Several years ago, I inaugurated this class in recent United States political history under the title “The Age of Reagan.” Like many historians, I presumed that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had been the culmination of a fundamental reorientation of American conservatism. I also presumed that it would have as lasting an impact on how historians periodized the political past. In other words, I believed that Reagan’s militarism, romantic nationalism, and embrace of values conservatism would be seen as a moment of permanent consensus within the Republican party, much as historians have viewed Abraham Lincoln’s assertion of federalism, Theodore Roosevelt’s critique of unfettered capitalism, Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare state – to name a few — as moments of crucial consensus within their own parties. No theory of governance remains unchallenged for long, of course, within or between parties. Yet Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016, and the schisms within conservatism that his candidacy had revealed, caused me to think that I and other historians had missed something profound in Reaganism as well. In other words, I wondered if, for some conservatives — particularly those associated with the Goldwater insurgency in 1964 – the Reagan presidency might have been more of a stepping stone than a victory, a deferral rather than a triumph.
In order to think this through with students, I re-did the course, and the syllabus below that I am teaching this fall is what I came up with.
This course is a survey of United States political history and domestic policy that puts the evolution of the American presidency at its center. It begins in 1964 with the defeat of radical conservative Republican Barry Goldwater by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, a campaign that was a turning point for the modern conservative movement. Over the next fifteen years, and three presidencies, conservatism consolidated in the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party became the home for a liberal reform coalition (feminists, gay rights, unions, and veterans of the civil rights movement, among others.)
With the election of Republican Ronald Reagan 1980, conservatives claimed the mantle of government reform, while Democrats launched a long defense of the liberal state. Over the next three decades, this defense included Democrats adopting some principles of conservatism, principally the belief in individualism and prosperity through principles of market freedom now known as “neoliberalism.”
Increasingly, during the 1990s and 2000’s, conservative political principles tended to favor small government, low taxes, religious freedom and “family values;” while liberal politics tended to favor strategies of democratic inclusion, multiculturalism, and human rights associated with the legacy of the New Deal and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these political elements coalesced, first around the militant “Tea Party” movement, and then around the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. By 2016, politics – and the competition for the presidency — reformulated itself around an electorate increasingly divided over wedge issues that seemed to pit the rights of some Americans against the rights of others: abortion, gun ownership, immigration, racism and civil rights, sexual and gender rights, and jobs.
Through a close focus on presidential politics, highlighting changes in media, technology and communication as they evolved over half a century, this course hopes to answer the question: how did we get here?
Readings and Films:
We will be using a few chapters of a textbook, The American Yawp, which is online and free. The purpose is to give you a general, narrative overview of the period under question, so that we are all on the same page. The Yawp is a collaborative effort of a group of professional historians that strives for a neutral point of view — all the same, you may wish to think critically about the arguments made there, and bring those questions up in weekly discussions.
This semester we will also be watching the following films:
- Chisholm `72: Unbought and Unbossed (Shola Lynch, 2004)
- Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976)
- Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story(Stefan Forbes, 2008)
- The War Room (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, 1993)
- Get Me Roger Stone(Dylan Bank and Daniel DeMauro, 2017)
Our semester will focus on developing the following capacities associated with the study of history and politics:
- Critical reading of scholarly articles and primary documents. Whether we agree or disagree with a secondary or primary source, our first question should be: what is the writer trying to convey and how will it help us do our work? Is our view of the text fair? Might another reasonable reader have a different view? Even, or especially, if we disagree we then want to ask: how does what I have just read, watched or listened to contribute to my work?
- Generating useful questions. Historical scholarship depends on asking a good question as much as it depends on being able to answer one.
- Researching answers to our questions. Each writing assignment will have a research component. Portions of some classes will be devoted to exploring the possibilities that different primary sources have for writing history.
- Developing our ideas in respectful discussion with others. No historian is expected to know everything. Making oral arguments for your own point of view, and listening/responding creatively to the point of view of others is how we develop a deeper critical understanding of a topic.
Week 1 | August 28 – September 3 | Introduction
- Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon defines his conservatism (1960).
- Historian Eric Foner, Columbia University (2011).
- Conservative Activist Phyllis Schlafly mobilizes against the Equal Rights Amendment, 1973.
- Edward Brooke, “Why Republican?” (Interview: 2009).
Week 2 | September 5 – September 10 | Conservative Visions for Change
- “The Affluent Society,” parts 1-3, The American Yawp.
- Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960).
- Steven Fraser, “The Limousine Liberal’s Family Tree.”
Week 3 | September 11 – September 18 | A Rights Revolution
- “The Affluent Society,” part 4, The American Yawp.
- “The Sixties,” parts 3- 4, The American Yawp.
- Leah M. Wright-Rigueur, “The Conscience of a Black Conservative.”
- Alexander Heffernan interviews Leah M. Wright-Rigueur about her book, The Loneliness of the Black Conservative: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Week 4 | September 18- September 24 | Realignment
- “The Unraveling,” parts 2- 3, The American Yawp.
- “The Sixties,” parts 6-7, The American Yawp.
- Michael J. Allen, “Sacrilege of a Strange, Contemporary Kind: The Unknown Soldier and the Imagined Community after the Vietnam War.”
- “Chisholm `72: Unbought and Unbossed.”
Week 5 | September 25 – October 1 | Urban Decline
- “The Unraveling,” parts 4-6, The American Yawp.
- Michael Javen Fortner, “The Reign of Criminal Terror Must Be Stopped Now.”
- Timothy Shenk interview, “From Welfare City to Fear City, with Kim Phillips-Fein,” Dissent Magazine June 29, 2017.
- Walter Cronkite reports on the Mayors’ visit to Washington in Support of the New York City Bailout, October 18, 1975.
- “Taxi Driver.”
Week 6 | October 2 – October 8 | The Rise of the Right
- David Horowitz, “A Radical’s Disenchantment” (1979).
- “The Unraveling,” parts 7-8, The American Yawp.
- “The Triumph of the Right,” parts 2-3, The American Yawp.
- Linda Greenhouse, “Who Killed the ERA?” The New York Review of Books, October 12 2017.
- Dennis DesLippe, Associate Professor of American Studies, Franklin and Marshall College.
- Jimmy Carter, “A Crisis of Confidence,” July 15, 1979.
Week 7 | October 9 – October 15 | The Reagan Revolution
- Jennifer Brier, “`Save Our Kids, Keep AIDS Out:’ Anti-AIDS Activism and the Legacy of Community Control in Queens, New York.”
- “The Triumph of the Right,” parts 4-6, The American Yawp.
- Ronald Reagan Campaign advertisement, 1980
- First Lady Nancy Reagan announces her “Just Say No” campaign on CNN (September, 1986)
Week 8 | October 16-October 22 | Midterm Quiz
Week 9 | October 23 – October 29 | Dog Whistle Politics
- “The Triumph of the Right,” parts 7-8, The American Yawp.
- Stephen Carter, “Racial Preferences? So What?“
- “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.”
Week 10 | October 30 – November 5 | It’s the Economy, Stupid
- “The Recent Past,” part 2, The American Yawp.
- Robin Kelley, “Looking Backward: the Limits of Self-Help Ideology.”
- “The War Room.”
Week 11 | November 6 – November 12 | Compassionate Conservatism
- “The Recent Past,” parts 3-5, The American Yawp.
- Marvin Olansky, “Compassionate Conservatism.”
- Emily Nussbaum, “The TV That Created Donald Trump.”
- “The Apprentice,” season 1 episode 1 (2004).
Week 12 | November 13-November 19 | A Click Bait Nation?
- Eli Pariser, The User is the Content.”
- Matthew Gross, “Blogging for America.”
- David Greenberg, “George W. Bush and the Truthiness Problem.”
Week 13 | November 27 – December 3 | Hope, Change and Tea Parties
- “The Recent Past,” parts 6-7, The American Yawp.
- Josh Green, “Nobody Builds a Wall Like Trump.”
- Jill Lepore, “How to Commit Revolution.”
- Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” (March, 2008).
Week 14 | December 4 – December 10 | The 2016 Campaign – What Happened?
- Naomi Klein, “The Mar-A-Lago Hunger Games.”
- Jeff Flake, Conscience of a Conservative.
- Judy Woodruff interviews Senator Jeff Flake (September, 2017).
- “Get Me Roger Stone.”
Week 15 | Final Exam Due No Later Than December 17
Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School, and the Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.