The following short guest post is by Mark Edwards.
The title of this post is a bit of a joke. Are the 1990s REALLY history yet? As a twenty-something during that era, I’d have to say no. But what about for my students? To them, the 1990s are like what the 1960s were for me in the 1980s. So, whether or not I (or we) “feel” like the 1990s are historical, they are; and we have to get busy making sense of them.
This is an especially timely issue for me as I begin work on a historiographical essay for the 1991-2001 era. When first offered this assignment, I thought I had no clue where to begin. The recent AHA panel (and blog series here) on the culture wars then came to mind. I realized I might know more about this time than I had initially thought. In fact, writing on the 1990s would give me the chance to work out some unanswered questions I have about the culture wars.
First, a general observation: What is it about the 90s in U. S. history? The 1790s, the 1890s, the 1990s—they were each difficult decades characterized by profound ideological, moral, and social conflict. And, yet, out of each seemed to emerge a new consensus: Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty and Jackson’s Democracy; the Roosevelts’ Progressivism or New Deal Order. Was a similar dynamic at play in the 1990s? My preliminary answer would be Yes. Amidst the real fracture of the culture wars, neoliberalism was finding bipartisan support and institutional expression. Capitalism won with and without family values.
My question at this preliminary stage is: How would you narrate the 1990s? Is the “fracture+consensus” storyline I’m suggesting the best one to make sense of that era? Notice that I write “+” rather than “versus” or “within” because I’m not ready to commit to how those two themes might interrelate. I’m especially wondering if it is possible to take both the culture wars and neoliberalism seriously at the same time, or must we prioritize one over the other (as, for instance, Thomas Frank has been accused of doing)? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what studies do you think should be highlighted in a historiography of the 1990s (Age of Fracture and A War for the Soul of America are already on the list)?