The Reagan Era and Modern America

There is no definitive start to the era we consider "Modern America". In many American History courses, this will come after the Civil Rights Movement or the Cold War. Some might claim that there have not been many significant historical moments over the past 30-40 years, but there actually have. 

One of the first major events following President Nixon's resignation and the Watergate Scandal was the Iran Hostage Crisis. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, after a group of Iranian college students who supported the Iranian Revolution took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The crisis was a major factor in the undoing of President Jimmy Carter's presidency and his landslide loss in the 1980 presidential election. The hostages were released just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. In Iran the crisis strengthened the prestige of Ayatollah Khomeini and the political power of theocrats who opposed any normalization of relations with the West. The crisis also led to American economic sanctions against Iran, which further weakened ties between the two countries.

When President Reagan took office, public confidence in government was at its lowest since the Great Depression. Reagan largely succeeded in his goal of “making the American people believe in themselves again.” He called this the greatest accomplishment of his presidency. He was supremely popular as president because off his affable nature and easy way with people. 1n 1984, Reagan was re-elected to a second term in a 49-state landslide.

His time became to be called “the Reagan Revolution” because conservative Republicans took control of government away from Democrats for the first time many years. Reagan and conservatives advocated for large tax cuts and argued that if taxes are lower for those earning a lot of money, the wealth will “trickle down” to all Americans because the wealthy will create jobs. These tax cuts have also been called "voodoo economics" by critics because they did not help the economy as much as advertised and increased the deficit.

Reagan also appointed America's first female Supreme Court Justice: Sandra Day O'Connor, who served from 1981 until her retirement in 2006. As a moderate conservative, O'Connor tended to approach each case narrowly without seeking to establish sweeping precedents. 

The largest scandal of Reagan's presidency was the Iran-Contra Affair. Senior officials in the Reagan White House secretly facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo. They hoped to funnel the proceeds of these sales to fund the Contras (right-wing rebel groups) in Nicaragua. This had been specifically prohibited by Congress. In the end, 14 administration officials were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense. Eleven convictions resulted, however, those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who had been Vice President at the time of the affair.

Reagan held an approval rating of 68% when he left office in 1989. His Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected president, but served just one term in office before losing to Bill Clinton in 1992.