The American Battle of the Decades: The 1960s versus the 1980s

By Thomas, David | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

The American Battle of the Decades: The 1960s versus the 1980s


Thomas, David, Contemporary Review


In America past decades are sometimes remembered as symbols of a distinctive life-style or an economic trend. The 'Gay Nineties', for example, summarize the American generation at the end of the nineteenth century, while the 'Roaring Twenties' portray the 'New Era' of economic expansion following the First World War. In the second half of the twentieth century the decades of the 1960s and 1980s have become the embodiments of sharply contrasting cultures and rival ideologies. While the Democratic Party controlled the national government in the 1960s American society experienced a social revolution marked in part by movements for women's rights and gay liberation. While defenders of those changes believe they enhanced the quality of life and expanded the benefits of a democratic society, critics charged that the nation was beset by a degrading counter-culture bent on destroying the moral fibre of its people.

In opposition to that era of liberal initiatives was the Republican decade of the 1980s when the Reagan Administration cut taxes, increased defence spending and sought a reversal of the social policies of the 1960s by limiting abortion on demand, attempting to overturn the Supreme Court's prohibition of prayer in school handed down in 1962 and curtailing recruitment of homosexuals in the military. Democratic opponents were bitter, charging that the Reagan Administration was pursuing a policy of 'trickle-down' economics calculated to aid the rich at the expense of the poor. While Republicans extolled the 1980s as a time of expanding economic opportunities, liberals criticized the greed and exploitation of the 'me generation'.

Partisan dialogue reflecting the battle of the decades was only an emerging feature of American politics in the presidential campaign in 1992. To many devotees of the 1960s, President Bill Clinton was an icon, openly identified with opposition to the Vietnam War, and the liberal agenda of the American Left and the legacy of Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' which has been denigrated by the Reagan Administration. Though touted by his moderate supporters as a 'New Democrat' intent on moving his party to the centre, the new President quickly antagonized conservatives by lifting all Reagan Administration barriers to abortion on demand and proposing that openly avowed homosexuals be allowed in the military. In his first budget there was an increase in taxes on the 'rich' justified as a repudiation of the trickle down economics, a phrase oft-repeated by Clintonians as the centrepiece of the policies of the 1980s.

Supporters of the Reagan Revolution who by definition are defenders of the eighties were outraged by the Clinton Administration's frequent attacks on the Reagan-Bush policies. In the run-up to the start of Campaign '94 there was a mounting crescendo of attacks on the Clinton Administration for its policies and programmes reminiscent of the 1960s. The young President, elected by only 43 per cent of the popular vote became a veritable lightning rod attracting almost violent vituperation from a proliferation of interest groups. In the forefront of the anti-Clinton attack was that relatively new breed of American broadcasters, the radio talk show hosts whose ranks seem to be overwhelmingly dominated by conservative propagandists as shown in James LoGerfo's article in last November's Contemporary Review.

By the time Campaign '94 was underway the mood of the public had turned negative and ugly. Polls indicated that not since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 had the American people felt so cynical and frustrated. Pessimism about the future was mounting. In October 43 per cent of the voters expected things to be worse in five years, while most Americans feared that the next generation will be worse off than they are today. Ominous for all incumbent office-holders was the finding that 77 per cent trusted government only some of the time or never and that 62 per cent could not think of one-public official whom they admired. …

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