America is always in a state of flux. The country is an eternal experiment, aiming at evolution, betting on its own betterment.
It has its dark sides — racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia — but it clings to the idea, the fairy tale, that change and progress are not only possible, but they are intrinsic to the dream that is this nation.
And, every so often, a period arises in which some of that dream manifests and change is clear and indisputable, a leap forward for a people.
The 2010s were just such a decade.
To be sure, there were some sobering and surprising developments.
Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, March For Our Lives and climate activists illustrated an awakening and rebirth of protest movements in this country, against the intransigence of governments hopelessly linked to powerful industries and the gross imbalances of power between races and gender, and gross abuses of power by the state.
Left and right political ideological fundamentalism found their footholds. The right pushed to an extreme of white nationalist insularity fed by a consuming fear of white displacement and religious diminution. The left fought against the placating, middle of the road, quasi-liberalism that flirted too frequently with big business and big money, that spoke more frequently about the middle class than the poor, that rivaled the right in its zeal to be tough on crime at the expense of minority citizens.
Mass shootings have become part of the American motif. Republicans and the gun lobby have resisted efforts to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country, so the carnage has become an ambient terror in our society. The mass shootings have not only increased in frequency, they have become more deadly.
In September, The Los Angeles Times analyzed more than 50 years of mass shootings and found:
“Twenty percent of the 164 cases in our database occurred in the last five years. More than half of the shootings have occurred since 2000 and 33% since 2010. The deadliest years yet were 2017 and 2018, and this year is shaping up to rival them, with at least 60 killed in mass shootings, 38 of them in the last five weeks.”
Social media took a central position in daily life, connecting people, inspiring activism and gathering consensus on social issues. But, it also has begun to pose a very real threat to our democracy, as the Russian interference in the 2016 election revealed. The tech companies were too easily used as vessels for disinformation and they had too few safeguards to prevent it.
But perhaps no subjects inspired a more dramatic change in the way Americans considered basic human behaviors as the huge swings on the acceptance of LGBTQ people and our country’s relationship to drugs.
In 2010, for the first time, American’s acceptance of “gay relations” crossed the 50% mark. Now that number is well into the 70s. Over the same period, acceptance of same-sex marriage went from the 40s to the 60s. Acceptance of gay adoption went from below 50% to above 70%t.
Being gay became mainstream. And, this reaches further than just gays and lesbian. There is a new visibility for trans people, drag and fluidity. A YouGov poll asked Americans to place themselves on the Kinsey scale, “where 0 is completely heterosexual and 6 is completely homosexual.” While only 5% rated themselves as completely gay, 20%t rated themselves somewhere between completely gay and completely straight.
That is not to say that homophobia disappeared, or that there isn’t a tremendous amount of work still to be done around the issues of bullying, discrimination, safety and sexual health. But it is to say that the American society took a quantum leap forward in just a few years on these issues.
The other issue is our view of drug usage.
This one is very much driven by racial considerations. When drug addiction was primarily seen as an inner-city problem plaguing black and brown communities, policymakers and the public at large rushed to impose harmful penalties. Now that white people in the suburbs and rural areas are disproportionately affected, the language and policies have shifted from pathological criminality to sympathetic victimization.
Drug overdoses involving heroin skyrocketed, with white people outpacing all others. This in part led to a sharp increase in mortality among white, less educated Americans. As CBS put it, “In 1999, the mortality rate for this demographic was about 30% lower than those of African Americans. But by 2015, their mortality rate had eclipsed that of blacks by 30%.”
Furthermore, the legalization of marijuana has seen a surge in support. In October 2010, 46% of Americans believed that the drug should be legal, according to the Pew Research Center. Now that number is 67%. A number of states have legalized recreational usage, and it has become a big business. Even John Boehner, the former speaker of the House, has become a lobbyist for the cannabis industry.
On these two major issues, this is the decade that America changed its mind.
Charles M. Blow is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.