Yet, this focus on Trump may miss the real story of our times. Media preoccupation does not signify historical consequence, and despite the breathless attention we lavish on him now, it’s wholly possible that future historians may view Trump less as a major force in our nation’s narrative and more as a sidebar whose disruption, nativism and anti-democratic impulses distracted us from the real changes underway in our country, ones driven by the very younger Americans who are in the forefront of rejecting Trump and Trumpism.
We’ve been down this path before, most notably in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan dominated U.S. politics and both journalists and scholars characterized those years as a time of conservative ascendancy. But were they?
Beginning in the 1960s, the United States seemed to move dramatically leftward on cultural issues, a change largely driven by young Americans holding different values than their Greatest Generation parents. Sixties youth were moving America from the monochromatic, religious and traditional society of the 1950s to one that would increasingly resemble the more diverse, multicultural and secular culture of today.
The legendary pollster Daniel Yankelovich conducted studies of college students in the early 1970s and found them to be repelled by society’s discrimination and bigotry against gay people, women and ethnic minorities. They were also abandoning organized religion — a pillar of traditional American life — in unusually large numbers.
Further, Yankelovich found young people determined to change corporate culture by righting the “bad balance between profits and public responsibility.” They prioritized “nonfinancial rewards” in their careers, among them “participation in decision-making, tolerance of varied styles of dress and outlook and an effort to make work interesting and meaningful.” When the pollster asked students in 1971 if they would be willing to devote a year or two to a social problem of greatest concern to them, more chose reducing pollution than any other issue, even bringing peace to Vietnam — a sign of the environmental movement’s growing power.
This transformation, however, seemed to hit a wall with Reagan’s election in 1980. The press focused on the rise of religious conservatives as a major force in American politics. Reporters viewed their activation as evidence of a conservative resurgence that was repudiating the very cultural changes young Americans had fueled during the previous two decades and demanding the restoration of “traditional values” and Christianity in the public square.
Reagan’s image of America as a “shining city on a hill” filled with church spires and picket fences seemed to define the era. Even Hollywood featured movies like “Wall Street,” with its tagline of “greed is good,” and characters like Reagan-loving Alex P. Keaton in “Family Ties.”
But such headlines and popular culture images missed another story — perhaps one more enduring.
As the scholar Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) observed from General Social Survey data in 1985, on issues of sexual morality, women’s rights, family values and practices, Americans actually had little interest in returning to the 1950s. On key cultural and social issues, according to Smith, “support for liberal positions [has] grown substantially over the last twenty years and now a solid majority of Americans favor liberal positions.” In short, what had begun in the 1960s was a cultural reshaping of American values, institutions, businesses, universities, social relations and families that no single president — no matter how popular — could disrupt.
Or as the conservative columnist George Will wrote in 1997, whatever political gains the conservative movement may have made seem “peripheral to, and largely impotent against, cultural forces and institutions permeated with what conservatives consider the sixties sensibility.”
And so, rather than the restoration of traditional values, the opposite happened. Although Reagan tried to turn back the clock on civil rights, women’s rights, environmental policy and religion, it didn’t work. In every respect attitudes, values, norms, practices and expectations in these areas instead grew far more liberal than what Reagan advocated — and have become increasingly liberal since.
Rather than return to traditional gender roles and domesticity, for example, women, empowered by the feminist movement, began seizing opportunities in sports, education and business. Female-owned companies nearly tripled in the Reagan years, and by the end of the 1980s, the number of young women playing interscholastic sports increased more than sixfold from 20 years before, from less than 300,000 to nearly 2 million. Women received only 39 percent of MA degrees in 1970, but by the early 1990s it had increased to 53 percent — now it’s over 60 percent.
Attitudes and institutions followed a similar path. Despite the hostility of religious conservatives and the Reagan administration — and their callous disregard for the AIDS epidemic — support for LGBTQ Americans steadily rose throughout the 1980s; this gradual liberalization eventually produced legal and cultural acceptance of marriage equality. Colleges and universities, recognizing their responsibility to tell the nation’s story through a lens far more inclusive than ever before, diversified their curriculum and added more female and minority voices and stories to their courses and canon. The media — both entertainment and news — increasingly did the same.
Membership in environmental organizations also soared — the Sierra Club’s rolls more than tripled, and Greenpeace USA grew almost tenfold to more than 2 million members during the 1980s.
And despite the “greed is good” mantra of the Reagan years, a growing number of businesses were beginning to prioritize the corporate social responsibility ethos that Yankelovich found among college students in the early 1970s — with new organizations such as the Social Venture Network and Businesses for Social Responsibility gaining members every year.
The age of Reagan, therefore, was actually anything but.
Something similar is happening today. Young Americans, this time millennials and Gen Z, are confronting ongoing racial, cultural, social, environmental and economic challenges that their elders have been unable to solve. And instead of rejecting liberalism, they have doubled down. Widespread disdain for Trump may have been an accelerant for their deep-rooted liberalism, but young people were moving in that direction long before he became president.
Again, if one looks beyond political rhetoric and Washington politics, the picture of this era in America is far more complex. At work, millennials and Gen Z insist that companies show — and not just express — a commitment to diversity, inclusion, equal opportunity, work-life balance and the environment. Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ equality are not just movements to them — they are unshakable values.
They demand a commitment to gender equality that will translate to equity in their personal relationships, jobs, parenting and institutions. Among Gen Z, many say that gender should no longer define people as it used to. They are also the most religiously unaffiliated generation in our history — more secular, less Christian, less likely to attend religious services, what one research organization called America’s “first truly ‘post-Christian‘ generation.” Even younger evangelicals are moving in a more liberal direction, far more protective of the environment and accepting of LGBTQ rights than their elders.
This does not mean that a path to a more liberal America is inevitable or will be friction-free. Trump’s damage to our democratic institutions could be massive especially if he and his supporters in Republican-run states continue to interfere with elections and voting rights. And his impact on the courts and fights over manufactured issues such as critical race theory and transgender athletes may delay changes, or make them more difficult to enact.
Yet, the “age of Reagan” taught us that those who shout the loudest about a world that’s passing them by may not be the ones wielding the most influence when it comes to the social and cultural metamorphosis that will reshape our lives and country in the years and decades ahead.