Revisiting the Year that Changed America, Twenty-Five Years later.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1994, America embarked on a road that would eventually lead to the election of Donald Trump. At the time, it would have been easy to miss the significance of the events that set America in motion. Internationally, we witnessed critical moments like the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s first democratic election and the devastating Rwandan genocide. Domestically, we saw the launch of NAFTA, the passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and the Federal Crime Bill. In pop culture, Friends and ER were considered “Must See TV” and we were going to the movies to see Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption and Speed. We also saw Major League Baseball on strike, the return of Woodstock and America hosting its first soccer World Cup.
While 1994 was historic by any measure, three events in 1994 would forever change the future landscape of America: the emergence of the Internet, Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution and the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The confluence of these events would, ultimately, set the stage for the next twenty-five years and lead to our modern political reality, replete with Twitter wars, hyper-partisanship and a reality television President.
Americans are so dependent on the Internet that it is easy to forget that the Internet is only in its 20s. For some perspective, The Simpsons, currently the longest continuously running scripted television show, had already been on the air for several years when the Internet emerged. While the Internet had been around since the 1970s, before 1994 it had little practicality or commercial use and was a web of discrete computer networks operated by businesses and Universities. By 1994, there were only approximately 20 to 30 million users of the Internet worldwide and the largest commercial providers of Internet services were America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy. However, 1994 marked a key turning point as the Internet became more accessible to the general public.
To assess the Internet’s growth, the New York Times is a good measuring stick. In 1989, there were 7 articles that referenced the Internet. In 1990, 17, 1991, 9, 1992, 12, 1993, 95 and in 1994, 388. The Internet was taking off and the media was taking notice. 1994 was also when the IRS first tested online tax filing, the federal archives started to require the preservation of government e-mail and advertisements started to appear on online forums, to the dismay of its users. It is hard to believe that as of April, 1994, there were only 14,154 .com domains, which was up 116% from 6,545 the year prior. For comparison, in 2019, there are approximately 141 million .com domains.
On December 1, 1994, Prodigy became the first commercial Internet provider to connect to the World Wide Web, which was then just one type of Internet service among a variety of other networks. Others would follow Prodigy’s lead and businesses were quickly launching companies to service the new industry, including Amazon (1994), Ebay (1995), Yahoo (1995) and Google (1998). By the end of 1994, the Internet was on its way to becoming a fixture within modern American life.
With all the benefits of the Internet, the costs to society created by the Internet were also becoming foreseeable. Journalist, John Markoff, in an article for the New York Times appearing on March 13, 1994, insightfully noted:
“We like to think we can put a certain amount of credence in what we read in a newspaper, magazine or book because it was written and edited according to some standards.” However, “[o]n the Internet, it is possible to publish anonymously or pseudonymously and more widely than ever before. As a result the responsibility for organizing information shifts from the writer to the reader. How can you know what to believe?”
As the years have passed, this question remains as relevant as ever. The Internet has led to the dumbing down of American discourse, the spread of conspiracy theories, online extremism and the creation of fake news and opinion silos. Twenty-five years after 1994, our society is now inextricably tied to the Internet, for better or worse.
On November 8, 1994, Newt Gingrich led a conservative revolution that forever upended American politics. Few expected the conservative tidal wave that arrived on November 8th of that year. For the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, the election meant the Republicans would hold both chambers of Congress. The lasting importance of the 1994 Congressional election was not in the results, however, but in how the Republicans won and where they won.
The 1994 red wave was a victory for Newt Gingrich, the Republican Whip, and his brand of politics. Mr. Gingrich, “said he expected a 10- to 12-year battle between conservative and ‘leftist elites’ over the direction of the country before conservatives would be able to recast the Government as a force for traditional morals.” According to Mr. Gingrich, his campaign strategy “was to portray Clinton Democrats as ‘the enemy of normal Americans’ and the proponents of Stalinist measures.’” Mr. Gingrich was also successful at mobilizing conservative media to push his political agenda, stating, “I don’t have a prayer of getting my message out with the elite media so my assumption is that people who share our values want to help get our message out.” In an editorial by the New York Times, Mr. Gingrich was described as “one of the best strategic thinkers in American politics.” The Editorial Board added,
“Mr. Gingrich learned something besides campaign science in his years on the sidelines. He learned how to invoke a fictionalized vision of the American past and how then to whip the nostalgia for that nonexistent past into voter anger.”
Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign strategy was not original, but regurgitated Newt Gingrich’s 1994 tried and true playbook to a similar result.
Since the Reconstruction Era, the Democrats had held the majority of Congressional seats in the South. However, in 1994, this changed. For the first time in over a century Republicans outnumbered Democrats in Southern Congressional seats, Senate seats and Governor’s posts. The impact of the Republican takeover of the South was profound. Southern Republicans were more conservative and politically dogmatic than the average Congressional Republican. Don Johnson, a Democratic Congressman defeated in 1994, foresaw the future, stating to the New York Times,
“I think we’re seeing the death of the Southern Moderate. In the Georgia seal it says, wisdom, justice and moderation. Well, I think you can go ahead and take moderation out of it.”
Newt Gingrich’s Republicanism was conservative, combative and partisan. The reverberations from the revolution of 1994 are still being felt today as the revolution set the stage for the political battles of the past twenty-five years.
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered outside of the home of Ms. Simpson. Five days later, on June 17th, O.J. Simpson embarked on the most infamous car chase of all time. According to reports, 95 million Americans tuned into some portion of the chase, which exceeded the number of Americans who watched Super Bowl XXVIII (1994). The chase and the ensuing trial was must see television and the burgeoning 24-hour news channels fed America’s appetite for all things O.J. It was America’s first true reality television program, having its own cast of characters filled with protagonists and villains. Following the trial, cable news became an American fixture with Fox News and MSNBC joining the existing CNN in 1996. Reality television also exploded in the ensuing years, with Survivor launching in 2000, American Idol in 2002 and the Apprentice in 2004.
The most important legacy of the O.J. Simpson trial, however, may be its trivialization of the event itself. Through the noise, it was easy to forget that the trial was about the death of two innocent individuals. Over the past twenty-five years, our national politics has likewise become trivialized, becoming just one large reality television show starring a former reality television personality. Today’s political show has endless story lines, its own cast of characters and falls somewhere between comedy and drama. While our politics may make good television, the seriousness underlying the political ramifications of what is transpiring is easily lost.
America now stands at a fork in the road. The country can continue down the road it embarked on in 1994, a path paved with increased partisanship, crippling gridlock and a celebrity presidency. For certain, Donald Trump has taken advantage of the road America has taken, probably more than any other person, but he did not start the sequence of events that set America on its current course. Instead, Donald Trump is a natural consequence of America’s path. Unless things change, whether Donald Trump is removed from office by the Senate or by the voting public, another Donald Trump-like figure will inevitably emerge once again, from the right or the left.
Americans in both parties need to hit the brakes and take a hard look in the rear view mirror. To move the country forward, legislative guardrails are needed to protect against the structural changes brought by the Internet, political polarization and a media obsessed culture. Provided the current political climate, however, I fear that this Congress cannot overcome the political roadblocks that serve as barriers to bipartisanship, to forging compromise and to implementing the necessary reforms to counteract the forces that have transformed America. That being said, for the sake of the country’s future, hopefully a new generation of Americans will soon step up, break the legislative logjam and encourage the structural reforms needed to redirect the country down a sustainable path. Time is running out.