The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
The American labor movement has declined significantly since 1960. Once a powerful part of American life, bringing economic democracy to the nation, organized labor has become a shell of itself, with numbers far lower than a half-century ago. The 1960s began with a powerful movement divided on race but also deeply influenced by the civil rights movement. Deindustrialization and capital mobility cut into labor’s power after 1965 as factories closed. The rise of public sector unionism in the 1970s briefly gave labor new power, but private sector unions faced enormous internal dissension throughout that decade. The Reagan administration ushered in a new era of warfare against organized labor when the president fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Soon, private sector employers engaged in brutal anti-union campaigns. Reforms within labor in the 1990s sought to renew the movement’s long tradition of organizing, but with mixed success at best. Since the 1980s, we have seen more attacks on organized labor, especially Republican-led campaigns against public sector union rights beginning in 2011 that culminated in the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that declared required dues for non-union members unconstitutional. Labor’s decline has led to a new era of income inequality but also brought a stronger class-centric politics back into American life as everyday people seek new answers to the tenuousness of their economic lives.