Nothing much happened in America in the 2010s. The unemployment rate declined slowly but steadily; the stock market rose; people’s economic situation gradually improved. There were no terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11, no new land wars to rival Iraq and Vietnam. The country was relatively calm: Violent crime and illegal immigration trended downward, teenage delinquency diminished, teen birthrates fell and the out-of-wedlock birthrate stabilized.
In Washington, only two major pieces of legislation passed Congress, both of them predictable — a health insurance expansion under a Democratic president and a deficit-financed tax cut under a Republican. No enduring majorities were forged; control of government was divided for seven of the 10 years. There were few bipartisan deals, even as the policy fads that came and went — education reform, deficit hawkishness — left underlying realities more or less the same. Inertia and inaction were the order of the day.
If this doesn’t sound like a complete description of the decade — well, it isn’t. It’s a provocation that leaves out a lot of important indicators (the opioid epidemic and the collapsing birthrate above all) that deliberately doesn’t mention populism, the Great Awokening or Donald Trump, and that ignores the feeling of crisis, the paranoia and mistrust and hysteria that have pervaded our public life throughout the later 2010s.
But the provocation represents a truth that’s important for interpreting all that paranoia and polarization and mistrust — because even if you believe that the mood of crisis, the feeling that the liberal order might be cracking up, is the defining feature of the departing decade, you still have to reckon with why that feeling has crested so powerfully in a period surprisingly short on world-altering events.
Consider, by way of contrast, the decade before this one. Between 2000 and 2009, the United States experienced the Florida recount and the dot-com bust, suffered the worst attack on our shores since Pearl Harbor, launched two major foreign invasions, attempted the transformation of the Middle East and failed, and entered the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, disruption was everywhere: Newspapers perished, partisan cable networks ascended, the smartphone took over the world, and the Amazon-Google-Facebook internet consolidated into something like its current shape.
Compared to this litany, the 2010s look a little uneventful, don’t they? Even if you declare Obamacare a big (expletive) deal and grant Trump’s election world-historical significance, even if you bring in European dramas like Brexit and the Syrian refugee crisis, even if you pretend self-driving cars are really happening (just as soon as they learn to drive in rain) … even then, the last decade’s disruptions don’t quite measure up.
So why does the psychology of the 2010s, relative to the country’s mental situation in the Bush or Clinton era, feel so disappointed, distrustful and deranged?
Let me suggest, as one possible answer, that we consider U.S. history since the end of the Cold War as a three-act play. The first act, the 1990s, was a period of hubris, when we half-believed that we were entering a new age of domestic dynamism and global power — that our leaders deserved trust again, that the emerging digital age would be a blessing, that our innovators were on the threshold of great discoveries and our military was ready to spread liberty’s blessings round the world.
The 2000s, in turn, were an era of nemesis — when the most overstretched expressions of that ’90s hubris, from the Pets.com version of the new economy to the Bush doctrine to the exurban housing boom, all met their grimly predestined fate. In one bust after another, in failed wars and Wall Street fiascos alike, the confidence of the ’90s collided with unavoidable realities, and Rudyard Kipling’s gods of the copybook headings made their inevitable return.
But as the 2000s ended, the revenges of reality had not yet been properly interpreted. The failed administration of George W. Bush was there as a scapegoat, Barack Obama was there to play the savior, and first liberals and then some ideological conservatives insisted that in fact everything would have been fine, the optimism of the 1990s indefinitely extended, if only Bush had taken their preferred policy course instead.
Bush was, indeed, an unsuccessful president, but this conceit was false, and the gradually unfolding revelation of its falseness made the 2010s an era of disillusionment, in which the knowledge we gained mattered more than the new events we experienced. The sense of crisis, alienation and betrayal emerged more from backward glances than new disasters, reflecting newly awakened — or awokened, if you prefer — readings of our recent history, our entire post-Cold War arc.
Thus, for instance, our Afghanistan and Libyan follies weren’t nearly as important or destructive as our Iraq debacle of the prior decade, but they were more revelatory — in the sense of demonstrating that humanitarian interventions and nation-building projects don’t work out any better with liberal technocrats in charge than under Cheneyites, that there wasn’t a simple “good war” waiting to be fought by smarter people once the Bush-era cowboy spirit went away.
Or again, the election of Trump probably wasn’t the moment of authoritarianism descending — but it was an important moment of exposure, which revealed things about race relations and class resentments and the rot in the Republican Party and the incompetence of our political class that inclined everybody to a darker view of the American situation than before.
Or yet again, what changed in our relationship to Silicon Valley in the 2010s wasn’t some new technology or business model but our gradual realization of what those technologies and business models were doing to our minds, what they probably weren’t doing for social or economic progress, and how the internet might need to be resisted rather than just happily embraced.
Even the apparent trend toward secularization, the decade’s most notable religious shift, partially reflected a pattern in which Americans who had effectively ceased practicing Christianity years earlier finally made that disaffiliation official.
Meanwhile, in case after case the 2010s were a decade when cranks were proven right and the establishment wrong about developments from prior decades — about the wisdom of establishing Europe’s common currency, about the economic and political consequences of the turn-of-the-millennium opening to China, about the scale and scope of sexual abuse in elite institutions (not just the Catholic Church, though the cranks were right there, too).
In this sense the Jeffrey Epstein scandal was an appropriate capstone for the decade. Epstein’s worst crimes belonged to the 1990s and the 2000s rather than the 2010s, but the full revelations only arrived now, in the age of disillusionment, adding to the retrospective shadow cast across the entire political and journalistic class.
And that shadow feels deeper, in a way, because of the stability with which this essay opened. The 2010s were filled with angst and paranoia, they pushed people toward radicalism and reaction, but they didn’t generate much effective social and political activity beyond the populist middle finger and the progressive Twitter mob. They exposed the depth of problems without suggesting plausible solutions, and they didn’t produce movements or leaders equipped to translate disillusionment into programmatic action, despair into spiritual renewal, the crisis of institutions into structural reform.
It is this peculiar cultural predicament — the combination of disillusionment with stability, radicalization with stalemate, discontent and derangement with sterility and apathy — that I keep calling decadence. Whether it will last another 10 years is an open question; a catastrophe or a renaissance might be just around the corner. But as we usher out the 2010s, this decade of distrustful stability and prosperous despair, it has no rival as the presiding spirit of our age.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.