Crossposted from DemocraticDiva.com
Stipulation: This post is about perception and the perspective of one person, namely yours truly. You may have experienced the debate differently. You may not have the same feeling about the ’80s that I do. It may have been your heyday. Or maybe you wore black and listened to punk bands and never watched TV. That’s fine. This isn’t about you. You may disagree with my take on facts and historical events. That is also fine. I am not tackling every possible angle of facts and events that I possibly could, either, because that would make for a really long post.
I’ve been elated since Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, and not because of any particular candidate’s performance (I have my preference but this isn’t about that). What pleased me was the overall tenor of the answers the major candidates gave, both rhetorically and in terms of policy positions. It was evident in the affirmation of Black Lives Matter, the embrace of family leave and a healthy minimum wage increase, the unequivocally strong statements on climate change and energy independence, the denunciation of corporate greed, and standing up to the gun lobby. No one paraded their religious views! There was even a brief discussion of socialism vs. capitalism that didn’t devolve into red-baiting. What all that signified to me was that the longest political era in most of our lifetimes – the 1980s – appears to be coming to an end, at least for the Democrats.
I’m almost 47 so I came of age in the chronological 1980s, that puketrain of padded shoulders, crispy hair, terrible sitcoms, and Just Say No backlash bullshit. The jeans. God, people, the jeans! They were hideous. You think this new retro trend is bad?
Try squeezing into them without the Lycra! The struggle was real, kids.
The fashions may have changed by the next decade (luckily, I was still young when the ’90s came around and they were more my moment, fashion-wise) but the politics forged in the ’80s proved stubbornly resilient. I realize it was a conservative political realignment that began decades before but, in my personal, visceral memory, it began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. I wasn’t familiar then with a word I now use a lot, “reactionary”, but my teenage self sure knew that the country was being directed toward rejecting those dirty hippies in a big way. As David Sirota wrote in his book about the ’80s, Back to Our Future:
Through politics and mass media, a 1960s of unprecedented social and economic progress was reremembered as a time of tie-dye, not thin ties; burning cities, not men on the moon; LBJ scowls, not JFK glamor; redistributionist War on Poverty “welfare,” not universalist Medicare benefits; facial-haired Beatles tripping out to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” not bowl-cut Beatles chirping out “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”…
…The media industry of the time followed with hypermilitarist films blaming antiwar activists for America’s loss in Vietnam (more on that in the chapter “Operation Red Dawn”), and magazine retrospectives basically implying that sixties social movements were anti-American. As just one example, a 1988 Newsweek article entitled “Decade Shock” cited the fact that “patriotism is back in vogue” as proof that the country had rejected the sixties–the idea being that the sixties was wholly unpatriotic.
But while flag-waving can win elections and modify the political debate, it alone could not mutate the less consciously political, more reptilian lobes of the American cortex. So the 1980s contest for historical memory was also being waged with more refined and demographically targeted methods.
For teenagers, The Fifties(tm) were used to vandalize The Sixties(tm) through a competition between the Beatnik and the Greaser for the mantle of eighties cool. As historian Daniel Marcus recounts, the former became defined as “middle-class, left-wing, intellectual and centered in New York City and San Francisco”–that is, defined as the generic picture of weak, effete, snobbish coffeehouse liberalism first linked to names such as Hart and Dukakis, and now synonymous with Kerry, Streisand, and Soros. Meanwhile, the Greaser came to be known as an urbanized cowboy–a tough guy who “liked cars and girls and rock and roll, was working class, usually non-Jewish ‘white ethnic’ and decidedly unintellectual.”
I can attest to the effectiveness of that concerted effort by “liberal” Hollywood in the 1980s to aggrandize the military. Thanks to movies like Rambo and Top Gun it became cool to join the military again, which I did at age eighteen in 1987.
Obviously Reagan and the Republicans profited hugely from the smearing of ’60s liberals, anti-welfare sentiment, and the increasingly bellicose foreign policy stance, but Democrats also felt the need to go along with it, in the interest of self-preservation, if nothing else. Thus triangulation was born, which was the strategy that Bill Clinton used with precision to defeat George H. W. Bush in 1992. While Clinton’s presidency was progressive in many ways, and he ran for reelection in 1996 under the slogan “Bridge to the 21st Century”, he still drew heavily from ’80s political themes and continued harsh and failed policies such as the War on Drugs, while signing a welfare reform bill considered brutal by poverty advocates.
If the politics of the ’80s groaned on under Clinton, they roared back with alacrity under the George W. Bush administration, which was chock-a-block with former Reaganites, including Vice President Dick Cheney. A flurry of anti-choice, anti-environment, and anti-worker policies were implemented, mostly in furtherance of the ethos of the Reagan era. Then in 2001 two major cities were attacked by planes, led by a guy who had been funded by the US to fight the Russians in the, ahem, 1980s. Vigorous hippie-punching ensued, which helped to convince shock-addled Americans and (some) cowed Democratic leaders to support the Iraq invasion, a neocon wet dream that had nothing to do with the 9-11 attacks or a serious nuclear threat.
(Personal disclosure: As much as it pains me to admit, I briefly supported the Iraq invasion in the initial run-up to it. I wasn’t knowledgeable about the complications in the Middle East at the time, and was barely five years out of the authoritarian environment of the Navy and too young to remember Vietnam. It was unfathomable to me that a President, even a Republican one I didn’t care for, would lie so blatantly about the need for a war. This was despite, and maybe because of, the distrust and blistering hatred shown toward Bill Clinton by the guys I was in the Navy with, who considered him a dirty fucking hippie and not a real President like Reagan and Bush Sr. I was quickly straightened out about Iraq when I did my own research. I still feel duped but I take comfort in the fact that a lot of people, including many much smarter than I, were similarly fooled. It was a very stupid time in America.)
Imagine, if you will, any of the Democratic candidates (aside from Jim Webb, who stuck out like he had a mullet and was wearing parachute pants) on the stage last Tuesday having recently praised Ronald Reagan as a “transformational” figure, as then-candidate Barack Obama did in 2008. It did cause consternation among Democratic activists back then, including some of the older people with whom I was working on the Obama primary campaign. I didn’t get amped up over it, since it seemed inevitable to me that anyone who was a young adult in the ’80s would cite Reagan as a major influence. I got it, like totally.
But that seems unthinkable now and that is likely in no small part due to Barack Obama’s presidency, in which he spent his first term pursuing post-partisan transformation in good faith and was thwarted at every turn by Republicans who undoubtedly believe themselves to be obstructing the Kenyan Satan in the holy name of Saint Ronald of Reagan. President Obama appears to be done with that now, and so do the rest of the Democrats. The GOP may continue to prop up the Gipper’s corpse in perpetuity but Democrats, as much as we’ll still bicker among ourselves, no longer have to be under its shadow. Goodbye, 1980s, and good riddance. Hallelujah.