title, the central protagonist of Reaganland is Jimmy Carter, a man who arrived at the Oval Office buoyed by public confidence rarely seen in the modern era—and then spent four years on a rollercoaster of support that plummeted far more often than it climbed. At one point his approval rating was a staggering 77% … at another 28%—only four points above where Nixon’s stood when he resigned in disgrace. These days, as the nonagenarian Carter has established himself as the most impressive ex-president since John Quincy Adams, we tend to forget what a truly bad president he was. Not that he didn’t have good intentions, only that—like Woodrow Wilson six decades before him—he was unusually adept at using them to pave his way to hell. A technocrat with an arrogant certitude that he had all the answers, he arrived on the Beltway with little idea of how the world worked, a family in tow that seemed like they were right out of central casting for a Beverly Hillbillies sequel. He often gravely lectured the public on what was really wrong with the country—and then seemed to lay blame upon Americans for outsize expectations. And he dithered, tacking this way and that way, alienating both sides of the aisle in a feeble attempt to seem to stand above the fray.
In fairness, he had a lot to deal with. Carter inherited a nation more socio-economically shook up than any since the 1930s. In 1969, the United States had proudly put a man on the moon. Only a few short years later, a country weaned on wallowing in American exceptionalism saw factories shuttered, runaway inflation, surging crime, cities on the verge of bankruptcy, and long lines just to gas up your car at an ever-skyrocketing cost. And that was before a nuclear power plant melted down, Iranians took fifty-two Americans hostage, and Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. All this was further complicated by a new wave of media hype that saw the birth of the “bothersiderism” that gives equal weight to scandals legitimate or spurious—an unfortunate ingredient that remains so baked into current reporting.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Reaganland is Perlstein’s superlative rendering of what America was like in the mid-70s. Stephen King’s horror is often so effective at least in part due to the fads, fast food, and pop music he uses as so many props in his novels. If that stuff is real, perhaps ghosts or killer cars could be real, as well. Likewise, Perlstein brings a gritty authenticity home by stepping beyond politics and policy to enrich the narrative with headlines of serial killers and plane crashes, of assassination and mass suicide, adroitly resurrecting the almost numbing sense of anxiety that informed the times. DeNiro’s Taxi Driver rides again, and the reader winces through every page.
Carter certainly had his hands full, especially as the hostage crisis dragged on, but it hardly ranked up there with Truman’s Berlin Airlift or JFK’s Cuban missiles. There were indeed crises, but Carter seemed to manufacture even more—and to get in his own way most of the time. And his attempts to reassure consistently backfired, fueling even more national uncertainty. All this offered a perfect storm of opportunity for right-wing elements who discovered co-belligerency was not only a tactic but a way of life. Against all advice and all odds, Reagan—retaining his “very loose hold on the real world around him”—saw no contradiction bringing his brand of conservatism to join forces with those maligning gays, opposing abortion, stonewalling the ERA, and boosting the Christian right. Corporate CEO’s—Perlstein’s “Boardroom Jacobins”—already on the defensive, were more than ready to finance it. Carter, flailing, played right into their hands. Already the most right-of-center Democratic president of the twentieth century, he too shared that weird vision of the erosion of American morality. And Perlstein reminds us that the debacle of financial deregulation usually traced back to Reagan actually began on Carter’s watch, the seeds sown for the wage stagnation, growth of income inequality, and endless cycles of recession that has been de rigueur in American life ever since. Carter failed to make a good closing argument for why he should be re-elected, and the unthinkable occurred: Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. The result was that the middle-class dream that seemed so much in jeopardy under Carter was permanently crushed once Reagan’s regime of tax cuts, deregulation, and the supply-side approach George H.W. Bush rightly branded as “voodoo economics” became standard operating policy. Progressive reform sputtered and stalled. The little engine that FDR had ignited to manifest a social and economic miracle for America crashed and burned forever on the vanguard of Reaganomics.
Some readers might be intimidated by the size of Reaganland, but it’s a long book because it tells a long story, and it contains lots of moving parts. Perlstein succeeds magnificently because he demonstrates how all those parts fit together, replete with the nuance and complexity critical to historical analysis. Is it perfect? Of course not. I’m a political junkie, but there were certain segments on policy and legislative wrangling that seemed interminable. And if Perlstein mentioned “Boardroom Jacobins” just one more time, I might have screamed. But these are quibbles. This is without doubt the author’s finest book, and I highly recommend it, as both an invaluable reference work and a cover-to-cover read.
In Hearts of Atlantis, Stephen King imagines the sixties as bookended by JFK’s 1963 assassination and John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Perlstein seems to follow that same school of thought, for the final page of Reaganland also wraps up with Lennon’s untimely death. In an afterword to his work of fiction, King muses: “Although it is difficult to believe, the sixties are not fictional; they actually happened.” If you are more partial to nonfiction and want the real story of how the sixties ended, of how Atlantis sank, you must read Reaganland.
[Note: this review goes to press just a few days before the most consequential presidential election in modern American history. This book and this review are reminders that elections do matter.]
I reviewed Perlstein’s previous books here: