Most Significant Events of the Twentieth Century: Part V
Symbols of the 1990s--The Good(?), The Bad, and The Ugly
1990s--Ennui or Devolution?
If anything can be said about the important events of the 1990s--and there were plenty, of course, each one worth studying individually--it would be that it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the most important. Perhaps it is because it is still too early to make an assessment of this kind. Previous studies have explored the trend of increasing Washington influence in the live of American citizens; one would expect to see the trend continue into the 1990s, under the leadership of President Clinton. But except for the disastrous, failed, attempt to take over the nation's health care system, one cannot find any glaring examples of the central government growing at the expense of personal liberty. By comparison, the following decade, led by the "compassionate conservative" President George W. Bush, saw much bigger instances of government growth--the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind come easily to mind, as well as the stimulus package at the end of the Administration.
What to make of the 1990s, then? The dictionary definition of "devolution" is "the transfer of power or authority from a central government to a local government." Certainly this cannot be said to have occurred--historically speaking, of course, political power has largely tended to move towards the center; with a few exceptions (the 21st Amendment, e.g.), power has almost never flowed in the other direction, towards the states. During the 1990s, however, it can possibly be said that a dissolution or breakdown of central authority occurred, which can be seen through a few legislative actions. The first and most dramatic was the Administration's failure in 1993 to push through its first major bill, an economic stimulus package ostensibly designed to speed economic recovery through piecemeal job creation a la the New Deal, followed by the crashing defeat of the health care overhaul of 1994. In 1996, Clinton succeeded in another of his legislative goals, welfare reform, with the help of the Republican Congress; the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, replaced Aid to Families with Dependant Children by providing block grants to the states which they could (theoretically) manage in their own way, with the goal of helping recipients to get off welfare and into work; in fact, the program has been accused of throwing millions of the working poor into poverty, though the poverty and unemployment rates have remained consistent in the years since the law was passed. A third, and little noted, example of diminished central government authority is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of November 1999, which repealed the part of the Galss-Steagall Act of 1933 that prohibited combinations of investment and commercial banks and insurance companies; the details are highly complicated, but they add up to partial deregulation of the banking industry (the consequences of which are beyond the purview of this hub, but have been severe.)
There is another picture of the 1990s, and this is that it was a time of national ennui, or boredom. This was America following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the financially debilitating Cold War dual with the Communist Bloc. In a sense, the nation needed a breather, and took advantage of the opportunity, though not without some awkwardness, because there was no similar pause in events. Americans yawned their way through a succession of crises and emergencies during the 90s, both foreign and domestic--from the conflicts in Eastern Europe (the Yugoslav Wars, for example) and the Middle East, where the U.S. found itself engaged in pinprick air assaults against minor foes and seemed to surrender much of its influence to the United Nations; to the various political scandals revolving around President Clinton and his wife; to a series of terrorist attacks that provided an eerie preview of the 9/11 attacks, and which taught lessons that were largely ignored by the government. The most significant newsmakers of the 1990s were a has-been football star who managed to manipulate the legal system with the help of an inept Los Angeles Police Department) to get away with two brutal murders; and a President who in a long impeachment drama was exposed as a sexual deviant but suffered no real consequences for the experience--this fact alone speaks volumes about the character of the decade.
The most that can be said about the 1990s is that it echoed the historical era of a century earlier known as the Gilded Age, an age of seemingly glittering prosperity in which the wealth was merely a superficial outer coating over a rusted core. In the present case, however, the whole structure of prosperity was artificial--the 1990s were the "Bling Decade," flashy and ornamental but completely artificial; prosperity built on lies, from the "McJobs" the Clintons used to tout economic growth to the mythical budget surplus that was really creditable to the budget compromise crafted by the previous Administration and Congress in 1990.
So were the 1990s an era of devolution or ennui? A new Gilded Age, or maybe an age of possibilities deferred until a time of more effective leadership. One thing is clear--that after forty years of expanding government influence, the 90s ended not so much with government authority reduced (a preposterous notion, of course) but maybe diluted. However one looks at that, it's also clear that the dilution was temporary. After 9/11, Washington once again began to flex its muscles; the difference here is that the states have begun to demand their fair share, some using the dubious guidance of the 10th Amendment. The rising Tea Party movement might be a further sign that demands for a return to constitutional principles of balanced government are starting to be listened to. Stay tuned...