Some scattered notes from Sean Wilentz's talk on his new book, The Age of Reagan that focus on his somewhat unusual periodization choice in which the age runs from 1974-2008: “long, prolonged era of conservative political domination of American political life” “last 35 years or so have seen conservative politics dominant in national political life” “a lot of the history that had been written of this period was locked in hagiography or demonology” “possible as a historian to lay aside one’s political views and write as a historian” “not the conventional periodization beginning in 1968” “1974, with the fall of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal” “regardless of who wins the presidency we’re at the end of a political era” “the disruption of American politics as we had known it since at least 1945” “people tend to forget how demoralized the Republican establishment was in 1974 . . . there was talk of changing the party’s name” “Republicans were increasingly divided between a beleaguered establishment and a new post-Taft conservative movement coming out of the west”
“indisputable that Ronald Reagan was the major political figure in American politics during this period” “many efforts to try to put the center back into American politics, Jimmy Carter tried and failed . . . George H.W. Bush . . . the center-right wouldn’t hold . .. Bill Clinton . . . could not recreate the center-left, the terms of politics had been transformed”
Periodization strikes me as an intrinsically problematic task for a historian. Nobody's better-positioned to recognize that these are semi-arbitrary and yet it's the historial who needs to actually write books and that positively requires you to pick beginning and end points.
Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.