The pop-cultural connections between the 1980s and 1950s went further than just remakes. Back to the Future sent Marty McFly from 1985 to 1955, the 1986 Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me took place in 1959, and Dead Poets Society looked at life in a boy’s school in 1959. The 50s weren’t the only decade of concern for ’80s movie makers, as Star Wars and Indiana Jones had their roots in adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, and the monumental The Big Chill contrasted the lives of Yuppies to the idealistic 60s and 70s, but it was the Eisenhower era that received the most attention at the time.
Part of the impetus for this look back stemmed from the same phenomenon as ’80s nostalgia today. By 1981, Baby Boomers rose to positions of power and influence and wanted to see their youth reflected back to them. And yes, people did do a lot of coke back then. However, the prime mover for the ’80s’ own 50s nostalgia may have more to do with the second half of Mike Nelson’s song: voting for Ronald Reagan.
Mourning in America
“It’s morning again in America,” declares a soft, but undeniably authoritative voice at the start of a famous ad for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. Lit with the glow of a rising sun, we see images of a newspaper delivery boy, families carrying goods into a new home, and a couple getting married. After listing the low unemployment and interest rates and higher marriage rates compared to 1980 and before, the voice closes by asking, “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?”
Reagan’s eight years in the executive office represented a reaction to what he and other conservatives deemed disruptions of the 60s and 70s. Where those years saw significant changes in the rights of minorities, workers, women, and queer people, conservatives saw the unraveling of the social order. They sought to put things right by heralding a return to the Eisenhower era, a period of economic stability after World War II that saw mass suburbanization, the birth of the nuclear family, and the establishment of capitalism as the country’s sole economic system.
Conservative power players of the ’80s, ranging from political figures such as Pat Buchanan and William Rehnquist, to religious leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, framed the 1980s as a continuation of the 1950s, painting that period as a bright point in American history.
But as the “Morning in America” ad explicitly shows with its pictures of middle-class white people and heterosexual marriage, that was a high point available to only a narrow minority of Americans who enjoyed the success of the 1980s (the rest were to take what “trickled down” to them).