Were the 1990s Really Devoid of Politics?

Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties imagines the decade as dominated by pop culture, not politics. In reality, Gen X was passionately political during the 1990s — and centrists were busy laying the groundwork for the politics of the next century.

Chuck Klosterman’s observations on ’90s politics and economics are mostly concerned with how they appeared on television. (Isi Parente / Unsplash)

Convincing a book publisher that you’re the right one to synthesize an entire decade of American history takes a certain brand of institutional authority. The scribes who divvied up the second half of the twentieth century were academic historians (Bruce Schulman’s The Seventies), mainstream political journalists (David Halberstam’s The Fifties), or some combination of both (Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland and Reaganland). All of them were serious professionals with serious credentials doing serious work.

So what does it say about the 1990s that the decade’s most notable retrospective so far — The Nineties — has been written by Chuck Klosterman, the pop-culture critic who once described his experience of binge-watching Saved by the Bell reruns as being in a “parasitic relationship.”

To borrow a stylistic tic from Klosterman, it’s not that big of a deal. But it’s probably bigger than you think.

Hey, Wait, I Got a New Complaint

Just as Seinfeld, the defining TV program of the ’90s, was a show about nothing, maybe the entire decade was about nothing. So goes the prevailing rearview-mirror perspective, the idea being that Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history” might be literally true and not just a prophesy about the hegemony of liberal democracy.

If the ’90s were a wasteland of world events, it makes perfect sense that the decade’s best-selling popular history would be written by a chilled-out Gen Xer known to inject navel-gazing memoir into meta-commentaries on cultural detritus — rather than a public intellectual like, say, Jill Lepore.

In The Nineties, Klosterman doesn’t seek to dispel the myth that little happened between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11. He describes the period as being “heavily mediated and assertively self-conscious,” yet so easy and problem-free that you could pretend the larger society was “barely there.” “It was a period of ambivalence,” he writes, “defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming.”

Politics in The Nineties is portrayed as downstream from the riches of televised pop culture. Kurt Cobain gets about as many words as Bill Clinton, and annoying former MTV personality Pauly Shore earns only slightly less attention than George H. W. Bush. Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich, pivotal figures on both sides of the aisle, barely make an appearance.

Klosterman’s rationale for the book’s emphasis on pop culture is that technology had “accelerated culture” and changed the human relationship to reality in the ’90s. In his 2005 book, Mediated, media theorist Thomas de Zengotita had a name for the “psychic sauna” of media representations that we glide over the surface of, like “a little god, dipping in here and there” — he called it “the Blob.”

The Nineties settles on a ’90s pop culture reference to describe it: The Matrix. The 1999 Keanu Reeves film seemed like it was about the future of computers, Klosterman argues, but it was actually about TV (which is essentially what the recent sequel, Resurrections, is about). “The Matrix resonated with so many viewers not because it was fantastical fiction, but because it was not.”

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the ’90s was a purgatory of mediated hyperreality. Last month, the Illinois State Museum emailed me a survey to help inform an upcoming exhibit about Generation X and what it was like to grow up in the ’80s and ’90s:

Tell us about watching TV as a kid. Did you have cable? What was your favorite music as a teenager and what did it express about you? What role did books and magazines have on your life?

That nearly every inquiry was about media consumption preferences and habits reflected the fact that my generation, Gen X, was inundated by mass media from the day we were born.

It’s true that the Reagan and Bush years signaled the twilight of American community, institutional faith, and public life. What began to fill the vacuum of identity and meaning was the cult of self-expression and the conspicuous consumption of pop culture. Star Trek was wrong: the final frontier wasn’t space — we got increasingly lost exploring the cultural products endlessly exported from Hollywood, Disney, and Silicon Valley. Because of this retreat into solitude and a lack of hot or cold war, maybe the ’90s was like one long episode of Seinfeld, one in which Bill Clinton yada yadas through two terms and Ralph Nader pops in briefly like Kramer.

Or maybe not.

The Myth of the Slacker

The Nineties is worth reading for its trenchant observations on books, movies, and music, but Klosterman’s observations on politics and economics are largely concerned with how they appeared on television: H. W. Bush’s nasally voice, Ross Perot’s petite stature, the spectacle of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Klosterman’s worst observation of the decade is this one: “It was perhaps the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional.”

Perhaps this was true of the depoliticized mass media of the era. The stereotype of the flannel-wearing apathetic slacker loomed large while the pop class consciousness that inflected the entertainment of the ’70s and ’80s — from the snobs-versus-slobs comedy films like Caddyshack to sitcoms like Cheersslowly disappeared. By the “Must-See TV” era of the mid-’90s, almost everyone on the screen belonged to the professional-managerial class, broadly and vaguely defined.

But it doesn’t mean that everyone was a passive observer.

As leftist writer Freddie deBoer recently argued, Gen X was actually a passionately political generation in the ’90s. Many students and activists fought hard for racial, gender, and environmental justice. That wave of radicalism got labeled the “politically correct” movement, spurring a backlash led by right-wing culture warriors — reminiscent of the “woke” wars of the last half decade.

“Back then people felt that they had never seen anything like this new generation of students, who seemed uniquely politically engaged and given to ‘no compromises’ rhetoric,” deBoer writes.

It wasn’t just the kids making noise on campus. In 1991, more than seventy-five thousand people (organizers estimated that it was double that) marched in Washington, DC, to protest Bush’s Persian Gulf War while smaller demonstrations were held in dozens of cities across the country, including a thirty-thousand-strong rally in San Francisco.

The Left also came out in force against the World Trade Organization in 1999. In what was nicknamed the “Battle in Seattle,” more than thirty-five thousand people filled the streets to angrily protest profit-driven capitalists pushing global free-trade deals that offered few protections for unions and the environment and more incentives for corporations to build sweatshops overseas.

The WTO protests, the Gen-X left, and political figures like Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders got left out of VH1’s I Love the ’90s retrospectives, and it’s no surprise that they are a marginal force in Klosterman’s account. Likewise, The Nineties has little to say about the free-market-worshipping bipartisan neoliberal consensus of the era, which led to the outsourcing of the manufacturing sector, the deregulation of America’s financial systems, the strangulation of the labor force, and Clinton’s war on the welfare state that coincided with mass incarceration.

That missing history would surely be told in a ’90s retrospective by Perlstein or, say, Thomas Frank. But for now we have Klosterman, who has clearly been caught in the Matrix too long to separate the lived experience of the ’90s from its own media distortion.