Thursday, November 17, 2011

"There You Go Again": The Election of Ronald Reagan

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe Jimmy Carter’s defeat in his bid for reelection in 1980 and look back at the 1970s and its impact today

Inflation, high unemployment, and the Iranian hostage crisis turned out to be too much for Jimmy Carter to overcome as he ran for re-election in 1980. The Democratic president first had to battle a challenge from Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy that lasted until the party’s national convention. Kennedy was unable to overcome the suspicions regarding the Chappaquiddick incident, and he never could articulate a clear argument for his candidacy, but he left Carter badly damaged politically.

During the August 11-14 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Kennedy’s rousing concession speech got more applause than Carter’s acceptance speech. At the end of the convention, red, white and blue balloons failed to release at the right moment, an unfortunate omen for Carter’s fall campaign.

Carter faced not just Reagan, but moderate Republican Congressman John Anderson of Illinois who dropped out of the GOP primaries when it was apparent he couldn’t win the party’s conservative base; Anderson instead ran as an independent. The Carter campaign ignored Anderson and the race tightened as the Carter campaign called attention to the many fact errors Reagan made on the campaign trail, such as when he claimed that “80 percent” of pollution comes from “plants and trees.”

Once again, as happened in 1960 and 1976, a televised presidential debate played a decisive role. Carter and Reagan faced off in Cleveland on October 28 and Carter showed a command of facts, but many voters saw the president as grim and aggressive. “In terms of style and images . . . Reagan was the clear winner,” Kaufman said. “Appearing relaxed, reasonable, and informed and avoiding any obvious mistakes, he effectively undermined the single concern that had propelled Carter into a virtual tie with him in the polls – that he was not up to the job of chief executive. He also came off as warmer than the president and more intimate with the voters, often fending off Carter’s jabs with a sorrowful shake of the head followed by ‘aw, shucks,’ or ‘there you go again.’”

Reagan asked viewers, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Whether or not it was his fault, it was impossible for Carter to deny that most Americans were worse off economically in 1980 than they had been in 1976.

Reagan won in a landslide, receiving 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41 percent and Anderson’s 7 percent. Carter won only the states of Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and West Virginia and the District of Columbia as Reagan beat him in the Electoral College 489 to 49. Carter made his concession speech early in the night, which caused Democratic voters in the West to not show up at the ballot box, a mistake that helped lose the Democratic Party’s control of the Senate. The election was held on Day 365 of the Hostage Crisis.

After the election, Carter worked with determination to finally secure the release of the hostages, but even with the issues resolved, the Iranians waited until minutes after Reagan was sworn in on January 20, 1981 to free them after 444 days of captivity. It was salt in Carter’s psychic wounds and he would retreat into depression for months, until he re-emerged as a leader of numerous humanitarian causes.


One of the hit movies of 1976 was the cynical comedy Network. The plot centered on a burned-out, lonely TV news anchor, Howard Beale, who is going to be fired because of poor ratings. Beale announces to the audience he will kill himself on the air the next broadcast. The ratings soar, he keeps his job, and instead of a newscaster Beale becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” One night he delivers this sermon:

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it.
We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We all know things are bad -- worse than bad -- they're crazy.

Beale admits he doesn’t have a solution to the myriad problems of 1970s America, but he has a first step on the road from powerlessness and despair gripping his audience. “I don't want you to protest,” Beale says.

I don't want you to riot. I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write . . . All I know is that first, you've got to get mad. You've gotta say, ‘I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value! . . . I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!!’

Americans got angry during the 1970s. In fact, tax protestor Howard Jarvis in California titled his memoir, I’m as Mad as Hell! They expressed this rage in ways great and small. In 1980, they voted out an incumbent president and the Democrats lost 12 seats in the United States Senate. A more meaningful statistic might be the number of voters who expressed disgust at both Republicans and Democrats and indifference to the political process by declining to vote. About 63.1 percent of registered voters participated in the presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The percentage declined slightly to 60.6 in 1968. By 1980, barely over half – 52.6 percent – cast a ballot in the election between Carter and Reagan.

Americans beat up each other in gas lines and even rioted over disco music. In 1979, a Chicago disc jockey named Steve Dahl quit working for one radio station when it dropped its rock format and switched to all-disco. At his new radio home at WLUP-FM, he created the Disco Destruction Army. He convinced Bill Veeck, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, to stage a “Disco Demolition Night” during a game against the Detroit Tigers on July 12. Fans who brought a disco record to Comiskey Park got a big discount on their tickets. The records were collected and, as fans chanted, “Disco sucks!” Dahl blew up a mountain of vinyl. In a frenzy, fans poured out of their seats, some jumping from dangerous heights, and tore up chunks of the field and began tearing up seats. Police plunged into the crowd and made arrests and there was so much damage and unrest that the second game of the double-header was cancelled.

“Some people pondered what the rampage meant,” Kevin Mattson notes. “It was certainly the country’s first full-fledged riot against disco . . . Gay and civil rights groups worried . . . that this was a revolt against anything upsetting heterosexual whiteness, the stoner equivalent of the Moral Majority. There was some truth to the charge. But in a place like Chicago, economic resentment mattered as much.” Mattson points out that the late 1970s saw a proliferation of pricey discos on North Street that drew affluent young urban professionals – those who would be called “yuppies” by 1984. “The kids who cheered Dahl were the long-haired working-class guys who had problems affording the paraphernalia – gold chains and polyester suits – necessary for discotheques.”

If the specific target of their rage, disco music, was irrational, Dahl’s fans felt the fear that their lives might not be as prosperous as their parents’. The 1970s marked the start of a long decline in the American middle class that continues into the 21st century. Starting in the Nixon years and continuing through the Obama administration, wealth redistributed from the poor and middle class to the already wealthy. Increasingly, families depended on two wage earners to make ends meet.

In 1960, only 19 percent of married women with children of pre-school age worked outside of the home; by 1995, 64 percent did. The average work year expanded by 184 hours during the last four decades of the twentieth century. In 1977, the poorest two-fifths of Americans held 17.2 percent of the national wealth, but only 14.9 percent by 1999. The middle fifth saw their share of the national wealth decline from16.4 percent to 14.7 percent. The richest one-fifth, however, saw their share of the national wealth climb from 44.2 percent to 50.4 percent.

As the rich got richer, they paid less in taxes. Nixon, Ford, and Carter all assumed that low corporate taxes would create jobs. From 1970 to 1980, corporate taxes as a percentage of total federal tax receipts declined from 17 to 12.5 percent (they accounted for 10 percent in 2000.) Meanwhile, payroll taxes paid by the working and middle classes climbed, accounting for 18.2 percent of tax revenues in 1970 and rising to 24.5 percent in 1980 (and 31.1 percent by 2000). The effective individual federal income tax rate for the top 1 percent declined from 68.6 percent in 1970 to 31.7 percent in 1980. (It dropped further to 25.4 percent in the first decade of the 21st century.)

The Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis proved to frustrated Americans in the 1970s that the United States could no longer impose its will on the world. Watergate and the Church hearings proved that Americans could no longer trust their government. According to surveys, the percentage of Americans who trusted their government to “do the right thing” fell sharply from 75 percent in 1964 to only 36 percent by the time Nixon resigned in 1974.

This had a profound effect on American politics as voters no longer trusted the government to accomplish big things like the moon landing or the kind of massive public works projects that characterized the New Deal. In later decades proposals for big government projects like President Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s health care reforms in 1993-94 and in 2009-2010 ran into a buzz saw of skepticism. Skepticism of government served a conservative agenda as both Republicans and Democrats moved further right after the 1970s.

Americans’ distrust deepened as they were battered by successive waves of inflation, unemployment, and the disappearance of decent wages and benefits. It was no accident that as the glittery escapism of disco faded from the music scene in the late 1970s, one of the rising music stars, Bruce Springsteen, became a troubadour for the troubled and alienated working class. His song, “The Promised Land” voiced the frustrations of many Americans:

There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor/
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm/
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down/
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground/
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart/
Blow away the dreams that break your heart/
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing/ but lost and brokenhearted.

Writers like the journalist Tom Wolfe ridiculed the 1970s as “The Me Decade,” but narcissism was a luxury of the well-to-do, those pampered enough to be frivolous. For working Americans, the decade marked the start of the Great Squeeze, an age in which they could not find enough hours in the week or earn enough money to guarantee their children a college education, or themselves a secure job and a comfortable retirement. Working class Americans began to sense that the social contract had been broken. As another Bruce Springsteen song recorded in the 21st century put it, “We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam/Now we're wondering what they were dyin' for.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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