It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The familiar words are those of Charles Dickens, describing the London and Paris of 1775 in A Tale of Two Cities. But they apply equally well to end-of-the-millennium America.
The “worst” part is easy—too easy. Sex and lies in the inner sanctums of power. Toxic politics and ideological vendettas. Monica Lewinsky, Larry Flynt, cigars and the mess on the dress. Need we say more?
The best of times are not as obvious, but they go far towards explaining why most Americans have reacted to the scandals in Washington with a collective shrug. The conventional explanation is that it’s the economy, stupid. Who cares about Paula Jones, went last year’s mantra, when the Dow Jones is doing so well? And of course it has done wonderfully—up 16 per cent in 1998 alone. The U.S. economy continues to defy gravity: 3.5-per-cent annual growth, unemployment of 4.3 per cent, inflation at a minimal 1.5 per cent. All that might be enough to keep Bill Clinton popular. But there is so much more.
In fact, it’s the whole society, stupid. There are compelling signs that things are going right in a whole range of areas and for the great majority of Americans. For the first time in a generation, the most important indicators of social health are all pointing in the right direction. Most bad things— crime, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, teen pregnancy and suicide, abortion, divorce, drug and alcohol use, pollution—are in decline. Many of the good things—levels of education and health, living standards, prosperity for once-excluded groups such as racial minorities—are on the rise.
Acknowledging these trends goes against the grain for many people. Liberals don’t want to seem complacent; they prefer to dwell on the social problems that remain, such as persistent poverty and racial tensions. Conservatives enjoy appalling themselves with visions of modern America sinking into a moral mudhole. Even Canadians have an angle: we like the warm feeling we get by looking south and tsk-tsking over the violence and inequality we see from 1ms Angeles to New York City. But two new assessments, one from the left and one from the right, offer convincing arguments that the doomsayers are behind the curve. The liberal New Republic pays homage to what it calls “America the OK” in an issue whose cover bears a map of the United States made out of smiley faces (there’s a single frowny face—hovering over Washington). And the cover of The American Enterprise, published by a conservative Washington think-tank, poses the question “Is America Turning a Corner?”
Left and right, naturally, disagree on the causes of all this, but the general pattern is clear. From roughly the end of the 1960s, things
The number of people stuck on welfare is way down—by a dramatic 40 per cent across the United States since the peak in 1994. Families are more likely to stay together: the divorce rate topped out in 1981 and has shrunk slowly but steadily since then. Even the number of people attending church and saying that religion is important in their lives is up. The benign economy makes it easier for good things to happen, but it doesn’t explain everything. During the Reagan boom of the 1980s, it was possible to argue that the United States was becoming a Bonfire of the Vanities society—the rich were getting richer while the poor were left to fend for themselves in crackinfested, gang-ruled ghettos. The difference in the late ’90s is that things are getting better for almost everyone—including poor Americans and black Americans.
began to go badly wrong. Crime rates soared, along with drug use, inner-city decay, and a breakdown in family life (divorce rates took off, as did the numbers of out-of-wedlock births and children raised without fathers, usually in poverty). The backlash against those trends gave rise to the modern conservative movement and fuelled the anti-government mood of the 1980s and ’90s. Now, the editors of The American Enterprise write, “The alarm bells rung by cultural conservatives seem to have been heeded by many Americans, and a new pattern of recovery and even reversal has emerged.” Whatever the causes, it’s hard to quibble with the results. To be sure, the United States of 1999 is still more crime-plagued and socially troubled than Canada and Europe—or the United States of 1959. But since the earlyto mid-’90s, most trends have been going in the right direction. Some of the numbers: violent crime dropped seven per cent nationally in 1997, to the lowest level since 1963. New York ended 1998 with 628 murders for the year—the lowest number since 1964 and a huge drop since murders there peaked at 2,262
in 1990. Juvenile drinking is down (in 1980, 72 per cent of high-school seniors reported consuming alcohol recently; only 51 per cent did so in 1996). Teen pregnancy has declined —in 1995 it fell to the same level as 1975 after rising for almost two decades.
Not surprisingly, then, Americans don’t find much to complain about. Clinton may have done little to make things better, aside from keeping Alan Greenspan at the helm of the Federal Reserve Board and adopting conservative ideas like welfare reform as his own. But he benefits from the Being There factor—he’s in office so he gets the credit. And all the good news makes his conservative Republican critics seem bizarrefy out of touch as they fill the airwaves with lamentations about moral decay. Ordinary Americans are wiser. They know that these are the good old days.
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