In the 1980s, a new conservatism arose in social, economic and political life, characterized by the policies of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. For some, the 1960s and 1970s had been a troubling time that undermined Americans’ confidence in their fellow citizens and in their government. The 1980s, often remembered for its materialism and consumerism, also saw the rise of the "yuppie," an explosion of blockbuster movies and the emergence of cable networks like CNN and MTV, which introduced the music video and launched the careers of many iconic artists. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s would go on to kill more than 700,000 people in the United States alone.
The populist conservative movement known as the New Right enjoyed unprecedented growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It appealed to a diverse assortment of Americans including evangelical Christians, anti-tax crusaders, advocates of a more powerful American presence abroad, disaffected white liberals and defenders of a free market with few if any regulations.
The movement resonated with many citizens who had once supported more liberal policies but who no longer believed the Democratic Party represented their interests.
During and after the 1980 presidential election, these disaffected former liberals came to be known as “Reagan Democrats.” They contributed millions of crucial votes to the victory of Republican Ronald Reagan, the former actor and governor of California, over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Reagan advocated for industrial deregulation, reductions in government spending and tax cuts for both individuals and corporations, as part of an economic plan he and his advisors referred to as “supply-side economics.” His economic and social agenda was largely shared by his across-the-pond friend, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The resulting economic growth would allegedly “trickle down” to everyone—but whether it did or not is a matter of ongoing debate among politicians and economists. George H.W. Bush, campaigning against Reagan in the 1980 primary election, referred to his opponent’s economic policy as “voodoo economics.”
Reagan’s economic policies—known as Reaganomics—initially proved less successful than its partisans had hoped, particularly when it came to a key tenet of the plan: balancing the budget.
Huge increases in military spending—during the Reagan administration, Pentagon spending would reach $34 million an hour—were not offset by spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere. This fact, plus Reagan’s militaristic posture in international affairs, earned him the nickname “Ronald Ray-Gun.”
By early 1982, the United States was experiencing its worst recession since the Great Depression. Nine million people were unemployed in November of that year. Businesses closed, families lost their homes and farmers lost their land. The economy slowly righted itself, however, and Reaganomics grew popular again.
Even the stock market crash of October 1987 did little to undermine the confidence of middle-class and wealthy Americans in the president’s economic agenda. Many also overlooked the fact that Reagan’s policies created record budget deficits: During his eight years in office, the federal government accumulated more debt than it had in its entire history.
Like many other American leaders during the Cold War, Reagan believed that the spread of communism anywhere threatened freedom everywhere. As a result, his administration was eager to provide financial and military aid to anticommunist governments and insurgencies around the world. This policy, applied in nations including Grenada, El Salvador and Nicaragua, was known as the Reagan Doctrine.
In November 1986, it emerged that the White House had illegally sold arms to Iran in an effort to win the freedom of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and then diverted money from the sales to Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras. The Iran-Contra affair, as it became known, resulted in the convictions—later reversed—of Reagan’s national security adviser, John Poindexter, and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council.
Despite its mixed track record, a majority of Americans still believed in the conservative agenda by the late 1980s. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he had the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1988, Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, soundly defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the presidential election.
Fall of Communism
While Reagan and Thatcher trumpeted the march of conservative politics and capitalism, the foundations of communism grew increasingly shaky. In Poland, former electrician Lech Walesa led striking workers to form Solidarity, the first labor union to develop in a Soviet bloc nation. In 1980, representatives of the communist government of Poland agreed to the demands of the strikers.
In 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to introduce the twin concepts of glasnost, or “openness" and perestroika, or “restructuring,” to revive the moribund Soviet economy—but those efforts yielded few tangible results.
By the end of the 1980s, communism was in rapid retreat across Europe and Asia. The Berlin Wall, which had long divided the German city into an eastern, communist-held half and a western democratic half, was torn down by ecstatic crowds in 1989. And two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
In communist China, the Tiananmen Square protests—student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, free speech and a free press—began in the spring of 1989. In June of that year, the protests were ended by the Chinese government in a bloody crackdown known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
In some respects, the popular culture of the 1980s reflected the era's political conservatism. For many people, the embodiment of the decade was the young, urban professional, or “yuppie,” a baby boomer with a college education, a good-paying job and expensive taste.
Many people derided yuppies for being self-centered and materialistic, and surveys of young urban professionals across the country showed that they were, indeed, more concerned with making money and buying consumer goods than their parents and grandparents had been.
Movies in the 1980s
Unlike the 1970s, when hard-hitting movies addressed controversial subjects, lighthearted fare seemed to reign supreme in the 1980s. Films like “Ghostbusters,” “Die Hard,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” kept audiences enthralled and box office receipts high.
The decade was also the era when blockbusters dominated: Movies like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," “Beverly Hills Cop” and mammoth franchises like the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and Star Wars series appealed to moviegoers of all ages, making hundreds of millions of dollars in domestic and international releases.
But not everything was superficial escapism: Many now-famous directors honed their craft with dark, serious movies like David Lynch in “Blue Velvet” and “The Elephant Man,” Martin Scorsese in “Raging Bull” and Gus Van Sant in “Drugstore Cowboy.”
Television in the 1980s
At home, millions watched family sitcoms like “The Cosby Show,” “The Simpsons,” “thirtysomething” “Family Ties,” “Roseanne” and “Married...with Children.” They also skipped broadcast network fare and watched rented movies on their new VCRs.
By the end of the 1980s, broadcast networks realized they were in serious trouble as 60 percent of American television owners had cable service. Soon, cable companies like HBO, Cinemax, TBS and Nickelodeon were household names.
In 1980, the Cable News Network first aired, and soon CNN became a major player in delivering U.S. and international news via satellite worldwide, 24 hours a day. One year later, another revolutionary cable network, MTV, made its debut and completely changed the way Americans thought about music, dance and fashion.
Music in the 1980s
The music videos MTV played made stars out of bands like Duran Duran, R.E.M. and Culture Club and megastars out of artists like Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, whose elaborate "Thriller" video helped sell 600,000 albums in the five days after its first broadcast.
Later, MTV became a forum for those who went against the grain or were left out of predominantly white, yuppie culture. Rap and hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy channeled the frustration of urban Blacks into their powerful album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
But because of the consistent promotion of white musicians and bands on MTV, other venues soon opened up for emerging artists. BET, or Black Entertainment Television, premiered in 1980 as a challenger to MTV by promoting Black bands and musicians.
Hard rock acts such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses captured the sense of malaise among young people, particularly young men. The 1980s also saw the growing popularity of electronic music, house music, reggae, new wave and other dance-club favorites.
Fashion in the 1980s
In addition to serving as a platform for music, MTV also influenced fashion: People across the country (and around the world) did their best to copy the hairstyles and fashions they saw in music videos. Soon, musicians like Madonna, MC Hammer and Boy George also became style icons.
But behind the gloss of MTV, another influence grew in both music and fashion: Punk culture and new-wave fashion, especially in London, grew from a late-1970s trend into a potent 1980s fashion force worldwide, with designers like Vivienne Westwood leading the charge. Ripped jeans and jackets—replete with safety pins and other metallic adornments—Doc Martens boots, spiked hair and heavy makeup were all the rage.
Other fashion trends from the 1980s included athletic wear—running shoes or basketball shoes, track suits and leg warmers—worn as everyday clothing. The preppy look, which mimicked the clothing worn by Ivy League students and buttoned-up professionals, invaded college campuses and nightclubs alike, following the success of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” published by Lisa Birnbach in 1980.
In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources began reporting on an outbreak of unusual health conditions in otherwise healthy, young gay men in New York City, San Francisco and other urban areas.
Within a few years, an alarmed public learned about the spread of a deadly infectious disease now known as AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids. Because it was initially dismissed by many—including the political and medical establishments—as occurring only among gay men, the disease spread rapidly, with at least 100,000 U.S. cases and an estimated 400,000 AIDS cases worldwide by the end of the 1980s.
After news broke that a number of popular figures—including Rock Hudson, Keith Haring, Magic Johnson, Greg Louganis and Liberace—were infected with the disease, the government, medical officials and the general public rallied to prevent the spread of AIDS and offer help to those affected.
Red ribbons supporting AIDS awareness soon adorned clothes, books, cars and public buildings, including the White House. The first antiviral treatment for AIDS, azidothymidine (AZT), was made available in 1987 and was followed by other, more advanced treatments, but the disease remains a health threat to this day.
Women in the News
Expanding on the hard-won rights that women earned in previous decades, women were leaders in many arenas in the 1980s, from politics to science and the arts. Maggie Thatcher was elected as the first woman prime minister of Great Britain, and Corazon Aquino—following the assassination of her husband, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.—was ushered into office as the first women president of the Philippines.
U.S. astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. On the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed by President Reagan as the first woman to serve as associate justice.
Arguably the most famous woman of the era was Princess Diana, who married Charles, the Prince of Wales, in an elaborate 1981 televised wedding watched by some 750 million people around the world. Her visage was to grace television screens and magazine covers for many years thereafter until Diana’s death in 1997.
A number of disasters, both natural and manmade, made headlines in the 1980s. The decade began with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington. The titanic explosion claimed more than 50 human lives and destroyed thousands of acres of forest and rangeland.
In Bhopal, India, an explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984 led to the worst industrial accident in history. At least 2,000 people died and another 200,000 were injured when poisonous gas enveloped the city.
Memories of the 1979 nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania were revived when the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded in 1986, killing dozens of people, sickening many more and sending plumes of radioactive particles into the air as far as Sweden. Mikhail Gorbachev would later say the Chernobyl disaster “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”
In Alaska, the pristine shores of Prince William Sound were stained black in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled some 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sea, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales. Even 30 years later, pockets of crude oil remained in some areas.
And in the blue skies above Cape Canaveral, Florida, the space shuttle Challenger exploded as millions of people watched on television and on the ground. All seven crew members aboard were killed.
Technology in the 1980s
Throughout the 1970s, computers were expensive devices that remained the province of a handful of garage tinkerers and multibillion-dollar entities like IBM and NASA. But all that changed during the 1980s, the decade that introduced the world to the video game Pac-Man.
IBM released the IBM Model 5150, the first IBM personal computer, to much fanfare in 1981. One year later, the Commodore 64 personal computer debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and TIME magazine named The Computer as its “Man of the Year.”
Soon, scattered computer users began to communicate with one another through an early network developed by the U.S. Department of Defense: ARPANET. In 1983, the network adopted TCP/IP, a set of communications protocols that led to the creation of the internet, and the modern era of computer communications was born.
With the personal computer, or PC, now available to middle-class consumers, Microsoft—founded in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen—soon became the dominant player in PC software. In 1983, Microsoft released Word, a simple, practical word-processing program, followed in 1985 by Windows, now the world’s most popular computer operating system. And Apple released its first Apple computer in 1984.
Communication took another leap forward when Motorola introduced the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, a handheld cellular telephone. Weighing in at 1 lb., 12 ounces and 13 inches tall, the brick-like cell phone was a novelty at the time, but it heralded the beginning of a new era. By 2021, almost 15 million cell phones would be in use worldwide.
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The 10 defining moments of the 1980s. SBS.