The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

In American politics, the 1980s was the decade of Ronald Reagan. His vision of the nation and his conservative agenda shaped the economic and political fortunes of the United States throughout the decade and even into the next. Reagan and his administration had a profound influence on the way Americans thought about themselves and the world at large.

From the beginning of his time in office, Reagan conducted foreign policy according to the belief that communism was the enemy and any enemy of communism was a friend of the United States. It mattered little to Reagan or members of his administration if the groups or governments they supported were less than honorable. As long as they were fighting communism, the Reagan administration supplied the money and arms to do so.

Reagan sought to protect the country and destroy communism at the same time by building up the might of the American military. He ordered over $1 trillion in new defense spending and proposed the development of a defense shield around the country, based both on the ground and in space, that would destroy any nuclear missiles launched against the United States. Reagan and his administration believed the shield would allow the nation to retaliate to a nuclear strike and win a nuclear war. Exactly how the space shield would work remained unclear. Many experts believed the science behind the plan was impossible. Others believed the plan was merely science fiction.

The realization of the extremely expensive and technical defense shield proved unnecessary when Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. Political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union began to ease, and real progress was made in arms control. Some political historians believe the U.S. military buildup and possible defense shield forced Gorbachev to act, but others claim Gorbachev was a new kind of Soviet leader who had vision and a desire to change his country for the better. His willingness to cut Soviet aid to Third World countries and his withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe ushered in a major transformation in world politics. By the end of the decade, nearly every communist government in Eastern Europe collapsed and was replaced by a new, democratically elected government.

A champion of the rich and powerful, Reagan wanted to introduce a new economic program to the country that would reward those at the top of the economic ladder. Critics charged that his economic program took from the poor to enrich the wealthy and that the nation he envisioned left out minorities, the disadvantaged, and the disabled. Reagan and his supporters replied that economic incentives to the wealthy would "trickle down" to the rest of America, enriching everyone.

Reagan's economic program never actually worked as planned. Taxreform bills passed by the U.S. Congress substantially reduced income tax rates for individuals and corporations, but the economy did not grow quickly enough to offset that loss of revenue. Primarily because of major increases in military spending, the federal deficit grew enormously by the end of the decade. Reagan could take credit for strengthening the economy, but the huge deficit marred his economic accomplishments.

Reagan, who was nearly seventy when he took office in January 1981, was the oldest man ever to serve as chief executive. Throughout his presidency, there were frequent jokes about his tendency to fall asleep during cabinet meetings and his apparent ignorance about actions his administration took in his name. The laughter stopped in late 1986 when news of the Iran-Contra scandal surfaced. The nation learned that members of his administration had been illegally selling arms to Iran in return for the release of Americans held hostage by Islamic radicals in the Middle East. The scandal deepened when it was revealed that profits from the arms sales had been diverted to aid rebels fighting the communist government in Nicaragua, an action the U.S. Congress had specifically banned. The scandal tarnished Reagan's image and seriously undermined the effectiveness of his administration at the end of his second term.

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The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1980s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview