How Will History Books Remember the 2010s? We asked 23 top historians to write the paragraph that will describe the past decade, 100 years from now.
This is a long article. I excerpted parts of it. You can read the rest at the link.
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, , 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 realized that 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. ...
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.
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 or . 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 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.
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.
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.