Things Done Changed: America in the ‘90s
Despite having none of the visible tumult that marked the former Soviet sphere after the Cold War, Americans’ relationship to their government and to each other were radically altered in the early decade. Without a mortal enemy at gates, instability and uncertainty were allowed to reign in electoral politics. After the unlikely election of Bill Clinton election in 1992, only the second Democratic winner in nearly a quarter century, voters then turned around and politically kneecapped the new president with an oppositional congress in 1994, the first of its kind in 40 years. It was political whiplash, one precedent broken after another. Without the government serving as a protector against the evil outside, mistrust of government was now permitted in a new way. In fact, evil could now be in the government. Scholars of the far-right and white nationalist strains in conservatism have noted how the foreign threat in the Soviet Union was, for many on the right, seamlessly transferred to a foreignness in the government and its supposed controllers. And if not a malevolent force, the government was at least understood as an innocent failure. Clinton opened campaign commercials in 1992 with phrases like “Government isn’t working” and “We need fundamental change.”
Able to project its power almost anywhere on earth, inspiring fear and establishing obedience with its high-tech omnipotence, Washington’s ability to convey legitimacy to its own citizens was weakening. The various bonds that held things together were loosening. The two major political parties sensed the mistrust and loss of enthusiasm. The Democrats issued a “New Covenant” with America, while Republicans offered a “Contract with America.” Both parties were speaking in a language of broken bonds, and vows were made — appropriately, in the language of business with Republicans (“contract”) and in a quasi-spiritual tone with Democrats (“covenant”) — to reestablish that lost faith and bond.
It didn’t help. Voter turnout plummeted to historically low numbers in 1996 and 2000, with the abysmal enthusiasm for the 1996 race essentially tying the turnout nadir of 1924 to be the lowest voter participation since 1828. (The 1924 election, it should be noted, is also one of the first elections after the establishment of women’s suffrage, with many newly minted voters not participating.) The turnout of the 2000 election was up just slightly from the shockingly low showing of 1996, making the ’90s the lowest point in electoral enthusiasm and engagement in since the establishment of universal white male suffrage and the solidification of the national two-party system in the early 19th century. Meanwhile, despite the low general enthusiasm, passion for party increased. Partisan polarization widened to levels not seen since the 1870s, when the country was uncomfortably reuniting after its Civil War.
If one were to look at just these top-line macropolitical phenomena of the decade and somehow not know anything else about the period, one would be left to imagine some manner of crisis occurring below the numbers. In the elections of 1992 and 1996, the winner, Bill Clinton, was brought into office without a majority of the votes, a rare occurrence in presidential elections. (Even rarer, the winner of the 2000 election, George W. Bush, continued this trend of mere plurality victories; but not only was Bush unable to gain a majority of Americans’ votes; he also received fewer votes than his opponent, the first time since 1888.) A third-party candidate in 1992, Ross Perot, received more votes than any such challenger since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, who, it should be noted, had already served as president before his third-party try. Disqualifying the 1912 results, then, we must go back to 1860, the election that brought the Civil War, to find such odd presidential election results.
But the changes that swept through Washington during the decade and the increasingly chaotic nature of electoral politics were less cause than effect. It all indicated that something was going wrong, but the political tumult was a reflection of larger changes, both national and international, economic and cultural. Politics began to change dramatically because everything around it was changing dramatically. Additionally, the end of the Cold War opened up new space for Washington discord, loosened the ties that bind and allowed for political uncertainty and experimentation. But that wasn’t what provided the primary propulsion for the clash in Washington. What animated the new political strife of the ’90s were latent cultural changes coming to maturity, the completion of a generations-long process that sorted Americans into two warring political camps, each with its own political party. What came to be known during the decade as the “culture war” had seen its factions distributed within the parties until party re-sorting reached its final stage during the ’90s. Racial progressives, for instance, were found in both parties until the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy,” begun in the late ’60s, worked to lure white racial conservatives, especially in the South, from the Democratic Party into the GOP, concentrating racial conservatism in the Republican Party and racial progressivism increasingly in the Democratic camp. By the start of the ‘90s, the Democrats were seen as the party of racial minorities and their allies, while the Republican Party continued to harden into a white party, adopting the anger and resentment of the Southern whites it had poached from the old Democratic Party. Moreover, the broader rights revolution of the ’60s and ’70s (progress for women, LGBT Americans, prisoners and the disabled) increasingly fell into the Democratic purview. In short, the two parties grew to represent the two warring impulses present in America since its founding: the expansion of rights and the maintenance of existing power structures.
So, with no external archenemy to encourage domestic comity, the culture war was allowed to expand to new dimensions of enmity at home. Scholars of the far-right have argued that the Soviet threat abroad, suddenly gone in the early ’90s, was easily replaced in some strains of conservatism by domestic threats of liberalism and leftism. White nationalist Pat Buchanan emerged to embody this new political circumstance, identifying the new post-Cold-War political latitude and challenging sitting president George H.W. Bush’s nomination in 1992 with his own primary campaign. The GOP did not punish Buchanan for injecting white nationalist currents into the GOP mainstream but, rather, invited the racist firebrand to headline the opening night of Republican National Convention in August 1992. Buchanan’s address at the convention, for which he’s largely credited for naming the new societal conflict (the “culture war”), is seen by many to have announced a new willingness by the GOP to use race and other cultural fault lines more explicitly. “It is a cultural war,” Buchanan bellowed to raucous cheers in the Houston Astrodome, “as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
Buchanan, who’d served as President Reagan’s communications director, was careful, though, not to lace the prime-time address with the more obviously and explicitly white identitarian and nationalist language of his primary-season stumping, but he could not resist pulling the veil back at the speech’s conclusion. With the crowd whipped into a frenzy by the nationalist wordsmith, Buchanan closed the speech with an account of his visit to the troops deployed to Los Angeles to quell the rebellious violence there two months before. The insurrectionary spasm in LA, the deadliest of its kind in American history, had erupted after the acquittal of four white police officers for the brutal beating of the black Rodney King. Buchanan recalled:
The troopers came up the street, M-16s at the ready. And the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated because it had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage…And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country. God bless you, and God bless America.
Chants of “USA! USA!” rang out as Buchanan finished with his vision of military force against the inimical forces in his culture war, suggesting that culture war enemies, now neatly embodied in the avatar of the angry black Angeleno, weren’t as American as the soldiers deployed against them on American streets. It’s unclear whether culture war was only a metaphor now for Buchanan and his acolytes. President Bush had indeed deployed active military forces to Los Angeles to quell the uprising, Army soldiers and Marines trained to fight the Soviets now leveling their weapons at fellow citizens on domestic battlefields. Just two months later in Houston, Buchanan and the crowd appear to have already adjusted to an understanding of the vanishing foreign threat of the global communism being supplanted by domestic forces in the culture war. The seminal speech’s final prescription and its rapturous response seemed a sort of Rosetta Stone to decode the culture war. The central signifier was the black American. That is why an advance in the culture war for Buchanan can be analogized as US soldiers, presumably white, taking black inner-city blocks by force. This new culture war waged by movement conservatives was a response to the liberatory developments of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, which victories included wider latitude and representation for women, people of color and gay Americans; but what shook the country and even reshaped the electoral map were the final moves to legally end the formal apartheid state in the American South and the de facto segregation in much of the north. The new culture war was, in many ways, a race war being fought on cultural terrain.