News & Politics

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.

It wasn't my war. You asked me, I didn't ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn't let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer. ... Who are they to protest me? Huh?

The legend of peace protesters spitting at vets is one of the most successful lies ever perpetrated on the American public. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, running for the US Senate in 2110, claimed to have served in Viet Nam and lamented the way returning soldiers were treated, saying in a campaign-year speech, "When we came back we were spat on." The New York Times later revealed that although Blumenthal had served in the Army during the Viet Nam War he had actually never served in Viet Nam itself. Blumenthal apologized for pretending to have served in the War and survived to win election to the Senate, but the myth of spit-upon Viet Nam vets had become so internalized that the media never pointed out that not only had Blumenthal not been spit on coming home from a war he never served in, but there is also no evidence that any soldiers were spit on by peace activists. Jerry Lembcke, a Viet Nam vet, argued persuasively that the story is bullshit in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, in which he researched every supposed report of the kind of spitting that Stallone’s fictitious character described and could not find a single first hand account of such an incident. There is no question that Viet Nam veterans were not treated well by their country but the blame for that belongs with the governmental agencies that failed to provide them with the kind of support that World War II vets had enjoyed as a result of the GI Bill and the political leaders who sent them to fight a war which they ultimately could not justify.

In the real world many Viet Nam veterans, most famously John Kerry, were a significant part of the anti-war movement. Most importantly, the passage of time and the release of White House tapes from both the Johnson and Nixon administrations made it clear that the Viet Nam war was never related to a genuine American security interest but to domestic politics, largely the fear of being called “soft on communism." And the fall of South Viet Nam as a separate country did absolutely nothing to hurt the United States during the Cold War or thereafter. But you would never know any of these things if Rambo was your source of information.

The Hollywood feature Red Dawn was written and directed by John Milius. It was produced by MGM/UA who actually recruited former Reagan Secretary of State Alexander Haig “to consult with the director and inculcate the appropriate ideological tint.” MGM/UA executive Peter Bart wrote that “Haig took Milius under his wing and suddenly he found himself welcomed into right-wing think tanks.” The film absurdly depicted a Soviet/Cuban invasion of America’s Southwest in which the communists take over several American towns. A group of High School kids played by Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell and, of course, Charlie Sheen, retreat to the mountains and form a guerilla army to fight the communists, calling themselves The Wolverines. Aware and proud of the film’s influence on some impressionable young minds, Milius later boasted, “Wolverines have grown up and gone to Iraq.” Although controlled by the Russians, the primary invading force of American in Red Dawn consists of Cubans, brown skinned Latinos (No Latino “Americans,” of course). Conquered Americans are seen stockpiling food with a panic and ardor that must have been one of the prototypes for some of Glenn Beck’s current rants. (Beck was 21 years old, having just started his first radio job, when Red Dawn was released). The Mayor of the invaded city is shown as a craven weakling who collaborates with the Communists.

Top Gun was also made with Defense Department input. It implausibly showed American pilots in dogfights with the Soviets absent the context of any particular conflict between the Cold War superpowers and it glamorized military service to the level of a fashion layout. According to Sirota, "Recruitment spiked 400% in the months after Top Gun was released, leading the Navy to set up recruitment tables at theatres upon realizing the movie’s effect."

Of video games, Sirota quotes Army Colonel Casey Wardynski, saying that at the Pentagon, “we realized we had to get the flow of information about life in the army into pop culture.” Space Invaders, Defender, Chopper Command, Asteroids, Missile Command (my own personal favorite), and Battlezone (directly subsidized by the Pentagon) entered the consciousness of millions of teenagers during the '80s.

The World Wrestling Federation wrestling villain The Iron Sheik (an “Iranian”) was regularly vanquished by Sgt. Slaughter, a “good guy” wrestler wearing US camouflage who said in 1984, “We don’t want Iranians around. We’re going to clean up America of all the trash.” As Sirota points out: “If that seems exactly like the political rhetoric you might hear today in a talk-radio rant or a cable scream show or on the floor of the U.S Congress, that’s no coincidence. Those rants are deliberately using the same diction as Sgt. Slaughter because that’s the same lingo we were trained to respond to as '80s kids in our basement.”

Fortunately, not all unconscious notions of Americanism feed right wing goals.

In the same decade that spawned Top Gun, MASH, the popular anti-war TV series, aired a finale which was seen by 125 million people -- the largest TV audience of the decade. During those same years, 60 Minutes had its peak audience, often exposing the venality and limits of the corporate world. Gandhi won the Best Picture Oscar, and when Warren Beatty, at the peak of his celebrity and show business power, created Reds, he won the Oscar for Best Director for celebrating the values of early idealistic American communists. Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing was the film Barack Obama took Michelle to on their first date. And the '80s also produced Oliver Stone, who launched his own very un-Rambo-like narrative on Viet Nam and militarism through Born On The Fourth of July, Salvador, and, most successfully, Platoon -- which also won the Best Picture Oscar.

MTV was launched in 1982, and while the rock and pop culture of those years was certainly a mixed bag, it was far from a rubber stamp of conservative think tank theories. Contrary to the Family Ties ethos, there were a series of concerts -- Live-Aid, Farm Aid and the Amnesty tours -- which celebrated collective responsibility and empathy for those who were suffering. Bruce Springsteen, REM, The Clash and U2, achieved superstardom, Bonnie Raitt, won the Grammys, punk rock started emerging from the shadows, and what is now called “old school” hip hop gave a cultural power to aspects of black America that the Cosby Show never touched.

Looking to the future, the next decade’s power elite will have grown up in the Clinton era when grunge and hip hop exploded, when The West Wing mapped out a positive case for government like no cultural product before it, and when The Lion King extolled “the circle of life.” And when A Bronx Tale gave us Robert DeNiro as a bus driver named Lorenzo telling his son not to admire the local gangster: “Get up every day and work for a living! Let's see him try that! We'll see who's really tough. The working man is tough.”

And even in the 1950s, idealized by Reagan and the other classic Michael J. Fox franchise Back To The Future, there was The Birth Of The Cool and Ginsberg and Kerouac and Brando and Dean. There was Catcher In The Rye and Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye. If you adjust the numbers for inflation the following passage could have been written yesterday:

There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks,” Ohls said. “Maybe the head man thinks his hands are clean but somewhere along the line, guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut out from under them and had to sell out for nickels. Decent people lost their jobs, stocks got rigged on the market, proxies got bought up like pennyweight of old gold and the five percenters and the big law firms got paid hundred grand fees for beating some law the people wanted but the rich guys didn’t on account it cut into their profits.”

So despite the presence of psychic toxins left by Reaganism, America’s future is still up for grabs. If we come to grips with the cynical toxins of Reaganism we may yet marginalize them from the ruling psychology of our country, even without a visit from a higher being like ET.

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Danny Goldberg was CEO of Air America Radio from 2005 until mid-2006. He is president of Gold Village Entertainment and has worked in the music business since the late 1960s. Check out his blog.