America’s Emerging Culture

Demographic Shifts

By the 1990s, the United States had experienced a population explosion, with the population doubling since 1932.

Learning Objectives

Interpret some of the issues that defined American culture in the 1990s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The U.S. population grew to over 250 million by 1990, more than double the population during the first election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. 
  • Medical advances brought the life expectancy to a record high, and the U.S. Hispanic population grew five times as fast as the rest of the population, emerging as a stronger political force.
  • Culturally, the 1990s are characterized by the rise of multiculturalism and alternative media; movements such as grunge, the rave scene, and hip hop spread around the world, aided by advances in technology, such as cable television and the World Wide Web. 
  • Some social changes that were apparent in the 1990s were more relaxed attitudes about dress, language, drugs, and sexual freedom.
  • Third wave feminism gained momentum in the 90s, with violence against women taking center stage, more women taking on positions of leadership, and the rise of queer theory initiating important discussions about gender and sexuality. 
  • The decade also saw the continued rise of the “moral majority,” a faction of the Republican Party whose policies include conservatism on social and personal matters, marrying religion to the political process. 

Key Terms

  • Moral Majority: A faction of the Republican Party whose policies include conservatism on social and personal matters, marrying religion to the political process; sometimes pejoratively used to describe the Republican Party since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.
  • Douglas Coupland: A Canadian novelist whose first novel, the 1991 international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, popularized terms such as “McJob” and “Generation X.”
  • Generation X: The group of people in the United States born after the post-World War II baby boom ended; while there is no universally agreed upon time frame, commentators usually use beginning birth dates ranging from the early 1960s to the early 1980s.

The U.S. in the 1990s: Massive Growth

The U.S. population grew to over 250 million by 1990. Population had nearly quadrupled in a century, and it was more than double the population during the first election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Medical advances brought the life expectancy to a record high. The U.S. Hispanic population grew five times as fast as the rest of the population, and began to emerge as a stronger political force.

Cultural Shifts

Culturally, the 1990s are characterized by the rise of multiculturalism and alternative media, which continued into the 2000s. Movements such as grunge, the rave scene, and hip hop spread around the world to young people during that decade, aided by advances in technology, such as cable television and the World Wide Web. Vestigial changes from the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s were apparent throughout the 1990s. More casual, “laid-back” attitudes toward dress, language, and sexual freedom were among these left-over changes. Western world fashions reflected this by often turning to highly individualistic and/or counter-cultural styles, influenced by Generation X and Generation Y/Millennials; tattoos and body piercing gained popularity, and “retro” styles inspired by fashions of the 1960s and 1970s were also prevalent. Some young people became increasingly involved in extreme sports and outdoor activities that combined embracing athletics with the appreciation of nature. 

A new tolerance was especially prevalent in the historically sensitive realm of sex; 95% percent of males and over 80% of females between the ages of 18 and 24 acknowledged premarital intercourse. Drugs remained popular as well. While the drug LSD fell somewhat out of fashion, marijuana continued its popularity. Crack, a cheap and powerful derivative of cocaine, displaced heroin.

Third wave feminism gained momentum in the 90s, with violence against women taking center stage, more women taking on positions of leadership, and the rise of queer theory initiating important discussions about gender and sexuality. In 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of diseases, and the acceptance of homosexuality gradually began to increase in the United States and many areas of the western world. At the same time, the rise of the “moral majority,” which had begun after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, continued into the new decade. The moral majority is a faction of the Republican Party whose policies include conservatism on social and personal matters, joining religion to the political process. Dismay over crimes, drugs, and drinking was widespread; the national minimum drinking age had been raised to 21 in 1984, and many states and communities began to ban cigarette smoking in public places. The conservative campaign against sexual “promiscuity” received unexpected support, due to the discovery of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in the 1980s. Most politicians were slow to devote resources to combating AIDS, in part because it was initially perceived as a “gay man’s disease” that posed no threat to other Americans.

Gen X

“Generation X” is the name given to people born between the mid-1960s and early-1980s. The term was penned by author Douglas Coupland in 1991 when he released his era-defining novel, Generation X. Coupland’s characters were in their mid-20s, going through a “quarter-life crisis.” In his book, Coupland discussed how his generation faced looming threats of nuclear war, which made forming meaningful relationships pointless. He also discussed how major corporations, such as McDonald’s, provided a shared state of consumerism that formed a new zone of comfort. By pointing out major social problems, such as AIDS, depression, and sexuality, Coupland helped define an entire generation.

The Immigration Act of 1990

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the number of immigrants permitted to enter the U.S. from 500,000 to 700,000.

Learning Objectives

Assess the significance of the Immigration Act of 1990

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Immigration Act of 1990, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, increased total, overall immigration to allow 700,000 immigrants to come to the U.S. per year for the fiscal years 1992-1994, and 675,000 per year after that. 
  • The Act designated that 50,000 of those visas be for people from non-typical emigration countries. It also enabled the removal of AIDS from the list of diseases that barred a person from immigrating.
  • The period between 1991 and 2000 was the period during which the U.S. admitted the most legal immigrants; however, these immigrants represented only 0.3% of the population growth.
  • As of 2010, a quarter of the U.S. population under 18 were either immigrants or children of immigrants.
  • Illegal immigration may be as high as 1.5 million per year, with a net of at least 700,000 illegal immigrants arriving every year. Immigration led to a 57.4% increase in foreign-born population from 1990 to 2000.

Key Terms

  • immigration act of 1990: Legislation in the United States that increased the limits on legal immigration, revised all grounds for exclusion and deportation, authorized temporary protected status to aliens of designated countries, revised and established new non-immigrant admission categories, revised and extended the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, and revised naturalization authority and requirements.
  • Diversity Visas: A United States congressionally-mandated lottery program for receiving a U.S. Permanent Resident Card that makes 55,000 permanent resident visas available annually to natives of countries deemed to have low rates of immigration to the United States.
  • Naturalization Act of 1906: An act of the United States Congress signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt that revised the law from 1870, and required immigrants to learn English in order to become naturalized citizens; it was later modified by the Immigration Act of 1990.

Overview

The Immigration Act of 1990 was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on November 29, 1990. The Act increased total, overall immigration to allow 700,000 immigrants to come to the U.S. per year for the fiscal years 1992-1994, and 675,000 per year after that. It provided family-based immigration visas, created five distinct employment-based visas categorized by occupation, and began a diversity visa program that created a lottery to admit immigrants from “low admittance” countries–or countries where their citizenry was underrepresented in the United States. The modifications removed homosexuality as grounds for exclusion from immigration, and the law provided for exceptions to the English testing process required for naturalization set forth by the Naturalization Act of 1906.

Significance of the Act

After the Immigration Act became law, the United States would admit 700,000 new immigrants annually, up from 500,000 before the bill’s passage. The new system continued to favor people with family members already in the United States, but it added 50,000 “diversity visas” for countries from which few were emigrating, as well as 40,000 permanent job-related visas and 65,000 temporary worker visas. Additional provisions strengthened the U.S. Border Patrol; it also altered language regarding disease restrictions in a way that permitted the Secretary of Health and Human Services to remove AIDS from the list of illnesses making a prospective immigrant ineligible to enter the country.

Demography

The United States admitted more legal immigrants from 1991 to 2000–between ten to eleven million–than in any previous decade. In that decade, the 10 million legal immigrants who settled in the U.S. represented an annual growth of only about 0.3% as the U.S. population grew from 249 million to 281 million. By comparison, the highest previous decade was the 1900s, when 8.8 million people arrived, increasing the total U.S. population by 1% every year. Specifically, nearly 15% of Americans were foreign-born in 1910, while in 1999, only about 10% were foreign-born.

By 1970, immigrants accounted for 4.7% of the U.S. population, rising to 6.2% in 1980. As of 2010, a quarter of the residents of the United States under 18 were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Eight percent of all babies born in the U.S. in 2008 belonged to undocumented immigrant parents, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Legal immigration to the U.S. increased from 250,000 in the 1930s, to 2.5 million in the 1950s, to 4.5 million in the 1970s, and to 7.3 million in the 1980s, before reaching about 10 million in the 1990s. Since 2000, legal immigrants to the United States have numbered approximately one million per year, of whom about 600,000 represent “Change of Status” and are already in the United States. Legal immigrants to the United States are now at their highest level ever, at just over 37 million legal immigrants. Illegal immigration may be as high as 1.5 million per year, with a net of at least 700,000 illegal immigrants arriving every year. Immigration led to a 57.4% increase in foreign-born population from 1990 to 2000.

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Filipino-Americans in New York: Crowd at the Philippine Independence Day Parade in New York City.

The Information Age

The Information Age refers to the current period in which information is easily accessed and transferred by individuals.

Learning Objectives

Assess the impact of the Internet

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Information Age formed by capitalizing on advances in computer microminiaturization, with a transition spanning from the advent of the personal computer of the late-1970s, to the Internet reaching a critical mass in the early 1990s.
  • The Internet, one of the main tools of the Information Age, has existed since 1969; however, it was only with the implementation in 1991 of the World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, that the internet became what exists today.
  • The proliferation of smaller and less expensive personal computers and improvements in computing power by the early 1980s resulted in a sudden access to, and ability to share and store, information for more and more workers.
  • Industry is becoming more information-intensive and less labor- and capital-intensive; this trend has important implications for the workforce, as workers are becoming increasingly productive and the value of their labor decreases.

Key Terms

  • Digital Age: A term used to describe the current age characterized by the ability of individuals to transfer information freely and have instant access to information that would have been difficult or impossible to find previously.
  • internet: The global system of interconnected computer networks that link billions of devices worldwide; a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies. 

Overview: The Information Age

The Information Age, also commonly known as the Computer Age or Digital Age, is a descriptive term for the current, modern age in history in which individuals are able to transfer information freely and have instant access to information. The Information Age came about by capitalizing on advances in computer microminiaturization, with a transition spanning from the advent of the personal computer of the late-1970s, to the Internet reaching a critical mass in the early 1990s, followed by the subsequent adoption of such technology by the public in the two decades after 1990. Bringing about a fast evolution of technology, the Information Age has enabled rapid global communications and networking to shape modern society.

The Internet

While the roots of innovations, such as personal computers and the Internet, go back to the 1960s and massive Department of Defense spending, it was in the 1980s and 90s that these technologies became part of everyday life. The Internet was first conceived as a fail-proof network that could connect computers together and be resistant to any one point of failure; the Internet cannot be totally destroyed in one event, and if large areas are disabled, the information is easily rerouted. At its initial stage, its only software applications were e-mail and computer file transfer.

Though the Internet itself has existed since 1969, it was with the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 by two computer scientists, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, followed by its implementation in 1991, that the Internet truly became a global network. Today, the Internet has become the ultimate platform for accelerating the flow of information. It is presently the fastest-growing form of media, and is gradually pushing many other forms of media into obsolescence.

Progression

Library expansion was calculated in 1945 by writer, inventor, and librarian Fremont Rider to double in capacity every 16 years, if sufficient space was made available. Rider advocated for replacing bulky, decaying printed works with miniaturized microform analog photographs, which could be duplicated on-demand for library patrons or other institutions. He did not foresee the digital technology that would follow decades later to replace analog microform with digital imaging, storage, and transmission mediums. Automated, potentially lossless digital technologies allowed vast increases in the rapidity of information growth. Moore’s law—that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years—was formulated around 1970.

The proliferation of smaller and less expensive personal computers and improvements in computing power by the early 1980s resulted in a sudden access to, and ability to share and store, information for more and more workers. Connectivity between computers within companies led to the ability of workers at different levels to access greater amounts of information.

Information Transmission

The world’s technological capacity to receive information through one-way broadcast networks was 432 exabytes of (optimally compressed) information in 1986; 715 (optimally compressed) exabytes in 1993; 1.2 (optimally compressed) zettabytes in 2000; and 1.9 zettabytes in 2007 (this is the information equivalent of 174 newspapers per person per day). The world’s effective capacity to exchange information through two-way telecommunication networks was 281 petabytes of (optimally compressed) information in 1986; 471 (optimally compressed) petabytes in 1993; 2.2 (optimally compressed) exabytes in 2000; and 65 (optimally compressed) exabytes in 2007 (this is the information equivalent of 6 newspapers per person per day).

In the 1990s, the spread of the Internet caused a sudden leap in access to and ability to share information in businesses, at home, and around the globe. Technology was developing so quickly that a computer costing $3,000 in 1997 would cost $2,000 two years later and only $1,000 the following year.

The Rise of Information-Intensive Industry

Industry is becoming more information-intensive and less labor- and capital-intensive. This trend has important implications for the workforce–workers are becoming increasingly productive as the value of their labor decreases. However, there are also important implications for capitalism itself; not only has the value of labor decreased, but the value of capital has also diminished. In the classical model, investments in human capital and financial capital are important predictors of the performance of a new venture. However, as demonstrated by Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, it now seems possible for a group of relatively inexperienced people with limited capital to succeed on a large scale.

Technology and Culture

Like most technology-driven periods of transformation, the information age was greeted with a mixture of hope and anxiety upon its arrival. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, computer manufacturers like Apple, Commodore, and Tandy began offering fully assembled personal computers. (Previously, personal computing had been accessible only to those adventurous enough to buy expensive kits that had to be assembled and programmed.) In short order, computers became a fairly common sight in businesses and upper-middle-class homes. Soon, computer owners, even young kids, were launching their own electronic bulletin board systems, small-scale networks that used modems and phone lines, and sharing information in ways not dreamed of just decades before. Computers, it seemed, held out the promise of a bright, new future for those who knew how to use them.

An advertisement shows a young man seated at a kitchen table working on a 1970s-style computer. A woman, who is preparing food a the kitchen counter, looks over her shoulder at him and smiles.

The rise of the personal computer: This ad for the Apple II appeared in Byte magazine in 1977.

Casting shadows over the bright dreams of a better tomorrow were fears that the development of computer technology would create a dystopian future in which technology became the instrument of society’s undoing. Film audiences watched a teenaged Matthew Broderick hacking into a government computer and starting a nuclear war in War Games, Angelina Jolie being chased by a computer genius bent on world domination in Hackers, and Sandra Bullock watching helplessly as her life is turned inside out by conspirators who manipulate her virtual identity in The Net. Clearly, the idea of digital network connections as the root of our demise resonated in this period of rapid technological change.

The Religious Right

By the 1980s, the Religious Right made substantial gains in United State politics, as conservative Democrats were increasingly alienated by their party’s support for liberal social views.

Learning Objectives

Examine the emergence of the Christian Right in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The influence of the contemporary Religious Right is derived from their highly motivated and devoted voters, members, and volunteers, who are extremely politically active.
  • The origin of the American Religious Right is often attributed to a meeting in 1979 when Jerry Falwell was urged to begin a “moral majority ” organization.
  • One of the most well-known organizations of the Religious Right is the Christian Coalition (CC) of America, which was begun by religious broadcaster and political commentator Pat Robertson.
  • Some of the state chapters of the Christian Coalition have obtained non-profit status.
  • In 1997, the Christian Coalition was ranked 7th most powerful political organization by Fortune magazine; however, the CC’s influence has greatly declined in recent years.

Key Terms

  • Pat Robertson: A media mogul, television evangelist, ex-Baptist minister, and businessman who politically aligns himself with the Christian Right in the United States.
  • Jerry Falwell: An American evangelical fundamentalist, Southern Baptist pastor, televangelist, and conservative political commentator; the founding pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia; and cofounder of the Moral Majority in 1979.
  • fundamentalist: One who reduces religion to strict interpretation of core, or original, texts.

Introduction: The Rise of the Religious Right

As Ronald Reagan campaigned for President in 1980, some of his strongest supporters were members of the Religious Right, including Christian groups like the Moral Majority, 61% of whom voted for him. By 1980, evangelical Christians had become an important political and social force in the United States. Some 1,300 radio stations in the country were owned and operated by evangelicals. Christian television programs, such as Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club” and Jim Bakker’s “The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club,” proved enormously popular and raised millions of dollars from viewer contributions. For some, evangelism was a business, but most conservative Christians were true believers who were convinced that premarital and extramarital sex, abortion, drug use, homosexuality, and “irreligious” forms of popular and high culture were responsible for a perceived decline in traditional family values that threatened American society.

Origins of the Christian Right in the United States

Alienation of the Southern Democrats

In the 1960 presidential election, the alienation of southern Democrats from the Democratic Party, as well as the fear of social disintegration provoked by the counterculture and social movements of the 60s, contributed to the rise of the Right. As the Democratic Party became identified with a pro-choice position on abortion and with nontraditional societal values, social conservatives, especially in the South, joined the Republican Party in increasing numbers.

Political Organization

The contemporary Christian Right became increasingly vocal and organized in reaction to a series of United States Supreme Court decisions (notably “Bob Jones University v. Simon” in 1974, and “Bob Jones University v. United States” in 1983, both of which addressed issues of racial discrimination in universities). It also engaged in battles over pornography, obscenity, abortion, state-sanctioned prayer in public schools, textbook contents (concerning evolution vs. creationism), homosexuality, and sexual education.

Grassroots Activism

Much of the Christian Right’s power within the American political system is attributed to their extraordinary turnout rate at the polls; voters in the Christian Right tend to be highly motivated and driven to get out a viewpoint on issues they care about. In addition to high voter turnout, the Christian Right also exhibits willingness to attend political events, knock on doors, and distribute literature. Members of the Christian Right are willing to do the electoral work needed to see their candidate elected. Because of their high level of devotion, most of this work is voluntary and unpaid. 

Political Leaders and Institutions

Notable leaders and groups within the Religious Right are Robert Grant’s advocacy group, Christian Voice, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Ed McAteer’s Religious Roundtable Council, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Under this leadership, the new Religious Right combines conservative politics with evangelical and fundamentalist teachings. The birth of the New Christian right, however, is usually traced to a 1979 meeting where televangelist Jerry Falwell was urged to create a “moral majority” organization.

Portrait of Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority: Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority was a key step in the formation of the New Christian Right.

Christian Coalition of America

One of the most well-known organizations of the Religious Right is the Christian Coalition of America, which was begun by religious broadcaster and political commentator Pat Robertson. Following a well-funded but failed bid for the U.S. presidency in 1988, religious broadcaster and political commentator Pat Robertson used the remains of his campaign machinery to jump-start the creation of a voter mobilization effort, dubbed the Christian Coalition. Americans for Robertson accumulated a mailing list of several million conservative Christians interested in politics, and this mailing list formed the foundation for the new organization. However, despite public announcements that excitement among evangelical and Christian Right voters to Robertson’s presidential campaign triggered the creation of the Christian Coalition, the incorporation records of the State of Virginia reveal that the Christian Coalition, Inc., was actually incorporated on April 30, 1987, with the paperwork filed earlier and with planning having begun before that. Thus, the Christian Coalition was actually planned long before Pat Robertson’s run for president. Robertson served as the organization’s president from its founding until February 2001.

After its founding, the Coalition was granted a grace period to operate as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) made its final determination. Forty-nine state chapters were also created as independent corporations within their states, including the Christian Coalition of Texas. A handful, including the Christian Coalition of Texas, successfully obtained non-profit status as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, while the national group’s application remained pending and unresolved. The Christian Coalition was ranked by FORTUNE magazine as the 7th most powerful political organization in America late in 1997; however, the CC’s influence has greatly declined in recent years.