A Renaissance of Liberalism

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I haven't checked, but I would bet that the release of the first Harry Potter movie, last November, was declared by someone to be epochal. Epochal stuff has been happening like crazy for years. We live in an epochal epoch, we are frequently reminded. It is hard to say exactly when the monumentalization of the trivial became a way of life in America. It may have been when the National Football League started according contests between large men in skintight pants the sort of solemn designations formerly reserved for armed global conflicts. This year it's Super Bowl XXXVI; that's a lot of epics, a lot of epochs.

Maybe the blame belongs, as it often does, with the Boomers—everything they did, or thought, or merely lived through was epochal. The Summer of Love was epochal, Woodstock was epochal, the Pill was epochal, long hair was epochal. Once you start getting epochal about hairdos, you are on a slippery slope. In the seventies and eighties things got completely out of hand. Saturday Night Fever was epochal; Saturday Night Live, too. Last Thanksgiving, Mick Jagger seemed to be easing into Perry Como's slippers with his own holiday special, "Being Mick"—epochal as parody.

In politics and in policy everything was epochal. This made sense at first. The Civil Rights Act really was epochal, and so was the Vietnam War, and so were the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King Jr., the riots on the campuses and in the inner cities, the destruction of the Democratic Party in Chicago, the implosion of New York City, Watergate. But the slope was slippery here, too. Ronald Reagan's supporters declared an epoch before he had even been sworn in. What we had here was not just a new President, it was the Reagan Revolution—the right's answer to JFK's Camelot, that primal example of manufactured epochalism. When Bill Clinton became the first Boomer President, for a while there you couldn't pick up the newspaper without getting smacked in the eye by another Boomer-written article marveling over the epochal nature of it all.

Newt Gingrich was the living end of the political as epochal. He thought and spoke—and spoke, and spoke—exclusively in epochs. Not long after he won the congressional battles of 1994, I covered a conference on the future (or, rather, The Future) in Washington, D.C. Gingrich was the big draw, upstaging the Tofflers, of Future Shock fame. He had a sort of unified theory of epochal relativity, whereby everything that was happening right now (very much including the rise of The Indispensable Newt) fitted into the great story of the ages of man. We in the press balcony dutifully recorded this for posterity. I guess you had to be there.

The genuine epochal events of the sixties were all disasters, and together they gave rise to a declinist and even apocalyptic view of America that would prevail in the politics of the far left and the far right. Progress under democracy was not inevitable; government was not necessarily a force for good and we ourselves were not necessarily good; our leaders were not necessarily competent or honest or even sane.

This view began losing ground in the nineties. The Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the spectacular worldwide increase in wealth, the equally spectacular decline, at least in the industrialized world, of pollution—these were not disasters but the contrary. This accumulation of triumphs undercut declinism. Also undercutting it, in the United States and Great Britain, was the rise to power of a new generation of political leaders who practiced a form of activist government that was more about what worked than about what was ideologically prescribed.

On the national level in America this was represented by the Clinton Administration, which in some ways failed, but which did at least restore to respectability the idea of a government animated by the idea of improvement through government. And the Clinton effect nationally was a lagging indicator of change, following the effect locally of the works of pragmatic reformist governors such as Tommy Thompson, of Wisconsin, and George Voinovich, of Ohio, and mayors such as Rudy Giuliani, of New York, and Richard Daley, of Chicago. Millions of people relearned that states and cities were not ungovernable, that authority could in concrete ways make life better.

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