The 1980s ushered in a new era of political conservatism in the United States. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election and quickly changed the political vibe in the nation. Reagan’s conservative politics, concerning both foreign affairs and domestic issues, helped America regain its reputation as a global superpower. The Cold War was a concern throughout the 1980s, so conservative Republicans ensured that containment and mutual deterrence kept nuclear war at bay. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he had the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt.
Ronald Reagan was the face of politics during the 1980s. His handsome appearance, movie-star personality and superb oratory skills quickly elevated him as a superstar within the Republican Party. Reagan was a conservative, no-nonsense leader when it came to the safety and security of the United States, so he let foreign threats know that the U.S. was not a country to mess with. Within minutes of Reagan’s inauguration, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini released the American hostages who had been held captive in Iran for 444 days. Even though Carter had been in ongoing negotiations concerning the hostages' release and terms of the release were in place, Reagan capitalized on the favorable public sentiments that followed the end of the crisis. An end to the hostage crisis also allowed him to focus on the struggling U.S. economy during his first few months in office, rather than conflicts with Iran.
Reagan and his Republican supporters in Congress promised to lower the nation’s deficit, cut taxes and reduce government spending. Conservative political leaders in the 80s were primarily libertarians who wanted to reduce the size of the federal government. In Reagan’s inaugural address, he said that the purpose of government was to “work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.” Republican politics stressed the importance of reducing taxes so Americans could invest their money in business and commerce, thus stimulating the economy. Nonetheless, many of the tax cuts were offset by tax increases during Reagan's administration. On the home front, Republicans also gained the support of religious conservatives who supported Reagan's anti-abortion legislation, school prayer initiatives and Bible-scripture-inspired speeches.
Successes and Failures
Congress eventually passed Reagan’s 25 percent tax cuts, even though it required much negotiation between political parties. The stock market thrived during the early 80s as the Dow Jones industrial average experienced a 33 percent rise during Reagan's first term. Reaganomics played a vital role in the economic stability of the middle and upper classes during the 1980s. However, Republican fiscal policies often fell short of the conservative rhetoric. President Reagan and Congress had difficulty enacting a balanced budget and the national debt tripled during Reagan's administration from $1 trillion to $3 trillion.
Even though Republicans fought for federal budget reductions and Congress passed nearly $38 million in budget cuts, increased federal spending more than offset those reductions. Republican leaders built up the U.S. military to deter nuclear war and protect Americans should conflicts with the Soviets escalate. Reagan supported a 7 percent increase in defense spending between 1981 and 1985, equaling almost a trillion dollars. These funds were used for advanced weapon systems, research and development, and combat readiness programs, Increased defense spending eventually led to a huge increase in the United States national debt.
Republicans and democrats fought head to head during the 1980s over deregulation issues. Conservative leaders believed that limiting regulations on private industries would spur business. For example, Reagan successfully ended price controls on oil and prices fell immediately. He also relaxed regulations that made corporate mergers difficult. However, the Republican Party had little success with their goals to reduce environmental regulations. Most of the existing environmental policies remained in force during the 1980s.
- Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images