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Essence of the ’80s

Two disparate views of the decade’s contributions to American politics, culture, and society

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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Images conjured by the 1980s have congealed into cliché: bright pop music, shoulder pads and leggings, and a wave of flag-waving conservatism. Some of these things are still with us, of course — it’s not only the fashion world that recycles trends — while others now seem inconceivable (until they come back into style). Two new books attempt to untangle the meaning of the decade and what it spawned in politics, culture, and society.

David Sirota, author of “Back to Our Future,’’ argues that one key to understanding the 1980s is that the era itself was built on nostalgia. He describes the political landscape at the time as a series of proxy wars between an idealized image of the 1950s adopted by President Ronald Reagan and a disparaging version of the 1960s, which the Democrats were more or less forced to defend. This “fifties-glorifying jihad against the sixties,’’ Sirota suggests, put the Republicans in the position of defending a retro-romanticized America from usurping hippies, progressives, and minorities — a theme that rings throughout conservative rhetoric to this day. Affection for a mythologized version of the 1950s leaked from politics into movies such as “Back to the Future’’ and “Peggy Sue Got Married’’ and songs from retro-influenced musicians such as Billy Joel and Huey Lewis.

Pondering why the 1950s became the touchstone of conservative nostalgia, Sirota, a journalist, reveals the limits of his analysis: “that decade was fraught with far less (obvious) baggage (say, the Depression or global war) and hence was most easily marketed in the saccharine entertainment culture of the devil-may-care 1980s.’’ But this is too simple; the 1950s were a natural source of creation myths for a political party seeking to exploit middle-class whites’ fears in an uncertain economy. It’s not for nothing that Sirota quotes a Heritage Foundation speaker urging that America “turn the clock back to 1954,’’ though it’s a bit surprising that the author doesn’t make clear the obvious connection to Brown v. Board of Education, which that same year crashed the all-white party some in the GOP seemed desperate to revisit.

Sirota describes the 1980s as an era of deep political retrenchment yet startling technological, commercial, and media advances. At his best, he smartly dissects Nike’s “Just Do It’’ campaign, launched in 1988, and sees in its “message telling the audience that the difference between success and failure is individual desire’’ echoes of Ayn Rand. Such a belief system, of course, wasn’t new to the 1980s, but Sirota argues that American hyper-capitalism reached a kind of apex then, and has stayed there. “Wall Street,’’ intended by Oliver Stone as a cinematic cautionary tale, was adopted by most viewers as a rallying cry, and why not? If the 1980s taught us anything, it was that money was wonderful, the more the better, and those poor people who used to show up on TV sometimes? Poof! Invisible now, either happily adopted by white millionaires or pushed off the air by “Dynasty’’ and “Dallas.’’

Although Sirota declares early in his book that the ’80s “defies taxonomy,’’ and that one’s view of the era might vary depending on age, race, sex, or social class, he quickly abandons that thought. “Today,’’ he writes, “we still see economics through ‘Wall Street’s’ eyes . . . . We still view race through the ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ and ‘Cosby Show’ living rooms.’’ This “we’’ he invokes can feel a little dislocating — especially for those for whom the ’80s was not a period of happy acquiescence to Reagan and Rambo.

Bradford Martin’s “The Other Eighties,’’ then, is a great counterpoint to Sirota’s book. If the 1960s, in its most distilled form, is often misremembered as more counterculture than mainstream culture (Woodstock! Haight-Ashbury! Flower power!), then the 1980s have the opposite problem. It’s possible to read Sirota’s entire book without encountering any music that didn’t appear on MTV, while Martin spends an entire chapter plumbing the post-punk movement and thoughtfully discussing how bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements made space for Nirvana to become the hot new thing in 1991. In arguing for a 1980s that not only didn’t uniformly embrace the superficial conformity of the Reagan years but actively laid groundwork for today’s progressive movements, Martin does valuable work.

Martin, a history professor at Bryant College, argues that “despite the decade’s reputation for conservative ascendancy and Reagan’s personal popularity, there was another 1980s, one in which the opposition played a key role.’’ The book maps the various strains of this resistance: movements for a nuclear weapons freeze, Central American solidarity, and divestment from South Africa; post-punk and hip-hop music; burgeoning AIDS activism and a steady regrouping of feminism. In these pockets of defiance, Martin sees the roots of today’s progressive political and cultural currents, as well as some battles that are still being fought (for instance, the community organizing group ACORN, which arose out of 1980s dissatisfaction with Reagan’s indifference to the urban poor, was squashed by conservative activists working a 1980s formula of scapegoating the urban poor). Despite such setbacks, Martin argues that risks taken in the 1980s have born fruit today — most notably, on the political scene, in the election of Barack Obama two decades after Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential run, in which the candidate “injected the moribund Democratic discussion with progressive moral convictions.’’

Sirota’s book, with its hyperactive flow of pop culture references, can feel a bit like channel surfing (a 1980s invention). He writes that, for him, the decade is a kind of a language: “I don’t remember the 1980s as much as I speak it and think in it.’’ It’s important to remember, though, that a language can have many dialects. Those for whom the 1980s were about more than Rubik’s Cube and “where’s the beef’’ may find more substance in Martin’s book.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@ gmail.com.

BACK TO OUR FUTURE: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything
By David Sirota
Ballantine, 276 pp., $25

THE OTHER EIGHTIES: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan
By Bradford Martin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., illustrated, $26