Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Doug Rossinow's "The Reagan Era"

Doug Rossinow, professor of history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the author of numerous works, including Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Oslo and is past president of the Peace History Society.

Rossinow applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Reagan Era, I talk about The Boss –Bruce Springsteen—and what his musical evolution tells us about the early 1980s. This comes near the end of my chapter on the Reagan Recession of 1981-82, which I call “a watershed in American social history” (p. 84). When I turn to Bruce, I have just explained that the recession was lifting in 1983 on a national basis, but that for working-class Americans in the “rust belt,” it hadn’t ended at all.
The country’s manufacturing heartland remained a trauma zone, a terrain of despair memorialized in popular culture through the songs of Bruce Springsteen’s uncompromising album of 1982, Nebraska. It was populated with characters like “Johnny 99,” a laid-off automobile-plant employee who, after drunkenly killing a store clerk, asks the judge at his trial to sentence him to die, and with the doomed losers of “Atlantic City,” desperate for a piece of the action in a rebuilt casino town whose new patina of glamour did not conceal the seediness beneath. In earlier recordings, Springsteen had made himself a working-class champion of immediate gratification and youthful male self-assertion, celebrating the joy of romance in a New Jersey landscape of motorcycles and epic partying. He became known as “the Boss,” an ironic nickname for a singer who railed against social authority. “I hate bosses,” he once said. Now, with his back-up band gone, accompanying himself almost solely with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, singing in a narrow vocal range marked by repetitious, mirthless rhythms and guttural shouts, Springsteen painted a scene of blasted hopes and stacked decks. Some of his songs referred to possibilities of rebirth and perseverance, but the overall tone of the record made these refrains sound foolish or sarcastic. A sense of entitlement to a happy, fulfilled life had died inside blue-collar America.
There are two takeaways here.

#1. Most books on Reagan and the 1980s say very little about the Reagan Recession. Read books like The Eighties by John Ehrman or Morning in America by Gil Troy, and you might miss it. This is incredible. It was a major event, and a basic part of Reagan’s record as president. It accelerated long-term trends: deindustrialization, erosion of union density, the rise of finance, and worsening inequality. Reagan didn’t foresee these results. But he cheered on the policy of the Federal Reserve, which very intentionally caused this recession for the purpose of wringing inflation out of the U.S. economy. It worked.

#2. Many persist in depicting Reagan’s brand of conservatism as something newly sunny and optimistic. But in fact his economic policy prescription was old-fashioned conservatism and it was harsh—not for everyone, but specifically for working-class Americans. He thought they had no right to expect anything, and he thought they needed to take the brunt of the deflationary policy he thought was necessary. He also succeeded in cutting assistance to the poor and unlucky during the recession. This was simply unprecedented—under both Republican and Democratic presidents—since Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1930s, established a new role for the federal government in combating economic distress. Andrew Mellon couldn’t have disagreed in the slightest. This was Reaganism, and we must stop pretending it was anything different.
Learn more about The Reagan Era at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue