Last week I marked the 1,000,000th visit to historyunfolding.com, and it occurred to me that I might repost an early effort today to provide some perspective on what had happened since then. Instead, I have decided to do a quick survey of the most important changes in American and world culture sine the late fall of 2004, when I debuted. It was a very long time ago and that galaxy already seems pretty far away.
At home, George W. Bush was just about to win a very narrow re-election victory, thanks to carrying the key states of Florida (comfortably) and Ohio (pretty closely.) That victory owed something to the issue of gay marriage, which Karl Rove had decided to turn into a wedge issue for the campaign by getting it onto the ballot in numerous states. The Republicans also controlled the House and the Senate--the latter quite narrowly--and President Bush was looking forward to a productive second term. However, he unwisely made the privatization of Social Security his main legislative proposal, and it was so unpopular that it never even came up for a vote. Then came the federal government's failure at the time of Hurricane Katrina. The economy had been growing for a couple of years, although less robustly than it has recently, and the housing bubble was really getting going. It would not burst for another three years. The Bush Administration had started us down the road to energy independence through fracking, which would later have dramatic consequences. I will return to developments here in the US later.
Meanwhile, in 2004, the Iraq War was going very badly, an not for another two years did the US manage to stabilize the situation somewhat. That apparent victory, of course, turned out to be temporary, and although ISIS no longer rules an part of Iraq, the relationship of the Sunni eras to the Iran-backed government remains very unclear today. Afghanistan was pretty much off the radar in 2004, but Pakistan, apparently, was about to mount an offensive there, with results that continue to this day. Meanwhile, the turmoil in the Middle East which we unleashed in Iraq has spread, first to Lebanon, then to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The clash between Shi'ites and Sunnis which we unleashed in Iraq now occupies the whole region, and the US government is now pretty much lined up on the side of the Shi'ites. In Palestine, the new elections which President Bush had called for were two years away. When they took place in 2006, Hamas won the Parliamentary elections. Since 2004 Israeli politics have swung way to the right, and the government of the United States is now, for the first time, completely behind the Israeli government position on peace talks, making any real settlement impossible.
There has been a great swing towards authoritarianism around the world. Russia was already on that path in teh early 2000s under Vladimir Putin and has remained upon it. Meanwhile, the Russians in 2008 resumed independent action in foreign affairs, invading North Georgia, and later annexed Crimea and started a border war with Ukraine which continues. Putin has emerged as an outspoken opponent of the "unipolar" US-led world, and his intelligence agencies are busily trying to subvert the politics of the United States and other western nations. The US and NATO have taken new steps to try to stabilize the Baltic states. Authoritarian governments now rule Hungary and Poland, and in general, the swing towards democracy in Eastern Europe that began in 1989 has turned out to be as ephemeral as the one after 1919. At the same time, Turkey, which had been the most westernized state in the Islamic world since about 1920 and which in 2004 was dreaming of joining the EU, has become an authoritarian dictatorship based in part on the Muslim religion. Pakistan, another long-time US ally, is also on its own more Islamic path.
In East Asia, China in 2004 looked like it might embark on some political liberalization to match its newfound economic freedom, but that trend has now definitely been reversed, as President Xi prepares to take over for life. Both Japan and India have more nationalist governments although neither one is threatening any drastic action at this time. North Korea's nuclear program, already a source of concern in 2004, has progressed much further and threatens to bring about war with the US.
Looking further around the world, an authoritarian regime continues to rule Venezuela, and a new one has taken over in the Philippines. Several Central American nations face internal chaos, and Mexico has been completely unable to cope with its drugs cartels. Most of South American, however, remains in pretty stable shape, relative to earlier decades.
Perhaps the most alarming developments, however, have occurred in Western Europe and the United States, where the political systems and coalitions that have ruled the most advanced areas of the world for fifty to sixty years and in varying degrees of trouble. David Cameron's decision to hold the Brexit referendum turned out to be disastrous, and Teresa May has not had the courage to challenge it. Great Britain itself is barely holding together against the challenge of Scottish nationalism. Established parties have fallen to all-time lows in the Parliaments of Germany and Italy, and Spain is threatened with a breakup of its own. The European economy is finally beginning to move forward but it has a long way to go. Immigration into Europe, stimulated by turmoil in the Middle East, has created huge problems for political establishments. In the midst of the general trend, Emmanuel Macron scored an impressive victory in last year's French elections, winning a majority for his party and undertaking major reforms. Although he naturally faces opposition he remains the most hopeful sign in western politics.
In the United States, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to signal a resurgent liberalism, but such did not turn out to be the case. Thanks to a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, gay marriage did become legal throughout the land, but abortion rights remained under attack. More seriously, although Obama presided over a good recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, he did not fundamentally alter the system that had given us that crisis. The Dodd-Frank law was rather tentative and now Republicans are undoing it. The Affordable Care Act has been partially repealed. Inequality continued to grow through the Obama years. And Republicans used the economic crisis and resentment against Obama to mobilize around the country, regaining the control of first the House, then the Senate, and most of the nation's state governments. Guided by the Koch brothers' political network, they have been turning energy producers lose, cutting back workers' rights, and generally undoing the role of government that began with the Progressive Era.
The election of Donald Trump, as I have said many times, could take place only in the context of the collapse of the US political system as we have known it. Neither major party could find a candidate who could beat an outsider who traded on television and tabloid celebrity and hateful rhetoric. Although Trump now has some real achievements to his credit, the crisis is continuing because foreign influences upon him are the subject of an independent investigation, and because he does not know how to attract, and keep, a competent team around him in the White House, which looks more like an early modern French court than the seat of a modern government. Critical parts of the federal government, including the once-proud State Department, are now hardly functioning at all. The Trump Administration, meanwhile, is trying to impose tough immigration policies and increased deportations against states such as California that are determined to treat all immigrants like full citizens. This is beginning to look like the most serious crisis in federalism since the civil war, and I have no idea how it will turn out.
As in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and again in the 1930s, the question is whether western democracy can surmount new challenges and prevail against a trend towards authoritarian rule. I am increasingly afraid that a failure to agree on certain key issues may lead to more authoritarian solutions, even in some of the old western democracies. Alternatively, it is not impossible that the oldest democracies, Britain and the US, might break up. The trends since 2004 have not been hopeful. Within another 13 years, I suspect, we will see a move towards more stability--but what it will look like, I do not know.