What was so bad about the 1980s?

I was going to write a birthday post, but most days I feel like I have profoundly screwed up my life, and I have to deal with the overwhelming sense of dread that comes with thinking about how I’ll never get a do-over. So… I wrote this instead.

2018 is bleak. I don’t really like playing the “better” or “worse” game, because human beings have done (and continue to do) some pretty atrocious things. In certain regards, our current time might be “worse” than the world I was born into 35 years ago today, but, then, Ronald Reagan was president when I was born, so worse is truly a relative term.

Your judgment of good or bad, better or worse, depends on what you value. When you’re trying to evaluate the state of the world, you’ll probably run into internal inconsistencies and conflicts about said values, especially if you do the work of asking yourself if your actions support your values.

But to be pleased with living in the US in 2018, then it seems like you would have to value the following:

That said, we had this coming.

Some will blame Trump, reality TV, Russia, social media, the GOP, Cambridge Analytica, neoliberalism, millennials (probably), for the current state of the United States. Of course, social cause and effect doesn’t work so neatly, and the US’s material “success” as a nation is rooted in genocide, slavery, other forms of labor exploitation of women, immigrants, etc., imperialism in various forms, to name a few. I don’t care what pretty words are written in the Declaration of Independence, there has always been a disconnect between the supposed cornerstone values of democracy, and the actual political, legal, and economic practices in the US.

That is, at some point you can be so rich that rules and laws, let alone moral or social obligations, simply don’t apply to you — if you’re white. And from that position of untouchable influence, you can enforce rules inequitably.

All that said, some of the particulars of 2018 can be traced back to a few things that happened in the “greed is good” 1980s. (And, of course, the historical conditions that allowed the 1980s to happen, going all the way back at least to the Enlightenment. But I’m narrowing my focus here.)


I recently had someone on Twitter try to argue with me that “higher profits allow businesses to compete more aggressively with each other, and this competition drives prices as low as possible,” and I continue to be baffled by this line of thinking — presuming that one lives in reality. This strange faith in “the free market” rests on the assumption that businesses won’t try to avoid competition. But here in reality, bigger businesses buy out smaller businesses unless they’re ordered not to.

An example. In 1984, there were 50 independent media companies that owned most of the media in the US. There were laws that restricted ownership supposedly to keep the media more diverse and unbiased. Under the Reagan administration, the FCC started to deregulate, increasing the number of stations one entity could own. This continued to snowball even after the 1980s, notably with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and today there are only six media conglomerates in the US. Six. They control 90% of the media consumed in the US — movies, internet, television, music, video games, publishing, news.

These are multinational billion dollar conglomerates that control the spread of information, all while trying to maximize profits. This has fostered the US’s media and cultural imperialism, especially in the internet age where information is spread so easily. This also means that, ultimately, these giant conglomerates politically support deregulation, oppose the public domain, and have no interest in reporting anything remotely looking like critique of such things.


CNN started in 1980. I feel like I don’t need to say anything more than this.

They say there’s one major news story that affected your childhood. Mine was the Gulf War. I remember being in second grade and seeing war footage on TV. The Gulf War was broadcast in real time from the war front. I was too young to realize that what was happening was war as entertainment.

EnterNot the 1980s, but enabled by the 1980s. CNN, 1991.

In order to keep viewer attention for 24 hours a day, news is sensationalized, made to seem urgent, exciting, and dramatic. It’s essentially like tragedy porn.

In a 24-hour cycle, news has to be continuous, constantly updated all throughout the day. It has to operate much faster than a daily news cycle (the morning newspaper and the nightly news). When news moves this fast and you’re a reporter, you can’t wait to hear back from sources to verify your information if you need to present it immediately to beat out your competitors (one of the other five conglomerates). So “news” is often presented as an opinion. And most people cannot tell the difference between an opinion and a fact — or at least what counts as a fact in generally-agreed upon epistemic conditions. Here in 2018, many people seem unable to tell the difference between an opinion and hate speech, or an opinion and a blatant lie.

Kovach and Rosenstiel warned that this was “journalism by assumption.” And, well, they’re right. You can make assumptions by logical abduction and be correct and largely unbiased if you’re Sherlock Holmes, but most people aren’t Sherlock Holmes.


Speaking of the Gulf War, the US was causing problems internationally for a long time before the 1980s. In the 20th century, a lot of dictators got US support and financing because the US was afraid of communist rebels, particularly in South America. The US helped organize a military coup to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected government in the 1950s, which ultimately meant supporting 36 years of genocide. The US opposed the democratic socialist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the late 1970s (more on that below). The US intervened in El Salvador in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, trying to prevent the FMLN from taking over, which meant they supported death squads that “disappeared” a lot of civilians.

All of these interventions fostered violence, instability, poverty, and migration. But the Reagan administration did some additionally stupid things.

The US armed Saddam Hussein in Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War, even after it was abundantly clear to the rest of the world and the CIA that Hussein was using chemical weapons — a UN no-no. (Reagan also illegally sold weapons to Iran at the same time.) Reagan illegally supplied weapons to Nicaragua in support of the Contras, who were terrorists trying to overthrow the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration explicitly supported attacks on civilians. The US also supported mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, which contributed to the formation of Al Qaeda. And, Reagan supported noted drug trafficker Manuel Noriega in Panama, until Noriega got too tight with Fidel Castro for Ronnie’s liking.

The reason why there are so many displaced Central Americans needing to emigrate today is in large part because of the US opposing democratic and socialist governments and generally interfering where they simply don’t belong. And it’s worth noting that the US was/is so afraid of socialism, because socialist countries are far less likely to let the US in to exploit them economically.

Never let the term fool you. “Globalization” is the new colonialism.


The “war on drugs” was Nixon’s thing (to explicitly target black people and hippies but also ended up making drug cartels more efficient and ruthless), but Reagan doubled down on it in the 1980s. He pushed for mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, along with the forfeiture of money and property, which was of course a policy used to target poor people, specifically poor black people. And the racism of Reagan’s policy was solidified when his administration vilified crack cocaine, found more often in urban areas and billed as more harmful than snorted cocaine, the form of the same drug favored by white people who vote Republican.

This kind of mandatory minimum drug sentencing has been deemed cruel and ineffective — which means it actually is effective at providing the fuel needed to keep the prison industrial complex thriving and racist, and why Jeff Sessions wants it back in those states that relaxed their policies during the Obama administration.

And George H. W. Bush did more of the same.

(If you’ve never read Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun or watched The 13th, I recommend them for a lot more on the 20th-century conditions led to the 1980s.)


New York Times Magazine just released a report on how climate change was acknowledged in the 1980s by entities that now deny it (fossil fuel companies and the Republican party — though the author curiously doesn’t put any blame on them) and how measures to curb rising global temperatures never happened.

The Atlantic challenges the way the NYT pieced was framed. Because it does seem that there are some specific actors and actions that can be blamed. Exxon cut its budget for climate research in 1983 and essentially eliminated it by 1989. The Reagan administration eliminated solar energy research in 1980 and then tried to eliminate the Energy Department and de-fund carbon dioxide research. In 1989, the Bush I administration tried to censor NASA and NOAA climate research, and they let John Sununu run amok — likely preventing the EPA from negotiating a 1989 UN treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

When I was a kid, I remember reading 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth (published in 1990, i.e., we knew, we just didn’t care) and being terrified of the planet becoming a barren wasteland. Of course, in hindsight, I should have been afraid of water.

The thing that’s really going to harm us is increasing ocean temperatures, which leads to sea level rise and no more sea ice, which is needed to regulate global currents. Warmer ocean temperatures also mean more and stronger hurricanes. Islands and coastal regions are doomed, but every place on the planet will be vulnerable to extreme weather.

And the worst part of this is that people are going to start profiting off of disaster prevention and disaster relief by selling useless products to the poor, while the rich only will be able to prevent and mitigate disaster for themselves and their assets.


I’m not saying things weren’t bad before the 1980s. In fact, I’m the first person to point out that people have been terrible since the dawn of civilization. There were conditions that led to the 1980s. The Cold War and an irrational fear of communism. Wage stagnation that started in the 1970s. Henry Ford and the US’s inexplicable love of the internal combustion engine. Classical liberalism. Slavery.

But we are still reaping the relatively direct consequences of many of Ronald Reagan’s, Ted Turner’s, John Sununu’s, et al. actions. But it’s more than a few bad apples in powerful positions making profoundly bad, stupid decisions. Any other Republican in Reagan’s place would have made most of the same choices, and Democratic presidents following have maintained a lot of this as status quo, or been stymied by Republican Congresses/major lobbyist lackeys. There still are human beings out there today who really and truly believe in “trickle-down economics.”

There are reasons why the Reagans of the world make harmful decisions. Those reasons often start and end with money, but they also often either don’t care about or specifically encourage consequences that will necessarily harm black people and other people of color. There is also a very clear systemic hatred of the poor in the US, which is wrapped up in racism and misogyny — remember, in the beginning, to vote you had to be white, male, and in most states own property/pay taxes.

We simply don’t live in a functioning representative democracy where we vote for public servants to make policy that reflects our interests, because a majority of US citizens today actually want healthcare for all, stricter gun laws, Roe v. Wade to stand, and to raise federal minimum wage.

When I started going to school in the late 1980s, I learned the pledge of allegiance and was made to recite it every morning in a bizarre ritual that even at age five I was uncomfortable with. We say these words. But we don’t actually value the ideas behind them. We don’t value democracy or liberty and justice for all or the tabula rasa. If climate change is any indication, we don’t even value our own lives.

So I guess my point is threefold.

(1) Humans are predictable. Even if Trump seems like one of a kind, no one should be surprised by anything that’s happening now, because it’s different iterations of the same thing that’s been going on since well before the 1980s. But the 1980s should serve as a reminder, because we still remember it.

(2) Whatever is happening now will have consequences 35 years from now. I’m not entirely convinced that in 35 years humanity won’t be anything more than a handful of sad billionaires clinging to the Pacific garbage patch after having destroyed everything else.

(3) It is a complete and utter myth that “progress is slow.” When people use “progress” that way, they mean “being less morally repugnant as a society.” The thing is, we could stop being morally repugnant as a society tomorrow. We actively choose not to. We choose to value personal wealth/property and artificial social, racial, gendered hierarchies created specifically to oppress. We don’t see the unbridled accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few as very, clearly wrong.

I’ve always been a big picture thinker, and the big picture is bleak, but the 1980s were a particularly bleak spot. And I maintain the only good things to come out of them were Public Enemy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Fishbone’s best album, Fraggle Rock, and maybe me — depending on who’s asking.

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