Bill Clinton Gives Us Nostalgia For What We Never Had

Since this is a culture blog, I’m going to leave the policy and political analysis of President Clinton’s barnburner DNC speech to others (see Daniel Larison, Jonathan Cohn, and James Fallows for some good examples). But one of the reasons that Clinton’s speech succeeded in the way that it did was the cultural cache surrounding Bill Clinton and the era where he was more relevant. As Duncan Black points out, this was the last era in memory where Americans felt thoroughly optimistic about the future of our country:

Whether or not he deserves any credit – and he certainly deserves a lot of credit for some bad things – what I think has been lost is the fact that the latter half of the Clinton years were good times. Good times in a way that that hadn’t been experienced since the late 60s or so. I don’t just mean in terms of purely quantifiable things – though the numbers there are good – it was also the case that there was a real sense of optimism. America, we’re back, bitches! It wasn’t all a horror story in the previous couple decades, but “morning in America” ads aside, there was a feeling of stagnation.

What struck me about Black’s observation was that I felt similarly — despite the fact that I was 12 when Bill Clinton left office. My generation became politically aware around September 11th; we matured alongside the Iraq war and the financial crisis. We’re the generation of crisis politics, and looking back at the trappings of the 90s — the comparatively insignificant politics, the silly clothes, the sunny art — makes us acutely aware of the contented America we missed out on. Watching the quintessential 90s President deliver an address about a better future is the ultimate exercise in the displaced nostalgia pervades American culture in the 2010s. Clinton’s address sometimes felt like the political equivalent of watching Downton Abbey and Mad Men to escape to an enthralling past, or using Instagram to get an instantaneous sense of having “been there, man.” And, for a few minutes last night, it seemed like we were.