Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Clinton and the Nineties (1992-2000)

There were really three Nineties decades (and I mean the 1990s, not 1890s) in the United States, from my perspective. In this final installment of my series* on the U.S. zeitgeist of 1950 through 2000, I will address those three partially overlapping periods.


The first Nineties were a continuation of the 1980s until 1992, a presidential election year. Also in 1992, a recession that began almost on the dime of when I expected it, in midsummer, was at the time was thought of as a structural event that augured a catastrophe for the country; it was not.

Few people today seem to remember how it felt at that time. I remember that on an outing with our kids to a baseball game, I told a friend that the downturn was coming and he was upset. My friend is a conservative Republican and Catholic; he was also a building contractor and construction is always very sensitive to economic fluctuations; he did not want his son to worry. I did not say it to crow over the moment out of ideology or boast of my economic independence (I had been promoted to manager of the company that I ended up buying), but because it seemed to be the economic reality.

The recession ended as quickly as it started. The economic music stopped a hot June week and boomed again in December, after Clinton beat Bush (Sr.).

However, the recession shook the confidence of the heartland states between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountain ranges. After morning in Reagan's America came a grayish sunset that gave people nightmares. That's why the motto for Clinton's campaign staff was "it's the economy, stupid"; a reminder that people vote with their pockets more than anything else.

Clinton won a traditional Democratic victory against Republican incompetence, characterized by a laissez faire attitude in the face of an economic recession. It was almost the same as Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 victory over Hoover's apathy toward the Great Depression. The 1992 recession was a mild recession but it frightened the mostly uninformed Americans who supported Reagan.

When the first cracks appeared in the Reaganite sieve, the American Dream honey syrup that Reagan had sold the public soured. Suddenly, people began to see negative changes that had been covered up.

It began, for example, with "the homeless," people who began to appear as street beggars in every major city for the first time since the Great Depression. (In part, it was a phenomenon produced by the closing, under Reagan's budgets, of transitional housing for low-functioning people who did not suffer aggressive mental disorders.)

Another pattern at the time was the awareness jobs losses to factories abroad, in general the movement of manufacturing to countries with lower labor costs due to the absence of unions (Mexico and Malaysia were very popular among the executives of transnational corporations). Goodbye "Made in U.S.A."!

Finally, the transformation of farmland from family-run farms, lost in the 1980s Reagan recession, into an industry run by companies that owned lands and employed people to farm and care for livestock; what ended up being called agribusiness. The family farm was for much of a century, from the 1880s to 1980s, a prop of the American Dream myth.

Both phenomena created a large share of the white middle class to fall abruptly from one socioeconomic level to another below. Industrial workers whose wages had allowed them home ownership and a paid university education for their children went to near-permanent jobless or underemployment paid well below what their skills warranted. More or less self-reliant farm owners whose grandparents claimed land during the expansion West became mere urban employees.

All that resentful mass had been carefully seduced by neoconservative Republicans, who nurtured racism, fanatical capitalist Calvinism (in which being poor is essentially viewed as the result of laziness, therefore sinful) and all the "cultural war" between conservatives and liberals concerning social mores (abortion, divorce, sexuality, etc.). All so they could vote against the economic interests.


The second 1990s came with Clinton, who presided over an economic boom unparalleled in U.S. history. Clinton, a centrist Democrat, talked about leading the country toward shared wealth. U.S. presidents do not have the power to control the national economy, but they have at hand levers to redistribute wealth, either upward (Reagan and Republicans) or downward (Clinton and Democrats).

Even ordinary people in this period came to have more money than they knew how to handle. The overall value of holdings in the stock market, according to the best well-known index, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, rose from 3,000 to 10,000 in the 1990s (now it is around 21,000).

The generation that was cradled in the 80's and went through adolescence in the 90's, now called Millennials, recall those golden years in which well-being was felt everywhere. Inflation fell to 2% annually and unemployment to 4%, both very low levels and almost the lowest levels possible in a growing economy. In part because of this, Millenials are a generous and self-confident generation, unlike their older brothers, Generation X (1965-1980), deemed as a little lost for being born amid much social unrest and the beginning of stagnation for the middle class.

Politically, the country split into "reds" and "blues," colors that came from a convention adopted in the 1980s for voter maps on television. When a Republican candidate's victory was projected television changed the color of the state from white to red, if the Democrat won the white state was colored blue.

That bitter partisanship that persists to this day. The Red, or conservative and Republican states, are in the South and Center South and the Southwest). Nothing to do with the nineteenth-century use of red by socialists and communists. Blue USA, or variously progressive and Democratic, covers both coasts (excluding the southern coastal states), New England and the northern industrial states.

Popularly, the gap is a matter of social place and culture, rather than ideology. Americans are not concerned with ideological much. A typology of the strata of American society would require a whole different set of posts (a future series?).

World Wide Web

The third 1990s began with the widespread emergence of technology that had been carefully developed for universities and government (but not public use) since the 1960s, the Internet.

The network was based on Unix, an operating system produced by the old AT&T Bell Labs, also the cradle of the programming language C. It was conceived as a decentralized system for military reasons, with the idea of ensuring the survival of the computer communications medium after a nuclear war. Once marketed in the 90's when the telephone monopoly was undone by judicial order, the Internet began the revolution we all know today.

Internet and computer technology maximized productivity to unthinkable levels only years earlier and led to a global boom that prolonged the U.S. recovery into the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Many Americans in the late 1990s came to believe that the fall of Soviet Communism and the rise of the Internet proved that all problems could be solved in a global capitalist world. That, at least was the idea proclaim in the era's bestseller The End of History by Francis Fukuyama.

This was only the inevitable delusion of a decade in which unparalleled wealth and a geopolitical uni-polar world run with high-tech seemed capable of organizing globally and curing all ills. The U.S. government at last had fiscal surpluses projected as far as the horizon. Wall Street was roaring (it is said that even members of the last Soviet politburo applauded at the finale of their secret screening of the film "Wall Street"). Europe was unified with a single currency. Even China made its opening to capitalism. A new technology was unifying the human race forever.

Of course, there were omens that this was not going to last.

When welfare reform was approved in 1996, reducing benefits to a lifetime maximum of five years, there was an indication of a lack of sensitivity toward economic losers that one day would effectively generate a permanent underclass.

Similarly, the Clinton scandals with Monica Lewinsky yielded a national soap opera. However, although I didn't realize for a decade, it was a vast smokescreen to hide the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the law that since the 1930s had separated banking, brokerage and insurance companies into watertight and separate compartments. (The repeal's eventual result was seen in 2008.)

As if that were not enough, the electoral fraud that defeated Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, who won the majority of votes but lost the electoral college, proved that the country's socioeconomic and political Darth Vaders were alive and well.

The 1990s did not end in the year 2000 (or 1999 as some thought). The era ended a sunny, late-summer, on September 11, 2001, when two passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the so-called World Trade Center in New York.

*This ends my short series attempting to sketch the contemporary cultural and social history of the United States, how 50 years felt. All this comes from an exchange with a French correspondent, which provoked thoughts that could be of interest to my Spanish-speaking readers in another blog and now my English-speaking readers.
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