Welcome to the Jungle: America After Vietnam
                                       AP US History 2007
    Cold War

Masaki Moritani

Author's Bio

Born in 1954, Larry M. Schwab is a political science professor with a doctor's degree from Case Western Reserve University. He currently teaches political science at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. Schwab has written several books concerning modern history and politics, such as Changing Patterns of Congressional Politics and The Impact of Congressional Reapportionment and Redistricting. He received his Bachelor's Degree at Bowling Green State University, and his Master's Degree at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution to challenge the view that the Reagan era was a period of change.

The Reagan Revolution

     In 1981, Ronald Reagan replaced the Democrat President Jimmy Carter. The victory of the actor symbolized a change in American society and politics. He ended five decades of liberal rule, starting from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal era. He was the symbol of conservative victory over liberalism. Supported by American citizens who converted to conservatism and propelled by his extraordinary popularity, Reagan led the conservative Reagan Revolution in which he made lasting influences upon legislature, public policies, balance of political power and governance. Such is the Reagan Revolution thesis. Professor Larry M. Schwab, however, states that "the Reagan revolution is an illusion" in his book The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution.1 Schwab, viewing the1980s as a historian of the 1990s, claims that the Reagan Revolution is only a term created by political commentators and the media.
     In a Reagan revolution, the United States breaks away from fifty years of liberalism and shifts into a conservative era in which public opinion, policies and politics are dominated by conservatism. Yet Schwab emphasizes that these changes never occurred. First of all, there was "no conservative shift in public opinion."2 Rather, if there were any change in public opinion, public polls show that it shifted toward the left. Self-identified conservatives have decreased from 29 percent to 28 percent between 1976 and 1986. There was little support for Reagan's massive defense spending policy. College students generally held liberal positions on moral issues. Had public shifted right, the economy would have leaned more towards laissez-faire, but it did not. Abortion stayed legal, support for the gay rights movement increased, and sex education received more acceptance. Many disliked a hard-line stance against communism. Moreover, most of both liberals and conservatives stuck on to their ideology from the former decades and did not change opinion. Therefore there was no shift in public opinion. Reagan, also, was not as popular as portrayed by the media and commentators. It was true that Reagan had won a landslide victory against his Democratic competitors and also had a high acceptance rating at his final poll. Yet they are not sufficient to prove his popularity. His low popularity after his landslide victory, shown by poll, suggests that he won not because more voters supported him but because they were anti-Carter. This is understandable because of the Iran Hostage Crisis, which happened during Carter's term of office, unfortunately for him. Furthermore, his low average acceptance rating--lower than those of any other United States presidents--shows that Reagan's popularity is much exaggerated. If he were so popular, his average popularity rating would not have been 53, which is low.3
     Schwab shows that there was no shift in elections or realignment of parties. If a right shift had occurred in elections, then voters would ideologically vote for the conservative candidate. Many voters who voted for Reagan did not support his policies, however. Instead, they felt compelled to vote Reagan because they did not like Jimmy Carter--who embarrassed himself with the hostage crisis--in 1980. In 1984, again, Reagan did not ideologically win the election. This time, Reagan profited from the recession of the early 1980s when a recovery started near the 1984 elections. Furthermore, contrary to the theory of right public opinion shift, both House and Senate remained evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The case was the same with California's--Reagan's home state's--state legislative assembly. Because all the 1980s presidents were Republicans, it is easy to think that the 1980s were a decade of Republican dominance. However, overall, the Democrats maintained more power in the whole system; there was "no party realignment."4 For most of the decade, the Democrats maintained a majority--though by a slight difference--in the House of Representatives. The Republicans had more success with the Senate, but there still was no party realignment, as most Republican Senators were from small states. Also, just because the Republicans controlled the executive branch, does not mean the Republicans were in control of the whole system. A theory by Kevin Phillips suggests that a population shift from urban to suburban decreased supporters of Democrats. Yet Schwab denies it, arguing that the Democrats were able to maintain dominance by gathering new support from the suburban regions. There is no "new era of party competition" either, as the election results of the 1980s did not differ much from those from 1933 to 1980.5
     Most importantly, the Reagan era did not create a "fundamental conservative change in public policies" either.6 A conservative shift of public policy was impossible, for the Republican policies were full of contradictions. For example, their support for a smaller government--one that contrasts an active government of the New Deal era--is contradicted by a huge military expansion. Had the Republicans followed a conservative principle, they would have ended many government programs that supported agricultural industries. Yet, they failed to destroy many programs such as tobacco and farm loans. The Reagan administration, instead, ended up paying huge sums of money in order to help the farmers and the agricultural economy. The Reagan administration failed to follow the laissez-faire policy of conservatism. Also, their ideal of tax-cuts, overall, did not occur either. Instead of balancing the budget, the government spent a large amount of the gross national product (GNP) on defense. Though Reagan preached free trade, he protected his businesses. The civil rights movement continued to succeed. Environmentalism was recognized. Therefore, public policies in 1980s either did not change or changed with no lasting impact on future government.
     It is also another myth that Reagan successfully influenced the Congress to pass desired laws. In fact, Reagan turns out to be one of the least successful presidents in asserting influence on legislation, scoring the lowest in the period from 1953 to 1988 by Congressional Quarterly's presidential support scores. Reagan could not achieve many of his goals because Congress did not support many of his policies. Schwab also rejects the idea that the Reagan administration brought on a "fundamental change in governmental system" that will carry on to the 21st century.7 If a conservative change had occurred, government should have been decentralized. This change, however, did not occur. The number of federal employees and military personnel increased, thus enlarging the government. Reagan's appointment of conservative judges in federal court could have been counted as a change if it had not been a continuation of an already present trend. There was also no big change in the relationship between national government and state government. In a nutshell, Reagan failed to make a lasting impression on all three branches of government. Therefore, "no conservative Reagan revolution occurred" because there was no shift in public opinion to start with, because Reagan's policies were incompatible with conservatism, and due to the decline of communism.8
     Schwab's thesis is evident in his title: that there was no "conservative Reagan revolution."9 The "Reagan Revolution" is now an important term in American history that describes the changes that supposedly occurred at the arrival of Ronald Reagan. Schwab makes the "revolution" lower case because he only sees it as a theory that was not well-proven. To make his thesis creditable, he assumes that the term "Reagan Revolution" is well sunk into society and that it is a widely accepted theory. Also, in order to create a basis for his argument, he defines a conservative Reagan revolution that is supposed to have taken place. In fact he gives a short history on the term: "Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were among the first political commentators to use the concept of the 'Reagan revolution' . . . in 1981."10 Yet Schwab disapproves the term of its historical value, as he maintains that the term was born from political commentators and the media of the time. The purpose of the book was to review the term in a historical context. Larry Schwab wrote his book after the 1980s, in 1991. This way, he can take a point of view as a historian and not as a commentator of the time. Also, because Reagan's presidency had been over by 1991, Schwab can review Reagan's presidency fully and therefore fully assess it. Schwab does not reveal his own political bias or the party he associates with; he only questions a "Reagan revolution." However, his view on the Reagan Revolution is biased because he rejects the concept and denies its existence. The source of bias comes from the fact that he is writing in the 1990s and not when the term was being coined.
     Schwab's argument collected criticism from those who believed in the changes brought on by the Reagan administration. Daniel P. Franklin, for example, feels that "something, if not a conservative revolution, [was] going on."11 He approves Schwab of proving well that "Reagan did not resurrect Adam Smith or Calvin Coolidge."12 He concedes that the Reagan Revolution was not a big change in the United States. Yet, Franklin points out that there were many changes brought on by Ronald Reagan, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The SDI proposed the development of a defense system up in outer space and thus challenged the Soviet Union to continue the arms race. He also questions the validity of the evidences Schwab uses to prove the Reagan Revolution wrong. Franklin lists "Walter Dean Burnham (critical elections), Stephen Skowronek (regime theory), and others" as those who have applied different tests to politics and would have destroyed Schwab's thesis. In conclusion, he claims that Schwab did a poor job proving that the American society was "fundamentally unaltered" as a result of the presidency of Ronald Reagan.13
     Another critical review comes from Janice Ballou from the Eagleton Institute of Politics at the Rutgers State University. She points out flaws in Schwab's argument. According to Ballou, Schwab commits three faults that weaken his argument. First, his definition of a "Reagan revolution" is supported by many vague sources and few definitive ones. She points out that most of the authors Schwab sites are not identified well. While he names some who were professionally associated with Ronald Reagan, other sources are virtually unknown people. Second, his definition of "conservative" is unsupported by a source. Schwab states that conservatism means a "more laissez-faire capitalism, a relatively small federal government, and Republican dominance in a two-party system."14 Conservatism, however, "is a complex issue," and Schwab fails to acknowledge its complexity.15 Finally, Ballou suggests that Schwab's examples are "self-selected" and therefore biased; it is probable that there are many evidences that could turn his thesis around.16 She questions the validity of his proof because of the absence of counterexamples or alternative explanations in his book.
     The book's greatest strength is that it attacks a commonly accepted idea. Even if others have questioned if the Reagan era was an era of revolution, Schwab's thesis is new, considering he wrote it in 1991. Also, even if his proof is flawed, it is sufficient to bring up questions concerning the Reagan Revolution. Even if Schwab omitted examples that would do harm to his thesis, his examples are enough to show a series of solid facts. Schwab's greatest strength is his thesis's impact. His weakness is his bias against the actuality of the Reagan Revolution. His evidences--quotations, polls, and statistics--are most probably accurate. However, there is too much possibility that he omitted sources that would hurt his thesis. Also, he discusses his own thesis with his own set of definitions of key concepts; he compares Reagan's policies with his own definition of conservatism. Is conservatism necessarily laissez-faire economics? Also, there is no way that the Reagan administration produced no fundamental change. Daniel Franklin doubts that without Ronald Reagan, "David Duke and Pat Buchanan [would not] have battled George Bush in 1992 for the heart of the Republican Party," as an example.17
     Many things occurred in the 80s. The Cold War intensified as Ronald Reagan identified the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." The "Star Wars" plan gave a new perspective on both space and war. With Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union came to a slow collapse and disintegration. Yet, Larry Schwab claims that the 80s was a period of no change, a continuation of the "New Deal-Great Society era" of the 30s.18 While the Reagan Revolution suggests that it was an era that marked a watershed in American political history, Schwab suggests it never happened.
     However, change did occur. The term "Reagan Revolution" might be exaggerated by the media and the commentators of the time. After all, in order for a change to be a revolution, it must have a huge, lasting impact, like the American Revolution, the French Revolution, or at least the Revolution of 1800. Though the Reagan Revolution was marked by Ronald Reagan's replacement of a Democrat president, Jimmy Carter was in office only for one term, and several Republican presidents had preceded Carter. The Democrats remained powerful in Congress. Therefore the Reagan Revolution was not actually a full-scale revolution. Culturally, the 80s was a distinctive period highlighted by new music genres and modern classic rock bands. Economically, Reagan's deficit spending plans have increased the national debt and thereby got the country in debt for decades to come. Politically, however, the book shows that there never was a major change. The statistics show that there was no Republican dominance in the Reagan era--the Democrats in Congress maintained strong influences. Also, because of the Democrats, many goals in the Republican agenda could not be achieved. Franklin, who also believes in changes brought on by Reagan, says, "If Reagan did not preside over a revolution, he certainly had success in reawakening . . . the political Right."19 Even if Reagan did not produce a revolution, he did create some change.
     At the outset of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan represented change. He was a break from the New Deal America, which was very liberal with a government that was willing to aid the common people. His "evil empire" speech further strengthened the view that Reagan was willing to change the international status, to break completely from d¨¦tente. His emphasis on change created the term "Reagan Revolution." However, while some changes are real, others are partly myth. Was it a big change, big enough to deserve the name "revolution"? Certainly the Reagan revolution is not "an illusion"; but it certainly is exaggerated.20 After all, Reagan is the man credited for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The impact of Ronald Reagan cannot be denied.


1. Schwab, Larry M. The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution. New Brunswick: Transactions Publishers, 1991. 3. 2. Schwab, Larry M. 17. 3. Schwab, Larry M. 35. 4. Schwab, Larry M. 55. 5. Schwab, Larry M. 68. 6. Schwab, Larry M. 81. 7. Schwab, Larry M. 203. 8. Schwab, Larry M. 232. 9. Schwab, Larry M. Title. 10. Schwab, Larry M. 1. 11. Franklin, Daniel P. Rev. of The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution, by Larry M. Schwab. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science March 1993: 223-224. 224. 12. Franklin, Daniel P. 224. 13. Franklin, Daniel P. 224. 14. Schwab, Larry M. 3. 15. Ballou, Janice. Rev. of The Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution, by Larry M. Schwab. Public Opinion Quarterly Winter 1992: 556-558. 16. Ballou, Janice. 557. 17. Franklin, Daniel P. 224. 18. Schwab, Larry M. 3. 19. Franklin, Daniel P. 224. 20. Schwab, Larry M. 3.

Copyright 2007 AP United States History. All Rights Reserved.