Period 9 Overview
The election of 1980 (the “Reagan Revolution”) signaled the completion of a movement toward “new conservatism” started in 1968. This philosophy espoused a significant reduction in government regulation, diminished social welfare spending, and increased military spending to resurrect the American people from the economic malaise of the 1970s. Through the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the United States wrestled with a myriad of social and economic problems due to changes in demographics and technological innovation.
On the foreign policy front, the United States welcomed the end of the “Cold War” but found affiliation with the Soviet Union (later Russia) difficult as the countries’ interests remained at odds. The beginning of the twenty-first century also brought a new threat of worldwide terrorism, engaging the U.S. in several military campaigns. Between 1980 and the present day, American political opinion seemed to move decidedly to the right with an occasional swing to more moderate positions. Ultimately, the two major political parties each adopted more rigid positions, diminishing opportunities for compromise.
I’m From the Government. And I’m Here to Help.
The 1980s witnessed significantly reduced governmental regulations on business, as conservatives believed that government oversight hindered economic growth. A reduction in social welfare spending created hardships on lower socioeconomic classes, while the upper classes benefitted from tax breaks. The concept of Reaganomics, or “supply side economics” rejected Keynesian economic philosophy and resurrected the “trickle-down theory” of the 1920s, believing that tax breaks for business and the wealthy would eventually trickle down to benefit the economy as a whole. In the 1990s, technology-based industries expanded economic growth and further moved the U.S. economy from manufacturing to a service-based economy.
By the 1990s the country appeared to find political middle ground as Republicans and Democrats compromised on issues of military and social spending, and the country experienced a surplus in 1996 for the first time since 1970. A period of sustained economic growth was halted by a serious and prolonged economic depression, beginning in 2008, leading to a reassertion of government regulation, particularly on financial institutions. Between 1980 and the present day the United States economy adjusted to the rapid growth of technology’s influence on the economy and the continued movement of the U.S. economy from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. While technology began to dominate economic and social life and created a “shrinking world,” it also left society vulnerable to cyber-attacks that could cripple productivity and threaten personal and national security.
Militarily, the country asserted itself as a dominant force and took on the role of world peacekeeper with varying degrees of success. In the 1980s the Soviet Union, labeled the “the evil empire,” launched an arms race agains the U.S. The Reagan Administration initiated a very costly technological military buildup known as “Star Wars,” or SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative). Some credited the demise of the Soviet Union to the military buildup and aggressive rhetoric of the 1980s. One clear effect of the SDI was renewed confidence in the United States’ military might moving into the 1990s. Nevertheless the Middle East, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe continued to be hotbeds of discord, highlighting differences in the United States and Russia.
Iraqi aggression in the Middle East led the United States to assume the role as “policeman of the world” by initiating Operation Desert Storm, effectively blocking Iraqi expansion. The United States also involved itself in the Bosnian War to halt ethnic cleansing. After the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. became more engaged in monitoring the rise in worldwide terrorist activity. Later involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left serious questions about how to provide internal security for the American homeland. While the period saw the reemergence of the United States as a dominant world power and its renewed role as “policeman of the world,” it also exposed a propensity on the part of the United States to force temporary alliances or coalitions rather than manage alone.
Society is Changing
Socially, changes in lifestyles and increased internal and external migration began to polarize American society. Challenges to gender stereotypes and changing definitions of nuclear families divided Americans into social conservatives and liberals. Fundamentalist religious groups, who had emerged as a political force in the 1980s, continued to oppose challenges to traditional social norms. They opposed the normalization of homosexuality and continued attempts to ban abortion, seeking constitutional amendments to defend their position.
Nevertheless, mainstream culture shifted to embrace non-traditional lifestyles. Internal migration toward the South and West increased the political clout of traditionally conservative regions while more liberal areas, such as the “rust belt”, lost political advantages it had once known. An influx of immigrants, largely Latino but including displaced people from the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, led to increasing concerns over illegal immigration and the strain it placed on entitlement programs, further dividing the country based on liberal and conservative views. Additionally, differing views on climate change, gun control, and national health insurance further divided Congress, hampering the possibility of passing meaningful legislation.
Between 1980 and present day, the United States continued to seek solutions to a myriad of existing and emerging problems, including maintaining the balance between government regulation and corporate freedom to act competitively in the world market, the balance between the creation of a safety net for the needy and the creation of a welfare state, the role of the federal government in limiting individual freedom, and America’s place in a post-Cold War world.
Since 1980, the United States cemented an economic transition away from manufacturing to an emphasis on services and technology, while wrestling with how to lead a world as the main superpower. The problems faced by the country ranged from corporate governance in a world economy to the appropriate role of entitlement programs, all while America attempted to fill the vacuum of world power created by the fall of the Soviet Union.
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.