In Reagan’s U.S., ‘Dunderhead’ Democrats Had Surprising Success

The cover jacket of "The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan" by Martin Bradford. Source: Farrar, Straus and Giroux via Bloomberg

Those who don’t look back on Ronald Reagan’s presidency as a golden age, morning in America or the moment when someone finally stood up to all those welfare queens may find a little solace in Bradford Martin’s “The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan.”

Whatever humiliations the left suffered during those years, argues the author, a history professor at Bryant University in Rhode Island, it was less moribund and more effective than we tend to remember.

If it couldn’t stop the administration from funding the right-wing contras in Nicaragua, it still prevented that support from turning into a full-scale war -- an Iraq or a Vietnam.

If it couldn’t keep conservative students from taking sledgehammers to the shanties that had gone up on the Dartmouth College campus in solidarity with South African victims of apartheid, the divestment movement nevertheless fed into the mounting international and internal pressure that in the next decade would bring down white rule.

The death knell of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 inspired a retrenchment that led to the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984 and, beyond that, substantial gains for women in office.


And the highly theatrical antics of the AIDS activist group ACT UP (my favorite, not cited by Martin, was the unfurling of a giant condom over Senator Jesse Helms’s home) pressured the Food and Drug Administration to grant people with AIDS greater access to new and experimental treatments.

Perhaps more important, it wrested the national dialogue about the disease away from homophobes like Helms and Jerry Falwell. (It seems as incredible now as it did then that the president didn’t publicly utter the word “AIDS” for the first six years of the epidemic.)

In general Martin doesn’t overstate his case. He acknowledges, with disgust, the “abandonment of full-throated progressive idealism” that defined the “dunderheaded Democrats” and “undermined the party throughout the decade.”

The left lived on outside Congress. But even there, as Martin sees it, it was crippled by the hangover the ‘60s had left. A case in point was the nuclear freeze movement:

“Though the national media was quick to congratulate freeze activists for their lack of 1960s-style rancor, this very politeness left a gaping hole in anything that might have resembled a radical wing of the movement. There was no one left to pressure national politicians into making concessions to movement moderates.”

Scholarly Prose

These are sound arguments, and “The Other Eighties” might be a contender for a large audience if only Martin didn’t feel that the spirit of “scholarly inquiry” required him to produce such professorial prose. The writing isn’t jargony, just pallid -- except when the subject is cultural history. The chapter on “Post-Punk Music, Culture and Politics” descends into the kind of language that used to draw laughter when universities were convening all those Madonna conferences:

“In an era when mainstream popular culture aggressively buttressed patriarchy, post-punk’s subversion of traditional feminine style amounted to the kind of everyday rebellion that frequently erupts in groups outside official channels of power or prestige.”

This from a guy who used to play in a post-punk band. It’s a shame, since I often found myself nodding in agreement with Martin’s points. When I wasn’t nodding out.

“The Other ‘80s” is published by Hill and Wang (242 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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