Professors reflect on changes, similarities between ‘90s politics, today

Megan Hix

As Republican and Democratic presidential candidates move further away from center, it’s easy to look back on the more bipartisan politics of the ‘90s as part of a “golden decade.”

Brendan Gaughen, an American studies professor and Ph.D. student who teaches a class dedicated to the ‘90s, said the resurging nostalgia for the decade may say more about today’s affairs than the past.

In this year’s presidential race, an increasing number of voters are lending support to anti-establishment candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Gaughen said the trend represents a slow shift away from the more moderate political leaders of the ‘90s.

“Politics became a bit more polarized in the decade,” Gaughen said. “Generally along party lines, people become more liberal or conservative and those polls move further away from each other.”

While young people in particular are drawn to these campaigns, English associate professor Neil Nehring, who teaches a class on youth subcultures, said many of the underlying causes important to young voters are the same today as they were 20 years ago. 

“Young people are always worried about their economic futures,” Nehring said. “In 1991, they were talking about young people wondering, ‘What’s out there for me,’ and that certainly hasn’t changed.”

When it comes to the issues themselves, today’s candidates in both parties acknowledge policies that took root in the ’90s, such as President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, may require a second look.     

“There was definitely an increase in mass incarceration in the ’90s, particularly among populations of color,” Gaughen said. “I think we’ve definitely seen a resurgence in activism on that front with groups like Black Lives Matter in the past few years.”