Review of Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland

Update: this review was a finalist for the Washington Monthly’s Kukula Prize for excellence in book reviewing in 2021.

I have a review of Rick Perlstein’s new book Reaganland, the final book in his four-volume history. I look at all of the books, and take on issues in the history of conservatism and its writing in the time of Trump.

In 1979, Barry Goldwater turned to his diary to register a change in the nation’s politics. “Today as I sit in the Senate,” he wrote, “it is interesting to me to watch liberals, moderates, and conservatives fighting each other to see who can come out on top the quickest against those matters that I talked so fervently and so much about in 1964.” That year, Goldwater had been thoroughly crushed in his presidential contest with Lyndon Johnson, earning only 52 electoral votes against LBJ’s 486 and less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Richard Rovere wrote in The New Yorker that the election had “finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” But 15 years later, Goldwater looked out on a different landscape. “Now that almost every one of the principles I advocated in 1964,” he concluded, had “become the gospel of the whole spread of the spectrum of politics, there really isn’t a heck of a lot left.”

The transformation that Goldwater observed is one of the most important stories in the political history of the United States in the twentieth century. How and why did it happen? For almost two decades, over the more than 3,000 pages of a monumental tetralogy, Rick Perlstein has sought to answer exactly those questions. Four volumes—Before the StormNixonlandThe Invisible Bridgeand the new Reaganland—take the reader from Goldwater’s campaign, through the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, to the eventual triumph of Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980. Perlstein largely moves through this history chronologically (augmented with some biographical flashbacks), taking the reader on the same journey in politics and culture that a person living through the time would have experienced. Garnering popular acclaim as well as respect from academic historians, the books have helped redefine the 1960s—often popularly a metonym for the left-wing counterculture—as a time also marked by the growing power of conservative political organizing.

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