Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America

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Why did the youthful optimism and openness of the sixties give way to Ronald Reagan and the spirit of conservative reaction—a spirit that remains ascendant today?

Drawing on a wide array of sources—including tabloid journalism, popular fiction, movies, and television shows—Philip Jenkins argues that a remarkable confluence of panics, scares, and a few genuine threats created a climate of fear that led to the conservative reaction. He identifies 1975 to 1986 as the watershed years. During this time, he says, there was a sharp increase in perceived threats to our security at home and abroad. At home, America seemed to be threatened by monstrous criminals—serial killers, child abusers, Satanic cults, and predatory drug dealers, to name just a few. On the international scene, we were confronted by the Soviet Union and its evil empire, by OPEC with its stranglehold on global oil, by the Ayatollahs who made hostages of our diplomats in Iran. Increasingly, these dangers began to be described in terms of moral evil. Rejecting the radicalism of the '60s, which many saw as the source of the crisis, Americans adopted a more pessimistic interpretation of human behavior, which harked back to much older themes in American culture. This simpler but darker vision ultimately brought us Ronald Reagan and the ascendancy of the political Right, which more than two decades later shows no sign of loosening its grip.
Writing in his usual crisp and witty prose, Jenkins offers a truly original and persuasive account of a period that continues to fascinate the American public. It is bound to captivate anyone who lived through this period, as well as all those who want to understand the forces that transformed—and continue to define—the American political landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

Jacob Heilbrunn
… Jenkins has produced a humdinger. This is the kind of book that should usually be avoided like the plague: a professor rowing through the turbulent waters of politics, pop culture and satanic cults is, more often than not, a ticket for a nausea-inducing voyage that leaves the trembling passenger desperate for the more solid footing of traditional history. Nothing of the sort occurs with Jenkins. He provides an engrossing tour of the recesses of the American mind, demonstrating that the 70's were about more than "Saturday Night Fever" and "Smokey and the Bandit."
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In a timely account, Jenkins (Dream Catchers) argues that between 1975 and 1986, Americans reacted against '60s radicalism, setting the stage for conservatism's triumphs in the 1980s. During these years, Americans panicked: about angel dust, the Equal Rights Amendment, decaying cities, school busing, crime, and gas prices going though the roof. This panic, Jenkins argues, led to a new pessimism and a view that these problems were "a matter of evil, not dysfunction." Jenkins's most innovative discussion focuses on how children became the subject of political debates-activists on both the right and left focused on child pornography, child abuse and abduction of youth into cults, and channeled some of this concern into a large-scale war on drugs. Jenkins values pop culture as an illuminating tool; he writes not only about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which "moved American politics substantially to the Right," but also about the 1976 blockbuster Rocky, which lionized a certain type of masculinity then under attack by feminism. Jenkins, a professor of history at Penn State, presents an able contribution to the burgeoning historical literature on the 1970s and '80s, and a nice counterpoint to books like David Frum's How We Got Here. Agent, Elyse Cheney. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The 1970s has become a hot decade for academic attention, generating important studies like Bruce J. Schulman's The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics and Edward D. Berkowitz's Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies. Like Schulman, Jenkins (history & religious studies, Pennsylvania State Univ.: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity) is primarily interested in the causes of Reaganism and the dominance of the conservative movement in American politics. He defines his decade as the period from 1975 to 1986, arguing that the "late seventies [was] a time of serious political change," despite claims that nothing much happened between Nixon's resignation and Reagan's election. Jenkins finds that the conservative reaction to crime, drugs, AIDS, race, gay rights, and the Communist menace cohered into a powerful political force in these years, creating the opportunity for a leader like Reagan to gain power. By 1986, several political defeats were weakening the movement, but characteristics of the conservative revolution can still be seen in American politics today, such as an "absolutist moral vision" and a tendency to define issues in black/white, good/evil terms. Jenkins effectively blends American politics and world events with the popular culture of the time. His introduction stands alone as a cogent political-social critique, though the entire book is a joy-and revelation-to read. This significant work of political history is highly recommended for academic and large public libraries.-Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"Jenkins has produced a humdinger.... He provides an engrossing tour of the recesses of the American mind, demonstrating that the '70s were about more than 'Saturday Night Fever' and 'Smokey and the Bandit.'"--Jacob Heilbrunn, New York Times Book Review

"Brilliant.... A rich, surprising reading of what Tom Wolfe in 1976 christened the Me Decade.... A bracing re-imagination of an era.... An important contribution to our understanding of post-sixties America."--Tim Cavanaugh, Reason

"Leaves the reader with a palpable sense of how the legacy of the 70's (or the anti-60's, as Mr. Jenkins terms the post-1975 years) reverberates to this day in America.... Mr. Jenkins not only emphasizes similarities 'between the economic situation then and the one that exists now'--namely, serious deficits, lax fiscal discipline, rising energy prices and high spending on defense and national security--but also underscores similarities in the absolutist, Manichean language employed by both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations."--Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"Jenkins's bold idea that the 1970s (not the much emphasized 1960s and 1980s) was a pivotal decade is interesting."--The Progressive

"Jenkins effectively blends American politics and world events with the popular culture of the time. His introduction stands alone as a cogent political-social critique, though the entire book is a joy--and revelation--to read. This significant work of political history is highly recommended." --Library Journal (starred review)

"It is common wisdom, of course, that the conservative turn of the early '80s represented a backlash against, and a repudiation of, the naive but hopeful values of the '60s. But Jenkins' intelligent and judicious account of the period is nevertheless enlightening, largely because of the care he takes in identifying the deep themes that united Americans' attitudes toward perceived threats of varying natures and, one might have thought, quite distinct orders."--Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle

"An interpretive history whose depth and cogency may steadily increase as historical perspective lengthens."--Booklist

"This book addresses a question that haunts both the historical literature and the nation itself: how did the politically and culturally liberating promise of America in the sixties transform itself into the decade of reaction and denial that was the American eighties. In this thoughtful and sophisticated examination, our eyes are opened to previously undiscovered continuities in political culture that invite a re-examination of the period in question, as well as re-evaluation of the path that has led us to our present moment. A highly provocative, and eloquent argument, well worth pondering." --Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media? and When Presidents Lie

"In this thoughtful and provocative book, Philip Jenkins challenges the conventional wisdom about the 1960s and its legacy. Moving comfortably between pop culture and high politics, Jenkins not only forces us to rethink when the sixties ended and the seventies began, he calls into question many of our basic assumptions about the period. This is an important, refreshingly creative, and highly readable look at recent American social and political history." --Steve Gillon, The History Channel resident historian and author of Boomer Nation

"Decade of Nightmares offers an important reinterpretation of the 1970s and a compelling explanation of how America moved from Woodstock Nation to the Reagan Revolution. Expertly blending political history and popular culture, it elegantly shows how Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement rode powerful social currents to triumph in 1980. Philip Jenkins has produced a sophisticated and readable account of a pivotal period in recent history." --Michael W. Flamm, author of Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s

"An able contribution to the burgeoning historical literature on the 1970s and '80s, and a nice counterpoint to books like David Frum's How We Got Here."--Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195341584
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 3/27/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 929,053
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Jenkins, one of the world's leading religion scholars joined Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion as Distinguished Professor of History and Co-Director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion.

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Table of Contents

1 Mainstreaming the sixties 24
2 Going too far : bicentennial America 47
3 Against the grain 75
4 The politics of children : 1977 108
5 Predators 134
6 Captive America : 1980 152
7 Into the Reagan era 179
8 Evil empires 209
9 Dark victories 236
10 The abuse epidemic 256
11 Wars without end 273
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