Compared with the decades that came directly before and after, the 1990s have often seemed a ho-hum era, the dull Jan caught between its more outrageous siblings. While the ’80s arrived with a burst of big hair and shoulder pads, a synthy MTV soundtrack blasting over the Gipper’s evisceration of the welfare state, and the 2000s appeared like a deranged comet, throwing whole worlds off course, the ’90s bounced and slouched their way forward, a little bit sunny, a little bit ironic, and more or less insignificant. This was the decade so boring it was supposed to be the end of history.
Three decades later, the ’90s don’t seem so dull after all. Squint a little, peer through the telescope of time, and they look not only consequential but foundational—a sort of cosmic microwave background flickering with the precursors of the present moment. Our obsessions, our follies, our heartbreaks, our struggles, and even a few of our triumphs—they are all there, if in nascent form, radiating into the here and now.
Consider the new Cold War. You can glimpse its beginnings in the end of the old one, which spun out in spectacular fashion in December 1991, when the Soviet Union officially collapsed, leaving the United States the world’s sole superpower. Or how about neoliberalism? Sure, Ronald Reagan did his best to undo the New Deal, but it was Bill Clinton, that triangulating Lothario, who ushered in neoliberalism’s second wave, giving us NAFTA, welfare “reform,” and the enduring emptiness of “doing well by doing good.” And let’s not forget the tech revolution, which rewired our minds along with our machines. You can hear that revolution coming in the jagged stutter of your first modem, or the mechanical singsong of your old Nokia. You can feel it in the acceleration of culture itself.
The legacy of the last decade of the 20th century isn’t limited to the epic global stuff, either. In ways both big and small, the events of the ’90s continue to exert their influence, echoing across the decades and into the present. Long before the outbreak of the current culture war, for instance, there was the ’90s culture war, with its clashes over multiculturalism and political correctness. Long before 2020’s Black Lives Matter uprisings, Los Angeles lit up in despair and rage over the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King—an attack that was broadcast, again and again, by means of what has been described as the first viral video. Columbine paved the way for Uvalde; Iron John for incels; Fox News for Newsmax TV; fat-free for keto fads; and on and on, into the here-and-now. Instead of the End of History, the 1990s gave us the Revenge of History.
To help make sense of this overlooked epoch, we spent several weeks roaming the corridors of our own nostalgia, then reached out to a range of thinkers and writers. We asked them to tackle such heady questions as, was Trumpism actually born in the 1990s, and were Snackwells the ultimate neoliberal snack? While we didn’t get an answer to this last question, we did receive thirteen elegant articles probing everything from the rise of house music, courtesy of Hubert Adjei-Kontoh, to the origins of today’s fractured and fractious politics. This last topic is the subject of two fascinating essays—by Jeet Heer and Lily Geismer—which explore the legacy of Pat Buchanan’s grievance politics and the aftereffects of The Third Way, that love child of New Labor and the New Democrats. Meanwhile, Brent Cunningham has crafted “How Food Became a Weapon in the Right’s Culture War,” a tour de force of culinary and cultural analysis that traces how the ’90s gave rise to a high-stakes food fight that still rages today.
To be sure, not all of the era’s developments were negative. Alongside the abundant ugliness—and, yes, some genuine oddities that still confound (see: Pauly Shore, Haircutgate, Olestra)—the 1990s also seeded fresh dreams and possibilities. In the very first year of the decade, the philosopher Judith Butler gave us Gender Trouble, “introduc[ing] new ways of thinking about gender, not just to academic discourse but to popular culture,” Naomi Gordon-Loebl explains in her intimately vivid essay for the issue. As for the activist left, it found ways, even in its diminished state, to resist—or, as Naomi Klein writes, to jam its foot “in the heavy door of history so that the full weight of neoliberal power would not succeed in slamming it shut completely.” While this isn’t exactly “the kind of feat that people sing songs of triumph about,” Klein notes, it was nonetheless its own kind of achievement.
As 2022 comes to an end, it’s enlightening and perhaps oddly comforting to be reminded that we have seen—and survived—some of the afflictions roiling our society before. While it would be nicer if we’d managed to vanquish them, the reality is, that doesn’t happen very often. Instead, we struggle, we shift tactics, we struggle some more—and maybe we learn, as Mary Annaïse Heglar writes in her essay about growing up as a child of the first climate-change generation. For Heglar, the great lesson of her childhood was that the fight to save the planet, like many fights, is not one generation’s “burden to bear all alone.” It is an act of collective dedication. As we reflect on the past and plunge into the future, that’s a worthy lesson indeed.