The holidays are always a time for nostalgia, and this year has seen a growing outbreak of nostalgia for one decade in particular. Democrats are ranking Bill Clinton (who left office ranked by most historians in the 25-30 range of our forty-odd Presidents) now tied with JFK (and well ahead of that Cold War “perpetrator” Truman, as Democrats of the Gore Vidal/Howard Zinn school remember him). And the face of 1990s Republicanism, Newt Gingrich, is now poised to win the 2012 nomination.
One of the best politico-cultural books published at the end of the ’90s was David Frum’s bestseller, The ’70s: How We Got Here. It rightly pointed out that years after “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!”, barking civil-rights dogs, and even the early ’70s “Impeach Nixon” were consigned to the ash heap of history, it was the Ford/Carter era — gay rights, abortion (Roe vs. Wade) and women in the workplace, quota-based affirmative action and busing, violent slasher movies and “jiggly” nighttime soaps, and the 1978-80 “tax revolt” — that really established the grammar of domestic politics for the next two decades.
As someone who came of age in the 1990s, I’m becoming more and more convinced that we might be in need of a “sequel” (and what could be more ’70s, or ’90s, than a sequel?)
At the time, the 1990s suffered from a self-hatred worthy of a Philip Roth novel. Conservatives called them the “Holiday from History”. Liberal Newsweek contemptuously damned the 2000 election that capped them off (which turned out to be the most important and divisive election in postwar history) as “The Seinfeld Election: A Show About Nothing.” Yet the more I look back, and the more ’90s nostalgia rises today, the more I’m convinced that it was the other great decade that gave us life as we know it today — for better, and for worse.
For one, just as Ronald Reagan today is remembered for his myth than his (mostly positive) reality, every sentence about the 1990s is now legally required to begin with, “What didnt’cha like about it — the peace, or the prosperity?” in Democratic circles, just as Reagan’s name must always be mentioned with cathedral-like reverence on FoxNews. It seems today’s Democrats have decided if they couldn’t “beat” the canonization of St. Ronnie, they could at least join the game.
But ominously for today, the prosperity of the 1990s didn’t always work for those employed outside of Wall Street or Silicon Valley. If you went to work on December 30, 1989 at a thriving auto-parts factory in Flint Michigan, or a booming aerospace plant in Lakewood, Santa Ana, or Seattle — and ended your workday on December 30, 2000 greeting people at the big-box store or rockin’ a telemarketing cubicle, the 1990s were anything but “prosperous”.
In the Human Resources 1990s, the days when a Mary Richards or Peggy Olsen could walk into an office with their community-college degree, answer an ad, have a hiring interview, and start work all in the same day or two, faded to black. Technological change, while primitive by post-IPad standards, was hitting photon-torpedo speed: in 1989, “Email” was barely a word, and as late as January 1995, there were barely 10,000 known Internet websites, not just in America and Canada, but in the entire world. Just four or five years later — at the height of the Yahoo-Google-AOL ”dot com” era (with 3 million websites and counting) – we were living in a different virtual reality.
And while there was “peace” (except for little tiffs like Oklahoma City, Columbine, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Elian Gonzalez, Haiti, Bosnia, Mogadishu, Somalia, the 1998 embassy bombings, the USS Cole…) it was the decade when the homefront culture war boiled over. As the Cold War wound down in 1990, a Russian politician famously joked that the Russians were going to do the worst thing yet to the United States. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, “We will leave you without an enemy” to unite the USA.
Once Reagan and Bush were gone, for the first time since Watergate, the Republican party was left without a unifying center of attention — and with a power vacuum the size of the Milky Way. Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, and Dick Cheney quickly inserted themselves in that vacuum — but uber-powerful as they all were, one wonders if they would’ve had a chance of really “taking over” had Reagan or Bush I still been ruling the roost.
Today, as we look at what recently happened to the Republicans after “Dubya” bid us farewell — Palin, Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Cain, et al — sound familiar?
Ditto the Democrats — in reverse. Before Clinton, the Democratic party was almost as dysfunctional as the Tea Party-era Republicans are today. By 1995 however, most other A-list Democratic voices had been silenced: Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards, Willie Brown, Kathleen Brown Rice, David Dinkins, Tom Bradley, Dan Glickman.
To paraphrase Susan Hayward’s signature line in Valley of the Dolls, “There’s only ONE star in a Bill Clinton Democratic party, baby — and you’re lookin’ at him!” 1995 was when today’s business buzzwords like “re-branding”, “talking points memos”, and “target demographics” truly arrived at the political railway station.
The 1990s were also when James Carville and Karl Rove’s “permanent campaign mode” came into full effect, with a heapin’ helpin’ from CNN and an upstart called FoxNews. As such, the punishment for anyone who went “off message” — no matter how desperately needed their council was (Brooksley Born and Robert Reich warning against mortgage deregulation in 1998-99; Paul O’Neill battling Cheney on the budget in 2002) — was immediate and intense.
This enforced fear and “party discipline” debased our already garbage-strewn political dialogue into today’s junk-food soundbytes, which happen upon actual middle-class reality only occasionally and by accident, if at all. For those who were (rightly, in my opinion) nauseated by “Death Panels”, “Making Our Own Reality”, and “Deficits Don’t Matter” — remember the equally intelligence-insulting ”Recession-Proof” economy (1999), or the “Irrational Exuberance” of 1997? (They got the “irrational” part right.)
By 1998, people were in such a media-induced Fantasy Island that New Republic plagiarist and fact-cooker Stephen “Shattered” Glass even published an article about a cult of stockbrokers who “worshipped” Alan Greenspan (then modestly branded by Republicans and Democrats alike as “the greatest central banker in modern history”.)
I was even younger and presumably more “innocent” than Glass at the time, but what shocked me wasn’t that Glass had faked his story. What scared me was that even The New Republic was so Kool-Aid-drinkingly irresponsible by then that it could believe such a thing as anything other than Conan O’Brien/Jon Stewart style satire. Instead of being a warning, however, it was a portent of things to come.
The 1990s were when the Snooki-ization of book publishing and the Ann Coulter vs. Michael Moore rebranding of ”news” shows began: OJ Simpson. The Menendez Brothers. Tonya vs. Nancy. JonBenet Ramsey. Rodney King. Robert Blake (if early 2001 counts). Was there ever a previous decade with more hyped-up, race/sex overtoned celebrity crimes and “trials of the century?”
Here’s a listing from a typical TV day in 1998, taken from an old TVGuide (back when TVGuide actually had local listings — remember those?) Geraldo, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Maury, and Ricki Lake ruled the daytime, while Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Hard Copy, American Journal, EXTRA!, and Access Hollywood owned the weeknights. And that’s not even mentioning the reality-show explosion that was just around the corner, when Survivor and Big Brother knocked it out of the park in 2000.
Finally and perhaps most importantly of all, the 1990s was when the “Red State” vs. “Blue State” divide really reared its ugly head. California voted Republican for President in 1988; New York and Massachusetts did likewise in 1984. As late as 1994, multi-ethnic, gay-friendly powerhouses like CA, NY, Mass (and the cities of LA and New York) elected Republican governors and mayors — a feat demographically impossible in those areas without strong African-American, Latino, and liberal Jewish crossover.
But by decade’s end, what little was left of the midcentury Great Consensus was not just merely dead, but really and most sincerely dead. Red States became increasingly immune to Democrats, except for the occasional “DINO” like Baucus, Nelson, or Lincoln; while Republicans disappeared from the coasts, except for a tiny handful of openly pro-gay and pro-choice Rockefeller Repubs like George Pataki and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
All in all, the 1990s were a lot of things, but a “Holiday from History” or a “peaceful”, contented paradise they weren’t. Yet despite all the megabytes that have gone under the bridge since then, from Facebook and Myspace to iPads and Twitter, however you remember them (to quote George H.W. Bush’s excellent Inaugural reference to Vietnam), it seems that even in today’s Reality 2.0, its that decade which “cleaves us still.”