Politics

How This Decade Broke American Politics, In 10 Easy Steps

Remember when we had cash, hope, and jobs?

by Harry Cheadle, and Matt Taylor; illustrated by Hunter French
Nov 25 2019, 5:27pm

Left: Sarah Palin, photography by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, photography by Bloomberg, via Getty Images. 

In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proven false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.

Barack Obama's America did not transform into Donald Trump's America all at once. It took millions of individual choices, thousands of decision points, for American politics to fracture as it has. Ideological differences, once a defining line between parties, have widened into a gaping abyss. The fundamental assumptions of politics, unchanged since at least World War II, are being questioned. It feels as if the U.S. has been broken and we're living amid the wreckage.

Much of the erosion may have occurred before the beginning of the decade, with the Iraq War and the financial crisis doing real damage to the country, and proving to many people that the government couldn't be trusted. But as the 2010s unspooled, new horrors kept emerging, or else sometimes old horrors with new faces: mass surveillance, police brutality, white supremacy, actual for-real fascism.

Obama became president thanks in part to his insistence that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America," as he said in 2004. When he entered office, he promised to find common ground with Republicans and seek compromise, only to be demonized by right-wing media and foiled by conservatives in Congress. At the time, Obama's vision of the country might have seemed refreshing or even noble, but now it seems naive at best, a lie at worst.

There are two Americas, and they're at war. This is how the 2010’s fueled that war.

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February 2010: The Tea Party Convention Catalyzes a Republican Takeover

The groundwork for Donald Trump's candidacy was laid five years before he walked down that escalator in his Manhattan tower. It was at the 2010 Tea Party Convention, and could be especially linked back to a speech from right-wing ideologue Tom Tancredo, who sneered at "the cult of multiculturalism" and said that Barack Obama was elected thanks to "people who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English."

The mostly older, mostly white activists of the Tea Party represented the bleeding edge of the new right. They weren't reflexively anti-government and anti-tax like libertarian-minded conservatives; as Harvard researchers found, Tea Partiers were perfectly happy to get government benefits themselves, because they believed they were "hardworking taxpayers" rather than the "freeloaders" getting undeserved assistance from the Democrats then in power, a category that included many minority groups and immigrants in particular. That message might have been ugly, but it caught on—the energy of the Tea Party helped Republicans retake the House that November and would later scare the GOP away from immigration reform. When Trump was on his way to the White House, he sounded a lot like Tancredo did onstage in 2010.

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October 2010: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

That line, uttered by Republican Senate Minority Mitch McConnell in a National Journal interview just before the midterm elections, is often cited by liberals as proof the GOP was never interested in working with Obama on anything.

In the past, bipartisanship had been held up as an important pillar of policymaking. But McConnell, probably his generation's most viciously effective legislative mind, is not the bipartisan sort: He worked to obstruct Democrats at every turn, culminating in his unprecedented refusal to consider Obama's last Supreme Court nomination. As the next few years would show, this was an extremely effective strategy, but it shifted American politics into a more partisan paradigm.This rule-bending, win-at-all-costs mentality has since trickled down to state governments, where Republicans have engaged in aggressive gerrymandering and other maneuvers to seize and maintain as much power as possible.

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September 17, 2011: Occupy Wall Street Kicks Off a Left-Wing Renaissance

Before the fall of 2011, left-wing energy felt virtually nonexistent, or at least inert. The Democrats were in power, but their policy priorities were relatively centrist proposals built on compromise, like the Affordable Care Act. Then a bunch of people got together in a park in lower Manhattan and showed that populist anger wasn't confined to the Tea Party right. These Occupiers were angry about the bank bailouts and the foreclosure crisis, they were weird, and they changed the trajectory of the Democratic Party.

"It did succeed in moving the goalposts so that opposition to Wall Street dominance and barbarism was more speakable," said Todd Gitlin, a social movement historian at Columbia University who wrote a book about Occupy (and has contributed to VICE). "That accomplishment… has now succeeded in moving the economic centerpiece of the Democratic Party to the left."

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June 5, 2013: The NSA Spying Scandal Reveals the Government Really Is Watching You

If the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street burst the bubble of the Obama presidency, Edward Snowden exploded the artifice of progressive politics, period. Obama might have pulled the economy back from the brink, he might have fended off a comical plutocrat in Mitt Romney in 2012, he might have given millions more people healthcare. But he also presided over a massive spike in drone warfare, and in 2013, a former NSA contractor exposed just how far the dragnet of the national security state reached, having grown under both Republican and Democratic administrations: into the lives of tens of millions of people whose phone calls and emails and other communications were effectively logged by government spies.

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November 24, 2014: Michael Brown's Killer Is Acquitted, and the age of Black Lives Matter Begins

After Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted in 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began trending on social media—a cry of pain, anger, grief, and solidarity among Black people subjugated to racist violence even in the age of a Black president. But it wasn't until Ferguson that Black Lives Matter transformed into a movement with staying power.

The Missouri town became a symbol of police brutality and other forms of discriminatory misconduct after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson on August 9, a shooting that attracted a huge amount of media coverage and drew activists from all over the country. In November, when Wilson was acquitted, the country caught fire as many Black and brown people were convinced anew that their cities' police were predators rather than protectors. Protests broke out in Ferguson, Oakland, and dozens of other cities over the failure to indict Wilson, but also over what the modern war on crime had wrought: militarized police forces with Army-style equipment and a penchant for violence. For many, their local police departments looked more like predators than protectors.

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2015: The Rise of Bernie Sanders Reveals a Hunger for Socialism

Not even Bernie Sanders thought he could beat Hillary Clinton when he entered the 2016 Democratic primary. He was slow to build the infrastructure required to win campaigns and fell behind with Black voters, handing Clinton an early lead that would prove insurmountable. But unexpectedly, the septuagenarian Jewish democratic socialist senator from Vermont energized people, especially young people, with the same slate of radical proposals he'd been pushing his whole career: Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, the regulation of Wall Street, the increased taxation of millionaires and billionaires in order to fund a more complete social safety net.

Democrats traditionally favor compromise and pragmatism and regardsocialist (or even socialist-lite) positions as political poison. But, while Sanders didn't beat Clinton, he proved that big, ambitious left-wing ideas actually appealed to voters. The kind of zeal—swagger, even—that Sanders stirred up among the left-of-the-Clintons crowd represented a fundamental shift: Socialism was suddenly back on the political menu.

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November 9, 2016: Donald Trump Wins the Presidency, and the Right Is Triumphant

The defining political moment of the decade was also the most shocking. The vast majority of pundits and pollsters thought a Hillary Clinton victory was all but guaranteed. But Trump broke through in normally blue Midwestern states, thanks, at least in part, to his strength among working-class white voters. When Democrats woke up on November 8, they realized that not only had they lost a White House race they assumed was already theirs, they had allowed the GOP to dominate state and local elections.

Clinton was supposed to shatter the country's highest glass ceiling. Instead, she shattered a bunch of narratives, including the oft-cited idea that America becoming less white would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. The backlash to multiculturalism, to Obama, and to immigration—all seen as evils by the Tea Party—had effectively taken over the country.

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August 12, 2017: The Unite the Right Rally Comes to Charlottesville and Shocks America

The ugliest part of the right-wing renaissance Trump represented was the "alt right," a catchall term for a wide variety of internet-savvy crypto-facists and white supremacists who largely backed Trump. And in the summer of 2017, these people descended on Charlottesville in the most prominent of a series of far-right rallies, a clear sign that the country's most despicable racists were newly emboldened. The scenes of young white men holding torches while chanting "Jews will not replace us," the violence arguably made worse by police inaction, the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer, Trump's bizarre refusal to forcefully denounce the demonstrators—all of this was shocking to anyone watching or reading the widespread media coverage.

“Imagery that came out of Charlottesville and the violence woke up the American public to the fact that white supremacy was metastasizing in the country,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who monitors extremist groups. Their hateful ideology continues to encourage acts of racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic violence, she added. In the months since Charlottesville, multiple Trump administration officials have been linked to white nationalist figures.

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November 6, 2018: The Rise of “the Squad”

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democrats and the broader left held massive anti-Trump protests (at the inauguration, the Women's March, and more), but at the same time, that coalition was changing, as left-wing candidates and thinkers demanded a bigger seat at the table. To them, Hillary Clinton's defeat wasn't about the ascendance of the right so much as the bankruptcy of the neoliberals they'd long been railing against.

In 2018, these leftists attempted to unseat some of Congress's centrist Democrats, and though they mostly failed, a few high-profile successes, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, showed that the party couldn't ignore their left flank as they had for decades.

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September 2019: The 'Quid Pro Quo' Crisis Emerges from Nowhere

Mere months after the Mueller Report failed to convince Democratic leaders that Trump had done anything so bad it warranted impeachment, another scandal bubbled up that practically forced them to move against the president. A whistleblower accused Trump of leaning on Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an attempt to get him to investigate Joe Biden's son, who had been on the board of a Ukranian energy company. As other officials would soon testify in impeachment hearings, Trump had apparently threatened to withhold military aid and a White House visit unless Zelensky announced an investigation into that company and into the conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election.

Subverting foreign policy for crass domestic political ends is the sort of thing that might have brought a president down in a previous age. But, partisanship has hardened so much that Republicans seem unwilling to even consider holding Trump accountable for anything, even as witnesses contradict the GOP's defenses. Democrats can impeach Trump, but Republican Senators will not allow him to be removed. That has provoked a decent amount of outrage, but not much surprise—no one who has been paying attention for the past ten years would have expected anything different.

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