The 20s Come Next

We are on the verge of a new decade, making this a good time to draw artificial distinctions between past and future. It’s natural to think in terms of eras, and decades make for easy packaging, even though events do not always neatly correspond to the calendar. What we think of as “the 60s” didn’t start until several years into the decade and spilled into the early 70s. The self-indulgent post-Vietnam, post-Watergate disco-themed 70s didn’t arrive until mid-decade. I suspect we will need to wait a year before the next era comes into focus, but it is likely to bring a radical departure from the past when it does. The last time we had a 20s they were deemed roaring. It’s not unreasonable to ask what our 20s may bring.

Looking forward is best done after looking back so we can take stock of where we are. The last two decades have been nameless, and appropriately so. What exactly should we call the first ten years of this century? The aughts? Does anyone refer to the decade now ending as the teens? This lack of identity has always troubled me, because it tracks with a general anomie and melancholy that characterizes our time. Having survived the Y2K scare, the first decade of this century began with peace, a balanced budget, and enough self-indulgence for us to have just impeached a president for lying under oath about a personal indiscretion. But it would soon be defined by an election recount prematurely shuttered by the ideologically-tinged 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, the original sin of the new millennium that set up the decade and set in motion much of what would follow.

We will never know if a Gore administration would have been able to prevent the 9/11 attacks or how a President Gore would have responded if it had not, but it is hard to imagine he would have embroiled the nation in a war with Iraq on false pretenses. Likewise, it is hard to know how effectively congressional Republicans would have opposed Gore’s efforts to combat climate change, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that the nation’s energy agenda would have been different if he had been in office.

What we can say with confidence is that had a President Gore reached a second term and had the chance to appoint two Supreme Court justices, this decade would not have begun with the Citizens United decision that has loomed over our politics for the past ten years, tipping the scales definitively in favor of monied interests. The second decade of this century opened with the country fighting two wars without end and an economy saved from collapse by a deeply unpopular bailout of the banks that caused it. The brief euphoria surrounding Obama’s call for unity and the symbolic change represented by his historic election swiftly gave way to the Tea Party movement and the unraveling of the political consensus which for decades had moderated our politics and made compromise possible. The right-wing reaction was fully realized when Donald Trump was elected by a minority of voters on the promise of building literal and metaphorical walls around the growing majority. 

The decade is ending with representatives of that majority voting to impeach a president for only the third time in American history. The first political act of the new decade will be to sort out the terms of his Senate trial, where the Mitch McConnell is on record saying Trump will be acquitted on a party line vote. What follows after the trial — or after the debate about whether there will be a trial — will decide the final act of the Trump administration, an as-yet undetermined denouement that will either result in the end of the Trump Reaction or a deep dive into autocracy. This period will coincide with the resolution of a Democratic primary campaign that will culminate in the nomination of the person who will carry the burden of selling a vision of post-Trump America. It will easily be the most challenging year of Trump’s time in office, as both sides stare down the possibility of defeat in a zero-sum conflict over the contours of our society. Then, late in the year, we will vote, and face the prospect that a large segment of the country will not accept the outcome, regardless of how the election turns out.

That outcome and how we react to it will set the tone for the 20s. At the dawn of the decade, it is easier than not to imagine a period of protracted unrest, whether surrounding the extraction of Trumpism from the body politic or in reaction to the validation of the previous four years. The 20s could be an era of dramatic reform or determined resistance, the decade when an emerging majority realizes political power or struggles to overcome minority rule. It can be the moment when we find the political will to launch a climate moonshot to save the planet or when we permit civilization to pass the point of no return. Either way it will be nothing like its two nameless predecessors. The 20s will have a clearly defined personality. It will be a tipping-point decade.  

I wish we lived in less interesting times. I wish I could see a way for us to communicate our fears across the great political divide rather than retreat to our respective corners and allow our antipathy for the other America to build. I wish we didn’t have to go through what we will have to go through to get to the other side. But this is the burden and the challenge of our moment, and it will be realized in the decade ahead.

Whatever your views, I hope you find peace and contentment in the new year.