Back to Our Future

Back to Our Future

Long before Sarah Palin, pop culture of the 1980s valorized “going rogue.” Americans are still paying the price.


Editor’s Note: The following is an abridged excerpt from Back to Our Future, a new book by David Sirota.
When it launched in 1988, the Just Do It campaign was an instant and groundbreaking success. Ayn Rand may previously have outlined the Objectivist rationale for individualism and narcissism, but Nike’s slogan (and all the other rip-offs) mass-marketed that individualism and narcissism as aspirational theology.

And yet, for all of Just Do It’s instant success, that 1980s campaign took five years to produce its most famous ad of all. “I am not a role model,” said Charles Barkley as he scowled at the camera in 1993. “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” Then, as always, silence, and a black screen pierced by the white lettered words, Just Do It.

The spot went beyond sports and way beyond product advertising (a sneaker wasn’t even mentioned); it was definitive social commentary, and it made a huge splash. Pundits pontificated on its meaning, talk shows discussed its message, and the New York Times devoted an entire editorial to it, calling the spot “the most subversive sneaker commercial of all time.” When asked who makes the right endorser, a Nike talent scout answered, “I’m looking for a special attitude,” a mix of brooding lonerism and righteous rebellion—not merely because the company wanted to differentiate its brand but because it wanted to appropriate the particular form of individualism that was already in ascendance. Its intuition finely tuned to the cultural moment, Nike understood that in teaching us to worship the individual Jump Man and see ourselves as potential superheroes, the 1980s was defining exactly what kind of superheroes the youngest generation should emulate—the self-sufficient renegades, the seething rebels, the “outlaws with morals,” as one Nike executive called them.

The children of the eighties didn’t just learn to bow down to cultural gods nor learn to see ourselves as future heroes as long as we Just Do It. We learned that Just Doing It means “taking matters into our own hands,” and “shooting first, asking questions later.”

It’s easy to forget that America was once a country that largely embraced “big government” and its “everyone’s in this together” message. And it’s easy to forget how rapidly that changed. In just a single decade, we went from a nation that rewarded proponents of the New Deal and Great Society with massive electoral majorities to a country that, according to public opinion surveys, now despises government as much as it detests rapacious health insurance corporations.

One oft-repeated theory claiming to explain this shift against government revolves exclusively around politics. In the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1980s—a decade that saw indictments of government officials spike by 150 percent—polls showed public confidence in government cratering. Ronald Reagan was winning hearts and minds with quips like, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ ”—rhetoric presenting the government as the deceptive serial killer who everyone says seemed like such a nice guy before he started eating neighbors’ livers with fava beans. And the Republican president was waging this scorched-earth campaign just as free-market think tankers, technocrats and propagandists were applying their privatize-everything theories to the world’s economies.

When the go-go 1980s economic boom hit, it didn’t seem to matter that much of the boom was the result of good old-fashioned Keynesian deficit spending by the government (think Reagan defense budgets). All the electorate seemed to know (or care about) was that the boom was happening at the same time our beloved cowboy president was vilifying government and venerating the titans of private industry as “heroes for the eighties.” Hence, many voters made the specious cause-and-effect leap, crediting Reagan’s policy-fake but rhetorically real antigovernment posture for turning on the bright lights and reviving the big city.

Yet, while politics clearly played a role in stirring up anger at public institutions, crediting only politicians and their rhetoric for Americans’ shift in favor against government is too oversimplified, too reliant on the hackneyed pendulum theory that purports to explain every event and trend as the normal ideological oscillation of American elections. This was anything but normal. This was also not just a modern expression of our founders’ rational-but-not-paranoid distrust of state power. This was something deeper, a shift at least partially rooted in all those 1980s television shows and movies that are still replayed on cable TV.

These, as much as the elected officials, party platforms and political ads, were beacons of two enduring messages: The government is benignly ineffectual and the government is straight-up evil.

The Fall Guy told the story of a Hollywood stuntman who doubles as a bounty hunter. The Equalizer revolved around a former covert operative who does penance for his past government sins by offering protection to people in desperate situations. Highway to Heaven featured an archangel being chauffeured around America by a scraggly ex-cop, fixing American society along the way. Hardcastle & McCormick followed a former judge tracking down the criminals he failed to put away—a renegade “whose respect for the U.S. Constitution roughly equals Ronald Reagan’s respect for the Communist Manifesto,” as People magazine noted. And there was Remington Steele, Riptide, Simon & Simon, Spenser: For Hire, Magnum, P.I. and Moonlighting— each about mercenary detectives and their crusades for the greater good. Indeed, if you turned on the tube in the 1980s during prime time, you were all but guaranteed to see a world whose challenges were being solved—if at all—by some form of outside vigilante who was filling the vacuum left by the government.

When the public learned that Reagan had circumvented Congress and sent troops on covert missions in Latin America, Oliver North, the colonel who orchestrated the enterprise from his perch at the National Security Council, bet his future on American culture’s new embrace of the rogue. In nationally televised testimony before a joint Congressional committee, North didn’t deny the charges against him. Instead, he gambled that if he morally justified his illegal actions as the internal triumph of “the best interests of our country” over governmental incompetence, he’d be celebrated as an “outlaw with morals” and find the same demoted-but-heroized fate as Captain Kirk in Star Trek IV. (The hit movie was dominating theaters just months before North testified.)

And guess what? North gambled correctly. In the same 1987 Time magazine poll that showed 58 percent of citizens believed North “acted illegally,” even more than that, 67 percent, labeled him a “true patriot.”

With both Hollywood and politics fetishizing the ethos of the renegade since the 1980s, the cumulative effect over the years has been profound. Even Barack Obama seized upon the notion of the rogue, framing the Democratic presidential primary as a David-vs.-Goliath battle in which an unconventional legislator with postpartisan politics battled Hillary Clinton, the epitome of outdated convention and ultrapartisan polarization. Since his election, he’s gone rogue himself by preserving or expanding many of the national security policies of his predecessor.

“Going rogue” makes for an audience-pleasing plot, but it’s not a blueprint for designing, say, a new healthcare apparatus, an effective job-creation policy, or a much needed financial regulatory regime. As a political and public-policy philosophy, it is the same antigovernment rallying cry that Obama opponents are so effectively using to weaken and obstruct most of his farthest-reaching proposals, the same antigovernment rallying cry that led us into a financial crisis and then the Great Recession.

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