Two New Books Take the 1990s as a Pivotal DecadeHistorians in the News
tags: conservatism, Bill Clinton, neoliberalism, political history, inequality, Democratic Party, 1990s, New Democrats
Henry M. J. Tonks is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Boston University. His research, which is focused on the reformation of the Democratic Party from the 1970s to the 1990s, is concerned with how modern American liberalism was shaped by global politics and conditions of industrial decline.
In 1996, a commercial law professor at Harvard decided to change her party registration from Republican to Democrat. She was then at the midpoint of a distinguished academic career, some of which had been spent at the summer conferences of the Law and Economics movement, a well-funded intellectual project driven by a core belief in the efficiency of markets. Law and Economics was only one front in the decades-long advance of a revived free-market ideology, an ideology whose moment had finally come after the political and economic crises of the 1970s. The primacy of the market would become the new American consensus, overseen by Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party.
By the mid-1990s, however, the law professor wasn’t so sure. “I was a Republican [rather than a Democrat] because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets,” she later explained, but “I think that is not true anymore.” The law professor’s name was Elizabeth Warren.
The 1970s and 1980s are usually seen as the transformative era of recent American political history. And if the 1970s saw a “great shift” in US politics—with defeat in Vietnam, oil crises, industries in decline, and liberalism unraveling—then Americans woke up in 1981 to the bright morning of a new free-market consensus. The 1990s, by contrast, are typically construed as an historical ellipsis between that era of sanguine prosperity and the upheaval of the 2000s. The ’90s were a moment of tranquility. Cold War won, business booming, history at an end.
Nothing could be further from the truth. New scholarship indicates that the end of the Cold War did not so much settle history’s debates as it did undermine the structuring framework of American politics. It allowed an era of hyper-globalization, incipient since the 1970s, to emerge fully. This so-called neoliberalism—characterized by the free flow of capital, globalization, rising inequality even within wealthy regions, and cultural cosmopolitanism—was a distinctive product of the 1990s. And because of these transformative economic changes, the 1990s also became a laboratory of populist backlash, roiling both Republican and Democratic parties and creating the conditions for the unsettled politics of the present day.
Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality (2022) and Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s (2022), exciting recent books by historians Lily Geismer and Nicole Hemmer, respectively, shed light on this new understanding of the 1990s as America’s pivotal decade. Taken together, these books depict circa 1989–2001 as a watershed rather than, as George F. Will once put it, a “holiday from history.”
Moreover, Elizabeth Warren’s timely party switch evokes these books’ separate central propositions: the 1990s were a new beginning for both Democrats and Republicans. It was in the ’90s that the Republican Party left postwar conservatism behind, revealing the limits of its free-market, internationalist politics (embodied by Ronald Reagan) and sowing the seeds of a 21st-century populist revolution. It was in the ’90s that liberals on the other side of the aisle embraced an elite consensus centered on market-based policies and an individualized conception of social justice as entwined with personal economic success; a worldview Geismer evocatively describes (paraphrasing Bill Clinton) as “doing well by doing good.” The Democratic Party, according to Left Behind, turned away from the state and toward the market. More than this, however, Geismer argues that the “New Democrats” of the 1990s were not dominated by the Reaganite Right but were instead ideological coarchitects of neoliberalism.