We asked 23 top historians to write the paragraph that will describe the past decade, 100 years from now.
We aren’t just approaching the end of a very newsy year; we’re approaching the end of a very eventful decade. To mark the occasion, Politico Magazine asked a group of historians to put all that happened over the past 10 years in its proper historical context—and literally write the paragraph that they think will describe the 2010s in American history books written a century from now.
Will the seemingly significant events we have lived through this decade be important in the grand scheme? Are there powerful historical forces playing out that we’re missing? Where will Black Lives Matter, the social media revolution, #MeToo, climate change, Barack Obama and Donald Trump fit into the history books?
Many described the 2010s, in the words of Andrew Bacevich, as an era of “venomous division,” characterized by massive racial, economic and political divisions. Some saw hope in the discord—as a catalyst for much needed reform, soon to come. Still other historians pointed out less-noticed trends—in technology and foreign policy—that will resonate far into the future.
How will the future remember the 2010s? Here’s what the experts had to say:
The innovation of white supremacy
Marcia Chatelain is a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University.
The 2010s were characterized by the seeming dissonance of the 2016 presidential election. In that election, Donald J. Trump expertly galvanized racial resentments, manipulated a bifurcated media landscape and utilized his alliances with foreign governments to become president. Although it was unremarkable for a racist to become president of the United States, the election of the former reality television star immediately after former Senator Barack Obama, the first black man elected to the office, led some observers to believe that his presidential win was a sign of racial backlash, a phenomenon repeated across American history since the end of slavery. Trump’s election was distinct in that it helped highlight the centrality of technology in the efficient reproduction and circulation of racist ideologies, and it forced the public to confront tensions between an expanding public sphere and its ability to galvanize narrow-minded and socially dangerous thinking. On the cusp of 2020, Americans alarmed by the spread of falsehoods via the Internet and the radicalization of racists through social media channels realizedthat the ideology of white supremacy—with its longstanding ability to shapeshift to meet the demands of the day—had innovated alongside the technology industry.
The end of privacy
Vanessa Walker is the Morgan assistant professor of diplomatic history at Amherst College.
At the close of the 2010s, political polarization, reactionary nationalism and escalating public conflict over systemic racism, gender inequality and climate change dominated characterizations of the decade. Less noticed, the decade marked the end of privacy. State surveillance was nothing new. The war on terror in the aughts had already ushered in new invasive profiling practices. But the pervasive, hyper-individualized, corporate-based collection and aggregation of personal data in partnership with government marked a new frontier in surveillance. The collection of personal information through individuals’ phones, computers and virtual assistants—and the social media and online platforms they utilized—informed almost every aspect of social and political interactions. Over the decade, these instruments insinuated themselves into peoples’ everyday lives for convenience, for entertainment, for basic daily information and communication in a way that made it difficult to imagine functioning without them. Like the proverbial frog being boiled alive, people became accustomed not only to trading their personal information for basic services, but also the idea that they were always being watched. Appeased by the pretense of being able to “opt out,” consumers accepted vague assertions that data collection was consensual, anonymous and secure. Yet, as the decade drew to a close, law enforcement officials, political campaigns and foreign governments increasingly used information gathered for commercial purposes in ways completely at odds with the assurances of privacy and consent. As scandals like Cambridge Analytica revealed, the use of this datawas also at odds with the integrity of democratic institutions and confidence in the electoral process. Big data clearly contained potential benefits for society in terms of health innovations, service optimization and energy efficiencies. However, without meaningful transparency over what was collected, who had access and how it was used, the looming surveillance state’s threat to individual freedom and collective security dwarfed those potential benefits.
The beginning and the end of Trumpism
James Goodman is a history professor at Rutgers.
The decade that began with hard times ended like the Wizard of Oz. The recovery from the Great Recession was slow and uneven. The backlash against Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, was swift and sustained. Obama won a second term in 2012, but four years later that backlash, combined with economic insecurity and a successful effort to portray Hillary Clinton as corrupt, led to the election of Donald Trump, a New York City real estate developer and reality television host, who promised to “Make America Great Again.” Trump attempted to keep Muslims out with a travel ban and Central Americans migrants out with a wall across the Mexican border. He resumed deportation of undocumented immigrants brought here as children. He won a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, and he reversed or weakened dozens of Obama era rules designed to regulate the financial industry, reduce greenhouse gases, clean up the air and water, and expand civil rights. Even as Trump cozied up to the U.S.’s longtime rival Russia and undermined free trade with punishing tariffs, the vast majority of Republicans stuck with him. He himself bragged that he could shoot someone without alienating his base. In late 2019, a whistleblower charged that Trump had pressured the president of the Ukraine to announce a corruption investigation of former Vice President Joseph Biden, his leading political rival: No announcement, no military aid. The Democratically controlled House of Representatives launched an inquiry, which led to two counts of impeachment, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He was impeached along strict party lines and then acquitted the same way. Extreme polarization appeared to be a permanent feature of American politics. But just 11 months later, in the presidential election of 2020, Trump was handily defeated by Joseph Biden and Stacey Abrams. Perhaps even more surprising, Trump’s spell was broken. His base turned like the Winkie Guards in the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. They made heroes of the “Never Trumpers,” the handful of Republicans who had resisted the president and who now gained control of a more moderate, temperate GOP. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had pushed the political center of gravity well to the right. In the late 2010s, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and a “squad” of fiery young congresswomen pushed it back the other way. In office, Biden and his team of rivals worked with Congress on the party’s agenda: health care, economic inequality, climate change, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, immigration reform and infrastructure. The Supreme Court played nice, realizing that in America there is no place like the center, wherever the center happens to be.
The collapse of vital infrastructures
Sarah E. Igo is a professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt.
In the 2010s, Americans reckoned with their neglect of vital infrastructures: political, technological and environmental. Their constitutional democracy was the most obvious system in disarray. Vulnerable to Russian cyberattacks during the 2016 election, U.S. political institutions suffered equally from the unchecked flouting of governing norms by the reality-TV star president, Donald Trump, who was the beneficiary of those attacks. Americans’ communications infrastructure also proved precarious. As news and exchanges of all sorts moved onto electronic platforms in that decade, they became ever-more captive to corporate profits, eroding individual privacy as well as the means for achieving verifiable facts. Finally, in common with people around the world, Americans grasped in that decade the potentially irreversible harm humans had done to the natural systems supporting life on the planet. Raging fires, hurricanes and floods; attacks on democratic processes; social media surveillance and fake news. These were the shocks that exposed the fragility of the systems Americans depended on—but that also galvanized citizens to repair them in the 2020s.
David M. Kennedy is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.
Still waters run deep. Sometimes turbulent waters do too. In the 21st century’s tumultuous second decade, several currents flowing out of the previous century’s closing years swelled to a torrential maelstrom that swept away the very foundations of the social and political order that had prevailed since World War II. Irony abounded. The internet, hailed at its birth in the 1960s as heralding an emerging “global village,” instead helped to spawn rancorous tribalism around the globe, conspicuously including the United States, where toxic political rivalries bred cynical disillusionment with established institutions and parties, paralyzed governance in the face of systemic threats from climate change and economic dislocation, and fed a resurgent isolationism. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave promise of a permanently pacified, united Europe and even an “end of history.” But ethno-nationalist sentiments welled up across the former Soviet states and satellites alike, while Britain’s decision to exit the European Union in 2016 ended an era of building multi-lateral institutions and put paid to the dream of European unity. In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the supposedly enervated capitalist economic system whose massive financial crisis had opened the decade, loudly blamed for widening inequality and populist anger in the West, picked up phenomenal energy, volume and velocity in nominally communist China, lifting hundreds of millions of people into the global bourgeoisie in less than two generations, and acutely stressing the rich western societies that had given birth to capitalism some four centuries earlier. The combined force of these technological, political and economic tsunamis opened the floodgates to the massive transformations that have washed over the planet in succeeding decades, including deepening social fragmentation in all societies, intensifying competition among them, and the dramatic shift of geopolitical power from the West to Asia.
A democracy grapples with its success
Tom Nichols is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
From A Century of Change: The United States from 1945-2045:
Historians have struggled to explain the paradox of the 2010s. On the one hand, it was a decade of economic and military recovery that was by any standard peaceful and prosperous, even under two very different American presidents. And yet, it was characterized by a poisonous anger and extreme polarization that is normally the hallmark of defeated and bankrupted states on the verge of collapse. In retrospect, the 2010s represented an unexpected and politically destructive synergy between peace, affluence and technology. Despite skyrocketing income inequality, for example, an array of technological advances narrowed the daily living standards between rich and poor compared with even a few decades earlier. These advances, in turn, spurred increasingly unattainable demands from the public on both government and industry for even higher living standards and more consumer choices. Universal education produced unprecedented levels of literacy, but electronic entertainment and media undermined the ability of literacy to create informed citizens; by 2020, it was fair to say that never in modern history had a more educated people rejected science and rationalism in such numbers. Abroad, America was still supremely powerful, with interstate war nearly unheard of, and terrorism mostly contained at great distances (albeit at great cost). Yet this increased security reduced the sense of shared threat among Americans and thus dissolved any chance that foreign affairs might prove to be an arena of common interest. And the “era of social media,” as we refer to it today, not only allowed Americans to peer into heavily edited versions of each other’s lives—thus fueling huge social resentments—but encouraged them to voice their views in the most extreme manner, with each citizen offered a chance at notoriety if even for only a moment. By their end, the 2010s raised a question which remains unanswered as America heads toward completing its third century of existence: Can democracies cope with success?
Populist threats to the social order
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine.
The 2010s posed resonant rebukes to established authority the world over. The decade opened with an eruption of grassroots social movements in the U.S. and abroad—the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring—and continued on through the anti-Trump marches, #MeToo and 2019’s Hong Kong, Iran and India uprisings. Though typically short-lived and sometimes unsuccessful, these movements and their underlying discontents destabilized political structures everywhere. Anti-establishment politics also fed the rise of outsider candidates and populist demagogues, left and right, and dramatically weakened venerable political parties in many countries. For many people, this upheaval offered hope for the advent of a more equal and just society—but as Donald Trump’s presidency and other right-wing nationalist regimes held fast to power, there seemed at least as great a chance that it would fatally undermine the liberal international order that had underwritten peace and prosperity for so long.
The emergence of an Obama-Trump foreign policy
William Inboden is associate professor of public policy at the LBJ School and executive director of the Clements Center for National Security, University of Texas at Austin.
During this decade, the United States elected two presidents who could not be more dissimilar in temperament, character and background: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Yet as history unfolded, it turns out that Obama’s and Trump’s different personas and governing styles obscured what were similar policy choices and convictions in the realm of American foreign policy. Both Obama and Trump disdained the foreign policy “establishment” and its prescriptions, trusting instead in their own instincts; both expressed skepticism about American exceptionalism; neither president forged close personal relationships with other foreign leaders. Both Obama and Trump voiced vexation with America’s allies and weakened America’s alliance commitments; both sought to reduce the American presence in the troubled Middle East; both were ambivalent about free trade agreements; both downplayed the promotion of human rights and democracy; and both attempted to reorient the United States away from being the dominant global superpower to instead adopting a more restrained posture in the emerging multipolar world. The Obama-Trump era of international politics, as it came to be seen, recognized correctly the need for a recalibration in America’s international role, especially given public discontent and the upsurge in global populist movements. But in time it proved to be the wrong prescription. Malign powers such as China and Russia filled the void left by American international leadership, contributing to the increase in global conflict and instability that characterized the unhappy decade of the 2020s.
A spotlight on state-sanctioned violence
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society.
On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman from Illinois, was found dead in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. Only three days prior, Bland had been stopped by a white officer while driving in Prairie View, Texas. The tense exchange between the two, which was recorded on the officer’s dashboard camera and on Bland’s cellphone, circulated widely across the nation. Thousands decried the circumstances that led to Bland’s tragic death, questioning the stop, the detainment and the officer’s repeated threats. Bland’s life and untimely death cast a spotlight on one of the social issues that dominated public discourse during the 2010s: state-sanctioned violence. The public awareness around this issue can be attributed to Black Lives Matter (BLM), a nationwide and global movement to end state-sanctioned violence. What began as a hashtag on social media—launched by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in 2013—following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer evolved into a protest movement that shook the nation to its core. After the 2014 police shooting of Mike Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, BLM rose to national prominence, demanding justice for Brown’s family and the thousands of unarmed Black people murdered by the police. From uprisings in cities across the nation to organized acts of resistance on college campuses, BLM compelled Americans to acknowledge the systemic problem of state-sanctioned violence and take steps to bring about necessary changes. Despite backlash and a host of internal and external challenges, the BLM movement, led by young radical activists, transformed the American political landscape, shaping national discussions on race and policing, and forcing several presidential candidates during the 2016 elections to confront the issue.
The two faces of American democracy
Peniel Joseph is a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
The story of the second decade of the 21st century is one marked by the Janus-faced nature of American democracy. Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, ushered in his own version of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society through passage of sweeping health care legislation. The promise of a more just and fair society proved elusive however, undercut by growing disparities between the rich and the poor; the rise of mass incarceration; racial and economic segregation in neighborhoods and public schools; and an assault on the concept of American citizenship and democracy fueled by right wing social media, white nationalism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. President Donald Trump’s ascension represented the literal and figurative inversion of the grand hopes of the Obama Era. Whereas Obama offered the hope of racial reconciliation based on a democracy expansive enough to embrace the historically marginalized and oppressed, Trump’s electoral coalition resounded with Americans longing for the sepia-toned past, one suffused with white supremacy. These dueling narratives of American democracy reverberated globally as well. The Obama Doctrine vowed to end international war through peace efforts (including the Iran Nuclear Deal) that at times upset allies. In contrast, the Trump Doctrine touted “America First” as a slogan that signaled the abandoning of longstanding alliances in favor of a more insular foreign policy—one that saw an American president openly courting authoritarian leaders in North Korean and Russia.
Polarization and the rise of politically active women
Heather Cox Richardson is a history professor at Boston College.
The perfect symbol of the 2010s came in February 2015, when an image of a dress went viral on social media as Americans fought over whether its pattern was #blackandblue or #whiteandgold. America was divided in this decade, with splits over economics, politics, religion and culture exacerbated by social media. A set of increasingly extreme Republicans stayed in power by convincing voters that Democrats under biracial president Barack Obama, whose signature piece of legislation was the Affordable Care Act making health care accessible, were intent on destroying America by giving tax dollars to lazy people of color and feminists who wanted to murder babies. And in 2016, Republicans leaders weaponized social media with the help of Russians to elect to the White House Donald J. Trump, who promised to end this “American carnage.”On the other side, in 2013, the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement helped galvanize those who believed the system was stacked against them. And in January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March became the largest single-day protest in American history. By the end of that year, the #MeToo Movement took off as women shared their ubiquitous experiences with sexual harassment and demanded an end to male dominance. In 2018, when Republicans forced through the Senate the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who had been creditably accused of sexual assault, they helped convinced voters to elect a historic number of women and racial minorities to Congress in in the 2018 midterm elections, almost entirely on the Democratic side. The story of the 2010s is of increasing American polarization, but also the rise of politically active women to defend American democracy against the growing power of a Republican oligarchy.
Globalization as uniter—and divider
George H. Nash is a historian and the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
The 2010s were a decade in which the forces of globalization pulled the nations of the world closer together—and began to drive them apart. It was a period in which more people were on the move in the world than at any time in the history of the human race (and more and more of them made America their destination). This unprecedented intermingling not just of goods and services but of peoples and cultures was accompanied by a revolutionary transformation in the structure and velocity of mass communication. The pace of life—especially public life—accelerated. Tribalization, polarization and combative populism permeated the political systems of many lands. In America itself, the apocalyptic language of war—even civil war—increasingly marked public discourse, and serious observers began openly to question whether the United States of America would remain indivisible in the years ahead. As the decade ended, no one could say with certainty whether the worldwide ferment was a passing spasm of discontent or a harbinger of deeper upheavals.
A period of paralysis
Kevin Kruse is a history professor at Princeton University.
The 2010s were a period of paralysis. From the Tea Party protests in 2010 through the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump in 2019, the American political system staggered from one partisan showdown to another. Amplified by the growth of partisan media, both on cable and the internet, Americans increasingly lined themselves into hostile camps with all political progress stalled. The federal government shut down three times due to funding impasses, while routine matters of housekeeping like the debt ceiling became, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2011, “a hostage worth ransoming.” As the government gridlocked, little progress was made on larger social concerns. There were, to be sure, notable changes such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, but on other issues little progress was made. The increasing crisis in climate change, which manifested in record temperatures and alarming levels of hurricanes, flooding and wildfires, only continued to worsen. Mass shootings accelerated as well, with four of the five deadliest incidents in U.S. history taking place in the decade, with little substantial action. The optimism over race relations that had marked the election of the first African American president, meanwhile, became dashed with the revival of white nationalist extremism and divisive fights over immigration from Muslim-majority nations and a proposed border wall with Mexico. By the end of the decade, the United States seemed more deeply divided and directionless than it had been in a half century.
The backlash against elites
Geoff Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.
Decades rarely begin at neat decennial intervals. The 2010s, in hindsight, began with the 2007-08 financial crisis. The inability to foresee and prevent that crisis, combined with the subsequent lack of punishment for anyone behind it, served notice to much of the population that the establishment (whatever that was) was no longer doing its job (whatever that meant). As the crisis led to economic collapse in rural and formerly industrial areas, working-class and lower-middle-class citizens responded angrily to what they saw as a broader failure by elites (not just in politics but also in the media, think tanks and academia)to respond to the problems of globalization (including trade, immigration and crumbling communities) that primarily afflicted the left-behind regions. The result was a furious populist backlash—one that played out in country after country across the developed world, with movements that were more or less alike in their grievances and lack of coherent solutions. The real question of the decade was: Why did elites fail to see the reaction coming, and what would they do about it? The shape of the next decade was thus determined by whether parties of the center-left and center-right could revive anything like the post-World War II social unity and capitalism that produced steadily rising living standards for all, or whether the 2020s would look more like the 1930s.
A pathway to a new beginning
Jeremi Suri is a professor of public affairs and history at the LBJ School at the University of Texas Austin.
The decade began with the nation’s worst recession since the Great Depression and it ended with the worst political divisions since the close of the 19th century. The inherited institutions and practices of democracy in the United States took a repeated beating. In the last weeks of the decade, the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump while his supporters defended near-monarchical powers for the commander-in-chief. Nonetheless, the crises that dominated the decade were transitional. They marked the demise of a still white, post-industrial, baby-boomer society filled with men and women resisting their decline. The decade opened a new America that was more racially and ethnically diverse, more feminine, led by millennials, and organized around artificial intelligence technologies. 2020 was a powerful new beginning built on the destruction of the previous years. The United States renewed its democracy through a messy, prolonged and ultimately productive generational change in leadership at all levels— from local businesses and schools to the White House. It was an ugly time that generated bright reforms thereafter.
An era of competing populist movements
Claire Potter is a professor of history at the New School.
The partisanship, and the populisms, that came to characterize the 2010s were already coalescing as the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2008. As Barack Obama, the first African American president, prepared to take office, disgruntled conservatives and libertarians began meeting in small, community groups—eventually forming the populist Tea Party movement, devoted to limiting the Obama legislative agenda to the expansion of public health care. By 2010, Tea Party-endorsed candidates were preparing to take their oaths of office in Congress as part of a new Republican House majority. By 2013, as many as 10 percent of Americans were said to identify with the movement. Fueled by similar grievances—economic despair, frustration with government, and the ability to organize and share ideas on social media—left populisms also flourished in the 2010s. By September 2011, protesters who identified as the Occupy Wall Street movement had established a self-governing encampment in Lower Manhattan, protesting economic policies that privileged the “1%” over the “99%,” forcing issues like student debt, workers’ rights and climate change to the center of political conversation and reviving the United States’ long-dormant socialist politics. In 2013, angered by the failure of a black president to stem violence against their communities, populists who were queer and of color coalesced under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to renew the struggle for racial civil rights. By the 2016 election, centrists in both parties suddenly found themselves besieged by new candidates who represented these competing populist movements. Socialist Bernie Sanders battered presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, nearly costing her the nomination; on the right, real estate developer Donald Trump recast himself as a man of the people, wooing nationalists and corporate America with conspiracy theories, and the promise of a country renewed by wealth and whiteness, to defeat Clinton in the general election. The final four years of the decade would see a United States defined by the collapse of the political center, by the consequences of moving conservative populism to the center, and by the determination of left populists to remake the Democratic Party—and retake the government.
The privileged strike back
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine.
The 2010s, a decade that concluded the three-part movie trilogy of Star Wars, could be understood as an epic battle between good and evil, the small and seemingly insignificant against the dark forces and the imperial. There was the rise in protest movements for social justice: Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, Standing Rock, Mauna Kea, youth against gun violence and Greta Thunberg. Standing in opposition were those with privilege and power, who continued to consider themselves the victims and the marginalized. Their fears about having to share their society and the possible loss of authority generated hate violence, mass incarceration, the detainment and abuse of refugee children, and self-righteous anger. As the U.S. approached 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, the nation had elected its first African American/multi-racial president but had yet to elect a female president. In fact, the backlash against President Barack Obama and what he represented led to conspiracy theories about his birthplace, a new visibility and escalation of racialized police brutality, voter suppression laws and the confirmation of questionable nominees at all levels of the political system. The 2010s was a decade of civil war in the United States. How did this battle end? Was it possible to resolve the conflicts, given the historical depths of these divisions? Might a sense of compassion and a belief in justice lead to a renewed society, one that built bridges and not walls? The 2020 brought the possibility of a faint, new hope.
An era of venomous division
Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.
By the second year of Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, it had become apparent that his presidency would fall well short of transformational. While Obama’s two terms were not devoid of accomplishments, they tended to be incremental, for example his healthcare reforms, or short-lived, such as his efforts to stem the further proliferation of nuclear arms. Events quickly dashed expectations of the nation’s first black president ushering in a new forward-looking era of American politics. Instead, racial and cultural cleavages deepened, egregious inequality persisted and futile wars dragged on. Obama managed to prolong the life of the political consensus that had formed in the wake of the Cold War. Yet with the race to choose his successor in 2016, that consensus collapsed, the political novice Donald Trump prevailing over the far more seasoned Hillary Clinton. Former Secretary of State Clinton stood for unchecked individual autonomy, globalized neoliberalism and militarized U.S. “global leadership.” Although himself utterly devoid of principle, Trump presented himself as intent on repudiating all of these things. His election thereby brought to the fore divisions related to class, race and ethnicity that had been latent or ignored. A very considerable portion of the electorate wasted no time in dismissing his presidency as illegitimate. The signature of the ensuing Age of Trump was venomous division. In terms of policy, the theme of the 2010s became drift, with issues such as climate change treated as an afterthought, if at all.
The consequences of deregulation
David A. Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.
The deregulation approved by many Democrats as well as Republicans in previous decades resulted in a series of seismic transformations of the life of the United States in the 2010s. The deregulation of the communications industry led to the tribalization of the news media, most prominently in the creation of Fox News as a semi-official propaganda organ of the wealthy, extremely conservative Republicans who rallied around President Donald Trump in 2016. Fox News and its smaller counterparts cemented the loyalties of millions of voters by disseminating a steady stream of deeply misleading and often downright false accounts of virtually every issue being contested in public life. The deregulation of the financial, fossil fuel and other industries had similarly transformative consequences, facilitating economic inequality on a scale unknown for many decades and contributing to global warming on a scale scientists found apocalyptic. President Barack Obama tried to reverse these developments when he first came into office, but it was late in the day, and too many of the leading Democrats refused to support the policies Obama tried to advance. Ultimately, it was the Democratic Party’s failure to use the political and cultural resources available to it to enact and maintain an appropriate regulatory structure as late as the mid-1990s—during the neo-liberal administration of Bill Clinton—that did more than any other single factor to determine the course of American history in the 2010s. Rarely in the history of industrialized societies had a political leadership equipped with such magnificent opportunities squandered them so spectacularly, and thus betrayed the nation of which they were entrusted to be the stewards.
Democracy under siege
Nicole Hemmer is author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
Bookended on one end by Citizens United and on the other by a president impeached for inviting foreign interference in U.S. elections, the 2010s were the decade of democracy under siege. Red states instituted strict voter ID laws and purged their voter rolls, while the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Super PACs fueled dark-money politics. State-house Republicans stripped power from their rivals, and congressional Republicans broke every institutional norm in an attempt to thwart a popular Democratic president. And social media, which techno-optimists hailed as a force of democratization at the start of the decade, ended the 2010s as a dystopian hellscape crawling with wannabe Nazis and disinformation campaigns. It was also a decade of grassroots pro-democracy movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Moral Mondays to Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March to March for Our Lives, reminders that some Americans were resisting democratic decline.
Many Americans found scapegoats
Eric Rauchway is a history professor at University of California, Davis.
Over the decade of the 2010s the United States, like countries around the world, recovered from the 2008 financial crisis but slowly, which aided the rise of right-wing movements. The weak stimulus policies enacted at the worst of the slump prevented a catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression. But cries for austerity and retrenchment prevented a speedy return to prosperity. As months of joblessness turned into years, arguments blaming immigrants, foreigners and international bankers (generally a thin euphemism for “Jews”) gained greater support than they had since the years between the world wars. Erudite arguments erupted over whether adherents of such beliefs qualified fully as fascists, or merely as authoritarian opponents of democracy, while their principal proponents won and kept office, weakening the alliances and institutions entrusted since 1945 with keeping the peace.
We saw how our democracy would end
Elizabeth Borgwardt is associate professor of history and law at Washington University in St Louis.
2010-20 was the decade when we saw how our democracy would end. In 1989, over 100 million people around the world listened as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein celebrated the opening of the Berlin Wall, by leading East and West Germans in an emotional rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The maestro said he liked the idea of using music and culture to tear down walls in people’s hearts. The Soviet Union soon disintegrated, but by the end of the 2010s it had become clear that the U.S. had become more like Russia, rather than the other way around. Spiking inequality, fearmongering about immigrants and the dissemination of fake news were the building blocks of these new walls.
In Brazil, Hungary, Israel, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Russia and the United States, among other places, indicia of democratic decline included attacks on journalists and media outlets, a withering of support for multilateral institutions, attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers, restrictions on an independent judiciary, squeezing out the integrity of the electoral process, systematic defunding of development assistance and higher education, and a similar squeezing out of domestic norms supporting pluralism and tolerance. Democracy in America did not end with Trumpism, of course. But younger, smarter politicians such as Josh Hawley were taking notes even then, and as of 2020 the writing was already on that initial slice of border wall: The 2010s were when a demagogue willing to promote division, disfranchisement, and corruption first dealt himself a winning hand.
Groundwork for a Constitutional revision
Jack Rakove is a professor of history and political science, emeritus, at Stanford University.The decade of the 2010s placed the American constitutional system under the greatest stress it had known since the New Deal crisis of the 1930s. President Donald Trump demonstrated that he felt none of the “veneration” (to quote James Madison’s 49th Federalist paper) required to sustain the norms of constitutional governance. Worse still, however, was the behavior of the Senate and the Supreme Court. Under Republican control, the Senate blithely ignored the well-documented charges under which the House of Representatives had impeached Trump. For its part, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court fulfilled its long-frustrated agenda: In two leading decisions in June 2020, it gutted the Affordable Care Act and authorized individual states to impose severe limits on the right to choice secured in the 1974 decision in Roe v. Wade.
The events of the 2010s thus set the stage for the Great Constitutional Revision of 2024. Although Joe Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 election, Republicans held on to the Senate and the Supreme Court retained its conservative majority. With the national government in a state of near paralysis, a coalition of blue states coalesced to demand a constitutional convention. A phalanx of 18 solidly red states, representing less than a fifth of the nation’s population, quickly rejected this proposal, keeping it two states shy of the two-thirds margin that Article V of the Constitution required. Invoking the precedent set in 1787, when the first Constitutional Convention threw out the amendment rules laid down in the Articles of Confederation, the blue states insisted that the meeting must be held. Rather than side with the smaller bloc of solidly red states, the now hotly contested states of Texas and Florida sent delegations to the Chicago convention.The dominant theme of the Convention was to make constitutional decision-making directly responsive to the one person, one vote standard. That was also how votes were allocated in the Convention itself. The resulting deliberations led to a radically revised Constitution. Among other changes, the president would now be elected by a single nation-wide popular vote. The House of Representatives was enlarged to 600 members, with all its districts designed by an AI process to be as competitive as possible. The Senate became an advisory body that could no longer vote down legislation enacted by the House, and senators were now elected on a regional basis, rather than by individual states. The Supreme Court was enlarged to 15 justices, who would serve 18-year terms on a staggered basis. When the bloc of small red states balked at ratifying the results, they were told they could form their own separate confederacy. A few months of considering how costly it would be to sustain their states government without the financial support of the far more economically productive blue states quickly led them to abandon their position.
Trump’s one inadvertent contribution to American history was to make these changes possible.
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