America's Right Turn 1976-1980
August 26, 2020 1:23 AM   Subscribe

How Ronald Reagan Triumphed - "Rick Perlstein's 'Reaganland' completes his multivolume survey of American conservatism with the 1980 election victory of Ronald Reagan." (via)

'Reaganland,' by Rick Perlstein: An Excerpt - "Ronald Reagan insisted that it wasn't his fault."

How the heck did our politics get here? Chicago historian Rick Perlstein has the answer in his fourth book, 'Reaganland.' - "Tracing the rise of American conservatism is in the emotions, not the elections."
If you’ve found yourself staring into space lately and wondering how the United States arrived at such an ominous, uncertain and unrecognizable moment, Perlstein provides the blueprint.

Before him, our somewhat agreed-upon story went something like this: The oppressive, conformist 1950s led to the freethinking, free-loving 1960s; which led to Republicans losing badly with a hawkish Barry Goldwater, thereby forcing conservatives to redouble their efforts with the working class; all of which paid off when the liberalness of the ’60s was overrun by nihilism of the 1970s and those formerly idealistic armies of campus protestors got jobs, sold out and bought stock.


Perlstein focused instead on the roots of the New Right, which evolved into modern conservatism — one aligned with religion, skilled at networking and churning out best-selling manifestos that few liberals even noticed. Actually, by the early ’90s, remarkably, conservatism remained relatively fresh ground for historians. “For years, after Goldwater was crushed (in the 1964 election), there was a sense among historians he’d been too extremist for Republicans, that his was not a viable future,” said Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, the leading professional organization for historians. “But Rick saw (Goldwater) was on to something, that someone like Phyllis Schlafly (the conservative Illinois activist who helped doom the Equal Rights Amendment) would not be easy to dismiss. Which, if you leap ahead, is how you arrive at a figure like (conservative architect) Newt Gingrich, which brings us to a Mitch McConnell.”


“My books are about reverse engineering the outcome of the inevitable,” Perlstein said. “We know who won. We know the issues. But how did they get important? There’s nothing obvious there. You know what happened, but you don’t know the possibilities.”


That said, I told Perlstein if anyone might have anticipated the tribal divisiveness of 2020, I would have bet it would be himself, clued into undercurrents of culture. He smiled and brought me to a bookshelf in the back of his home stuffed with materials you might not expect to see in a historian’s home — memoirs about open marriage, Time/Life histories, rants, tracts, trash. He found a pamphlet from Jerry Falwell, on the end of the world, on his wish for imminent conflict.[1,2]
Rick Perlstein: 'If you're not writing about the berserk, you're not writing about America' - "A man of the left, Perlstein agrees his books are as much about the failures of liberalism and the media as the success of the right."
“My shorthand is history is process, not parallels. There really can’t be a historical parallel. You can’t step in the same river twice or even once because the thing that happened in 1968 happened and we were responding to what happened. Even if there are similarities.

“It’s kind of a paradox. It’s really important to understand history in order to be a better citizen in the present but sometimes history can take you further away from understanding, instead of closer.”
also btw...
  • @interfluidity: "at some level, the world can be divided into those who think there is too much suffering in the world, and those who believe, in the service of some alleged greater good, that there is too little."[3]
  • @sousibrown: "Or perhaps it can be divided into people who believe that most should toil for the benefit of a few elite and everyone else."[4]
  • @caraesten: "damn it's almost like the idea of existential precarity being necessary to motivate work was a lie sold to us by capitalists with a vested interest in the exploitation of our labor!"
  • @doctorow: "Our societal narratives are invisible by dint of their ubiquity, but they are far more important in stabilizing the status quo that all the cops and jails and domestic surveillance agencies put together. Take inequality: when a few have much, and the many have little, the primary means of preventing the many from seizing the wealth of the few isn't burglar alarms - it's legitimacy..."[5,6]
Living in own ideology - "Ideologies we live are like the air we breathe. We take them as obvious. We are not aware of them, as I was not aware of my own in 1975. Or as my friends were not aware of the ideology that pervaded the World Bank and the IMF in the last two decades of the 20th century. Neoliberalism (which did not use that name then) was so obvious, its lessons and recommendations so clear and common-sensical that it fulfilled the requirements of the best possible ideology: the one that a person defends and implements without ever realizing he is doing so. But it too is now falling apart."[7,8]
posted by kliuless (20 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
oh wow I have catching up to do...I have read only the (excellent) Nixonland.

I recall an interview with Perlstein where he was discussing his relationships with people on the right. A lot of people who had been very cooperative with him on, for example, his Goldwater book were becoming hostile when they learned he was doing a Reagan one. A book on Reagan that wasn't guaranteed to be a hagiography, written by a liberal intellectual, was, it seems, a bridge too far. I wonder how that played out.
posted by thelonius at 3:03 AM on August 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

Of all the books I read in the 2010s, Nixonland was one of my favorites and one of the most influential (and I obnoxiously recommend it at every possible opportunity). I was not aware Perlstein had released a Reagan book! Getting right on that, thanks kliuless.
posted by peakes at 3:12 AM on August 26, 2020

This is a fantastic post, although further fear- and fret-inducing. Thanks, kliuless.
posted by PhineasGage at 5:30 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I wonder how that played out.

Oh, I had forgotten about this evidently specious lawsuit, mentioned in the thread for the last book. So there has already been some kind of effort to discredit Perlstein.
posted by thelonius at 5:34 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's an excellent book (I'm about two-thirds of the way through it), and Perlstein's narrative voice and eye for detail make a thousand-page book (when you count the notes) compulsively readable. More than anything, I'm struck by how many of these people remained relevant into the '90s and even the present. (That's not true--more than anything, I think Perlstein overuses the phrase 'backroom Jacobins'--it's like he doesn't even know about the socialist magazine.)
posted by box at 5:36 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

> I think Perlstein overuses the phrase 'backroom Jacobins'--it's like he doesn't even know about the socialist magazine.)

I expect he knows about the magazine, the bare existence of which does not justify changing the usage of a perfectly cromulent political word which has for 200 years had roughly the meaning Perlstein uses it for.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 6:47 AM on August 26, 2020 [8 favorites]

If I just go and purchase Pearlstein's four books, would I get a sort of complete Timeline Of History going from Goldwater through Nixon? I'm just curious as it seems like there might be some overlap between his book The Invisible Bridge and Reaganland.
posted by WeX Majors at 6:49 AM on August 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

@WeX Majors: I haven't read Reaganland yet, but yes, a complete Timeline of History.
posted by mekanic at 7:35 AM on August 26, 2020

The Invisible Bridge finishes with Reagan’s concession speech at the 1976 Republican Convention so the timeline of the latest book would suggest little overlap. Bridge featured plenty of Carter’s backstory as well, so I expect this one will go into great detail as to how his troubled tenure meshed with Reagan’s rise. But overall, I’d wholeheartedly recommend the entire series. Haven’t done this latest one yet but it will be my next read (on preview, what mekanic just said!).
posted by hangashore at 7:39 AM on August 26, 2020

Excellent! Sounds like my theory of "You can read this series like it's the American Political Universe" is correct lol.
posted by WeX Majors at 7:48 AM on August 26, 2020

Very good post, kliuless.

I loved Perlstein's Goldwater book and Nixonland. A splendid mix of primary sources and fine, fun, engaging storytelling. He's also a good poster on Facebook.
posted by doctornemo at 7:48 AM on August 26, 2020

PS: the latest Behind the Bastards podcast is about Phylis Schlafly.
posted by doctornemo at 7:49 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm curious how much J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI show up in the book. I recently read Seth Rosenfeld's "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power," and it's clear that demonizing the students and the Free Speech movement were part of the tactics to scare suburban Californians into voting for Reagan.

It's worth noting that there was already a strong backlash to liberalism, CA passed a proposition (Prop 14, later declared unconstitutional), which attempted to nullify the Fair Housing Act, two years before Reagan became governor.

Reagan also served as a snitch for the FBI, ratting on actors (which as president of SAG he should have been protecting). He later made much of not "naming names" testifying before HUAC, but he didn't need to since he'd given the names to the FBI in his role as an informant
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:12 AM on August 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

Really looking forward to reading this; Nixonland's one of my favorite books, and working through The Invisible Bridge in October of 2016 and seeing how recognizable big chunks of Reagan's shtick was gave me my first gut-dropping sense that that election really could turn out badly.

One thing I'm curious to see if it carries forward: my sense from Bridge was that Perlstein really didn't think much of Jimmy Carter, and basically thought he was a fraud.
posted by COBRA! at 9:48 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Invisible Bridge was excellent. I will definitely read this book.
posted by zzazazz at 9:48 AM on August 26, 2020

I was a teen in Canada but never got the sense that it pivoted hugely on the personalities of the leaders. It seems the the stage was set with white people's crushing sense of humiliation around the loss in Viet Nam and the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis. The right offered an alternate reality where you never had to come to terms with the mechanics behind these events or any have any guilt over broader injustices around race. Like the old western movies, Sylvester Stallone saw a market to re-tell these stories with Rocky and Rambo and your average white male ate that shit up. The religious right was offered their own tailored revenge fantasies by the GOP and once the momentum got behind it, purposefully mixed it all into one big tribal stew.

The turning point that sticks most vividly in my mind is when technical malfunctions upended Carter's rescue mission.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:51 AM on August 26, 2020 [6 favorites]

His Goldwater book is great too!
posted by Morpeth at 11:46 AM on August 26, 2020

His Goldwater book is great too!

Yeah, read 'em all, in chronological order if possible. But I read Nixonland before Before the Storm (Goldwater) and still got plenty out of it, especially the mechanics of the rise of the modern William F. Buckley-style libertarian right. Reagan and (more so) Nixon show up in the first book, Reagan is pretty prominent in Nixonland, and the first half of The Invisible Bridge goes into much detail about Nixon's downfall (which was fuelled by more than just Watergate, and why Republicans came to be willing to kick him to the curb less than two years after his landslide 1972 election win).
posted by hangashore at 12:20 PM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Reagan also served as a snitch for the FBI, ratting on actors

his code name was T-10. Yeah, I have copies of the scheduled friendly witnesses.
It big. Gary 'High Noon' Cooper. Disney, Menjou.

Werths' '31 Days' is a nice precursor to Reagan's bid.
posted by clavdivs at 12:30 PM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Somewhere there's a Carter quote about his biggest mistake along the lines of: Not sending an extra helicopter.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:23 PM on August 26, 2020

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