The death of Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister of the United Kingdom for the entire 1980s, marks not just the passing of a decade, but of an idea whose heyday was in that decade: modern conservatism.
Here in the U.S., Republicans controlled the White House from 1981 to 1993. In Illinois, Republican Jim Thompson was governor for every day of the ’80s, and his party held the state senate as well. It’s hard to believe now, but conservatism was a pretty hip ideology back then: Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by 20 points among 18-29 year olds.
Those voters are still loyal to the Republican Party, but now they’re 47-58 year olds. And Republicans have persisted in running campaigns as though Reagan’s conservative principles, and his coalition of religious conservatives, rural whites, and urban white ethnics can still win an election. It barely worked for George W. Bush, and it didn’t work at all for John McCain or Mitt Romney. Romney’s voters were 91.5 percent white. As one of his campaign advisers admitted, “This is the last time anyone will try this.” During the third presidential debate, President Obama mocked Romney for claiming Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said, mocking not only Romney, but his entire party.
Anti-communism was a big winner for the Republicans in the 1980s, and the party lost its dominance when it lost that issue, and along with it the ability to tar Democrats as unpatriotic and weak on defense. But out of nostalgia or stubbornness, the party has clung to a number of other positions far less popular now than they were then: opposition to abortion, opposition to gay marriage, trickle-down economics. Republicans have also clung to the notion that their party can be rescued by “the next Reagan,” even though the times that made the first Reagan possible took place over a generation ago.
Speaking of generations, today’s 18-29 year olds are just as devoted to Obama as their parents were to Reagan: he won 58 percent of their votes last year.
The next time you meet a conservative, ask if he still wears parachute pants, drinks wine coolers and listens to Ratt, and look behind his head for a little bleached-blond tail.