The Reagan Revolution: Definition, Summary & Significance

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  • 0:03 The Reagan Revolution
  • 1:26 A New Direction
  • 2:06 Reaganomics
  • 3:27 Foreign Policy
  • 5:42 Aftermath
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the Reagan Revolution. We'll define the term, and explore key themes and developments related to Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution during the 1980s.

The Reagan Revolution

In some respects, the 1970s was kind of a gloomy decade. Sure, you had disco music with men and women dancing the night away under a sparkling ball, but economically and politically, it was a tough time. American industry was in decline, thousands of miles away young men were being killed in the jungles of Vietnam, an energy crisis further wreaked havoc on the economy, and the President, Richard Nixon, had been forced to resign due to the Watergate Scandal. It was not exactly a cheery time in America.

This all changed with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan was a conservative Republican, and his defeat of the Democratic incumbent in the election of 1980 ushered in what has become known as the Reagan Revolution.

The Reagan Revolution basically refers to the dramatic changes in American politics, economics, and society that took place under the Reagan Administration between 1980 and 1989. The term sometimes connotes the early years of his presidency, but in reality, the Reagan Revolution lasted between 1981 and 1989, the years he served as the 40th President of the United States. The term Reagan Revolution is also often used synonymously with the term Reagan Era. This was a time when political conservatism was in full bloom.

A New Direction

So, as we pointed out, the 1970s was in many respects a tough decade. Democratic President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, but he was regarded by many Americans as an ineffective leader. Carter was relatively unpopular, and by 1980, the American people were looking to chart a new course. Reagan campaigned by asking the American people the question: ''Are you better off than you were four years ago?'' The answer, of course, for many Americans was ''no'' because they had been hurt by the policies of President Carter. Reagan promised a change from the policies of the Carter Administration, and upon his inauguration in 1981, he delivered.


So what were some of the core components of the Reagan Revolution? One of the big ones was Reagan's conservative economic policy, which has been nicknamed Reaganomics. Reaganomicsemphasized supply-side economics, tax cuts, government deregulation, and a laissez-faire approach. This French word means basically means ''hands off.'' Laissez-faire economics stresses free market interactions free from government regulation or involvement. Basically, Reagan wanted the government to have its ''hands off'' economics. In his first year as president, he signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which reduced federal income tax across the board. Years later, under the bipartisan Tax Reform Act of 1986, the tax code was simplified and tax loopholes were closed.

In addition to tax cuts, Reagan also slashed federal funding for many government programs and agencies. He wanted to make sure the federal government was living within its means. He hated the idea of a government spending more revenue than it brought in. These spending cuts were limited to non-military programs. When it came to defense spending, Reagan actually dramatically increased spending because he felt it was essential for the United States to have a strong military. He wanted to secure ''peace through strength.''

Foreign Policy

One of Reagan's popular television commercials for his reelection campaign in 1984 began with the line, ''It's morning again in America.'' This line suggested that things were better in America now that Reagan, and not a Democrat, was in the White House. It also contained strong patriotic sentiments. It's important to note that patriotism swelled under the Reagan Revolution.

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