Talking about my generation? On revisiting the 20th century

August 23, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 23, 2013

On Tuesday, The Economist released what I thought was a surprisingly frivolous poll. (Especially coming from The Economist, for pete’s sake!) Under the headline “We still like Ike,” the publication trumpeted its findings that a plurality of Americans (18 percent) would prefer to go back in time to the 1950s above any other decade of the 20th century.

The older the age group surveyed, the higher its preference for the era of the Eisenhower presidential administration; 35 percent of those 65 and above picked the ’50s as their déjà vu decade. One-fifth of Republicans who were polled also preferred the 1950s, with Ronald Reagan’s 1980s coming in second and (interestingly) the tumultuous 1960s placing third among members of the Grand Old Party.

Among Democrats, the ’80s were the least popular decade of the latter half of the 20th century. The 1920s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’90s each were chosen by about 15 percent of Dems surveyed.

The least popular decades were the teens, chosen by 1 percent of poll respondents, and the 1930s, which covered most of the Great Depression and were picked by 2 percent. 

When Slate Moneybox blogger Matthew Yglesias saw this poll, he was intrigued by the lack of popularity of the 1990s. That decade was chosen by 10 percent of Americans — just ahead of the ’40s, which 9 percent preferred. Yglesias:

People rate [the 1990s] only very slightly higher than the 1940s. Some salient facts about the 1940s: There was a big war. One participant in that war had an active policy of targeting enemy civilian population centers for wholesale destruction as a battlefield tactic. Initially they did this with large-scale bombing raids designed to set as many houses ablaze as possible. Eventually they developed nuclear weapons in order to massacre enemy civilians in a more pilot-intensive way. The country in question was allied with a vicious dictator whose political strategies included mass rape, large-scale civilian deportations, and the occasional deliberate engineering of famine conditions. And those were the good guys! We’re all very happy they won!

The 1990s, by contrast, were amazing. The Onion memorably commemorated the turn of the millennium with the slogan “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is over.”

Yglesias goes on to praise the nation’s economic prosperity in the 1990s: “It was the best of times, and it was also the best of times. Political debate was dominated by a dumb sex scandal rather than finger-pointing over disastrous wars, financial crises, and mass unemployment.”

With all due to respect to Mr. Moneybox, I want to dissent in part from his assessment. Also, I want to suggest one reason why the 1990s — which were roughly as popular as the 1920s among those aged 18 to 29 — didn’t rank more highly.

First, my dissent. The sad truth about the 1990s is that America’s economic boom masked a lot of problems that would emerge as the 21st century got started. Part of the issue is that the stock market in the late 1990s soared on the strength of a tech bubble — a wave of so-called dot-com companies that boasted bold, futuristic visions but suffered from poor earnings and fundamentally flawed business plans.

The Nasdaq index of leading technology shares spiked over 4,500 in March 2000. By year’s end, the index had lost about half of its value; it hit a nadir around 1,200 in 2002.

And let’s not forget that the 1990s were born in recession. (Indeed, a sluggish economy helped Bill Clinton defeat George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election bid.) The start of the decade was also marked by war in the Persian Gulf — a seemingly successful martial venture that the United States would prosecute anew a dozen years later under President George W. Bush.

Of course, the first Gulf War wasn’t the only time American blood was spilled overseas. A man named Osama bin Laden issued fatwas against the United States and the West in 1996 and 1998. Few Americans paid attention until bin Laden’s Qaeda operatives mounted the deadliest terrorist attacks in history on Sept. 11, 2001.

Even Qaeda’s twin embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on Aug. 7, 1998, failed to raise much alarm in the U.S. The attacks killed more than 200 people, including 12 American diplomats, and injured thousands of others.

Recall, however, that terrorists with radical Islamic beliefs had killed Americans prior to that — on Feb. 26, 1993, when six people died in the World Trade Center bombing. That assault was financed in part by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is best known today as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

To return to my thesis: Not only were the 1990s not quite as rosy as some might remember them to be, it was a decade in which America through ignorance and neglect allowed serious problems to flourish.

But there’s another reason why I think a number of Americans aren’t so eager to return to those years. Of all the years of the 20th century, the ’90s are the ones that everyone in the survey has already experienced! Because they’re so recent, those years would hold fewer surprises and novelties for a time traveler from 2013 than any other decade.

Also, because our ability to preserve cultural artifacts has increased so prodigiously over the last 20 years or so, the 1990s are already relatively easy to relive. Books, newspaper articles, music and movies from the final decade of the previous century are easy to order (and often to access directly) through the Internet.

In other words, for these two reasons, revisiting the 1990s is somewhat beside the point for most Americans.

Did the decade get a bum rap in the Economist/YouGov poll, as Yglesias argues? To summarize my view: I think not.


P.S. What’s my preference? I’m torn between three choices: The 1990s, which coincided with an interesting time in my own life; the 1920s, a boom decade near the beginning of the age of aviation; and the 1960s, that oh-so-notorious period of cultural and social revolution.

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