The Reagan Administration

The Reagan Administration

Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th President of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the policies of President Reagan and those of President Carter.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Reagan made the transition from an acting career to a career as a politician in the 1950s, following a job as the spokesperson for General Electric.
  • Reagan came to national political prominence with an influential speech on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, winning election as Governor of California in 1966 and 1970.
  • After failing to win the nomination as Republican presidential candidate in 1968 and 1976, Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980 and 1984.
  • As president, Reagan's domestic policy involved lowering taxes to stimulate growth, anti-inflationary monetary policy, deregulation of the economy, and reducing government spending.
  • Reagan's foreign policy took a hard anti-communist line, aiding anti-communist movements around the world, describing the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," and engaging in an arms race.
  • Reagan's presidency is credited with generating an ideological renaissance among American conservatives, although some of his policies also receive strong criticism.

Key Terms

  • détente: A term often used in reference to the general easing of the geo-political tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, beginning in 1969 as a foreign policy of U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
  • Reaganomics: The economic ideas and policies of American President Ronald Reagan and his two administrations (1981-1989).
  • Mikhail Gorbachev: A former Soviet statesman, having served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991.
  • deregulation: The process of removing constraints, especially government-imposed economic constraints.


Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911-June 5, 2004) was the 40th President of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989. Prior to that, he was the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, and a radio, film, and television actor.


Born in Tampico, Illinois, and raised in Dixon, Reagan was educated at Eureka College, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. After his graduation, Reagan moved first to Iowa to work as a radio broadcaster, and then to Los Angeles in 1937, where he began a career as an actor— first in films and later in television. Some of his most notable films include Knute Rockne, All American, Kings Row, and Bedtime for Bonzo. Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and later as a spokesman for General Electric (GE); his start in politics occurred during his work for GE. Originally a member of the Democratic Party, his positions began shifting rightward in the late 1950s, and he switched to the Republican party in 1962. After delivering a rousing speech in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, he was persuaded to seek the California governorship, winning two years later and again in 1970. He was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 as well as 1976, but won both the nomination and general election in 1980, defeating incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

Presidential Legacy

As president, Reagan implemented sweeping new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economic policies, dubbed "Reaganomics," advocated reducing tax rates to spur economic growth, controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, deregulating the economy, and reducing government spending. In his first term in office, Reagan survived an assassination attempt, took a hard line against labor unions, and ordered an invasion of Grenada. He was reelected in a landslide in 1984, proclaiming that it was "Morning in America."

Reagan's second term was primarily marked by foreign matters, such as the ending of the Cold War, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair. Publicly describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," he supported anti-communist movements worldwide and spent his first term forgoing the strategy of détente by ordering a massive military buildup in an arms race with the Soviet Union. Reagan later negotiated with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, culminating in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the decrease of both countries' nuclear arsenals. Gorbachev's attempts at reform, as well as summit conferences with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims, contributed to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Reagan left office in 1989. In 1994, the former president disclosed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier in the year; he died ten years later at the age of 93. His presidency is credited for generating an ideological renaissance on the American political right.

An album jacket shows a photograph of a smiling Ronald Reagan in a relaxed pose. Beside him are the words

Reagan's stance on Socialism: In 1961, when Congress began to explore nationwide health insurance for the elderly under Social Security, Reagan made a recording for the American Medical Association in which he denounced the idea (which was later adopted as Medicare) as “socialized medicine.” Such a program, Reagan warned his listeners, was the first step to the nation’s demise as a free society.

The Election of 1980

In the election of 1980, Republicans won the presidency, control of the Senate, and 34 seats in the House of Representatives.

Learning Objectives

Assess Reagan's victory in the election of 1980

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although incumbent President Jimmy Carter led Reagan in the polls in late October, Reagan ultimately won 50.7% of the popular vote to Carter's 41%.
  • The election of 1980 followed a period of economic problems, including low economic growth, high inflation and interest rates, and energy shortages.
  • Reagan nominated his chief rival in the Republican primaries, George H.W. Bush, as his running mate, despite initial interest in former President Gerald Ford as a running mate.
  • In the 1980 campaign, Reagan articulated his supply-side economics vision and his goal of inciting an economic revival by cutting taxes and government spending.
  • Reagan was strongly supported by a growing group of white, conservative, and very wealthy Americans, who emerged in the wake of the social reforms and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Key Terms

  • George H. W. Bush: An American politician who served as the 41st President of the United States (1989-1993); he had previously served as the 43rd Vice President of the United States (1981-1989), a congressman, an ambassador, and a Director of Central Intelligence.


The 1980 presidential campaigns of both Republican Ronald Reagan, and incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter, were conducted during times of great domestic concern—times that also included the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan's campaign emphasized many of his fundamental principles: lowering taxes to stimulate the economy, reducing government interference in people's lives, strengthening states' rights, building up the national defense, and restoring the U.S. Dollar to a gold standard.

Reagan's Campaign

After receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan selected George H.W. Bush, one of his primary opponents, to be his running mate. During the presidential campaign, reporters posed questions to Reagan about his stance on the Briggs Initiative (also known as Proposition 6), a ballot initiative in Reagan's home state of California that proposed the banning of gays, lesbians, and supporters of LGBT rights from working in California's public schools. As the former governor of California, Reagan's opposition to the initiative was instrumental in its landslide defeat by Californian voters. Reagan published an editorial in which he stated that "homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles..." and that prevailing scientific opinion suggests that a child's sexual orientation cannot be influenced by someone else.

Throughout the 1970's, the United States underwent a wrenching period of low economic growth, high inflation and interest rates, and intermittent energy crises. Reagan was a proponent of supply-side economics, which argues that economic growth can be created most effectively by offering incentives for people to produce (supply) goods and services. Such incentives included adjusting income tax and capital gains tax rates. Accordingly, Reagan promised an economic revival that would affect the entire population. Reagan theorized that cutting tax rates would actually increase tax revenues because the lower rates would encourage people to work harder in order to be able to keep more of their money.

Reagan called for a drastic cut in "big government" programs, and pledged to deliver a balanced budget for the first time since 1969. In the Republican primaries, Bush famously called Reagan's economic policy "voodoo economics" because it promised to lower taxes and increase revenues at the same time.

Election Results

Reagan's showing in the October televised debate boosted his campaign. Weeks before the election, Reagan had trailed Carter in most polls. Following his sole debate with President Carter on October 29, however, Reagan overcame the poll deficit, and within one week, the Associated Press reported that the race was "too close to call."

Reagan ended up winning the election in a landslide, carrying 44 states with 489 electoral votes to Carter's six states (as well as Washington, D.C.) and 49 electoral votes. Additionally, Reagan received 50.7% of the popular vote while Carter took only 41% (Independent John B. Anderson, a liberal Republican, received 6.7%). Republicans captured the Senate for the first time since 1952, and gained 34 House seats, but the Democrats retained a majority.

Reagan's victory was the result of a combination of dissatisfaction with the presidential leadership of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, and the growth of the New Right. This group of conservative Americans included many very wealthy financial supporters, and emerged in the wake of the social reforms and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Many were evangelical Christians, like those who joined Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and opposed the legalization of abortion, the feminist movement, and sex education in public schools. Reagan also attracted people, often dubbed neoconservatives, who would not previously have voted for the same candidate as conservative Protestants did. Many were middle- and working-class people who resented the growth of federal and state governments, especially benefit programs, and the subsequent increase in taxes during the late 1960s and 1970s. They favored the tax revolts that swept the nation in the late 1970s under the leadership of predominantly older, white, middle-class Americans, which had succeeded in imposing radical reductions in local property and state income taxes.

Voter turnout reflected this new conservative swing, which not only swept Reagan into the White House, but created a Republican majority in the Senate. Only 52%of eligible voters went to the polls in 1980, the lowest turnout for a presidential election since 1948. Those who did cast a ballot were older, whiter, and wealthier than those who did not vote. Strong support among white voters, those over 45 years of age, and those with incomes over $50,000, proved crucial for Reagan’s victory.


Reagan 1980 Campaign: Reagan campaigns with wife Nancy and Senator Strom Thurmond (right) in South Carolina, 1980.

Free Enterprise Economics and Reaganomics

"Reaganomics" refers to the economic policies promoted by U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the theoretical justification, as well as the critiques, of "Reaganomics."

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The four pillars of Reagan's economic policy were to reduce the growth of government spending, reduce income tax and capital gains tax, reduce government regulation of the economy, and control money supply to reduce inflation.
  • Reagan implemented policies based on supply-side economics, and advocated a classical liberal and laissez-faire philosophy, seeking to stimulate the economy with large, across-the-board tax cuts that especially benefited the wealthiest Americans.
  • As a corollary to supply-side economics, Reagan affirmed "trickled-down economics," a theory which held that tax cuts on the investor class would stimulate investment; more investment would lead to lower unemployment and high wages, benefiting the poorest Americans.
  • During the Reagan administration, the number of Americans living in poverty increased and many key services to low-income groups were cut.
  • Income inequality increased under the Reagan administration, with rises in the percentage of wealth accounted for by the highest income brackets, and declines in the percentage of wealth accounted for by the lowest income bracket.

Key Terms

  • Reaganomics: The economic ideas and policies of American President Ronald Reagan and his two administrations (1981-1989).
  • "Trickle-Down Economics": A term in United States politics that refers to the idea that tax breaks or other economic benefits provided by government to businesses and the wealthy will benefit poorer members of society by improving the economy as a whole.
  • Arthur Laffer: An American economist who first gained prominence during the Reagan administration as a member of Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board (1981-1989); best known for his illustration of the theory that there exists some tax rate between 0% and 100% that will result in maximum tax revenue for governments.

Economics of the Reagan Administration

Reagan’s primary goal upon taking office was to stimulate the sagging economy while simultaneously cutting both government programs and taxes. His economic policies, called " Reaganomics " by the press, were based on a theory called supply-side economics, about which many economists were skeptical. The four pillars of Reagan's economic policy were to reduce the growth of government spending, reduce income tax and capital gains tax, reduce government regulation of economy, and control money supply to reduce inflation.

Theoretical Justification

Influenced by economist Arthur Laffer of the University of Southern California, Reagan cut income taxes for those at the top of the economic ladder (the wealthiest of Americans), which was supposed to motivate the rich to invest in businesses, factories, and the stock market in anticipation of high returns. According to Laffer’s argument, this would eventually translate into more jobs further down the socioeconomic ladder. Economic growth would also increase the total tax revenue—even at a lower tax rate. In other words, proponents of “trickle-down economics” promised to cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time. Reaganomics also included the deregulation of industry and higher interest rates to control inflation; however, these initiatives preceded Reagan and were conceived in the Carter administration.

Reagan's Campaign and Skepticism

Many politicians, including Republicans, were wary of Reagan’s economic program; even his eventual vice president, George H. W. Bush, had referred to it as “voodoo economics” when competing with him for the Republican presidential nomination. When Reagan proposed a 30% cut in taxes to be phased in over his first term in office, Congress balked. Opponents argued that the tax cuts would benefit the rich and not the poor, who needed help the most. In response, Reagan presented his plan directly to the people.

Reagan was an articulate spokesman for his political perspectives and was able to garner support for his policies. Often called “The Great Communicator,” he was noted for his ability, honed through years as an actor and spokesperson, to convey a mixture of empathy and concern, while taking humorous digs at his opponents. In his 1980 campaign speeches, Reagan presented his economic proposals as merely a return to the free-enterprise principles that had been in favor before the Great Depression. Americans found this rhetorical style extremely compelling. Public support for the plan, combined with a surge in the president’s popularity after he survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, swayed Congress, including many Democrats. On July 29, 1981, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which phased in a 25% overall reduction in taxes over a period of three years.

Implementing the Policies

Tax Decreases and Increases

During Reagan's presidency, federal income tax rates were lowered significantly with the signing of the bipartisan Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which lowered the top marginal tax bracket (for the wealthiest Americans) from 70% to 50%, and the lowest bracket (for the poorest Americans) from 14% to 11%. The Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 initiated one of the nation's first public/private partnerships and a major part of the president's job creation program. The Tax Reform Act of 1986, another bipartisan effort championed by Reagan, further reduced the top rate to 28%, raised the bottom bracket from 11% to 15% (meaning the poorest Americans would pay more), and cut the number of tax brackets to four.

Conversely, Reagan signed into law tax increases of some nature in every year from 1981 to 1987 in order to continue funding such government programs as the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), Social Security, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA). Despite the fact that TEFRA was the "largest peacetime tax increase in American history," Reagan is better known for his tax cuts and lower-taxes philosophy.

Budget Cuts

Reagan's policies proposed that economic growth would occur when marginal tax rates were low enough to spur investment, which would then lead to increased economic growth, higher employment, and higher wages. Critics labeled this "trickle-down economics"—the belief that tax policies that benefit the wealthy will create a "trickle-down" effect to the poor. Questions arose about whether Reagan's policies benefited the wealthy more than those living in poverty, and many poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their struggles. These views were exacerbated by the fact that Reagan's economic regimen included freezing the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, slashing federal assistance to local governments by 60%, cutting the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half, and eliminating the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program. The widening gap between the rich and poor had already begun during the 1970s before Reagan's economic policies took effect. Along with Reagan's 1981 cut in the top regular tax rate on unearned income, he reduced the maximum capital gains rate to only 20%—its lowest level since the Hoover administration.

Following his less-government intervention views, Reagan cut the budgets of non-military programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, federal education programs, and the Environmental Protection Agency. While he protected entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, his administration attempted to purge many people with disabilities from the Social Security disability rolls.

Deregulating the Economy

Reagan also focused on deregulating industry and weakening the power of labor unions. Banks and savings and loan associations were deregulated. Pollution control was enforced less strictly by the Environmental Protection Agency, and restrictions on logging and drilling for oil on public lands were relaxed. Believing the free market was self-regulating, the Reagan administration had little use for labor unions, and in 1981, the president fired 12,000 federal air traffic controllers who had gone on strike to secure better working conditions (which would also have improved the public’s safety). His action effectively destroyed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), and ushered in a new era of labor relations in which, following his example, employers simply replaced striking workers. The weakening of unions contributed to the leveling off of real wages for the average American family during the 1980s.


Inflation and Unemployment Rates

President Ronald Reagan's tenure marked a time of economic prosperity for some Americans and the opposite for many others. Reagan’s economic policymakers succeeded in breaking the cycle of stagflation that had been plaguing the nation, but at significant cost. In its effort to curb high inflation with dramatically increased interest rates, the Federal Reserve also triggered a deep recession. Inflation did drop during Reagan's presidency, but borrowing became expensive and consumers spent less.

In Reagan’s first years in office, bankruptcies increased and unemployment reached about 10%, its highest level since the Great Depression. Homelessness became a significant problem in cities, a fact the president made light of by suggesting that the press exaggerated the problem and that many homeless people chose to live on the streets. Economic growth resumed in 1983, and gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average of 4.5% during the rest of his presidency. By the end of Reagan’s second term in office, unemployment had dropped to about 5.3%, but the nation was nearly $3 trillion in debt. An increase in defense spending coupled with $3.6 billion in tax relief for the 162,000 American families with incomes of $200,000 or more made a balanced budget, one of the president’s campaign promises in 1980, impossible to achieve.

Low income groups were also affected by the reduction of social spending, and inequality throughout the nation increased. The share of total income received by the top 5% highest-earning households grew from 16.5% in 1980 to 18.3% in 1988, and the share of the second highest fifth of households increased from 44.1% to 46.3% during this. In contrast, the share of total income of the lowest fifth of households fell from 4.2% in 1980 to 3.8% in 1988, and the second poorest fifth fell from 10.2% to 9.6%.

The National Debt

In order to cover newly spawned federal budget deficits, the United States borrowed heavily both domestically and abroad, raising the national debt from $997 billion to $2.85 trillion. As a result, the United States went from being the world's largest international creditor to becoming the world's largest debtor. Reagan described the new debt as the "greatest disappointment" of his presidency.

U.S. Culture: From Hippies to Yuppies

The Reagan years were a complicated era of social, economic, and political change, with many trends operating simultaneously and sometimes at cross-purposes. While many suffered, others prospered. The 1970s had been the era of the hippie, and Newsweek magazine declared 1984 to be the “year of the Yuppie.” Yuppies, whose name derived from “(y)oung, (u)rban (p)rofessionals,” were akin to hippies in being young people whose interests, values, and lifestyle influenced American culture, economy, and politics, just as the hippies’ credo had done in the late 1960s and 1970s. Unlike hippies, however, yuppies tended to be materialistic and focused on image, comfort, and economic prosperity. Although liberal on some social issues, they were economically conservative. Ironically, some yuppies were former hippies who gave up their crusade against “the establishment” to become businessmen.

Ronald Reagan sits a desk. As he speaks, he points to a poster about tax reduction.

Reagan's Address on Taxes: Ronald Reagan's televised address from the Oval Office, in which he outlined his plan for tax reduction legislation; July 1981.

Battles in the Courts and Congress

President Reagan made many new court appointments during his administration and ran into challenges with the Democrats in Congress.

Learning Objectives

Assess Reagan's Nominations for the Supreme Court, and his relationship with Congress

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • President Reagan's Court appointees included Sandra Day O'Connor, Anton Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and William Rehnquist as Chief Justice. President Reagan appointed Justice Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court, after his initial nominee, Robert Bork, did not receive Senate confirmation.
  • President Reagan made a total of 376 judicial appointments, 83 to U.S. Court of Appeals, and 290 to U.S. District Courts; only nine were not confirmed.
  • Reagan's appointees eschewed judicial activism, arguing that courts should interpret laws as enacted; however, critics charged that these judges were as active on behalf of big business interests as liberal justices had been on behalf of other interests.
  • Adherence to the principle of stare decisis ensured that the Supreme Court's new conservative majority did not overturn the more controversial decisions of the outgoing Warren court.
  • Congressional Democrats resisted Reagan's spending cuts in domestic programs, including Social Security, Medicaid, and federal education programs.

Key Terms

  • Warren Court: The Supreme Court of the United States between 1953 and 1969. It led a liberal majority that used judicial power in dramatic fashion to the consternation of conservative opponents. During this time, civil rights, civil liberties, judicial power, and the federal power were expanded in dramatic ways.
  • Robert Bork: An American legal scholar who has advocated the judicial philosophy of originalism. He served as a Yale Law School professor, Solicitor General, Acting Attorney General, and judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was nominated in 1987 to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, but was rejected by the Senate.
  • stare decisis: A legal principle by which judges are obliged to respect the precedents established by prior decisions.

The Judiciary

Supreme Court Nominations

In 1981, President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to fill the Supreme Court Justice vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart, as he had promised during his 1980 presidential campaign. O'Connor was a conservative Republican and strict constructionist. Though the far-right of the Republican Party was dissatisfied by O'Connor, who refused to condemn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and supported the federal Equal Rights Amendment, Senate Republicans and the vast majority of Americans approved the pick, and she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. O'Connor would later take more moderate positions.

In 1986, during his second term, President Reagan elevated Justice William Rehnquist to succeed outgoing Chief Justice Warren Burger, and named Antonin Scalia to occupy the seat left by Rehnquist. In 1987, when Associate Justice Louis Powell retired, Reagan nominated conservative jurist Robert Bork to the high court. Within 45 minutes of Bork's nomination to the Court, Democrat Ted Kennedy took to the Senate floor with a strong condemnation of Bork in a nationally televised speech, declaring:

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens ' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
The rapid response of Kennedy's "Robert Bork's America" speech stunned the Reagan White House; though conservatives considered Kennedy's accusations slanderous ideological smears on a well-qualified candidate for the bench, the attacks went unanswered for two and a half months. Bork refused to withdraw himself and his nomination was rejected 58-42; Anthony Kennedy was eventually confirmed in his place.

Other Nominations

Reagan appointed 83 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals and 290 judges to the United States district courts. His total of 376 appointments is the most by any president. Reagan appointed many leading conservative academics to the intermediate United States Courts of Appeals, including Bork, Ralph K. Winter, Jr., Richard Posner, and Frank Easterbrook. Most of these nominations were not controversial, although a handful of candidates were singled out for criticism by civil rights advocates and other liberal critics. Nine nominees for various federal appellate judgeships were not confirmed. In some cases, the nominations were not processed by the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee before Reagan's presidency ended, while in other cases, nominees were rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee or even blocked by unfriendly members of the Republican Party. Both his Supreme Court nominations and his lower court appointments were in line with Reagan's expressed philosophy that judges should interpret law as enacted and not "legislate from the bench." By the end of the 1980s, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court had put an end to the perceived "activist" trend begun under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Some argued that the conservatives justices were equally activist, but that their sympathies lay with corporate America, rather than with civil rights. However, general adherence to the principle of stare decisis, along with minority support, left most of the major landmark case decisions (such as Brown, Miranda, and Roe v. Wade) of the previous three decades still standing as binding precedent.

Relationship with Congress

Reagan's support for an increased defense budget at the height of the Cold War was supported by Congressional Democrats and Republicans. However, Congress was reluctant to follow Reagan's proposed cuts in domestic programs. In accordance with Reagan's less-government intervention views, many domestic government programs were cut or experienced periods of reduced funding during his presidency; these included Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, and federal education programs. Though Reagan protected entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, in one of the most widely criticized actions of his administration, Reagan attempted to purge tens of thousands of people with disabilities from the Social Security disability roles, alleging they were not "truly disabled." Funding for government organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, were also reduced. He cut the EPA 's budget by 22%, and his director of the EPA, Anne M. Burford, resigned over alleged mismanagement of funds. Tax breaks and increased military spending resulted in an increase of the national budget deficit, and led Reagan and Congress to approve two tax increases, aiming to preserve funding for Social Security, though not as high as the 1981 tax cuts.


Reagan with Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, 1987: Reagan nominated conservative jurist Robert Bork to the high court. Within 45 minutes of Bork's nomination to the Court, Ted Kennedy (D-MA) took to the Senate floor with a strong condemnation of Bork in a nationally televised speech.

The Gay Rights Movement

The Gay Rights Movement grew out of the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970's, pursuing equality through the framework of civil rights.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Gay Rights Movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • From the Gay Liberation Movement of the early 1970s arose a more reformist and single-issue Gay Rights Movement of the 80s and 90s, which portrayed gays and lesbians as a minority group and used the language of civil rights. Harvey Milk became the first openly gay American elected to public office in 1977, before he was assassinated in 1978.
  • The "Save Our Children" campaign supported a law that banned homosexuals from serving as teachers in public schools, leading to many firings of gay men and lesbians, and posing a setback to the Gay Rights Movement.
  • In the 1980s, the rise of HIV/AIDS, which became chiefly and inaccurately associated with the gay community, grew to crisis proportions as heterosexuals and the federal government failed to act.
  • In response to inaction by the government, gay men organized advocacy groups, such as ACT UP, to fight for research on HIV/AIDS.

Key Terms

  • Gay Liberation movement: A social movement of the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s that urged lesbians and gay men to "come out" by publicly revealing their sexuality to family, friends, and colleagues as a form of activism, and to counter shame with gay pride.


From the anarchistic Gay Liberation Movement of the early 1970s arose a more reformist and single-issue Gay Rights Movement of the 80s and 90s. This new movement portrayed gays and lesbians as a minority group and used the language of civil rights.

Gay and lesbian rights advocates argued that one's sexual orientation does not reflect on one's gender. Gays and lesbians were presented as identical to heterosexuals in all ways except private sexual practices; from within this more conformist movement, butch "bar dykes" and flamboyant "street queens" were seen as negative stereotypes of lesbians and gays. Many transgender activists, such as Sylvia Rivera and Beth Elliot, were sidelined or expelled from the dominant Gay Rights Movement.

Significant Events of the Period

In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Milk was subsequently assassinated by Dan White, a former city supervisor, in 1978.

During that same year, Anita Bryant, a former Miss America contestant, began the "Save Our Children" campaign in Dade County, Florida. This proved to be a major set-back in the Gay Rights Movement. The campaign promoted an amendment to the laws of the county, which resulted in the firing of many public school teachers on the suspicion that they were homosexual.

Mark Segal and Gay Press

As a young gay activist, Mark Segal understood the power of media. In 1973, Segal disrupted the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite—an event covered in newspapers across the country and viewed by 60% of American households, many seeing or hearing about homosexuality for the first time. Before the networks agreed to put a stop to censorship and bias in the news division, Segal went on to disrupt The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Today Show with Barbara Walters. As a pioneer of the local gay press movement, he was one of the founders and former president of both The National Gay Press Association and the National Gay Newspaper Guild. He is also the founder and publisher of the award-winning Philadelphia Gay News (PGN).

International Events

In 1979, a number of people in Sweden called in sick with a case of being homosexual, in protest of homosexuality being classified as an illness. This was followed by an activist occupation of the main office of the National Board of Health and Welfare. Within a few months, Sweden became the first country in the world to remove homosexuality as an illness.

In Canada, the coming into effect of Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1985 saw a shift in the Canadian gay rights movement, as Canadian gays and lesbians moved from liberation to litigious strategies. Premised on Charter protections and on the notion of the immutability of homosexuality, judicial rulings rapidly advanced rights, including those that compelled the Canadian government to legalize same-sex marriage. It has been argued that while this strategy was extremely effective in advancing the safety, dignity, and equality of Canadian gays and lesbians, its emphasis on sameness and conformity to the mainstream came at the expense of difference, and may have undermined opportunities for more meaningful change.

The AIDS Crisis

In the early 1980s, doctors noticed a disturbing trend—young gay men in large cities, especially San Francisco and New York, were being diagnosed with, and eventually dying from, a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Because the disease was seen almost exclusively in male homosexuals, it was quickly dubbed "gay cancer." Doctors soon realized it often coincided with other symptoms, including a rare form of pneumonia, and they renamed it "gay related immune deficiency" (GRID), although people other than gay men, primarily intravenous drug users, were dying from the disease as well. The connection between gay men and GRID—later renamed human immunodeficiency virus/autoimmune deficiency syndrome, or HIV/AIDS—led heterosexuals to largely ignore the growing health crisis in the country, wrongly assuming they were safe from its effects. The federal government also overlooked the disease, and calls for more money to research and find the cure were largely ignored, due to embedded social stigma against gays and lesbians.

Even after it became apparent that heterosexuals could contract the disease through blood transfusions and heterosexual intercourse, HIV/AIDS continued to be associated primarily with the gay community, especially by political and religious conservatives. Indeed, the religious right regarded it as a form of divine retribution meant to punish gay men for their "immoral" lifestyle. President Reagan, always politically careful, was reluctant to speak openly about the developing crisis, even as thousands faced certain death from the disease.

With little help coming from the government, the gay community quickly began to organize its own response. In 1982, New York City men formed the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a volunteer organization that operated an information hotline, provided counseling and legal assistance, and raised money for people with HIV/AIDS. Larry Kramer, one of the original members, left in 1983 and formed his own organization, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), in 1987. ACT UP took a more militant approach, holding demonstrations on Wall Street, outside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and inside the New York Stock Exchange to call attention and shame the government into action. One of the images adopted by the group, a pink triangle paired with the phrase “Silence = Death,” captured media attention and quickly became the symbol of the AIDS crisis.

The image depicts a pink triangle on a black background, with the words

Silence=Death: The AIDS crisis: The pink triangle was originally used in Nazi concentration camps to identify acts of homosexuality. Reclaimed by gay activists in New York as a symbol of resistance and solidarity during the 1970s, it was further transformed as a symbol of governmental inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.

The Election of 1984

Reagan won the election of 1984 in a landslide, winning 58.8% of the popular vote to Mondale's 40.6%, and a record 525 electoral votes.

Learning Objectives

Describe the election of 1984

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Incumbent President Reagan was re-elected in the November 6 election in an electoral and popular vote landslide, winning 49 states. Reagan won a record 525 electoral votes total (of 538 possible), and received 58.8 percent of the popular vote.
  • Democratic candidate Walter Mondale 's 13 electoral college votes (from his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia ) marked the lowest total of any major presidential candidate since Alf Landon's 1936 loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Mondale ran a liberal campaign, supporting a nuclear freeze and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). He spoke against what he considered to be unfairness in Reagan's economic policies and the need to reduce federal budget deficits.
  • Analysts of the election attributed the Republican victory to " Reagan Democrats," millions of southern whites and northern blue-collar workers who traditionally voted Democrat, but who voted for Reagan because they credited him with the economic recovery.

Key Terms

  • Walter Mondale: An American Democratic Party politician who served as the 42nd Vice President of the United States (1977-1981) under President Jimmy Carter, and as a United States Senator from Minnesota (1964-1976); he was the Democratic Party's presidential candidate in the United States presidential election of 1984.
  • Reagan Democrats: Traditionally Democratic voters, especially white working-class Northerners, who defected from their party to support Republican President Ronald Reagan in both the 1980 and 1984 elections.


The United States presidential election of 1984 was held on Tuesday, November 6. The contest was between the incumbent President Ronald Reagan as the Republican candidate, and former Vice President Walter Mondale as the Democratic candidate. Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states, becoming only the second presidential candidate to do so, after Richard Nixon 's victory in the 1972 presidential election. Reagan's success was aided by a strong economic recovery from the deep recession of 1981-1982. Mondale's only electoral votes came from the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota, which he won by a mere 3,761 votes. Reagan's 525 electoral votes (out of 538) is the highest total ever received by a presidential candidate. Mondale's 13 electoral votes is also the second-fewest ever received by a second-place candidate, second only to Alf Landon's eight in 1936. In the national popular vote, Reagan received 58.8% to Mondale's 40.6%. No candidate since then has managed to equal or surpass Reagan's 1984 electoral result. In addition, no post-1984 Republican candidate has managed to match or better Reagan's electoral performance in the American Northeast, known to be a very Democratic region in modern times.

The Primaries

Only three Democratic candidates won any state primaries: Mondale, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson. Initially, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, after a failed bid to win the 1980 Democratic nomination for president, was considered the de facto front-runner of the 1984 primary. However, after Kennedy ultimately declined to run, former Vice-President Mondale was then viewed as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Mondale had the largest number of party leaders supporting him, and he had raised more money than any other candidate. However, both Jackson and Hart emerged as surprising opponents. Mondale gradually pulled away from Hart in the delegate count, and at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco on July 16, Mondale received the overwhelming support of the un-elected super delegates from the party establishment to win the nomination.

The Campaign

Mondale ran a liberal campaign, supporting a nuclear freeze and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). He spoke against what he considered to be unfairness in Reagan's economic policies and the need to reduce federal budget deficits. Reagan was the oldest president to have ever served (he was 73 years old by this point), and there were many questions about his capacity to endure the grueling demands of the presidency, particularly after Reagan had a poor showing in his first debate with Mondale on October 7. He referred to having started going to church "here in Washington," although the debate was in Louisville, Kentucky; referred to military uniforms as "wardrobe"; and admitted to being "confused," among other mistakes. However, in the next debate on October 21, Reagan effectively neutralized the issue by quipping, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.


Reagan was re-elected in the November 6 election in an electoral and popular vote landslide. Analysts of the election attributed the Republican victory to "Reagan Democrats"—millions of Democrats who voted for Reagan, as in 1980. They characterized such Reagan Democrats as southern whites and northern blue collar workers who voted for Reagan because they credited him with the economic recovery, saw Reagan as strong on national security issues, and perceived the Democrats as supporting the poor and minorities at the expense of the middle class. The Democratic National Committee commissioned a study after the election that came to these conclusions; however, it suppressed the "explosive report" out of fear that it would offend its key voters.


Electoral College 1984: 1984 presidential electoral votes by state. Reagan (red) won every state except for Mondale's home state of Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. (blue).

The Poor, the Homeless, and the Victims of AIDS

President Reagan has been criticized for his political responses to poverty, homelessness, and the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.

Learning Objectives

Analyze Reagan's response to the AIDS epidemic, homelessness, and poverty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Reagan's signing of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act greatly exacerbated homelessness among the mentally ill. The law lowered the standards for involuntary commitment in civil courtrooms, and was followed by significant de-funding of 1,700 hospitals caring for mental patients.
  • Churches, public libraries, and atria adopted stricter anti-vagrancy policies as the homeless population grew larger; together, these strategies effectively criminalized homelessness in many areas around the country.
  • The 1980s also saw a continuing trend of deinstitutionalization of mental-health hospitals; it is believed that a large percentage of released patients ended up in the homeless system.
  • Perhaps the greatest criticism of President Reagan involves his silence about the AIDS epidemic spreading in the 1980s. Although AIDS was first identified in 1981, Reagan did not mention it publicly for several more years.
  • Possibly in deference to the views of the powerful religious right, which inaccurately saw AIDS as a disease limited to the gay male community and spread by "immoral" behavior, Reagan prevented his Surgeon General from speaking out about the epidemic.

Key Terms

  • ACT UP: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power; an advocacy group for people with AIDS and HIV-related illnesses, founded in 1987 on the premise of direct action. It is best known for its dramatic protests during the peak of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Homelessness During the Reagan Era

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was a predisposing factor in setting the stage for homelessness in the United States. Long-term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals, and were supposed to be sent to community mental health centers for treatment and follow-up. The community mental health centers, however, were not adequately supported, and members of the released population were often found living in the streets soon after release, with no sustainable support system.

Many feel that Ronald Reagan's signing of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (1967) greatly exacerbated homelessness among the mentally ill. This law lowered the standards for involuntary commitment in civil courtrooms, and was followed by significant defunding of 1,700 hospitals caring for mental patients.

Anti-Vagrancy Laws

Many places where people were once allowed freely to loiter, or purposefully be present, became areas that were off-limits to "vagrants." Churches, public libraries, and atria became stricter as the homeless population grew larger. Park benches started to be designed so that no one could lie down on them. Some churches restricted access when mass or services were not being held. Libraries began enforcing "no eyes shut," and sometimes even imposed dress codes. Some public places hired private security guards to carry out these policies, creating social tension.

All of these strategies together effectively criminalized homelessness in many areas around the country. The homeless population was banished to sidewalks, parks, under bridges, and subway and railroad tunnels. Many homeless people tried to become socially invisible to avoid enforcement of new anti-vagrancy penalties.

1980s Homelessness Crisis

The 1980s saw a continuing trend of de-institutionalizing mental health hospitals, and large numbers of released patients ended up homeless. Many existing shelters and soup kitchens had to expand their facilities to accommodate the larger number of homeless people. By the mid-1980s, there was also a dramatic increase in family homelessness. Tied to this was an increasing number of impoverished and runaway children, teenagers, and young adults creating a new sub-stratum of the homeless population.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

In response to the ensuing homelessness crisis, there was a push from concerned citizens across the country for the federal government to provide assistance. Finally, in 1987, President Reagan signed into law the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The McKinney Act originally had fifteen programs providing a spectrum of services to homeless people, including the Continuum of Care Programs— the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program, as well as the Emergency Shelter Grant Program. This remains the only piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of homeless people.

Poverty Level

During the period from 1980-1988, the percentage of the total population below the poverty level ranged from a low of 13.0% in 1980 and 1988, to a high of 15.2% in 1983. During Reagan's first term, critics pointed to homelessness as a visible problem in America's urban centers. In the closing weeks of his presidency, Reagan told The New York Times that the homeless "make it their own choice for staying out there." Political opponents chided his "Trickle-down economics" policies, due to the significant cuts in taxes for the wealthiest Americans; supporters pointed to the drop in poverty after his policies took effect to validate that the tax cuts did indeed trickle down to the poor.

Reagan's Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis

Perhaps the greatest criticism surrounds Reagan's silence about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Although AIDS was first identified in 1981, Reagan did not mention it publicly for several more years, notably during a press conference in 1985 and several speeches in 1987. During the press conference in 1985, Reagan expressed skepticism in allowing children with AIDS to continue in school. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had previously issued a report stating that "casual person-to-person contact as would occur among schoolchildren appears to pose no risk." During his 1987 speeches, Reagan supported modest educational funding on AIDS, increased AIDS testing for marriage licenses, and mandatory testing for high-risk groups.

Reagan was widely criticized for not supporting more active measures to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS. Most public officials and celebrities were too afraid to deal with this subject until celebrity Elizabeth Taylor spoke out publicly about the monumental amount of people quickly dying from the new disease. Reagan prevented his Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, from speaking out about the epidemic, possibly in deference to the views of the powerful religious right, which saw AIDS as a disease limited to the gay male community and spread by "immoral" behavior.

When, in 1986, Reagan was highly encouraged by many other public officials to authorize Koop to issue a report on the epidemic, he expected it to be in line with conservative policies; instead, Koop's Surgeon General's Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome greatly emphasized the importance of a comprehensive AIDS education strategy, including widespread distribution of condoms, and rejected mandatory testing. This approach brought Koop into conflict with other administration officials, such as Education Secretary William Bennett. Because of the awareness-raising actions of groups like ACT UP, Reagan responded in 1987 by appointing the Watkins Commission on AIDS, which was succeeded by a permanent advisory council.

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