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An Outline of 21st Century American History

Tanner Greer put together a very intriguing prospectus for a book of 21st century American history. I am inclined to think that we know very little about much of anything and our perspectives about the present are hopelessly blinkered, so I tend to avoid broad summaries except from oblique angles.

And yet I am fond of books like Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The Age of Ideologies that attempt exactly such a summary. It’s just that I think one must have a combination of age, wisdom, genius, and perspective in order to pull off such a book . I don’t have that combination, so an outline is the most I will offer.

What I have done is to take Greer’s prospectus as a starting point, then radically strip it down to those factors that I believe to have been decisive. The 2000, 2010, and 2016 elections, for example, have made a far greater impact than the others of this century.

As a consequence, most social issues and cultural moments have disappeared. Most media, punditry, and academia have disappeared, save for the remarkable rise of the right-wing “mighty Wurlitzer.” (The media’s creation of Trump qualifies too, but is not a top-level subject.) These areas are notable mostly for how little impact they have had relative to the amount of noise and heat they have generated. They function as attention, intelligence, and anger sinks.

Most top-level discussion of technology has disappeared as well, except in one regard: how it has exacerbated political polarization. Technology and the internet in particular has played a huge part in shaping all the events below, but as with television, it does not merit being treated on its own. Technology has primarily served to cause people to be more chronically aware of all of the issues below—usually for the worse.

I have moved the starting point back from 2004 to 1994, as I believe many of the events of this century trace back to the fateful midterms of 1994, and I believe the crux of recent American history to have been the 2000 election. It is rare that such a single moment can make such a difference, but that one truly did. So the history proper starts precisely at the year 2000.

And I have stopped at 2016, treating the years 2017-18 as an epilogue. What to make of these years will not even be slightly available to us until after the next presidential election.

One notable exclusion is demographic trends, which deserve their own chapter, but which don’t quite fit into a history because they haven’t made themselves sufficiently felt yet. They’re more a prophecy. The epilogue implies that the United States is in an anxious holding pattern waiting for another real crisis to hit, and for that reason any “conclusion” is inevitably tentative.

Prologue: The Republican Revolution of 1994

  1. The Contract with America
  2. Welfare reform and the crime bill
  3. The Clinton impeachment
  4. Fox & Friends: the mighty Wurlitzer

Chapter 1: The 2000 Election

  1. The Bush family
  2. Media framing: Fuzzy math and inventing the internet
  3. Joe Lieberman and James Baker
  4. The Florida recount

Chapter 2: Terror

  1. September 11, 2001 and its impact
  2. The Afghanistan war
  3. The Axis of Evil and the bipartisan build-up to war
  4. The Iraq war
  5. Neoconservatism and the end of the bipartisan Cold War consensus

Chapter 3: Incompetence

  1. The unreality-based community
  2. Iraq reconstruction
  3. Hurricane Katrina
  4. McCain/Palin

Chapter 4: Economics

  1. The 2008 crash and the bailouts
  2. Income inequality: 1980 to present
  3. Real-estate crises and subprime bonanzas
  4. Debt, credit, insecurity, and the indignity of labor
  5. The paradoxes of neoliberalism and free trade
  6. Club for Growth, DLC, Americans for Tax Reform, and the rest

Chapter 5: The Obama Era

  1. “Obamacare”: promises and paranoia
  2. The 2010 midterms
  3. The Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and their scions
  4. Obama as the last gasp of the competent establishment

Chapter 6: Fracture

  1. The urban-rural split
  2. The end of the unified national dialogue
  3. Unfinished business in the South
  4. The rise of undercultures
  5. Reinforcement bubbles, online and offline
  6. The triumph of the latent group
  7. Republican inability to rule, Democratic inability to win

Chapter 7: The 2016 Revolt

  1. Trump, Sanders, and the struggle of the establishment
  2. Trump as catalyst, not as revolutionary
  3. The strategic and messaging errors of the Democrats
  4. Trump’s fundamental incompetence and lack of ambition

Epilogue: Waiting for the Deluge

  1. The 2018 midterms
  2. “Everything is normal and everything is an emergency.”
  3. Uneasy questioning of economic dogma
  4. The new global nationalism and protectionism
  5. Identities as politics
  6. The loss of myth, the loss of authority, the loss of narrative

3 Comments

  1. Very interesting look at contemporary history, one I would surely read.

    I would like to point out one egregious gap: migration. Population migration in the 21st Century is quite possibly the single largest social, cultural, political, and environmental issue facing this country and the world. It tends to remain below the surface because it doesn’t directly effect the chattering/blogging intellectual classes. Its causes range from climate change (another glaring issue missing from this discussion), warfare, political polarization, tribalism, genocide, etc. It is by far the single most prominent issue motivating and uniting the Trump base phenomenon as mere trickles of climate and political refugees from Central America seek asylum in the U.S. Not only is it caused by these various factors, it exacerbates them.

    I would ask you to relook at your outline with this in mind.

    • I agree. This subject falls under three other topics: demographics (which isn’t included) and globalization and nationalism (which are included). Like the environment or technology, it is an important undercurrent but hard to separate into a discrete subject.

  2. John Michael Colon

    24 July 2019 at 08:00

    This is a very good outline, as far as America is concerned — not a bad start at all, on what as you’ve acknowledged would be an incredibly difficult topic (albeit one that is becoming more urgent as we enter the century’s third decade).

    I would be remiss as a lefty however if I didn’t note the conspicuous and, in my view, inexcusable absence of the social movements since antiglobalization. I suspect this is intentional, since you highlight it in your comments and were closely enough associated with various of the relevant avant-gardes to know the relevant history yourself and thus consciously excluded them as largely irrelevant, but I think it’s a mistake to write them out of the history books. Not only on moral grounds, but to the extent that it actually obscures our understanding of what’s going on. One example: for Sanders to pop onto the scene in 2016 without the book having previously addressed the rise of Occupy Wall Street, the revival of a radical Left critique of capitalism in the wake of the Establishment’s failures and imposed austerity after the Crash, and the brutal crushing of this May 4th or 1968 style flowering by that same Establishment using a military-intelligence apparatus Bush erected in his War On Terror is to reduce the Sanders movement to an eccentric surprise, rather than seeing its deep roots in the trends of the previous decades. I’d go even further and say, controversially given the current journalistic consensus, that it is missing out on a crucial contributing factor to the rise of fascism. Yes, the social media echo chamber effect has contributed enormously to polarization; yes, the Mighty Wurlitzer created a billionaire-backed echo chamber of enormous scale that essentially trapped a generation of right-wingers in a parallel reality whose paranoia and hysteria primed them for more robust forms of authoritarianism than they might otherwise have been prepared to support; yes, the Bush regime substantively and permanently damaged the institutional protections and checks-and-balances which gave the United States any claim to being a democratic republic; and yes (though this history doesn’t suggest it, since to judge from the outline it’s written from a largely center-left perspective) the foundations of Trumpism go back to the settler colonialist and white nationalist origins of the United States as such with its Indian genocides and its Transatlantic Slave Trade. But goddamnit, sneering at “the economic anxiety thesis” aside, I refuse to be convinced that the massive decline in living standards for ordinary people in the neoliberal period (since 1973, at least, and especially since 2008) combined with the brutal suppression of the radical democracy movement after 2011 before it could propose a coherent alternative didn’t also lay a significant amount of the groundwork. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The general atmosphere of nihilistic despair, pessimism, loneliness-due-to-atomization, and fighting-over-scraps — well into the upper-middle-class, due to their fear of being cast back down into the dregs from which they came — was, in social milieus where even something like minimally decent social democracy simply wasn’t even comprehensible as an option, particularly among people with a socially conservative upbringing among the Fox News Grandpa crowd, the perfect storm for producing a kind of person susceptible to far right propaganda about white male victimization and natural hierarchies. The absence of alternatives and the suffocation of the imagination under “capitalist realism” was the great theme of the pre-identity politics Millennial/GenX Left of the early 2010s, and while it’s difficult to prove this on empirical grounds, something like Trumpism must be, I firmly believe, the chickens of that horrible futureless neoliberal period coming home to roost amidst the social crisis elites created through their arrogance and open contempt for the rest of society.

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