It’s not until the final half of the book that Sirota really lets his politics fly. He mounts a convincing, if excessively detailed, case for how politicians manipulating the media manipulationenabled runaway militarism; and traces the evolution of Huxtable-era racial attitudes into contemporary political discourse. (White America is okay with black people, but only if they’re appropriately ‘transcendent.’) By this point, readers are familiar enough with the source material/political subtext/bigger picture structure of Sirota’s arguments to see where he’s going pages before he gets there, and, more significantly, whether they’re willing to go with him. If you’ve still got the energy, one usually is.

That is, until the very last chapter. Invoking Fukuyama’s overplayed ‘end of history’ argument, Sirota wonders if American history really did culminate in the eighties, and if society is doomed to live out the decade, Groundhog Day-style, until further notice. His answer is no: grassroots politics are making a comeback, new college grads are going into public service, and the “1980s outlook is… outdated and inappropriate for the challenges at hand.” And this is where the book’s limitations are most obvious. Sirota uses his formative decade as an instrument for explaining pathologies in the American psyche—greed, rampant individualism—but never convincingly makes the case that these began, or ended, in the eighties. As a work of pop scholarship, Back to Our Future is impressive, but it could benefit from a lighter touch.

Click here for a complete Page Views archive.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Jessica Loudis is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Bookforum, The Believer, The New Republic, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other places, and at one point in her life she knew all the words to the Honduran and Jamaican national anthems.