Paving the Way

I’ve been doing some research on the 1980s with a mind toward putting some thoughts together on how the political climate of the eighties feathers in with the larger concerns of my book manuscript. In short: I’m writing a chapter on Reagan.

And hence, this quote from Ehrman’s The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan:

     Democratic programs had made home mortgages easily available to the masses, and many of those with college degrees had been educated in the ideas of the vital center while the GI Bill paid their tuition.  Their liberalism persisted long after they arrived in suburbia…and public opinion research found that suburbanites supported liberalism well into the 1970s, backing the civil rights movement, the Great Society, and expansions of individual rights.

     These liberal tendencies coexisted with newly developed conservative traits, however.  The educqated middle class and professionals of the suberbs had said their farewells to the cities, and they soon lost interest in urban problems and, just as important, the plight of those who were unable to leave.  Once in suburbia, their expectations for government competence rose, and heir demand to receive good value for hteir tax dollars made them impatient with public programs that did not deliver promised results.  The suburban landscape made a contribution of its own to the growth of conservative attitudes.  The detached homes, large yards, and dependence on cars to get around increased privacy but also reduced contacts among people and the sense of a shared space. Paradoxically, then, suburbanites had grown comfortable with the wider world while at the same time becoming more inward-looking at home. (Ehrman 29)

We’re essentially talking about the 1950s and early 1960s here, the advent of suburbs and the future generations of suburbanites, many of whom now (my wife included) grow up in and live their lives in the suburbs and have no real relationship to cities or the problems of urban life.  This is, in essence, the shift between the throes of post-WWII liberalism and the future throes of conservatism that grabs the country wholeheartedly in the 1980s (particularly during Reagan’s second term).  The idea that a conservative leader could be elected would likely have been laughable in the 1940s, so it’s interesting (and useful) to chart how this nation’s entire zeitgeist shifted so radically from “let’s make sure the government helps everyone” to “let’s get rid of all the government programs that are helping everyone,” the latter, of course, was also under the guise of people having more freedom, but the “more freedom” went wholly to businesses.  Reagan first came upon the “no big government” crusade when working as GE’s spokesman and touring various GE facilities throughout America.  Obvious a company like GE could stand to make more money with less restrictions.

What continues to be fascinating to me is how America somehow got confused between the freedom for businesses to make more money and freedom for the average individual.  These are decidedly not the same thing.  The quote above, I think, is a good starting point.


Published in: on May 4, 2008 at 7:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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