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It was November 1980, two months after my girlfriend and I moved to New York City from Boston, where we had met a year before. I had just started in the M.F.A. program at Columbia and she had just started a job at a small press, managing the production of a half dozen academic journals. Our apartment, our first together, was on the corner of 79th Street and York Avenue, a perfectly livable but then not especially fashionable neighborhood. At roughly 500 square feet, it was the largest apartment we had looked at in several days of looking, East Side to West, uptown and down. Most of the 500 feet went to one square room with a window in one corner of it, looking out at a concrete courtyard.
We didn’t own a television, a choice that some people still made back then. We watched the election returns with a new friend who lived a few blocks away, the daughter of a life-long labor organizer and already a widely respected young political activist herself. I can remember the scene in the room, just the three of us, stuck in our chairs, saying less and feeling worse as the evening wore on.
Unlike 2016, the outcome—Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter—was not a big surprise. Most of September and October, polls had shown a tight race. We pinned our hopes on the one and only debate, scheduled for a week before the election. Unfortunately, Reagan did not self-destruct. He did well. His four-word dismissal of Carter’s attempt to warn voters of the threat Reagan posed to Social Security—“There You Go Again”—is still considered among the most consequential lines in debate history. And though in 1980 the Russians likely saw Carter as the lesser of two evils, the Iranians despised Carter and continued to humiliate him by refusing to release 52 American hostages, captive since student radicals had stormed the U.S. embassy in early November 1979.
The surprise was not that Reagan won but that he won by so large a margin. It was a landslide that cost Democrats twelve seats in the Senate—which meant Republican control of the Senate for the first time since the 1950s—and nearly three dozen seats in the House. The losses in the Senate included a “Who’s Who” of the Democratic Party’s left: Mike Gravel, Gaylord Nelson, Birch Bayh, Warren Magnuson, Frank Church, and George McGovern. In New York’s Senate race, the still-reliable liberal majority split its vote between Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and liberal Republican Jacob Javits, running on the Liberal Party Line. With his party moving to the right, Javits—a strong supporter of civil rights legislation and a relatively early opponent of the Vietnam War—had lost in the primary to a little-known Long Island town supervisor named Alphonse D’Amato.
My girlfriend and I had been, from a young age, passionate about politics. Although only eleven years old in ’68, we both remembered the primaries, the conventions, and our alarm when Nixon beat Humphrey. Four years later I attended the DNC as a Young Democrat. We both campaigned for McGovern, although by November even wide-eyed fifteen-year-olds knew the anti-war senator from South Dakota was going to lose. We also knew that McGovern was losing to a crook. High school friends and I traveled to Washington to protest Nixon’s second inauguration. From an ad in the back of The Nation, I ordered bumper stickers that read “Don’t Blame Me/I Voted McGovern” and put them not just on our notebooks but all of our family cars. Twenty months later, Nixon resigned. I was at a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Graham Nash made the announcement in the middle of the show.
A year and a half after that, we cast our first vote for president for Jimmy Carter.
Now my girlfriend and I were in our early twenties, and we believed, however naively, that, since Nixon and Vietnam, the country was moving, however haltingly, in the right direction. There were all sorts of signs that we were wrong, but none as clear as the election of Reagan.
What could we do?
One thing I did was sit at our butcher block table with the newspaper and clip articles about proposed cuts to social programs, including food stamps, housing allowances, job training, and public service jobs. I clipped articles about proposed cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and even the disability insurance provided by social security. I clipped articles about cuts to HEW, HUD, DOE, OSHA, and the EPA. Not even the post office was safe. I clipped articles about environmental regulations that were being gutted or eliminated and articles about attacks on organized labor, the firing of thousands of striking air traffic controllers. I clipped articles about the billions the administration, with the votes of Democrats in Congress, poured into defense.
I wanted a record. I clipped, day after day, and I organized my clippings by topic in manila file folders. I also worried. I worried about homelessness, especially among the mentally ill, which had been on the rise in New York even before the Reagan recession. I worried about poverty, about the erosion of civil rights, about worker health and safety, about the gap between rich and poor. I worried about the revival of the Cold War and an arms race that would mean more weapons and less money for social programs and education and infrastructure and environmental protection. I worried about the United States cozying up to dictators.
We signed petitions and we typed letters: letters to congress people; letters to the editor; letters to foreign governments on behalf of political prisoners, some of them imprisoned by U. S. allies; letters to political prisoners themselves. I wrote some poems, but they weren’t any good, and even if they had been they wouldn’t have gone over well in an M.F.A. workshop at that time.
“This is not the subject matter of poetry,” one classmate said when I presented a page-long prose poem about a man who appeared to live on the bench I passed regularly on the way to school.
When all else failed, as it usually did, we marched, one march after another, for a nuclear freeze, against apartheid in South Africa, for racial equality and economic justice (one big one for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom in Washington marked the twentieth anniversary of the March on Washington), against intervention on the side of authoritarian regimes in Central and South America, and for women’s rights, especially women’s reproductive rights.
At the end of every summer, and into the fall, we registered voters.
Wondering if creative writing was enough, I took a work-study job in the public relations department of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, where I wrote press releases about the Commission’s ongoing work and special events and tried to place them in newspapers and on local television and radio news. The event I remember best publicized the new stickers the Commission had persuaded the MTA to place on the back of several of the front seats of every city bus: WON’T YOU PLEASE GIVE THIS SEAT TO THE ELDERLY OR HANDICAPPED.
I enjoyed the writing and the people, but I didn’t know what I was doing. When work-study ended with the school year, I took a job with a public relations firm. I learned about a lot of things, from the Spanish government’s struggle for political and economic stability in the aftermath of an unsuccessful military coup to the nuts and bolts—the puts and calls—of commodities futures trading on the NYC Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange.
But when I was assigned to draft a proposal for the New York City Department of Youth Services—I wrote about the enormous challenge to the agency posed by Reagan’s draconian budget cuts—I learned or was reminded that a corporate PR firm was no more a place for my politics than my M.F.A. program. A few months later I was back in graduate school, studying history.
My hope was that historians were creative writers who might help me understand how got into the mess we were in.
Ever since November 2016, when I have mentioned my experience of 1980 to friends and colleagues born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of them have looked at me in disbelief. They do not understand that feeling of catastrophe.
I get it. Some weren’t yet paying attention to politics. Some had parents who adored Reagan. Some of them were young Reaganites themselves. I understand why they cannot imagine that the election of the smiling, upbeat, relaxed, avuncular Reagan felt anything like the election of Trump. I keep talking, trying to explain how it felt and why.
And so what? Or who cares? Who cares if in our twenties we sat at that butcher block table with the newspapers, scissors, and file folders for hours on end, while so many people our age were enjoying themselves in pubs, clubs, and concert halls, much more interested in Michael Jackson than Jesse? Who cares when, on Election Day 1984, a large majority of those who bothered to vote voted to give Ronald Reagan four more years? Together my girlfriend and I typed letters, attended Amnesty International meetings, and marched in New York and Washington. We were Chicken Littles who thought the sky was falling down on the world we had grown up in—not just the Great Society, but New Deal.
But did it? The size of the federal government actually grew during the 1980s. Reagan spent his way out of the recession. The economy grew for nearly a decade. Immigrants poured into the country, and in 1986, when Trump aide Stephen Miller was a year old, Reagan signed immigration reform that granted millions of those who had entered the country without papers an easy path to citizenship. He also signed an arms-control treaty with Gorbachev.
The world didn’t end. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended.
We are still here.
Nothing besides the death of loved ones has been as sobering about growing older than realizing how many things I was wrong about, between the ages of fifteen and 30. I could write a book. But I got this one right: forty years later, we live in the world we first worried about in the 1980s. The air, the water, the climate, the roads, bridges, the tunnels, the trains, buses, and subways, the prison population, the regressive tax system, the collapse of organized labor, the gap between rich and the running-in-place middle class (to say nothing of the poor), the health care system, the declining public investment in science, medicine, public schools, and colleges.
In the 1980s, people celebrated the market. (Business, once a few pages after the sports pages in the second section of the New York Times, was granted its own section early in the Reagan years.) All around us, people bashed government. Democrats too. Reagan famously said that government was the problem, not the solution, but it was the first Democratic after him, Bill Clinton, who declared the era of big government over. We the people turned government, the primary instrument of the people, into the problem, the nightmare, that so many imagined it to be.
None of this is news. It was all clear long before Donald Trump—himself a gross creation of the Reagan Era—was elected president. Obama took over in January 2008, shortly after mortgage lenders and investment bankers gambling with various forms of mortgage-backed securities blew up the economy. “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job,” was the Onion headline. Whether or not it was the worst job, it was certainly the worst recession since the Great Depression. Republicans nonetheless tried to block his every breath, including his signature achievement, a health care plan that did not include a public option.
Sadly, this is a moment no Reaganite could have dreamed of. On top of huge tax cuts for the wealthy, a trillion dollar budget deficit, crumbling infrastructure with no new infrastructure spending, a series of self-defeating trade wars, an array of disastrous attacks on regulation, especially environmental protection, an assault on women’s reproductive rights, and ongoing efforts to repeal Obamacare, we have the Trump administration’s horrifying response to the greatest public health crisis in 100 years. The pandemic has killed 200,000 Americans, a disproportionate number of them Black and poor, and has devastated the economy. Because of the administration’s denial, incompetence, deceit, and buck-passing, there is no end to either the deaths or the devastation in sight.
And it all began with our government’s retreat from responsibility for the commonweal, the welfare of the public, after the election of 1980.
My last in-person graduate class last spring was Wednesday evening, March 11. My first online workshop was two Wednesdays later. On that day, for the first time, 100 New Yorkers died of Covid-19. A week later, 500 died. The following Wednesday, 1,000.
My students looked pale in all different kinds of room light, tired and scared.
“What are we going to do?” one asked.
“What have you been doing?” I asked.
They sat still, a couple of them shrugged. Those who said anything said, “Not much” or “Nothing.” When they started talking, they said they couldn’t read. They couldn’t write. They didn’t know if writing was even something they wanted to do anymore, something they should be doing at a time like this. This was two months before the police killings that sparked nationwide protest, rioting, looting, and awakening.
“How did this happen?” one asked.
I told them about the election of 1980, and the years after.
Every step of the way, I said, there were opportunities, possibilities, choices, paths to take, paths to ignore. The differences didn’t always seem like big differences, not even to us, but they were differences. We believed and took great pains to convince others that in this country, in our politics, small differences could make all the difference in the world.
“What should we do?” one student asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
All I know is that as soon as you feel up to it, you should do something, and what you do will matter. The choices you make today, in your private lives, in your public lives, the choices all the people your age make will matter. You may choose to keep writing. You may choose to teach. You may choose to organize and to march. You may choose to petition. You may choose to run for office. You may choose to go into medicine or social work or public health. You may choose to go into advertising or banking. You may choose—who could blame you? It is always a temptation—to unplug and tune out, to just enjoy yourself and those closest to you, to stop worrying about the rest.
All I know is that whatever you chose to do, your choices will shape the world you live in, maybe not next year or even the year after, but certainly by the time you are my age. I have to believe that your generation will do better. I certainly hope so. I hope that when you look back from where I am now, you won’t be left to say: this is a disaster we saw coming, decades ago. We tried but failed—failed miserably—to stop it.
James Goodman is Professor of History, Rutgers University, Newark.