Standing in Reagan’s shadow: liberal strategies in the 1980s

Ryan-Hume, Joe J. (2017) Standing in Reagan’s shadow: liberal strategies in the 1980s. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis challenges the predominant historiographical view of the post-1960s political environment in America as moving inexorably to the right by developing a fresh perspective on liberalism during the 1980s, a decade often proclaimed as the apogee of conservatism. By presenting substantial archival evidence that liberal politicians and organisations remained a vibrant and dynamic political force during the so-called ‘Reagan Revolution’, this thesis examines how liberals resisted the conservative challenge and worked towards developing a political approach for the post-New Deal era. Through reinterpreting the impact of liberalism, and the principal vehicle of its promulgation, the Democratic Party, this study examines the development of liberalism from three distinct, though interrelated stands of enquiry: exploring strategies concerning the intellectual; institutional; and mobilisation aspects of liberalism.

Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 created a powerful incentive to rethink the direction of liberalism. Taking Congress as its first focus, this thesis demonstrates how continued Democratic control of the House of Representatives placed Capitol Hill at the centre of an intellectual process to update liberalism for the 1980s. Yet grassroots liberal groups also began their own process of reform, professionalising operations and increasing political influence. Thus, part of this thesis’ significance lies in its examination of the interactions between elected officials and liberal groups in Reagan’s shadow, exploring the institutional ties that would fuel liberal campaigns during the decade. As will be demonstrated, these processes combined to foster a liberal recovery of sorts by the close of the decade. Changing tone, instead of substance, allowed liberals to survive the 1980s intact, and this thesis argues that the decade should be seen as a far more complicated period of political contest than conventional orthodoxy holds.

By examining how the emergence of ‘identity politics’, principally through race and gender issues, interacted with the evolution of liberalism and energised political communities to establish more effective coalition-building efforts, this thesis reveals the gestation of a nascent coalition of women, minorities, and young professionals that, through successful mobilisation strategies, would provide the electoral base for liberal victories in later decades. As the 1980s progressed, negotiating liberalism in opposition allowed networks to form and develop to sustain the liberal philosophy, help liberals attain success at state and congressional level, and arguably facilitate Bill Clinton’s subsequent presidential triumph in 1992. Therefore, by tracing the evolution and transformation of liberalism through the decade, this thesis contributes to and enhances our understanding of 1980s American political history.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: American history, political history, politics, US politics, Liberalism, Democratic Party, 1980s, Ronald Reagan.
Subjects: E History America > E11 America (General)
E History America > E151 United States (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Humanities > History
Funder's Name: Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
Supervisor's Name: Moskowitz, Dr. Marina and O'Brien, Prof. Phillips
Date of Award: 2017
Embargo Date: 1 June 2025
Depositing User: Mr Joe Ryan-Hume
Unique ID: glathesis:2017-8258
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 12 Jun 2017 14:46
Last Modified: 18 Nov 2022 09:03
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.8258

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