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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 1945Ė1960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Chapter 37: Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

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Cultural Politics

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The United States during the last decade of the twentieth century has been a nation ricocheting between extremes in search of a stable center. In politics, as an editorial in Business Week stressed in 1996, "voters want their leaders to govern from the center." In 1992 Bill Clinton defeated George Bush by portraying himself as a new type of Democrat, a centrist and a Washington outsider committed to reducing the size and cost of government. Once in office, however, he fell under the sway of old-style liberals who convinced him to focus on apportioning government jobs to minorities, promoting gay rights within the military, and allowing his wife Hillary to design a government-run health-care reform package that smacked of New Dealism.

The results were catastrophic for the Democrats. Republicans scored a major victory in the 1994 elections. For the first time in forty years, they seized control of both houses of Congress and announced that their "Contract with America" involved nothing less than the dismantling of the welfare state. "Itís the Russian revolution in reverse," said Republican strategist Bill Kristol. Newt Gingrich outspoken new Speaker of the House, declared that "We are at the end of an era." Tom DeLay, Gingrichís lieutenant in the House, brazenly stressed that "we are ideologues."

Yet the radical Republicans soon found themselves the victims of their own hubris. Middle-of-the-road Americans balked at the idea of shutting down the federal government, and the ever-resilient Clinton surprised his opponents by moving decisively toward the political center. He hired a new stable of advisors and began stressing that the "era of Big Government is over." He used his State of the Union address in 1995 to co-opt the Republicans on key issues such as welfare reform and balancing the budget. Clinton now insisted that the Democratic party had allowed itself to be seduced by "identity politics"—self-interested groups preoccupied with race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. He promised to abandon such factionalism by moving the partyís orientation toward the center of American values. He began talking about the need to curb teen pregnancy and underage smoking, as well as improve the quality of TV programs.

By 1996 the editor of U.S. News and World Report could remark that Clinton had stopped the Republican "revolution and successfully placed himself in the political center, uniting his own party and widening his appeal to independents." His victory over Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election confirmed his successful makeover. One of Clintonís top aides declared after the election that "Weíre going to see government from the center."

The same conservative forces steering Bill Clinton toward the center were also affecting racial attitudes during the 1990s. People in both political parties began to question the affirmative action policies that had given preferential treatment to women and minorities. When the Supreme Court ruled in Adarand Constructors v. Pena (1995) that the government required a "compelling interest" to justify affirmative action mandates, efforts spread across the country to set aside race- and gender-based preferences. In 1996 the state of California eliminated affirmative action programs in employment, contracting, and university admissions. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut expressed the widespread view that racial and gender preferences were "patently unfair."

A new generation of conservative African-American intellectuals agreed. Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Glen Loury, and Ward Connerly, among others, stressed that affirmative action and social welfare programs had backfired. Instead of liberating and uplifting blacks, they had made them dependent on government assistance and undercut individual initiative. Connerly, a member of the board of regents of the University of California, asked, "Are we going to continue to believe that blacks by definition are disadvantaged? As a black man, I say no."

Another widespread concern during the 1990s was the erosion of civic virtue and public involvement. Between 1960 and 1990, a quarter of the electorate lost interest in voting. In 1994 only 39 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. Apathy at the polls was indicative of a larger trend toward declining participation in community affairs. A dramatic rise in people declaring themselves as "independents" rather than Democrats or Republicans, a sharp decline in membership in voluntary associations, and a growing cynicism toward politicians, the political process, and each other prompted social scientists to analyze the reason for a diminishing sense of civic engagement. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam declared in 1995 that the "social fabric is becoming visibly thinner our connections among each other are becoming visibly thinner. We donít trust one another as much, and we donít know one another as much. And, of course, this is behind the deterioration of the political dialogue, the deterioration of public debate."

Putnam blamed television, VCRs, and computers for distracting people from their social responsibilities; others cited the sharp increase in working wives the self-absorbed hedonism of the "baby-boom" generation and their children—"Generation X." Whatever the case, Americans headed toward the twenty-first century with an uncertain confidence that the center would hold. In 1996 President Clinton told the nation, "Cynicism is our opponent. Apathy is our opponent."


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