I’m sitting in a coffee shop on Wednesday afternoon in a midsize, noncoastal American city. A fiftysomething is screaming into his cell phone; the woman sitting next to me is frantically blogging about her favorite new movie, Julie & Julia, a flick about the success of a narcissist and her blog; a pair of tweens just cut the checkout line; and I just got a spam e-mail for penis enlargement.
A lot of this is harmless, of course. There’s no great damage done when your buddy spams you with pictures of himself getting lap-danced at a Vegas strip joint. The future of the republic is not imperiled by a rise in the number of assholes who drive over the median to cut in front of traffic at the freeway’s clogged exit. And sure, the planet will survive in spite of the rise in cosmetic surgeries.
There is, however, potential for damage when the achievement of fame and wealth becomes the central organizing objective of society. The future of the republic is threatened by a sharp increase in the number of people who care only about themselves, and the earth’s ecosystem may not survive the scourge of the smog-belching and gas-guzzling “me” culture that first spread in the late 1970s and 1980s. This modern blast of narcissism all but defines America now, an ugly symptom of a deeper infection that predates the rise of the Internet.
The deification of the individual and further suggestion that self-help can turn us into divinities ultimately gave rise to the virus in the machine. That’s what modern narcissism really is—a pernicious mix of qualities defined by three phrases that start with self: selfishness, self-absorption, and self-importance.
Sure, since the country’s founding, the rich have been buying elections and a permanent aristocracy has been exerting undue influence on the government. But up until the mid-1980s, many Americans clung to the civics-class insistence that middle-class folks playing Monopoly over beer and pizza were as important as that Mr. Peanut–looking guy in the top hat. As both ’80s class divisions and pop culture implicitly reinforced ninth-century notions of stratification between the Venerables and the Vassals, another strain of equally powerful propaganda offered a sliver of hope. There, in the midst of exploding economic injustice, Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party was still paying homage to American Dreams sculpted from rags-to-riches hagiography.
In the 1980s, America forcefully doubled down on the propaganda side of the equation and bet the house on an aphorism that could have been Horatio Alger’s own: Just Do It.
The particular philosophy of Just Do It and its myriad spin-offs would attempt to harmonize the 1980s cult of the individual with our old-fashioned populist fantasies of opportunity and equality. Athletics was the natural messenger. Newly commercialized but still infused with ancient folklore and notions of meritocracy, professional sports in the 1980s was on its way to becoming the 10th-largest industry in America.
Nike capitalized on the moment with its 1987 “Revolution” ad. Instead of yet another campaign showing only sensational athletes and their dazzling skills, this spot mixed black-and-white clips of those superstars with shots of regular people of all ages participating in amateur sports.
Soon after the “Revolution” campaign was launched, Portland adman Dan Wieden convened a discussion with Nike executives about how to push the ads into the even more lucrative direction of personal inspiration. “What we need to convey is just go ahead, just fuck it,” he said.
What emerged was one of the most trenchant slogans of all time: Just Do It. The phrase stipulated that the Kings were still worthy of worship, the Great Man Theory of History still intact. At the same time, it also implied that lesser individuals toiling in obscurity could realistically hope to one day claim Great Man status for themselves.
Nike wasn’t content to just show regular people overcoming regular challenges it emphasized superhuman achievement with the wild-eyed exuberance of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not episode. One of the first Just Do It spots, for instance, featured Craig Blanchette excelling at basketball and racquetball—and then revealed that he was actually in a wheelchair.
In a 2009 CNBC interview, Wieden correctly pointed out that the late-1980s idea of Just Do It “spreads like a disease,” and it did so because it turned a zeitgeist that was already metastasizing throughout the political and popular culture into a slogan.
At the same time Nike was formulating its Just Do It ads, Reebok was launching its own “U.B.U.” campaign. Soon, E*Trade, founded in 1982, was dumping ad dollars into a “Fire Your Broker” campaign.
Maybe the best example of the intensifying trend came from the military. In 1981 the Army launched its “Be All That You Can Be” campaign. Explicitly about individual self-empowerment, that motto eventually became the even more self-focused “Army of One” slogan.
The pitch worked. You could see the returns in Reagan’s popularity and in the military’s significantly improved public-approval ratings. And you could see it in the booming self-help industry—an industry whose very moniker, self-help, is a synonym of Just Do It.
Today this industry generates an estimated $10 billion in annual revenue and is so omnipresent that it’s hard to imagine American culture ever existing without it. And though the early and mid-1980s are widely regarded as the big bang moment for this self-centric universe, the Just Do It ethos has been around in some form or another for the country’s entire existence. Phrases such as rugged individualism, anyone can grow up to be president, and land of opportunity are all earlier versions of the 1980s three-syllable endorsement of self-sufficiency. You get the sense that had he thought of it himself, Ben Franklin might have just as easily scrapped his “Join, or Die” refrain in favor of Just Do It’s aspirational theology.
But in the 1980s that old notion of self-sufficiency was transformed from a noble ethic of self-sacrifice into a justification for narcissistic self-absorption and selfishness. The promised rewards for Just Doing It became so great, and the multimedia exhortations to Just Do It so pervasive, that we became obsessed with Just Doing It without regard for anything else.
Between 1980 and 1995 the number of Americans who said they attended even one public meeting (PTA event, town hall meeting, etc.) declined by 33 percent, and between 1985 and 1994 active participation in community organizations dropped by 45 percent. And as participation in public and community-oriented institutions and charities began to decline in the 1980s, participation in the self-help industry started skyrocketing.
In politics, this narcissism found an outlet in support for more and more economically punitive politics. The social safety net, once the sign of a compassionate and civilized country, was ridiculed as a wasteful handout. The poor, once viewed as unfortunate casualties of inequality, were attacked—by Democrats as lazy, and by Republicans as selfish.
Technology certainly played a role in this rise of selfishness and greed in the ’80s; the Internet provided everyone with a personal platform even as it started to isolate us from each other. Those green screens and hulking RadioShack TRS-80 computers featured in Wall Street were the newfangled instruments that ended up distancing people from the human consequences of their greed.
Beginning in the 1980s, electronic trading detached the buyer from the seller, complex derivatives insulated the investor from the company, CDOs sequestered the lender from the borrower.
Taken together, the trends show a 1980s America deliberately replacing its we’re-all-in-this-together worldview with a Just Do It conceit that viewed any requirement for personal sacrifice as an obstacle to personal achievement and a roadblock on the way up Mount Olympus.
The attitudes of young people today (most of whom weren’t yet born in the 1980s) suggest that the decade did indeed initiate a radical and enduring shift in societal attitudes.
Consider the landmark 2007 study of more than 16,000 college students over the past 25 years. Researchers report that two-thirds of students notched above-average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory in 2006, a whopping 30 percent increase from 1982.
The increase is reflected in the economic attitudes of young people: A Higher Education Research Institute report released in 2010 found that three-quarters of college freshmen said being “very well off financially” was their top goal—a record high in the study’s four-decade history, and a 16 percent jump since 1980.
How does the resulting narcissism infect everything on a mass scale? In sports, it’s LeBron James nicknaming himself King, holding an hour-long television special about his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then explaining his basketball philosophy by saying, “It’s not about sharing, you know, it’s about everybody having their own spotlight.” In the words of Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, it’s “pop culture priests [who] have succeeded in filling the population with shame and nervous self-loathing to the point where [Americans see] anyone who isn’t rich and famous, or trying to be, as a loser.”
In politics, it’s a Republican president responding to 9/11 not by telling everyone to brace for collective sacrifice, but instead by telling us to go shopping. It’s a Democratic president reacting to the biggest oil spill in history with a declaration that “Americans can help” not through collective forfeiture, but by going on vacation and “continuing to visit the communities and beaches of the Gulf Coast.” It’s populist rage directed at anything that reeks of altruism.
In short, it’s Glenn Beck.
Not surprisingly, this product of the 1980s brands himself as a Just Do It success story—the alcoholic-turned-teetotaler who revived himself via the 1980s-born self-help boom, the “rugged individualist” who has become the most prominent proselytizer of narcissism in contemporary history. “I feel like I need to keep saying that word so it stays in the front of your and everybody’s mind—individual, individual, individual!” he wrote in a typical 2009 screed on Fox News’ website.
“We’re not all in this together,” Beck says. “It’s our independent spirit that has pulled us out of tougher jams than the one we’re in now.”
Since Walter Mondale was thoroughly humiliated in 1984 for challenging Just Do It narcissism by suggesting that rich people pay a little more in taxes, the “ask not what your country can do for you” idea has become a mantra of electoral suicide—whether it was John McCain in 2000 being crushed by voters for begging Americans to serve a cause “greater than themselves” or Howard Dean in 2003 being laughed off for saying the country needs to “make common sacrifice for the greater good.”
Since Cops debuted on Fox in early 1989 after the Hollywood writers’ walkout and became an immediate sensation, audiences have been uncontrollably drawn to the grotesquerie of unvarnished authenticity. Some cultural archaeologists carbon-date reality TV’s pure Just Do It–ness to two big bangs: Merv Griffin’s 1979 creation of Dance Fever and Ed McMahon’s 1983 launch of Star Search. Both shows’ raison d’être was individual aspiration to fame and fortune—Robin Leach’s “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”
Ultimately, the centrality of narcissists (The Osbournes, The Girls Next Door, etc.) and the preposterously contrived settings (Road Rules) is what separates the most voyeuristic reality television from documentary. And because these narcissists gallivant around in a seemingly Real World, we are led to believe that such attention-starved arrogance is perfectly normal, acceptable, tolerable, and, in fact, desirable.
As for the contest shows, when Dance Fever became So You Think You Can Dance and when Star Search became American Idol, television was simply boosting the decibel level of its message.
When we watch Susan Boyle, the frumpy old maid with the cat, suddenly become a superstar singer, and when we see Survivor’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck rewarded with a permanent commentator spot on ABC’s The View, our mind’s eye thinks it’s gazing into a looking glass, one whose reflection says those “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” are right there for the taking, if only we too Just Do It.
From the book Back to Our Future by David Sirota. Copyright © 2011 by David Sirota. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.