Chuck Klosterman Remembers the ’90s Wrong

The Nineties is, on the surface, a mixture of '90s pop culture nostalgia and cultural critique. But it also has a political agenda: Chuck Klosterman wants the leftist kids to knock it off.

Bill and Hillary Clinton at the White House, 1994. (Dirck Halstead / Liaison via Getty Images)

In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, LA jazz musician Fred Madison and his wife Renee are haunted by malevolent forces they cannot see or name. A mysterious videotape appears on their doorstep with camcorder footage showing them sleeping in their beds, filmed by an unknown stalker. At one point an investigating officer from the Los Angeles Police Department asks Fred why he doesn’t own a camcorder — this being the ’90s — and he answers: “I like to remember things my own way . . . not necessarily the way they happened.”

Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties: A Book takes Fred’s oblique aphorism as its mantra: Klosterman wants to remember the ’90s his own way, not necessarily the way they happened. Klosterman discloses this in the book’s opening pages: “There’s always a disconnect between the world we seem to remember and the world that actually was. What’s complicated about the 1990s is that the central illusion is memory itself.” It’s a potentially interesting conceit, but by the book’s final chapters it functions to protect the most clichéd representations of the ’90s and dismiss critics who view it as a politically troubling decade.

A reader might not pick up on this sleight of hand right away. Klosterman spends most of the book excavating typical ’90s problems and artifacts: Generation X being both widely represented and misunderstood as the “slacker generation,” the video rental store as ground zero for indie film cinephilia, the mediatization of the Gulf War by twenty-four-hour cable news, and yet another exegesis on the cosmic importance of Kurt Cobain and Nevermind. To be fair to Klosterman, I did find some of this fun to read. When he described Seinfeld and Friends as part of “an authoritarian night of entertainment NBC branded as ‘Must See TV’” I laughed out loud. The account of Garth Brooks’s inexplicable popularity, which Brooks single-handedly destroyed with his alt-rock persona “Chris Gaines,” is also a highlight.

The first signs of trouble can be found in his discussion of the 1992 presidential election, where Klosterman bafflingly concludes that “the modern Republican Party would likely be much less extreme if George H. W. Bush had been reelected in a landslide.” He bases his conclusion on the Republican sweep of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, a ferocious backlash to the Democrats taking back the White House. But the Democrats’ wholesale abandonment of labor and their working-class base to shore up white “moderate” voters in the suburbs is not factored into Klosterman’s analysis.

There is simply no evidence that Republicans would have been less extreme if George H. W. Bush won a second term. Right-wing politics and politicians were already becoming more reactionary under Reagan in the ’80s, a decade that saw the courting of the evangelical Moral Majority, widespread moral panic about Satanism in pop culture, and the rise of neoconservatism. Klosterman avoids the topic by treating the disastrous sieges of Ruby Ridge and Waco in the early ’90s by the FBI and ATF — which spiked membership in the right-wing, anti-government militia movement, and culminated in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 — as strictly media phenomena and not as evidence of an already radicalizing right.

One major shift that occurred in the ’90s is the Democrats’ wholesale commitment to the “Third Way,” with Bill Clinton’s presidency representing a consolidation of the reactionary and ineffectual centrist politics that continue to define the Democratic Party three decades later. But Klosterman doesn’t want to hear it. “Being mad at a former president is like being mad at someone who wronged you in highschool,” he writes. “It’s a little pathetic and deranged.” Without mentioning welfare reform, the 1994 crime bill, or even the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act, Klosterman presents the received image of Clinton as a flawed but progressive pragmatist who compromised to get things done.

While Monica Lewinsky and Clinton’s impeachment understandably get significant coverage, troubling incidents like Clinton’s return to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector during his ’92 election bid or the Clintons’ use of prison labor at the Arkansas governor’s mansion are absent. For Klosterman, the faults of Clinton’s presidency belong not to him but to his critics. “What Clinton could not (and did not) anticipate,” Klosterman writes, “was a future where leftists would see ideological prejudice as sacred.”

A brief aside regarding today’s anti-capitalist politics offers some insight on Klosterman’s views on the Left. Observing the broader popularity of socialism today, Klosterman makes it clear he sees it as just another trend, similar to diatribes against “commercialism” that were popular in the 1990s. But he also makes an odd distinction: where the ’90s criticism of consumerism was optimistic, he argues, today’s criticisms of capitalism’s “alleged insidiousness” are wholly pessimistic. In a fairly dismissive passage he concludes capitalism’s pervasiveness is the only reason it’s connected to a wide range of “social ills.” Klosterman produces the following list: “wealth disparity, the legacy of slavery, housing shortages, monopsony, clinical depression, the tyranny of choice, superhero movies franchises” expecting the reader to find it all a little ridiculous.

Klosterman’s unwillingness to take any critique of capitalism seriously animates the entire book. The Nineties then is not just a nostalgic mix of ’90s pop culture ephemera and cultural criticism — it also functions as a contemporary ideological defense of liberalism at a time when it is failing to deal with a wide range of acute economic, social, and political crises. Many of these crises, from global financial instability to the horrific war in Ukraine, can be traced largely to the politics and policies of the ’90s.

Klosterman’s goal is to preserve an image of the 1990s as a time of economic growth, stability, and increased introspection. Unfortunately, The Nineties offers little more than a simplistic defense of a decade that was in reality complex and troubling, the consequences of which we still live with today.