President Paradox: It’s been another decade of greed. But this time it was OK to feel good about it.

Now that the New York Times has weighed in with another of its interminable series on the “Clinton Legacy,” what more is there to be said about the eight years that are now coming to a close? Perhaps it is best to drop down below the level of the North American Free Trade Agreement, of welfare reform or the peace process, and look at how the social and cultural texture of America has changed under the presidency now ending.

Now that the New York Times has weighed in with another of its interminable series on the “Clinton Legacy,” what more is there to be said about the eight years that are now coming to a close? Perhaps it is best to drop down below the level of the North American Free Trade Agreement, of welfare reform or the peace process, and look at how the social and cultural texture of America has changed under the presidency now ending.

Social statistics tell us that things have gotten better. The relentless cultural decline that at the beginning of the 1990s seemed like a fact of nature ground to a halt and, miraculously, reversed direction while Bill Clinton was president. As most Americans are well aware, crime rates have gone down by about 20% nationally and much more steeply in individual cities like New York.

Lower crime rates had a variety of positive spillover effects in terms of great social trust: Urban spaces could be reclaimed for urbane uses by the middle class, rather than being dominated by the extremely rich and extremely poor. The proportion of unwed mothers stopped increasing by 1994 and even declined slightly thereafter. Teenage pregnancy rates dropped more dramatically, and the rate of divorce drifted downward.

So far so good. But the social reality of what Tom Wolfe calls our “wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country” during the Clinton years can be unbelievably contradictory and complex. Ballroom dancing, home schooling, and sexual abstinence can all be major trends next to body piercing and downing ecstasy pills. This contradictory reality is probably better described by a novelist (as Mr. Wolfe himself has done effectively) than by a social scientist armed with statistics.
Take the question of class. It is true that income inequality slowed its rate of increase in the 1990s. But it didn’t decline, either, and the meaning of working class, middle class, and rich all changed.

Back in the 1950s, America’s sizable working class–people who work in factories, build houses, or police the streets–could think of itself as middle class because class was defined in terms of ownership of assets like a home, a car, and a washing machine.

One consequence of the 1990s “knowledge economy” was the emergence of a new economic gulf, as the working class, now a much smaller part of the labor force, moved downward in status and income, and the middle and professional classes moved up. The latter reconciled themselves to Reaganite economics as half of all households came to own equities by the late 1990s. Liberals in this group were taken aback by the anger of working Americans over Nafta, China and globalization. But culturally, there was a convergence as the working class drifted to the left while prosperous baby boomers now raising families became more traditional.

Better-educated people who still thought of themselves as middle class changed as well. With so many women moving into the work force, it once again became a common experience for people who didn’t think of themselves as rich to have servants. There is in Colorado a new school for servants that teaches its female students not to be too pretty, lest they threaten the lady of the house. Its graduates work for people who, by and large, have not grown up with servants themselves, and who try to be on a first-name basis with their butlers. This sort of egalitarianism, it turns out, doesn’t work any better in the 1990s than in the 1890s.

In the Clinton years, the rich got unbelievably rich. In the 1980s, having a net worth in multiples of $100 million seemed like a lot of money. Today, that’s a technology baron’s chump change. The areas surrounding New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington are now filled in with new subdivisions of trophy homes where a husband, wife (perhaps herself a trophy), and a child or two occupy a minimum of 10,000 square feet.

It is amazing what happens when a society of well-educated people has money to burn. The high end of everything exploded during the 1990s. Cigars, microbrew beers, camping gear, gas barbecues, home theaters, and mountain bikes now all have legions of devotees. There are firms that specialize in refurbishing antique license plates, or that manufacture vacuum tubes out of production since the 1930s. In today’s America, you can easily pay $10,000 for a pair of wires to connect your high-end CD player to your high-end amplifier, and read reviews of how they “sound” compared to other five-figure cables.

The self-perception of the newly rich changed in significant ways. The media managed to label the Reagan years the “decade of greed,” symbolized by corporate takeovers, a booming stock market and Nancy Reagan’s dresses. The Clinton years, which have seen even larger corporate takeovers, a headier stock market, and Monica Lewinsky’s stained dress, thought much better of itself and its own “remarkable,” even “exuberant,” prosperity. This contrast is due in part to the fact that the baby boom generation, which includes much of the media and the opinion leaders of the chattering classes, themselves got rich only in the 1990s and could no longer point a resentful finger at other people who were making off like bandits.

But there is something more at work here. The newly well-to-do could feel good about themselves because they had morphed into what David Brooks calls a “bobo,” or the bohemian-bourgeoisie. The basic idea is that it’s OK to be crassly materialistic and ill-behaved as long as you have good intentions, which by the 1990s meant having the right opinions about the environment, race, gender and poverty. The Clintons are perfect exemplars of this trend, since they quite honestly seemed to think that the goodness of their intentions justified their commodity deals, lying under oath, and astronomical book deals. Those who got rich off the tech boom could think of themselves as pioneers on the new “electronic frontier.”

Another area of contradictory social trends is race. In their book “America in Black and White,” Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom presented an overwhelming statistical case that while inequality still remained a stubborn fact, African-Americans over the past generation had improved their material and social situation relative to whites in virtually every respect. But as the objective differences narrow, the perceived injustice of those inequalities still remaining seem to become all the more unbearable.

To hear many black leaders talk in the wake of the Florida recount, the current situation is not all that different from Selma, 1963. For all of Mr. Clinton’s gestures toward racial healing, the distinctiveness of black perceptions of events has grown. This became painfully evident during the O.J. Simpson trial, when liberal white women expected their black sisters to denounce male violence, only to find one well-educated black talking head after another taking O.J.’s side. While whites were sharply divided over the Clinton impeachment, blacks were monolithically on his side; Al Gore got an even higher proportion of the black vote than did our first “black” president. The gulf that separates blacks and whites is increasingly a cultural rather than socio-economic one.

All of these trends indicate that the most important changes of the Clinton years were in the end cultural rather than economic. This explains the central political paradox of this period: Why it is that one of the most conservative presidents from the Democratic Party could have ended up being so intensely hated by the right, and polarized American politics like no other?

The reason was that the Clintons were quintessential “bobos”: crudely materialistic, self-absorbed, and power-hungry, but at the same time unable to admit any of this to themselves because they believed their intelligence, education and sophistication entitled them to a higher level of respect. Like others in his generation, the man presiding over America’s most recent decade of greed could look himself in the mirror and pronounce himself satisfied with what he saw.

Mr. Fukuyama is a professor of public policy at George Mason University.


News Service: opinion journal


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