Stagnation

In 2012, Barack Obama won a second term by defeating Republican Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. However, Obama’s inability to control Congress and the ascendancy of Tea Party Republicans stunted the passage of meaningful legislation. Obama was a lame duck before he ever won reelection, and gridlocked government came to represent an acute sense that much of American life–whether in politics, economics, or race relations–had grown stagnant.

The economy continued its half-hearted recovery from the Great Recession. The Obama administration campaigned on little to address the crisis and, faced with congressional intransigence, accomplished less. While corporate profits climbed and stock markets soared, wages stagnated and employment sagged. By 2016, the statistically average American worker had not received a raise in almost forty years. The typical American worker in 2014, earning $20.67, had, after adjusting for inflation, earned roughly the same amount since 1979 (and, measured against the $4.03 workers earned in January 1973, which, adjusted for inflation, was roughly the purchasing power equivalent of $22.41 in 2014, had actually lost ground). Moreover, most income gains in the economy had been largely captured by a small number of wealthy earners. Between 2009-2013, 85% of all new income in the United States went to the top 1% of the population.

But if money no longer flowed to American workers, it saturated American politics. In 2000, George W. Bush raised a record $172 million for his campaign. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to decline public funds (removing any applicable caps to his total fundraising) and raised nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars for his campaign. The average House seat, meanwhile, cost about $1.6 million dollars, and the average Senate Seat over $10 million. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, removed barriers to outside political spending. In 2002, Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold had crossed party lines to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, bolstering campaign finance laws passed in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. But political organizations–particularly Political Action Committees (PACs)–exploited loopholes to raise large sums of money and, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that no limits could be placed on political spending by corporations, unions, and nonprofits. Money flowed even deeper into politics.

The influence of money in politics only heightened partisan gridlock, further blocking bipartisan progress on particular political issues. Climate change, for instance, has failed to transcend partisan barriers. In the 1970s and 1980s, experts substantiated the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. Eventually, the most influential of these panels, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 1995 that there was a “discernible human influence on global climate.” This conclusion, though stated conservatively, was by that point essentially a scientific consensus. By 2007, the IPCC considered the evidence “unequivocal” and warned that “unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.”

Climate change became a permanent and major topic of public discussion and policy in the twenty-first century. Fueled by popular coverage, most notably, perhaps, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, based on Al Gore’s book and presentations of the same name, addressing climate change became a plank of the American left and a point of denial for the American right. American public opinion and political action still lagged far behind the scientific consensus on the dangers of global warming. Conservative politicians, conservative think tanks, and energy companies waged war to sow questions in the minds of Americans, who remain divided on the question, and so many others.

Much of the resistance to addressing climate change is economic. As Americans look over their shoulder at China, many refuse to sacrifice immediate economic growth for long-term environmental security. Twenty-first century relations with China are characterized by contradictions and interdependence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China reinvigorated its efforts to modernize its country. By liberating and subsidizing much of its economy and drawing enormous foreign investments, China has posted enormous growth rates during the last several decades. Enormous cities rise by the day. In 2000, China had a gross domestic product around an eighth the size of the United States. Based on growth rates and trends, analysts suggest that China’s economy will bypass the United States’ soon. American concerns about China’s political system have persisted, but money sometimes speaks matters more to Americans. China has become one of the country’s leading trade partners. Cultural exchange has increased, and more and more Americans visit China each year, with many settling down to work and study. Conflict between the two societies is not inevitable, but managing bilateral relations will be one of the great challenges of the next decade. It is but one of several aspects of the world confronting Americans of the twenty-first century, and yet many Americans doubt their nation’s political capacity to address them.

Donald Trump places his hand on the Bible that his wife, Melania, holds as he raises his right hand to take the presidential oath of office.

President Donald Trump being sworn in on January 20, 2017 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

By 2016, American voters were fed up. In that year’s presidential race, Republicans spurned their political establishment and nominated a real estate developer and celebrity billionaire, Donald Trump, who, decrying the tyranny of “political correctness” and promising to “Make America Great Again,” promised to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants and, as the territorial ambitions and terrorist tactics of the Islamic State (commonly referred to as ISIS, short for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or sometimes as ISIL, short for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) grabbed headlines, to alter immigration law to bar Muslim immigrants. The Democrats, meanwhile, flirted with the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont, before ultimately nominating Hillary Clinton, who, after eight years as First Lady in the 1990s, had served eight years in the Senate and four more as Secretary of State. Voters despaired: Trump and Clinton were the most unpopular nominees in modern American history. Majorities of Americans viewed each candidate unfavorably and majorities in both parties said, early in the election season, that they were motivated more by voting against their rival candidate than for their own. With incomes frozen, politics gridlocked, race relations tense, and headlines full of violence, such frustrations only channeled a larger sense of stagnation. Americans looked anxiously to the future, and, often, to a new generation busy discovering, perhaps, that change was not impossible.