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Reaganism's Dark And Lasting Shadow: How Right-Wing '80s Pop Culture Lives on in Today's Politics

David Sirota's brilliant new book posits that we're living in an echo of the 1980s... and he's terrifyingly correct.

If David Sirota is right, and the culture of the 1980s is defining most of modern America, maybe there’s a connection between Charlie Sheen’s “issues” and American political culture. Sheen’s first film role was in the mid-1980s as one of the young anti-Soviet revolutionaries in the right-wing kitsch classic Red Dawn . Oliver Stone then cast him as one of the idealistic young soldiers in Platoon and as the center of his 1987 critique of Reagan-era financial malfeasance in Wall Street . To the extent that the public internalized him as “Charlie Sheen,” and not just the characters he played, his compelling 2011 meltdown is a cautionary tale about the spiritually dead end street of hyper-individualism. (And if Sheen bounces back as his gift for self-mockery suggests he might, his comeback could be a metaphor for the defeat of that very same darkness ).

In any case, in light of the of significant influence of the Tea Party and their ilk, progressive and Democratic communications professionals must come to the grips with the fact, once and for all, that logic and rationality are not the primary motivators of political culture. But what to do about it? George Lakoff and Drew Westen have both written usefully about how progressives and Democrats can improve the way they address various American publics. It’s not enough, however, to simply frame an issue or to speak emotionally to make an impact; communicators and movements need to understand the existing psychology and the unconscious of the people they are trying to move. Many culturally induced nerve endings, hidden from the view of polls and focus groups, help determine political currents. These hidden psychological currents cut both ways. In the last year Democratic researchers did not anticipate a populist susceptibility to the whopper about “death panels” and Republicans failed to unearth a residual affection for labor unions.

Sirota’s brilliant new book Back To Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now-- Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (Ballentine) describes modern America in the context of the cultural byproducts of the Reagan era that Sirota and others of his generation were exposed to, particularly popular American films, TV shows and advertisements of the decade. He widens our understanding of the psychological terrain where political battles are fought and his book should be required reading for anyone who presumes to measure or influence public opinion.

Americans who were high school seniors when Ronald Reagan started his second term in 1985 are in their forties today, many of them occupying positions of power in business, the media and government.

Most public discussion in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday centered on his administration and his opaque personality. But Reaganism, the philosophy of conservatives who have appropriated him (sometimes in direct contradiction of some of the Gipper’s actual policies), has had a much bigger impact on modern-day America than has the man himself. Reaganism’s agenda included the reversal of the economic egalitarianism of the New Deal and the Great Society, and a revival of militarism to counteract the effects of the anti-Viet Nam protest era. Many of the dark and irrational currents in modern politics originate in the culture of the '80s including Islamophobia, hatred of government, excessive deference to the military, exaltation of the rich and individualism to the exclusion of community in the tradition of Ayn Rand, and a nasty contempt for anything that gets in the way of profits -- including concerns about the environment and human rights.

The primary cultural trope of Reaganism was to de-legitimize many of the progressive cultural ideas that had gained power in the 1960s and '70s, --what Sirota calls the “Die hippie, die” initiative (the phrase was the title of a South Park episode). The policy trends that Reaganism aimed at quashing fell into two broad categories: the expansion of government limits on big business (through environmental laws, workplace regulations, support for unions, and financial regulation) and the politically salient questioning of militarism that had been spawned by the Viet Nam War protest movement.

Of course, Reagan also helped enable socially conservative Christians whose support he cheerfully accepted but in part because of the support of libertarian Republicans, progressives have won more of those battles than they’ve lost. Of course, if you are an abortion provider in a red state, those culture wars are still painfully relevant, but as Thomas Frank points out in What’s The Matter With Kansas, most of the real conservative big shots never cared that much about these battles and still don’t.

One pivotal anti-hippie vehicle in the Reagan era was the hugely successful TV series Family Ties , a family sitcom the premise of which was, according to the Baltimore Sun ,"rejecting the counterculture of the 1960s and embracing the power that came to define the '80s.” Michael J. Fox became a star playing Alex P. Keaton, a materialistic, Reagan-loving son of former '60s activists who were shown as ineffectual anachronisms. In one episode, Keaton makes fun of his parents’ old friends: “Every time these hippies come prancing in from yesteryear, we got get out the love beads, put on the ponchos, and pretend we care about people.” The subtext, so often amplified by right-wing populists from Rush Limbaugh to P.J. O’Rourke, is that social programs, compassion, etc. are naïve at best and corrupt at worst. Winners win and losers lose and any attempt to change fate helps no one and undermines stability. Compassion and collective responsibility are for charlatans or suckers.

How did the American political zeitgeist shift from John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” to Ronald Reagan’s “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the government and I’m here to help ”?

De-legitimization of government was not solely a right wing enterprise. Many of us on the left were appalled by the government overreach of the FBI Cointelpro program that targeted war protesters and civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King. Presidents Johnson and Nixon lied about various details of the War in Viet Nam. (See When Presidents Lie by Eric Alterman). Many hippies and civil libertarians hated the “war on drugs” that Nixon started in the early '70s. So when Ghostbusters or ET depicted government officials as thugs it wasn’t necessarily coming from a right wing perspective. But they still helped reinforce a psychology that supported the pro-big business agenda of Reagan’s mantra: “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.”

At the same time during the '80s, there was a powerful campaign to undermine the moral basis of the criticism of the War in Viet Nam and to restore support for the military industrial complex. This campaign was explicitly supported by propaganda in films such as Red Dawn (1984), Rambo: First Blood (1985), and Top Gun (1986). Reagan himself called the Viet Nam War a “noble cause’ in his 1980 campaign and suggested that anti-war critics made America “afraid to let American soldiers win.” This canard was echoed In Rambo: First Blood . The protagonist John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, popularized the lie that most Viet Nam veterans were spat on by peace activists.