We’re on the same calendar sequence as the one for ’80. Both are leap years, Olympic years (except for that US/NATO boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow), years that the LA Lakers went to the NBA Finals and the Phillies won the World Series. Both were tough years economically. I clearly remember the inflation rate being about 14 percent, a year after an 11 percent inflation rate (or was it 14 percent in ’79 and 11 percent in ’80? – it really doesn’t matter). It was a year of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. As a sixth-grader, I’d become more aware of the larger world of geopolitics, pop culture and ideology than I would’ve thought possible even a year and a half earlier.
At home, things were better than they had been in years. My stepfather Maurice had jumped ship a month earlier — that first Saturday in October — saying that he couldn’t take it with my mother anymore. He’d taken half of the meat out of our two refrigerators (we used to order meat wholesale to save money in those halcyon days) and the only working TV in the house. Luckily I had struck up a friendship with a kid in my building named Tre, who was a couple of years younger, but very smart. Most of the TV viewing I did between October ’80 and April ’81 was in his mother and father’s apartment on the second floor of 616.
Tre’s wasn’t the only friendship that I valued back then. My best friend in those days was a kid named Starling, who shared many of my interests in politics, pop culture, history and religion. I admired him as much as admired any person up to that point in my life. He would eventually end our friendship over the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, as he was a Baptist who spent quite a bit of time attempting to get me saved (his father was a pastor).
But that wasn’t the main thing on our minds in October and early November. The ’80 election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Wilson Reagan had us both concerned. We knew that Carter hadn’t done the best job, that the economy was reeling from high inflation, job stagnation, and high interest rates. We also knew that Carter’s desperation to solve the hostage crisis made him look like a wimp, and it showed in his debates with Reagan. In the back of my mind, at least, I sensed that Carter had lost the election when those eight special forces soldiers died in a fiery crash in southern Iran in a vain attempt to rescue the hostages in early April ’80. I fully remember the image of a downed and virtually crushed helicopter on its side on the cover of Time Magazine from the second week in April. I felt bad, for the people who died and for Carter.
Yet I hadn’t given up. Starling and I had picked up on the rumors started by some truly afraid of our nation’s turn to the right that Reagan represented the Antichrist. After all, each part of his name had six letters! It makes me laugh now, but I seriously believed that Reagan would destroy the lives of the people I knew in a tangibly direct way.
It was a strange time and time of my life really. I was just starting to get into music, listening to everything from Billy Joel, Donna Summer, Kenny Loggins and The Bee Gees to Stephanie Mills, Teddy Pendergrass, and Luther Vandross (even though I really didn’t know who he was at that point). In the weeks going into Election Day, I found myself intrigued by Pink Floyd’s The Wall, singing to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” dancing to Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” and in attendance at a Sugar Hill Gang concert. There was a Disco backlash (fueled by anti-gay furor), an anti-Black backlash (fueled by affirmative action and economic uncertainty), an emerging fundamentalist Christian movement (represented in some ways by everyone from Pat Robertson to Jim Jones), and an anti-poor backlash (connected of course to race and ethnicity).
It was a time to be engaged in the political process, and I was. I asked every person I knew who they planned to vote for, argued with classmates about why Reagan was wrong for our country, and went to the polls on Election Day and challenged people with Reagan-Bush signs about their reasons for voting for “voodoo economics.” I sensed that Reagan didn’t represent me, didn’t care about people like me, and hoped that people like me would go away. I just didn’t think that there were millions of other people who wanted the same time.
To say the least, I was disappointed on November 4 of ’80 when Reagan obliterated Carter in the electoral college, ushering in the Reagan years. I’ve learned over the years not to see Reagan as the Antichrist. I’ve come to understand over the years that Reagan wasn’t the reason for the end of my friendships or for my family’s economic and social demise. I could no more hold Reagan responsible for the domestic violence I would experience in ’82 than I could my classmates. But Reagan’s trickle-down, supply-side, and anti-poor economic policies were never meant to help anyone falling into poverty, or for that matter, anyone not already highly educated and in a white-collar job. The Democratic Party couldn’t find anyone with the charm and optimism of Reagan, not in the ’80s. Nor could it redefine itself in a post-Civil Rights, post-New Deal coalition era. I only vaguely understood this during the ’80s.
What I knew immediately after the election, though, was that the optimism that I’d spent the first eleven years of my life growing up around was over. Our family’s attempt to cope turned into three years of Hebrew-Israelite bizarreness, a decade and a half of welfare poverty and seven years of domestic violence hell. It would be another twelve years before I heard anyone other than Jesse Jackson talk as if they represented all Americans, and by then, I was more cynical as a grad student than I am now. Slick Willie didn’t help matters.
My greatest hope is that tomorrow’s election does the exact opposite for me and all of the people I like and love that Election ’80 helped foster in my life in the ’80s. I agree with Obama. I can’t afford four more years of what I’ve lived through over the past twenty-eight, and I don’t think that the rest of the country can either.