The 2010s was the decade that forced American politicians and commentators to confront the limits of the country’s own mythology.
Political elites in both parties had long shared the same conventional wisdom about the United States, grounded in ideas of exceptionalism and institutional perfection. But with the rise of Donald Trump and the return of a virulent politics of xenophobia and exclusion, it became increasingly difficult, even for many in the political establishment, to reproduce these past homilies.
Today the US is truly at a crossroads. Are Americans willing to confront the failures that led to the present, or will the US remain trapped in the same cycles of crisis and popular disaffection?
If you grew up in the US in the late 20th century, you would have imbibed a familiar account of the country. This was the idea that the US, from its founding, had always been committed to principles of universal equality, self-government and personal liberty. For starters, this consensus assumed that those in the US with wealth and power generally deserved it because they were the best and brightest. And such faith in meritocracy meant that even people on the centre left embraced American-style capitalism and the idea that the US constitution – along with the federal judges who presided over it – produced a near-ideal realization of democracy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became a truism that victory in the cold war had vanquished all ideological competitors – proof that the country had the best and only viable means of running an economy and political system. The US was a beacon on the international stage, justly exercising power as global policeman. America’s principles, coupled with cold war triumphalism, also suggested that the political change was only ever a story of improvement. As Barack Obama declared in 2008, the country was nothing less than “an improbable experiment in democracy”, one steadily being “perfected”, “generation after generation”.
But as the decade began, the country was facing a series of rolling crises that challenged all of these assumptions: failing overseas wars started on false grounds; financial near-collapse; the social blights of mass incarceration and worsening inequality. Each problem was the product of a policymaking approach rooted in the governing mythology.
Yet political elites responded by essentially doubling down on the conventional wisdom. The Obama administration’s strategic choices were guided by the same philosophy that had long informed American politics, above all, placing faith in markets and in national security experts (despite the recent and catastrophic failures of both). And, in the end, the policies were simply not up to the challenges of the times.
Moreover, what the centre right and centre left could not make sense of – given their overall vision – was the extent to which the US had succumbed to deep and structural decay; a fact that both Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter activists highlighted. This decay was perhaps epitomized by the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the American constitutional system itself.
This system had long been characterized by the proliferation of corporate money and by checks on popular authority – from the Senate and the disproportionate power it gave to small population centers, to gerrymandering in the House of Representatives, and from widespread practices of voter disenfranchisement to an unelected federal judiciary serving for life. And, as politicians faced overwhelming problems, such constraints only reinforced the sense of paralysis. They made it increasingly apparent that, rather than reflecting actual mass sentiment, politics was now controlled by a wealthy and white minority coalition within the Republican party – which enjoyed a veto power that was well beyond its actual public support.
Trump’s victory in 2016, despite losing the popular vote, not only made plain these institutional flaws but also made it almost impossible for establishment politicians to repeat the old truisms. How could you talk about American meritocracy when so much of political and economic power was defined by nepotism, incompetence and sheer impunity? Indeed, a slew of headlines exposed how even at places like Harvard 43% of admitted white students were either “legacies,” recruited athletes or children of targeted donors.
Meanwhile, the idea of either the benevolence of American power or the inherent progressive direction of national history – a new “post-racial” society – seemed absurd. At a time when the president and the ruling party openly embraced white nationalism and separated children at the border from their parents, it became hard to repeat bromides about the US being “great because it was good.”
As the decade ends, one of the defining features of the 2020 Democratic primary has been the degree to which the old-fashioned rhetoric is being abandoned by centrist candidates, let alone more left-leaning ones. Even the New York Times, with its interactive, online 1619 project on the legacy of slavery, is demythologizing the national past. But the problem today is that both Republicans and most Democrats have responded to the collapse of the American myth by peddling a version of nostalgia. Trump’s nostalgia is for a 1950s America, both racially and in terms of national prosperity and prestige. But the centre left also traffics in nostalgia, even if only for a time – any time – before Trump.
Alas, there is no real turning back. Trump’s rise was in many ways the product of fundamental failures within the old consensus, of which Obama himself was a critical part. And for this reason, there is only one path forward for the US – a politics of genuine transformation. This means nothing less than democratic changes to the electoral process, the economy and the political-legal order more broadly.
There are clearly incipient moves in this direction, from the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigns to the activists involved with the Movement for Black Lives, the minimum wage campaign Fight for $15, the so-called Moral Mondays movement and the Democratic Socialists of America, to name just a few. The upcoming decade therefore will be shaped by real political struggle. For the sake of the country, one hopes that some version of nostalgia will not win out.