Feb/Mar 2011

The Backlash Revisited

Two books reenvision the politics of the 1980s—and keep the Gipper on the sidelines

David Mulcahey


Ronald Reagan dominated his era as no president had since Roosevelt and as no president has again. Today, he's endlessly lionized as the man who pulled the country out of its economic death spiral and won the cold war for the free world. Is it possible to produce a useful political history of the 1980s while writing the decade's central political figure out of it? Two new books more or less do just that, by consigning Reagan to the margins of the main story—one by design and the other coincidentally. For casual students of the political history of the late twentieth century, it seems a bit like chronicling the Cuban Revolution without mentioning Fidel Castro.

In The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan, historian Bradford Martin tries to lift the Gipper out of the decade's main political narrative. And The Other Eighties does capably revisit some of the surprising accomplishments and consolations the left won during this decade of reaction. But it's far from clear whether these provisional victories—on the emerging fronts of the culture wars and in feints over the conduct of late-imperial cold-war foreign policy—did much to soothe the anguish of Americans who bore the brunt of the high-deficit, tax-slashing Reagan economic program. On the crucial question of economic policy—where the supply-side revolutionary Reagan arguably left his greatest mark—a large part of the Democratic base was simply left to face its own grim fate.

This howling achievement gap gets inadvertently acknowledged in the Secret conceit of Martin's subtitle—though, in truth, a better formulation of the same idea might be Forgotten, since the left activists he describes hardly labored in obscurity. The nuclear-freeze movement, the Central America solidarity movement, the South Africa divestment movement, ACT UP—these were no blushing wallflowers. All of them sought visibility and media exposure as a matter of strategy, and in the simpler media ecosphere of the '80s, they got them. A tour of virtually any college campus in 1986 would have turned up a divestment shanty or designated nuclear-free zone. To a person of a certain age, the slogan "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" will call to mind a moment fixed definitively in the past. It's easy for us to let that moment fade from memory, because we did "get used to it."

In that sense, the act of remembering is important: Were it not for the exertions of a passionate few, many features we take for granted in the present political landscape would look very different. "It is a notable outcome of this era, for instance," Martin writes, "that Americans do not speak of a 'Nicaragua War.'" And as he persuasively explains, this legacy is rooted in a successful campaign of political organization: The Central America solidarity movement adopted strategies that went well beyond those we associate with the earlier movement protesting the Vietnam War. One such shift was closer collaboration between antiwar protestors and the power structure. In practice, this meant putting pressure on Democrats in Congress to resist any attempt by the Reagan administration to escalate direct US sponsorship or military involvement in Central American conflicts. As Martin notes, these legislative measures forced the administration to channel its efforts through covert means, a maneuver that blew up in Reagan's face with the Iran-Contra scandal.

Martin's book offers a great deal of suggestive, and mildly revisionist, fodder for students of the '80s. Still, his account seems oddly out of step with the era, never quite capturing the tectonic shifts under way in the nation's culture and politics. We get a glimpse of the narrative road not taken when he discusses divestment shanties. The shanties of Dartmouth College gave particular offense, owing to their conspicuous ugliness and location smack in the center of the bucolic campus. One night, we learn, a group of pranksters calling themselves the Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival took it upon themselves to destroy the structures. Here we see a renascent cultural right, showing its flair for satiric counterinsurgency. The perpetrators were from the circle of the Dartmouth Review, a breeding ground for the enormously influential anti-PC culture warriors who came to the fore in the '90s. The formation of that counterinsurgency, and its distinctive cultural and institutional strategies, gets short shrift in Martin's account, but to my mind it's the real secret history of the '80s.

After all, our politics has been dominated for decades by the culture wars—a fruitless, symbolic relitigation of the 1960s, a codependent relationship that the right has learned all too well how to profit by. Liberals content themselves to believe they're still on the Kulturkampf's winning flank, at the considerable cost of near-total capitulation to the right on matters of class and economics. Conservatives bewail their struggle to uphold civilization as a lost cause, yet they owe this hoary antagonism nearly all of their political victories.

Looking back, it's stunning how successful the conservative backlash of the 1980s was. "In just a single decade," writes David Sirota in Back to Our Future, the United States "went from a nation that rewarded proponents of the New Deal and the Great Society with massive electoral majorities to a country that . . . despises government as much as it detests rapacious health insurance corporations." In Sirota's telling, this transformation was a group effort, with much of the credit going to Rambo, Rocky, "Dirty Harry" Callahan, the A-Team, Michael Jordan, Alex Keaton, Crockett and Tubbs, Murtaugh and Riggs, Maverick and Goose, Charles Barkley, the insipid yuppies of Thirtysomething, and Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaughter, to name a few. In building his case, Sirota has picked through the decade's cultural detritus to reconstruct the scene of a generation's ideological poisoning, but as the playful title of his book suggests, he's not going to be mawkish or humorless about it. That's a good instinct for an author of leftist polemics.

The '80s were many things, but in pop culture they were above all a time of fervent nostalgia for an imagined prelapsarian state of grace. The "foundational allegory" of the antiliberal backlash, Sirota writes, is the demise of the "arcadian, patriotic, benevolently capitalist, conservative, Caucasian and therefore good" era known as the 1950s, which was brutally offed by the "anti-American, malevolently collectivist, permissive, diverse, and thus awful" 1960s. Narratives of moral collapse are among the crudest, and therefore best-known, cultural output of the '80s. Who can forget Rambo: First Blood Part II, which gave the nation a do-over for Vietnam, supplying that deathless backlash plaint, "Sir, do we get to win this time?" If you were sentient in the '80s you were well acquainted with the endlessly adaptable archetype of what Sirota calls the "outlaw with morals": the rogue cops, lone vigilantes, and wrongly accused good guys who must break the law to restore the order destroyed by treachery—usually liberal treachery.

The anticounterculture animus wasn't sheer snarling negativity. It also took the form of the disenchanted consensus that media elites take for seriousness. It could be played for yuks on Family Ties, where a hippie pedigree is the parents' most conspicuous badge of buffoonery. Or, best of all, it could legitimate the corporate order to a prodigal generation, as in The Big Chill. In the ecstatic climax of that boomer revisionist text, a group of hippies-cum-yuppies absolve themselves of the crassest materialism by embracing its inevitability, mocking the failure of all their '60s ideals except the libidinal ones. Failure at best, moral collapse at worst: Such was the acceptable range of appraisal of the decade that was "the historic apex of progressive achievement," Sirota glumly notes.

Against this drumbeat of failure and dysfunction in the collective, the media sought to counterpose tropes of the hero: the positive-thinking underdog and the transcendent subaltern. Michael Jordan, Steven Spielberg, and Bill Cosby all embodied this ethos, albeit in diverse ways. They could sell a shoe, an attitude, a warm and fuzzy feeling for you to attach your commercial message to. But they stood for nothing beyond their semiotic utility—they couldn't, thanks to the policing powers of the profit motive. Jordan declined to endorse a black candidate in his home state because "Republicans buy sneakers, too." Cosby's show was the most popular of the decade, actually exerting a huge influence on attitudes about race among the young, but he knew not to make race a topic on any single episode.

Sirota's account of the decade's cultural revanche is one-sided—it's a polemic, remember. Nevertheless, he tells the tale with wit and subtlety—stressing, for example, the way that adept mythmaking, wedded to new media technologies, exerted a strong pull on his mind and those of others who feasted on '80s pop culture, and in the process transformed the politics of a nation. His book should be required reading for strategists on the left—as should Martin's, for that matter. But the story that really needs to be told is the saga of the young conservative cadres of the '80s being groomed for power. They are the decade's victors, and to them go the spoils—at least until a different, and far less secret, populist formation on the left stirs to life and takes them back.

David Mulcahey is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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