Roundtable The American 1980s as a Historical Period: Problematizing the Standard Narrative

AHA Session 195
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 201 (Hynes Convention Center)
Jeremi Suri, University of Wisconsin Madison
Social Ideas in an Age of Fracture
Daniel Rodgers, Princeton University
Ronald Reagan, Peacemaker: Genealogy of a Myth
Doug Rossinow, Metropolitan State University
Beyond Reagan: The Conservative Revolution in American Life
Kimberly Phillips-Fein, Gallatin School, New York University
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

Session Abstract

The 1980s is becoming a fertile topic for historical writing and teaching. The memory of the era is dominated by the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). This is not surprising, since the recent past, when it is first integrated into historical narratives, often is organized according to a "presidential synthesis" or some similarly conventional political-history format. Moreover, Reagan is generally viewed as an important president whose tenure in office effected and reflected real transformations in American politics, culture, and society.

A standard narrative of the American 1980s has been taking shape in recent years. However, there are reasons why historians should question this narrative of this recent period in U.S. history, and in a variety of ways the participants in this roundtable session will do just that.

Daniel Rodgers will draw on a forthcoming work that reflects on the 1980s as a critical moment in the history of ideas and resituates it in longer trajectories and dynamics, on the intellectual left as well as the intellectual right. He emphasizes the fracturing of the very ideas and vocabulary capable of holding the larger, collective, social dimensions of human life into smaller, more individualistic pieces. Kim Phillips-Fein will question the intense focus on Reagan in the historiography of the 1980s, and she will explain the need to broaden the narrative of the political and social history of this decade in general. Doug Rossinow will interrogate the now-standard refrain that Reagan was a "nuclear abolitionist" whose abhorrence of the prospect of nuclear war was the foundation of his distaste for the doctrine of "Mutual Assured Destruction," and laid the basis for arms-reduction agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Michael Kazin of Georgetown University will provide a comment.

This session will advance the intellectual development of scholarship on a key phase of U.S. history. It will probe the inner mechanics of existing, conventional accounts, while broadly suggesting new directions for a more intellectually satisfactory history. It will critique existing narratives while offering substantive ideas about how to better narrate recent U.S. history. Participants will self-consciously address the complex and potentially hazardous process by which the recent past becomes part of historical memory and established scholarly narrative.

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