Opinion | The 2010s were the decade of … what, exactly? Six columnists tell us.
As the decade draws to a close, we’re left wondering: What just happened? How will these 10 years be remembered in, say, 50 more? What, exactly, were they the decade of? Below, columnists Dana Milbank, Molly Roberts, Jennifer Rubin, Christine Emba, Alexandra Petri and Robert J. Samuelson help make sense of the 2010s.
By Dana Milbank
The 2010s will come to be known as The Unraveling. It began with the tea party, a rebellion nominally against taxes and government but really a revolt against the first African American president. At mid-decade came the election of Donald Trump, a backlash against both the black president and the first woman on a major party ticket.
The second half of the decade was a time of rage and increasing division as white men, who have dominated America’s power structure from the beginning, felt threatened by women and racial and religious minorities. As I wrote in 2014, this shattered our sense of a shared American identity.
In retrospect, it was inevitable. America wasn’t a true democracy until the late 1960s or early 1970s, when African Americans won real voting rights. As the composition of the electorate changed — approaching the point of a majority-minority nation in the 2040s — white, Christian men (whose dominance had previously papered over the deep fissures in America) lost their hegemony.
The rise of social media — Facebook and Twitter — aggravated and amplified the fissures. Though it gave voice to millions, it proved ruinous to traditional media and, with it, any sense of a shared, objective truth. It gave rise to demagoguery, gave an edge to authoritarianism and its primary weapon, disinformation, and gave legitimacy and power to the most extreme, hate-filled and paranoid elements of society.
As a result, America turned inward, against immigrants, against racial and religious minorities, against longtime allies. Our politics became paralyzed, unable to deal with the crises of the era: a warming planet, mushrooming debt, mass killings and growing threats from China and Russia. Our institutions — of government, of business, of communications and religion — lost ground. Our norms were shattered. Trump took advantage of the moment, but he was not the cause.
By Molly Roberts
What’s on your mind?
Maybe that’s a familiar question from a friend or a family member, but for 20-somethings and teens who spent the past 10 years on the Internet, it’s also a familiar question from Facebook. The prompt appeared at the top of our news feeds urging us to broadcast our brains to the masses, or at least to the thousand or so folks we’d granted the privilege of observing our lives.
The 2010s were the decade of sharing, whether we liked it or not. They were the years we started to treat mundanities as capital-C Content — full-frontal confessionalism to a country full of emotional voyeurs. Twitter exists so we can tell people what we’re thinking in real time; Instagram exists so we can show them, too.
There was a bright side to seeing everyone’s life in bulk: We saw more varieties of life, too. Suddenly, “identity politics” became a stock phrase for pundits everywhere, and “lived experience” was on the lips of the woke vanguard. People who’d been kept out of conversations when the old mediators were in charge now had less standing between them and the rest of the world. Painful, important things got shared along with all the inanity. Just look at the #MeToo movement.
But we soon found we weren’t only giving each other access to our photos and thoughts, our likes and our loves. We were allowing the platforms access to a whole mess more, and those platforms were letting third parties see it, too. To maximize our engagement, those platforms played on the preferences all our sharing revealed — which meant shoving inflammatory content in our faces and shoving us into silos. All that connection ended up dividing us.
The Internet wasn’t meant to let despots restrict information, but instead of getting beat, they started playing the game better than anyone: by sharing just as the rest of us were, overwhelming the citizenry with content, content, content until what was real and where all the fakery was coming was nearly impossible for anyone to sort out.
We’re starting to have trouble sorting ourselves out, too. Sometimes even we don’t know whether we’re doing something for ourselves or just to share it with everyone who’s bound to see it as soon as we upload. Do you listen to music? Spotify has put together a list of everything that streamed through your ear buds these past 10 years, without your even asking! “Uniquely yours,” the service proclaims. Well, not exactly.
By Jennifer Rubin
Pick a decade out of a hat, and you’re likely to find a more agreeable one than the 2010s. In a decade of relative prosperity in which unemployment hit a 50-year low and the stock market hit one all-time high after another, it was the decade of anxiety, one in which we lost not simply a shared sense of purpose but a shared sense of reality.
There were good reasons to be angst-filled. Police shootings of unarmed African American youths raised fundamental questions about criminal justice and, more generally, about unyielding, systemic racism. Unleashed by opportunistic demagogues and social-media-fueled white resentment, a right-wing populist backlash threatened democratic institutions and our belief in multiracial, multiethnic democracy.
In the last years of the decade, we learned not to trust what we heard from a president who governed by gaslighting — or what we saw on new media awash in propaganda. The Republican Party degenerated into a cult, converted cruelty into public policy and normalized racism. Internationally, U.S. retrenchment ushered in a heyday for authoritarian aggressors and a dismal period for international human rights and press freedom.
In the absence of respected institutions and stable communities to calm our frayed nerves and provide the sense of belonging we crave, national unease and divisiveness threaten to overwhelm us. Social media, a globalized economy and technological innovation were supposed to make us feel more connected and empowered. Instead we feel alienated, suspicious and angry at the serial outrages that bombard us minute by minute.
It’s no coincidence that Mister Rogers became an iconic figure again at the end of the decade of anxiety. Perhaps if we slow down, treat one another with kindness, accept our fellow Americans as special for being “just the way they are” and act like good neighbors, we will recover our collective sanity and national equilibrium.
By Christine Emba
We entered the 2010s with an optimistic spirit. But as the decade wore on, that feeling faltered, even as statistics and media and well-placed ads told us everything was, mostly, even better than before. Really, there was something uniquely confusing about these past 10 years, a disconnect that became more difficult to ignore as each one passed. The 2010s were the decade of dissonance.
The Great Recession was definitely over, we heard as the decade began. But somehow, it didn’t feel like it. Not when gig workers scrambled for second and third jobs and young people drowned in debt. Even as market reports blared the news of stock markets hitting high after high, we still felt under siege — medical bills mounted, or we saw fellow inhabitants of our cities driven to burgeoning homeless encampments. Our economic disconnect manifested in an obsession with inequality, from Occupy Wall Street at the decade’s beginning to socialism’s surge at its end.
Meanwhile, a new app invention seemed to appear every day, announcing its superiority over the offline version of whatever it replaced. We took Silicon Valley at its word, but somehow, most of its new options felt worse than whatever we had been doing before. Dating apps told us we would finally be able to find a partner at the swipe of a finger — but seemed to make the process of dating both more alienating and anxiety-inducing, while at the same time making real-world interactions scarce. We increased our time on “social” media, but our experience was one of isolation and distance.
As our reality and expectations continued to diverge, so did the various ways we tried to rationalize the disconnect. By 2019, “economic anxiety” might have driven you into the arms of a billionaire president or to a democratic socialist as his corrective. You might be waiting for a real Silicon Valley unicorn or deleting Facebook once and for all. But still, the dissonance remains.
By Alexandra Petri
What can you say about the 2010s? At the beginning of the decade, I thought the best way to get people to click on articles was to somehow work Justin Bieber into the headline, whether he was relevant or not. It was a truth I had observed that people were pretty much always googling Justin Bieber, and I wanted to benefit from that in whatever small way I could. In the course of one eventful week in January 2014, I wrote two separate Justin Bieber columns: one a verse ode, the other some suggestions for deporting him. I think this had to do with his monkey.
I am not 100 percent certain what I thought would happen once people clicked, but that did not concern me.
At some point, headlines stopped being in the format of “Fourteen Weird Tricks For Justin-Bieber-Proofing Your Home” and … changed. Now headlines all go something like, “Why it’s no use fighting any longer.” Suddenly everything became very ominous. Everything fanned your fears or affirmed your suspicions or tugged at your tender feelings. You caromed from outrage to horror to vindication. Occasionally you absorbed a bit of information, but you were not looking for information exactly. Voices carried differently. Information traveled in more curious patterns.
At the beginning of the decade, Facebook was a place you went with your college friends to share pictures of yourself having fun. Now it is where your aunt goes to read misinformation about vaccines! The site has the macabre habit of telling me to remember the past, and you can see in its unpleasantly cheery little slide shows where things began to go wrong.
In the course of the 2010s, the Internet went from a place where People Were to a place where Everyone Was. It ceased to be simply a sign, after the fact, that you were missing out on things and became itself the thing you were missing out on. We started either not to notice that the Internet was not real life, or the Internet became real life. It was not where you went to find out about Justin Bieber; it was where you went to think and see what to think. It began to eat itself, a 21st-century version of that ancient serpent swallowing its own tale — the decade of the ouroboros.
By Robert J. Samuelson
It’s not just the end of the decade. It’s the end of the American century. When historians look back on the past 10 years, they may conclude this was the moment Americans tired of shaping the world order.
“American century” was coined in 1941 by Henry Luce, co-founder of Time magazine, and was popularized after World War II. It captured Americans’ confidence that they could create an international system that would prevent another world war and Soviet dominance. In effect, the United States sought to remake the world in its own image. Countries would trade together, not fight. NATO would keep the peace in Europe. Conflicts would be settled by negotiation. At home, countries would adopt democratic norms of open elections, freedom of speech and the rule of law.
This system’s heyday was the 1950s and 1960s, when Europe and Japan were recovering from the war and depended heavily on the United States. To say the United States dominated does not mean it always got its way. Some disagreements (example: the Vietnam War) were deep. Still, the system endured and seem vindicated by the Soviet Union’s collapse.
It wasn’t. Victory was declared prematurely. Now, there’s a broad retreat by the United States and some nominal allies from the spirit of the American century. True, some of this backlash is a reaction to President Trump’s nationalism. But not all.
First among other factors is the rise of China. The Chinese clearly have a different world vision than most Americans, including of a trading system that better serves China’s interests in jobs, technology and raw materials. It’s also no secret that China’s military ambitions, including in cyberwarfare, imply a remaking of the global order.
And although surveys are mixed, many Americans reject the costs of taking responsibility for global stability and democracy. Military engagements seem expensive and bloody, and trade threatens many U.S. industries.
The United States will remain hugely influential. But it won’t dominate as before, and the successor to the American century — with more rivalries and fragmented power — might leave us wishing we’d done more to preserve it.