The 1920s, glamorised and celebrated in books and films, seems like an anomaly in history. With such vivid iconography, it’s a struggle to remember anything about the decade other than flappers, Gatsby, art deco, and jazz. It feels entirely separate from the rest of the early twentieth century and its two world wars. But, saying ‘the twenties’ will soon no longer mean the ‘roaring’ decade, and will instead evoke whatever fashions, music, and culture the upcoming ten years will bring.
Can we learn anything by looking back at the 1920s? I’ve decided to trace the decade’s key social and political events to see if we can predict what is in store one hundred years after Gatsby. An academic book could not cover these subjects in their entirety and I certainly can’t in this short article, so please excuse me as I proceed to skim only the surface of critical moments in history. I am going to focus solely on the USA, seeing as that’s where the lasting image of the 1920s originates from.
Left vs Right and Party Politics
The First World War has ended. Time to party! Well, only for some. In this decade, American politics became considerably more conservative. The country elected three Republican presidents who all encouraged business expansion with limited regulation and had low tolerances towards immigration. In 1924, a strict quota was introduced to reduce the number of immigrants arriving in the US. The new policy prohibited all Asian citizens from being admitted into the country and established huge limitations on immigration from southern and eastern Europe. There was a rise in nationalist and fundamentalist movements. Ku Klux Klan membership peaked in the middle of this decade. Despite the surge in new and liberating fashions and music, American politics and culture were firmly on the right.
Looking forward to the 2020 presidential election, it’s clear that these issues remain key talking points in American politics. ‘Outsiders’ are easy scapegoats for the economic and social woes of America’s lower and middle classes; stirring up fear about immigration is one of Trump’s main tactics. He scored votes for his presidency, in part, thanks to his promise to build a wall to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico into the US. Similarly, in the 1920s, the Red Scare saw a rise in xenophobic attitudes. Many Americans, deeply wounded by WWI, feared immigrants’ potential to hold communist or anarchist beliefs, leading to popular support for closed borders and isolationism.
Many of the conservative policies of the 1920s were a rejection of the ‘Progressive Era’ that took place in the decades prior. In this period, many Democrats and Republicans embraced the idea of greater governmental powers and the limitation of big city bosses’ monopolies. This resulted in public ownership of gas, water, and electricity. It seems that in politics, much like physics, when there is a push in one direction, there is an equal and opposite reaction that pulls us the other way. This tension resulted in the swing to the right post-WWI, and I predict the opposite will happen in US politics in the 2020s.
My guess is that Trump will win the next election, but the latter half of the decade will welcome a new left-wing president. Currently, the left is responding to Trump’s uncensored and racially insensitive rhetoric, and, as a consequence, is becoming more radical. Policies that were once considered marginal like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and free college tuition are now promoted by several of the Democrat presidential candidates. I predict this will continue into the decade and we may see the Democrat party strengthen if they get their message out clearly and effectively.
In the 1920s women’s fashion echoed their growing political and social rights. The simple and straight flapper silhouette that has come to symbolise the era subverts the ‘feminine’ figure and is far less restrictive than previous fashions. Although still taboo, trousers were becoming more of an option for women. Coco Chanel used her influence to make ‘beach pyjamas’ trendy and cutting edge. Thanks to the relaxed dress codes at beaches and lidos, women could wear comfortable trousers without too much criticism.
In the 2020s, androgynous looks will become more mainstream. I predict that as some women donned trousers for the first time in the 1920s, men will do the same with skirts in the 2020s. It is already commonplace on catwalks and will begin to emerge in everyday streetwear. Rappers, Young Thug, Jaden Smith, and A$AP Rocky have all worn skirts while maintaining their urban street style, proving that the traditionally female garment does not have to be feminine in shape or style. Hopefully, this signals progress towards greater freedom of expression in the 2020s.
The US dictionary, Merriam Webster, named ‘they’ as their word of the year 2019 to honour changing attitudes towards the gender binary, with many people feeling more at home somewhere in the middle. In September, the publishers added gender-neutral pronouns to the dictionary and searches for the word ‘they’ were up by 313% compared to 2018. While in the 1920s, natural differences between men and women were largely considered an absolute certainty, in the 2020s gender roles and definitions will be hotly debated and deconstructed.
Prohibition and the Legalization of Marijuana
It’s widely accepted that prohibition was a bad idea. In 1920, the 18th amendment on the US Constitution banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. President Herbert Hoover called prohibition ‘the noble experiment‘. But, in reality, it led to a rise in underground crime and the mafia controlled most of the production and distribution of the substance. The gangster, Al Capone earned around $60 million each year thanks to bootleg sales of alcohol and ownership of speakeasies.
Plenty of parallels can be drawn to the growing decriminalisation of cannabis in modern America. Like prohibition, when drugs are pushed further underground, criminal operations flourish; this leads to the mistreatment of addicts and dealers at the hands of those higher up the criminal food chain. The legalisation of marijuana in several US states this last decade marks a cornerstone in the decriminalisation of drug use. But, it remains tricky to navigate legalisation and its implications. What can we learn from prohibition?
One of the key reasons prohibition ended was the Great Depression. As usual, money talks, and the much-needed tax revenue from alcohol helped persuade politicians and the public to legalise it once more. Roosevelt called for a repeal during his 1932 presidential campaign and scored a landslide victory.
Money continues to have enormous influence on the legalisation of drugs today. It has been predicted that if marijuana was legalised on a federal rather than state level, it could generate $131.8 billion in aggregate federal tax by 2025. However, despite legalisation of the sale of marijuana, disproportionally large numbers of non-white Americans remain incarcerated for selling the drug. Instead, trendy dispensaries, with predominantly white owners, flourish in urban areas. Buzzfeed claims that only 36 of the over 3000 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the US are owned by black people.
We can hope that in the coming decade these issues will be ironed out. Oakland established a ‘Cannabis Equity Program’ that supports individuals who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. The city granted half of its cannabis permits to applicants who had a low income and either lived in a high-crime area or had been previously convicted of a cannabis related crime. Unfortunately, the scheme has since collapsed due to poor planning and communication. Those with fewer resources and a darker skin tone continue to struggle to reap the benefits of legalising the drug.
The USA has an unsavoury history of race relations, and the 1920s were no different.
In 1921, one of the US’s worst and least reported on race riots took place. Tulsa, a highly segregated and crime ridden city, was home to Greenwood, a neighbourhood dubbed the Black Wall Street. The area was a prospering business district and home to many middle-class black families. A black teenager was arrested after an incident in an elevator in which a white woman’s scream could be heard. He was released days later, and police agreed that he likely just stumbled into her. But, in the limbo period before this, a violent massacre broke out. Thousands of white citizens stormed the Greenwood neighbourhood and attacked black residents, looted their houses and burned their businesses. The exact number of deaths is unknown, but the 1921 Race Riot Commission estimates anywhere between 36 to 300.
There was a news blackout on the event for decades and no public ceremonies or memorials took place until 1996.
This one example paints the picture of America’s race problem in the 1920s. In the Greenwood neighbourhood, black businesses were flourishing. The massacre destroyed the area and erupted out of anxiety about the new economic emancipation of the city’s black community.
Fear and jealousy still plague race relations in the twenty-first century. The 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally was organised in response to the removal of Confederate monuments and street names in southern states. Protestors feared, much like in Greenwood, that elements of their identity were under threat. For the alt-right, the removal of statues symbolised the growing power of non-white voices and stories.
The Washington Post conducted a poll in early January in which 65 percent of black Americans said it is a ‘bad time’ to be a black person in America. Legally and socially plenty has changed since the 1920s, but many black Americans still feel vulnerable and mistreated in modern America. In the past one hundred years, the civil rights movement transformed the African American experience: racial discrimination was banned, segregation prohibited, and voting barriers removed. Black Americans’ lives are vastly more liberated in 2020 than in 1920. However, through the examples discussed, I hope to demonstrate that the emotions from which racism arises and how these manifest in daily life are largely the same. Racism is less overt today than it was one hundred years ago, but just because people have found new ways expressing their racial prejudices (perhaps on Twitter rather than lynching) does not mean it is a problem of the past.
Change is inevitable and in the past century life has totally altered. Developments in technology, social justice, education, and politics have transformed almost every aspect of our lives. But human nature remains unchanged. These examples make evident that the way we respond to challenges and progress whether today or in the 1920s, is the one consistency.