In Decade of Nightmares, Philip Jenkins considers how the progressive and “forward-looking” decade of free love, drugs, and cultural revolution led to the reactionary “counterrevolution” of the 1980’s, personified by Ronald Reagan.  The author gives fair play to both sides of the various debates, which makes for interesting reading.  It is often difficult to tell, through his choice of words, whether he sympathizes more with the former or with the latter.  In fact, Decade of Nightmares is basically a collection of studies of various aspects of American life in this period, with the common thread of reaction and social concern unifying everything from popular culture to government legislation.

Jenkins persuasively argues that the 1970’s are, essentially, overlooked and underappreciated.  The roots of modern “conservatism” stem in large part from the debates on crime, foreign policy, and questions of morality that raged in American society during that decade.

Throughout the book, Jenkins places heavy emphasis on the media and popular opinion in accounting for the changes wrought in American society since the 60’s.  News stories and documentaries throughout the 70’s made use of legitimate concerns such as rising crime rates, predatory criminals, and religious cults to scare parents into voting for draconian laws and ordinances.  The teenagers of the 60’s had children of their own the following decade, which caused the agents of social revolution themselves to rethink their convictions.

But how did this happen?  Surely there was no monumental conversion to pre-60’s ideals in the late 70’s.  Were the 80’s truly host to a counterrevolution?  Perhaps a definition of terms is in order.  As Jenkins says,

In matters of foreign policy or war, disorder or terrorism, poverty or urban crisis, crime or drug abuse, many Americans adopted a more pessimistic, more threatening interpretation of human behavior, which harked back to much older themes in American culture.

It would be safe to say that conservatism, as defined by Jenkins and by most self-styled conservatives today, is incarnated in an aggressive foreign policy, the war on drugs, and the defense of suburban lifestyles.

Jenkins is fair in his analysis of the cultural debates that raged in decades past and which continue to be discussed with great emotion today.  He dedicates an entire chapter to the problem of crime and the penal system.  Throughout the 60’s and early 70’s, heavy emphasis was laid upon the “reform” of a criminal.  As crime continued to rise, however, especially in the inner cities, popular opinion turned back in favor of “punishment” and incarceration.  As a result, prison populations soared, and the use of insanity as a defense came under heavy criticism.  As Jenkins concludes, “Answers were to be found in a straightforward assertion of traditional moralities and a clear demarcation of the lines separating right and wrong.”

In one of the more noteworthy sections of his book, Jenkins examines the issue of U.S. foreign policy.  After the Vietnam War, the American public felt confident that the military would be less frequently deployed in overseas endeavors.  The Soviet threat was believed to be contained through détente, and the spirit of anti-interventionism was well represented in the U.S. government.  Events in the 70’s, however, rekindled the debate over precisely what sort of a threat the Soviet Union posed to America.  The Yom Kippur War of 1973, suspicion that Russia was funding and supporting revolutionary movements in various European and Middle Eastern countries, and the condemnation (in 1976) of nuclear weapons by many Catholic bishops all played a part in this development.  As Jenkins notes, “through 1975 and 1976, conservative and neoconservative critics denounced American weakness in the face of the USSR.”

In the mid-70’s, “detente was repeatedly attacked by hawkish figures within the intelligence and defense establishment, including Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney.”  In 1976, the CIA established a group (Team B) to study the question of Soviet Russia and the danger it posed to America.

The members of Team B included some well-known hard-liners, including Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze, and Paul Wolfowitz . . . [C]entral to the Team B analysis was its view of aggressive Soviet intentions, a quest for victory and domination . . . [T]he Soviets were depicted as predators biding their time before they could strike at a weakened West.

If we fast-forward 30 years and replace “Soviet” with “Iraqi”—or even “Iranian”—it becomes clear that the neoconservatives have only changed enemies during that time.  While it is true that the Cold War and recent wars of aggression are not exactly comparable, the vision of global democratic revolution has nevertheless remained intact over the years.

Throughout his book, Jenkins devotes considerable attention to Ronald Reagan, the dominant political figure of 1980’s America and champion of the “right.”  Yet Jenkins argues convincingly that “Carter was more conservative than is often recalled, and Reagan more liberal.”  As evidence, he notes that,

on issues of gender and morality, Reagan had a distinctly moderate record, having endorsed the ERA and opposed the anti-gay Briggs initiative.  His two terms as governor included liberal measures on abortion rights and no-fault divorce.

Beyond the issue of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism, though, lies the question of whether it is just to credit him with the direction taken by the United States in the 80’s.

Reagan gave form and direction to powerful social currents, but he did not initiate them.  Changes in the realm of partisan politics were accompanied by social transformations that were not confined to Republicans or political conservatives. . . . [F]ew will deny that Ronald Reagan presided over a revolution, but he was joining a revolution already in progress.

At the risk of oversimplifying, perhaps the main difference between Carter and Reagan was not so much a question of policy as a question of character—or, at least, the appearance of character.  Carter was viewed as weak, indecisive, and lacking confidence.  Reagan, on the other hand, had a notable public presence, engaged listeners with his speeches, and brimmed with optimism regarding the future of America.  Reagan’s strong leadership as president accelerated the programs Carter initiated at the end of his term.

Most readers of this book will have lived through the times addressed by it and, thus, will be familiar with most of the events narrated therein.  Time gives a perspective, however, that is not possessed in the present.  Did the “political right” of the 1980’s really launch a counterattack against the liberalism and materialism of the 20th century?  Communism may have fallen as a political machine, yet it has largely succeeded as a cultural phenomenon.  Over the past 40 years, the family has further disintegrated, wealth has been distributed more unevenly, and the population has grown increasingly passive through technology.

Left or right, Democrat or Republican: These are the choices we are offered in our so-called democracy.  Decade of Nightmares should reinforce the notion that these labels are not worth fighting for in themselves.  Rather, we ought to be concerned with truth and falsehood, good and evil—realities that are discernible even in our debauched age.


[Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 344 pp., $28.00]