Distrust of elites and institutions is an all-time high, changing American politics in ways we haven’t seen before. This is evident in the disorganized scramble for leadership positions in the House of Representatives, and it’s also evident in surges of support for anti-establishment candidates for the Presidency. Essentially, ordinary people are disgusted with the decisions of both major parties since 9/11, as manifested through the Patriot Act, Medicare expansion, bailouts like TARP, and Obamacare.
This week’s Benghazi Committee’s grilling of Hillary Clinton exemplifies everything ordinary Americans hate about politics: an apparent zero-sum game where the Democrats and Republicans, and their press allies, appear more interested in outmaneuvering their opponents than in producing solutions for hardworking citizens. No country with a viable third party – and most other First World countries have at least that – could afford such transparently Manichean brinksmanship. And no matter who “wins” Benghazi – if Republicans, in the end, have sullied Clinton or sullied themselves – the ultimate winner remains Wall Street and the ultimate loser remains the ordinary Americans on Main Street.
Some historians date this intractable stalemate to the second term of the Reagan Administration – and the Joe Biden-led opposition to Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court – and so perhaps it’s appropriate that this week we were reminded not only of Biden but also of one of the best films from that four-year period, Back to the Future. Some political writers couldn’t resist making connections. One of them, Heather Wilhelm at Real Clear Politics, offered a standard Republican-partisan hack job labeled “The Biff Tannen Presidency,” where she compared the movie bully to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – the latter being her nemesis, because of her loyalty to the GOP establishment. For Wilhelm, Democrats and Trump are bullies, and real Americans like her are Marty McFlys who must stand up to them. The truth, however, is that Back to the Future’s politics are a little less doctrinaire than Wilhelm purports. The truth is that all these articles about “What Back to the Future Part 2 Got Right About 2015” reflect a longing for an imagined America that liberals and conservatives have both specifically failed to promise and deliver.
Some liberals may be surprised to learn that conservatives have found comfort in Back to the Future ever since Ronald Reagan chuckled at the original film’s joke at his own expense – and then went on to quote it in his next State of the Union speech (“where we’re going, we don’t need roads”) and cite the film as one of his favorites. Crispin Glover’s character was largely written out of the sequels because of the actor’s resistance to filming what Glover called the shallow materialism of the “improved” 1985 in the first film’s ending. Back to the Future is known as one of the first films to make extensive use of “product placement” – Pepsi, Burger King, Mountain Dew, Nike, and other products appear in ways that don’t seem all that organic to the narrative. This article in the Atlantic brings this up and as concludes that the franchise, and its many sponsors of Back to the Future Day, including Oreo, Target, Nike, Skype, Frontier Airlines, Toyota, Jetpack Joyride, Pepsi, and Nescafe, showed that the Future (and our present) is merely a corporate exercise in selling us things.
And of course there’s this scathing judgment rendered in the early 1990s by Susan Jeffords:
For who is Doc Brown other than Ronald Reagan himself? He has allied himself with technology in the name of progress; survived an assassination attempt (at the hands of Reagan’s chief targets, the Libyans!); acted as a surrogate father; turned to science-fiction tales for his inspirations (Doc’s childhood reading led him to want to build a time machine; Reagan’s viewing of The Day the Earth Stood Still led him to envision his own Star Wars program); fought a future filled with crime, drugs, and idleness; enabled a dysfunctional lower class family to improve its wealth and social status; returned an American family to its values of nurturance and success; and found his own personal history not in the hothouse parlors of the East but in the open spaces of the Wild West. Ranging over history, apparently in control of time, Ronald Reagan and Doc Brown come to stand as surrogate fathers, supplying symbolic leadership to a generation of youth whose futures seemed to have opened up by their visions of technological wizardry and moral instruction. Both, by the end of the decade, seem to have gone beyond time itself, to have left the limitations of history and entered into the realm of fantasy, glory, and dreams.
All of this may come as something of a shock to liberals who love the film, especially those who passed around this meme this week:
And it is true, as reported this week in The Daily Beast, that Bob and Bob (Gale and Zemeckis, who wrote the trilogy) based Part II’s casino-owning, bombastic Biff at least partly on Donald Trump – should that be a surprise? Can you name any other casino owners, then or now? (Jimmy Kimmel riffed on this when he got Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd on his stage the other day.) So if you’re a liberal who currently sees Trump as the worst sort of boogeyman, it’s not a large leap to equate Trump and Biff and say that the franchise is about standing up to the sort of bullies that the current GOP seems to be embracing.
One of the interesting thing about America’s more beloved films – say, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings – is that they often lend themselves to ideologically oppositional “readings.” In other words, left-wingers and right-wingers can both say, “See? This film agrees with me.” So it is with Back to the Future, but I’d like to argue here that the film’s true north is less liberal, less conservative, less partisan, and more proud of simple America can-do-ism, and that’s one reason that its 2015 celebration is so perfectly attuned to our current anti-partisan, anti-Wall Street, pro-Main Street mood.
Back to the Future Part II invites reflection upon the bipartisan, one might say non-partisan, consensus-driven achievements of America between 1955 and 1985 (or 1989, when the film was made). This was a time when the government and private industry worked hand in hand toward scientific achievement – as a matter of existential necessity, lest the Soviets blow us up or take over the moon. This was also the time that futurists projected that the 21st century would resemble Tomorrowland and The Jetsons – and after that “Zeerusted,” that 1984-reading reactionaries countered with Blade Runner, The Terminator, and Brazil. Back to the Future Part II might be said to chart a middle course between utopia and dystopia, but like the Kennedy-era futurists, it fundamentally expects that we could continue our rate of innovation. As it turned out, we couldn’t.
In the original script of Back to the Future, Doc Brown was a renegade from the Nevada nuclear-testing program. At some point Gale or Zemeckis realized that they didn’t need such a convoluted plot; audiences would accept that Doc Brown was just a wacky inventor, because after all, look at what people like Steve Jobs had cooked up in their California garages! This had the added benefit of celebrating the long-time striver. In Back to the Future Part II’s 2015, 47-year-old Marty McFly tries to shortcut his way to success, but fails. The film judges him harshly for this, warning him to make his future a good (and better) one. The film is saying: let’s reward people who don’t shortcut, who work hard all their lives. This is in opposition to both current parties who vote for outsourcing and other policies that cause Americans to spend so much time moving from job to job.
Terrorism has been a cover-of-Time-magazine-level problem since the 1980s, and we’ve seen Democrats and Republicans respond to it more or less in unison, fighting unwinnable wars and removing our Fourth Amendment rights at home. What we haven’t seen in real life is someone like a Doc Brown, who converts lemons into lemonade, or more specifically terror-acquired plutonium into time-travel. This ain’t the work of Reagan or any other government official or big business that we know of: this is just small-time out-of-the-garage American knowhow. This is the kind of entrepreneurial jujitsu that we ought to be doing, but aren’t.
Something changed after the 1980s that made our current War on Terror harder to win. Perhaps it was winning the Cold War, perhaps it was the 1986 Challenger disaster, perhaps it was a decade of Detroit getting clobbered by Japanese cars, but we no longer make things as in the heyday of 1955-1989, and we no longer have a government supporting small businesses that do. Oh sure, we’re still great with software and time-wasting websites, but we no longer build new objects that will last for a decade, smartphones very much included. It doesn’t make sense to complain – “oh but Back to the Future didn’t predict the internet!” because it also didn’t fail to predict it. The internet could be part of the film’s 2015. But the film’s 2015 isn’t part of us – at least, Doc Brown’s calculations weren’t correct.
The Atlantic charges that Back to the Future II projected a vision of branding and capitalism run amok, and that everyone saying “Where’s my hoverboard? Where’s my self-tying shoes?” just proves that the film was right that Americans have become shallow materialists. It’s a little more complicated, though: all those articles and all their commenters are, whether they know it or not, essentially wondering what happened to a maker society that we lost sometime after 1989. Before, Dick Tracy and Star Trek could project gadgets like radio watches and TV-phones, and then we’d just make them! So it’s not that people want to define themselves via self-hydrating pizzas or flying cars, but that their existence would prove that we’re not a society in decline – the society that both parties seem to be dragging us toward. In Back to the Future Part II’s 2015, Main Street is a fun place of flying cars, hoverboards, flexible jackets, 3-D projections that bite you, extend-o-bats, and reality-goggles. In our real-life 2015, Main Street is the place that the Democrats and Republicans have forgotten about on behalf of Wall Street.
Fans know that the Back to the Future trilogy presents five different versions of Main Street: 1) an 1880s version, with all the expected trappings of every Hollywood Western town you’ve ever seen, 2) a 1950s version, with “Mr. Sandman” playing over a halcyon world of pressed shirts and helpful gas-station attendants, 3) a 1980s version, with aerobics classes, a theater playing porn, and a frozen clock tower, 4) an alternative 1980s version, with a 27-floor casino dominating the square where the clock tower used to be, and 5) a 2015 version, with a theater playing the latest Jaws film, a frozen clock tower, and an over-saturation of screens and posters. Compared to any other time travel story you can name, the franchise centralizes the town square, or what we may as well call Main Street, as its lead character’s (Marty’s) central entry point into public life, as the bar by which he measures the vicissitudes of time. That’s another leap toward populism: if it’s good for the people of Main Street, it’s probably good enough for the rest of us.
Right now on the far left, we’ve heard the Bernie Sanders wing praise Main Street over Wall Street; on the far right, we’ve heard the Chamber of Commerce praise small business. But when Democrats get together, they do what Goldman Sachs says to do; when the GOP gets together, as at their 2012 convention, all their “small business owners” are millionaires. In five different periods, Back to the Future suggests a Main Street located on none of these grids. The franchise’s version of 2015 is corporate – look at all the branding everywhere – and yet it still maintains a kind of non-chain flavor. The store that sells the almanac doesn’t appear to be anything like a Target, and the Café 80s is original enough to have an old-school, obscure Wild West machine as its only arcade game. People are willing to make concessions to corporations to get things moving – note how the unwelcome porno house has been replaced by a “Holomax.” It’s a Main Street in a small town that actually works – that hasn’t been abandoned by both parties or converted into some kind of series of craft-beer-type outlets (as satirized so well in recent episodes of South Park).
Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be so comforted by a franchise with such fundamentally Leave it to Beaver values; conservative Republicans shouldn’t be so comforted that they’ve been rear-guard-fighting the Great Society for 30 years now, making Back to the Future’s projected inventions less likely. Less partisan populists, on the other hand, should be happy about this surge of support for the franchise, proving that a more consensus-driven 2015 is still appealing to wide swaths of Americans. Tweeting “where is my hoverboard?” is the wrong question. What we should be asking is, where’s our Wall Street-ignoring, maker-saturated Main Street?