From Charlie Sheen to Reagan Nostalgia, the 80s Just Won't Go Away

The similarities between today and the 1980s reflect a country now run by those who came of age in that decade. No matter where we look for the roots of today's political debates, we find the tropes of '80s popular culture.
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Charlie Sheen is hogging the spotlight. Tron and Wall Street have just left theaters. Muammar Gaddafi is the planet's top bad guy. Millionaires are enjoying budget-busting tax cuts. Conservatives are saber-rattling against Iran. Bon Jovi is on tour. And Ronald Reagan tributes are everywhere.

If you didn't know better, you'd think we'd all just stepped out of a 1.21 gigawatt-powered DeLorean and right back into the 1980s.

And in some ways, we have. This collective deja vu moment is part coincidence, part commodified nostalgia and part impulse to rehash successful old political and entertainment brands. But the similarities between today and the 1980s also reflect a country now run by those who came of age in that decade -- people whose worldviews were molded by an era that began with a Chrysler bailout and ended with foreign students protesting dictatorship in a distant square.

This lasting influence goes far beyond the impact of the Reagan Revolution; the cultural vernacular of the '80s has proved as enduring as the Gipper's most famous speeches.

No matter where we look for the roots of today's political debates, we find the tropes of '80s popular culture.

The origins of Barack Obama's supposed post-racial qualities? Some look to Bill Cosby and the "Huxtable Effect," which taught white America to embrace African Americans -- so long as they "transcend" their race.

Official deference to the nation's generals and ever-expanding war spending? Our politicians are trying to "let us win this time," as Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo demanded in First Blood.

The precursor of today's socially acceptable -- and congressionally sanctioned -- Islamophobia and prejudice against those of Middle Eastern descent? Try Marty McFly fleeing suburb-stalking Libyan terrorists in Back to the Future, or professional wrestler Sgt. Slaughter body-slamming the headdress-wearing Iron Sheik and promising to "clean up America of all this trash."

No meaningful crackdown on financial-industry abuse? Apparently, the bonfire of the vanities still burns, and Wall Street's masters of the universe remain largely immune from punishment.

The popular notion that government is either so inept or so corrupt that individuals or nonprofits must take matters into their own hands? It's inspired not just by Reagan's sarcastic quip about nine "terrifying" words -- "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help" -- but also by classic '80s television shows such as The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. The theme of that genre was self-sufficiency or even vigilante justice in the face of governmental uselessness or venality.

And what of the rare government success story? Turn to Top Gun, Die Hard, Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon and every other 1980s production that mass-marketed Ollie North-style bravado and affirmed the idea that government succeeds only when self-styled mavericks inside the system break the rules.

Yes, the 1980s are our very own Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game: Everything defining today's politics seems connected to that decade. And even though many of these political narratives were around before the Reagan era -- after all, the Marlboro Men of cowboy pulp were going rogue long before Axel Foley (not to mention Sarah Palin) -- they were vastly amplified by the new technologies, corporate reorganizations and federal policy changes of the time.

Recall that the '80s were the first decade when the majority of American households owned a TV and VCR and enjoyed cable service. This was the moment when companies from consumer-product manufacturers to fast-food chains to retail outlets became vertically integrated. That included the all-important media industry, which by 1983 saw just 50 corporations controlling the majority of U.S. newspapers, television stations, magazines, movies and publishing houses. Couple that with the move by Reagan's Federal Communications Commission to end major restrictions on child-focused television marketing, and the result was a media machine that could trap unsuspecting kids in a bubble of political propaganda.

In the 1980s, children didn't see E.T. just in a movie theater -- we saw that anti-government parable about kids fleeing faceless, jack-booted federal agents in our Atari cassettes, Happy Meals, board games, action-figure sets and Reese's Pieces wrappers. We didn't see Mr. T just in Hollywood bit parts -- we saw this offensive caricature of the "angry black man" in the cereal we ate, the Saturday morning cartoons we watched, the Trapper Keepers we used, the pro-wrestling matches we cheered and the A-Team lunch boxes we took to school.

In short, we didn't simply get disparate bits of popular culture -- the 1980s were the first time that kids were subjected to cross-platform marketing throughout the media landscape, and the effects were profound.

Take the change in the economic attitudes of young people. In 1980, a Higher Education Research Institute survey showed that less than two-thirds of college freshmen said being "very well-off financially" was their top priority. By the end of the decade, that number had risen to roughly three-quarters -- and has hovered near that mark ever since. What contributed to the change? A steady '80s diet of of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, Ricky Stratton on Silver Spoons and a larger "greed is good" ethos that equated the American Dream with following The Secret of My Success.

Likewise, at the beginning of the 1980s, Gallup polling found just 50 percent of Americans -- still carrying the scars of Vietnam -- expressing confidence in the military. But that number jumped to 85 percent by the end of the decade and has remained high. Why hasn't it dipped back down to early-80s levels, even in the face of bloated defense budgets and controversial wars? Because even as militarism received a short-term boost among adults in the 1980s via Reagan's chest-thumping and martial cheerleading, it was solidified for the long haul among '80s kids through war-glorifying films and martial video games -- not to mention combat-themed toys, which hit their highest sales levels since World War II.

Of course, one could dismiss all this as exaggerating the power of pop culture and entertainment. But since the 1980s began melding entertainment and reality ever more closely -- think of the Nintendo game "Contra" or Reagan citing Rambo when talking about national security -- social scientists have discovered even more evidence that fiction can influence our views of the world as much as fact.

This is particularly the case for children, whose brains do not yet fully distinguish fantasy from reality. None other than Reagan himself underscored that truth in 1983 remarks about the then-primordial video game industry. "Without knowing it, you're being prepared for a new age," he told an audience of kids at Epcot Center. "The computerized radar screen in the cockpit is not unlike the computerized video screen. Watch a 12-year-old take evasive action and score multiple hits while playing 'Space Invaders,' and you will appreciate the skills of tomorrow's pilot."

Today's drone pilots prove Reagan's prescience.

Near the end of the 1980s, political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared that the world was reaching the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution." He was writing about the intellectual triumph of democratic values and free-market principles, but he could have been referring to the entire zeitgeist of the 1980s -- one that the children of the decade have now re-created with a mix of Gordon Gekko economics, Top Gun militarism, Lethal Weapon criminal justice and Cosby Show racial attitudes.

History may not have ended, but we are stuck in a loop, our Walkmen endlessly rewinding and restarting the soundtrack to a movie we've seen too many times. It's time to turn it off -- or at least to recognize that it's still playing.

NOTE: This piece ran on the front page of this past Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section. It is based on Sirota's new book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now, which is officially released on 3/15.

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