For years, American television gave the world a surprisingly profound insight into the culture and sociological nature of the US. The television of the 1950s and much of the 1960s portrayed a contented nation at the zenith of its domestic wealth (for the time and in many ways beyond).
This mirrored the confidence of a country whose consumer product boom and geo-politically assured position, created a sense of invincibility among much of the population. Though exaggerated at the time, with hindsight, it is not difficult to see why such a cultural attitude developed.
The American counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw even Richard Nixon growing sideburns, who would have thought? Ordinary people had it good in a material sense, in spite of tensions ranging from the war in Vietnam to civil rights protests to the controversies of some elements of baby-boom culture.
But from the Carter era to the present day, America’s internal cultural confidence has given way to a kind of malaise that someone from the 1950s could barely recognise.
In terms of presentation, Ronald Reagan was the perfect American President. Confident, good humoured, polished and eloquent. Yet the Reagan era saw the first signs of what a decade later Ross Perot (a proto-Trump in more ways than one) called the ‘giant sucking sound’ of good industrial jobs leaving the country. This is to say nothing of the money wasted on arms and useless military engagements during the 1980s.
By the Clinton era, the industrial stagnation conflated with a moral decay, one made more prominent by Clinton’s personal normalisation of immoral behaviour.
It was in this era that a fascinating television programme was first broadcast called Beavis and Butthead, created by Mike Judge. Judge has traditionally avoided political labels, but many suspect he is a centre-right libertarian. His willingness to be interviewed by Alex Jones when many of the American entertainment establishment shun Jones, may well testify to this reality.
Beavis and Butthead centred around two dead-beat teens who have no interest in education, traditional values or pursuing a 1950s caricature of the American dream. By the 1990s, whatever reality this American Dream may have been, was no longer available to the great many of Americans whose industrial towns became effective ghost towns where a meagre service industry replaced once stable factory work.
Beavis and Butthead however did not only reject traditional post-war American values, they also rejected the cultural-Marxist tendencies of the so-called New Left , whose young overly idealistic 1960s adherents came of age in the 1980s and 90s.
The two cartoon teens refused to engage in politically correct discourse and often rubbished those who did in a simplistic yet surprisingly sincere manner. The boys showed no hatred for those of different backgrounds, preferring instead to heap their scorn on MTV music videos which did not fit their narrow definition of hard rock or heavy metal, genres still popular with many young people in 1990s America.
There is something surprisingly refreshing about the show which in some ways has aged poorly. It is a time capsule rather than a timeless piece of entertainment.
The American of the 1990s evolved into an even more divided place in 2017. The material wealth gap which started in the 1980s, has not only come to impact people in ever more direct ways, but the sectarian policies of the New Left which were only beginning to take over mainstream Democratic politics in the 1990s, are now the norm for all but the silent majority of conservatives (whether Republican, Libertarian or independent).
Today dead-beat teens don’t ridicule videos on MTV, they take to social media to ridicule each other. Now they don’t laugh at politically correct jargon, they use it to take advantage of a broken system. The bleak 1990s is now the sick 2010s. Is it any wonder that a man calling for ‘greatness’ to be restored won an election in such a place?
Beavis and Butthead through crude but ultimately innocent humour, ridiculed the liberal shibboleths of its era whilst exposing how people putting the Dollar before those who earn them, let down several generations.
The show might not be to everyone’s liking but it has a surprisingly crucial role in providing a time-capsule of a declining America that brought things to where they are today.