From Charlie Sheen to Reagan nostalgia, the '80s just won't go away

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By David Sirota
Friday, March 11, 2011; 4:00 PM

Charlie Sheen is hogging the spotlight. "Tron" and "Wall Street" have just left theaters. Moammar 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.


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