As I've wound up my lectures this term, I've tried hard not to plod through the last fifty years as a series of decades--the 1950s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s--but instead to see the period as "an age" or as "ages." How best to understand the world we're living in now? How best to understand the first years of our time (whenever that may be).
There are lots of candidates. The Age of Conservatism plays well, which allows the story of the rights expanding language of World War II to parlay into the storms of the middle 1960s, which in turn prompted a conservative outburst, Reaganomics, our current political polarization, the Religious Right, and more.
The Information Age also has some merit. The decline of the 100-year industrial revolution in the 1970s meant economic doldrums for many Americans until the economy rebooted in the 1990s, leading us into the information age that we live in today. In this scenario we can easily introduce globalization and it's discontents, the internet, 24-hour news cycles, the Lewinsky scandal, and more. This is certainly more of an economic explanation as opposed to a political or culture one, but you'd be foolish to think there's not a relationship between the three, and that the economy has more often than not been in the driver's seat in American history.
Then there's the idea that "We Are All Multiculturalists Now" that Nathan Glazer told us about in 1997. This tells the story of the triumph of the idea that descent shouldn't matter much in who gets basic rights, our love of diversity talk (and our negligence of class talk), the rise of "political correctness" (which most people simply call "good manners"), and yes, the presidency of Barack Obama.
I find these last few lectures fascinating because things that seemed so important to me in the mid-1990s, now seem so unimportant. I remember a friend in graduate school saying "the legacy of Bill Clinton's presidency will be his embrace of free trade." I thought he was crazy--his legacy will of course be Monica Lewinsky and the culture wars.
As I look over my lecture notes now, I'm pretty darn sure my friend was right.
(this post comes from Kevin Schultz; Blum merely re-posted it to get posts in chronological order).