Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History. Long-time readers who want to find out how th...
Saturday, December 28, 2019
What the decade meant
The web site Politico has just asked 23 historians or other authors to predict how history books will remember the 2010s in just one paragraph. The results are rather interesting.
Only 9 of the 23 suggested that this decade will become part of a story with a happy ending. James Goodman of Rutgers predicted a Biden victory in 2020, followed by steady progress on a Democratic agenda in Congress. Sara Igo of Vanderbilt predicted that the citizenry would rebound and turn things around and repair our politics in the 2020s. Keisha Blaine of the University of Pittsburgh argued approvingly that Black Lives Matter has transformed the American political landscape. "The story of the 2010s," wrote Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College, "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." While the decade of the teens was "marked the demise of a still white, post-industrial, baby-boomer society filled with men and women resisting their decline, . . .2020 was a powerful new beginning built on the destruction of the previous years," wrote Jeremy Suri of UT Austin. "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." Claire Potter of the New School saw final four years of the decade marked by "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," and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu of UC Irvine said that after a decade of "civil war," "the 2020 [sic] brought the possibility of a faint, new hope." Nicole Hemmer was similarly tentative. Jack Rakove, a Professor Ermitus at Stanford, laid out the most sweeping optimistic scenario, predicting that after the Supreme Court gutted the ACA and Roe v. Wade in 2020 and Biden defeated Trump, the blue states would force a Constitutional convention upon the red ones and put through sweeping constitutional changes, including direct popular election of the President, an end to gerrymanders, a larger Supreme Court, and much more. The vast majority of the optimists, interestingly enough, said nothing about the sources of increasing inequality or anything that might be done about it.
The 23 lacked a single optimist of another type: someone who sincerely believed that our recent economic changes are good for us and that we are moving into a new era of prosperity and progress. The closest person to that was my one-time colleague Tom Nichols of the Naval War College, a Never Trump Republican, who pointed to a rise in everyone's standard of living, complained about the growth of bitter partisanship, and suggested that the real question was whether democracies could cope with success. I would suggest however that were Donald Trump to be replaced by a centrist Democrat like Biden, or even by a calm, sane Republican who could inspire confidence around the world, the view that all was well in the land would gain ground.
Leaving Nichols aside, the remaining 13 contributors, while making few predictions about the future, could not find it in themselves to offer any specific hopes. Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown lamented the rise of white supremacy under Trump, which had grown partly through the use of new technology. Vanessa Walker of Amherst, who focused on the growth of big data, concluded that "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 venerable David Kennedy of Stanford cited a number of developments over the last 30 years that had "swept away the very foundations of the social and political order that had prevailed since World War II.," and declined to predict what might come next. David Greenberg of Rutgers thought while many still hoped for a more equal and just society, "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." William Imboden of the University of Texas lamented that Trump's rejection of our traditional foreign policy had allowed China and Russia to fill a new void. Peniel Johnson of the same institution cited Presidents Obama and Trump as the polar opposites of the 2010s and made no predictions.
"As the decade ended," wrote George H. Nash, "no one could say with certainty whether the worldwide ferment was a passing spasm of discontent or a harbinger of deeper upheavals," and Kevin Kruse of Princeton found that the United States in 2019 "seemed more deeply divided and directionless than it had been in a half century." (I would call that an understatement.) "The shape of the next decade," wrote Geoff Kabaservice, "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." "The signature of the ensuing Age of Trump," wrote my friend Andrew Bacevich, "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." David A. Hollinger, an emeritus professor at Berkeley, more specifically lamented the collapse of the New Deal state created at midcentury. "Ultimately," he wrote, "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." Eric Rauchway of UC Davis lamented the rise of conservative populists, whose "principal proponents won and kept office, weakening the alliances and institutions entrusted since 1945 with keeping the peace." Alone among the contributors, Elizabeth Borgward of Washington University speculated that Trump might be the start of something. "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."
I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that I had not been asked to contribute. My work (see above right) has never fitted conveniently into the kind of pigeonhole that editors look for in these situations. What would I have said?
"The 2010s marked a collapse of the American political system more profound than any since 1860. They began with the Tea Party victory that put an end even to Barack Obama's very tentative steps to create a fairer economic order. In Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the government pursued new variants of the wasteful, useless policies introduced in the previous decade by George W. Bush. And in 2016, neither the Republican nor the Democratic party could produce a candidate who could defeat an ignorant, inflammatory, narcissistic reality tv star, who took only a few years to establish a stranglehold over the Republican Party, while governing incompetently and in many ways illegally. Only a great new national enterprise commanding both the assent and the resources of our whole society could restore the kind of faith the government had enjoyed in mid-century, and none such was on the horizon a 2020 dawned, whatever the outcome of the coming election."