Posted on Thursday, December 31st, 2009 at 9:43 am
Author: Erik Loomis
A decade’s end lends itself to reflection. As a historian, I am thinking about how the 2000s compare to previous decades. While time and perspective may alter my thinking, I believe the 2000s is the worst decade Americans have experienced since the Civil War.
The presidency of George W. Bush defines the 2000s. I rank Bush as the 4th worst president in American history, ahead of only James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson, and just behind Richard Nixon. Not only was Bush a complete failure as a president, but his mendacity, disinterest in the world around him, and blind faith in the unregulated market rendered him unable to deal effectively with any crisis.
We’ve had our share of bad presidents, of course. But while we remember Herbert Hoover as a colossal failure, at least he had a long career as a humanitarian before his presidency; if not for the Great Depression he might have had a successful term. We cannot say the same about Bush. He compares favorably only with the racist and ineffectual presidents surrounding Lincoln. Even Nixon’s crimes and the permanent damage he caused the presidency’s prestige pales in comparison to the incalculable harm Bush did to this nation.
The decade’s disasters began with the Supreme Court stealing the 2000 presidential election for the Republicans, the most blatant example of presidential voter fraud in American history. The Bush administration immediately set into eviscerating the welfare state, attempting to repeal the Great Society and New Deal and return domestic policy to the Gilded Age.
After September 11, 2001, Bush frittered away the world’s sympathy for our national suffering by turning his attention to Iraq rather than capture capturing Osama Bin Laden. He marginalized nations asking questions about whether Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destruction, and eventually launched a war without UN approval. Bush’s blatant lies about WMDs and the subsequent failure of the United States to rebuild Iraq brought American prestige around the world to depths not seen since before World War II.
The housing and credit bubbles supported by Bush policies led to a massive economic downturn beginning in late 2007. Like with other crises, Bush provided completely ineffectual leadership. His repealing of environmental and labor legislation, refusing to work on climate change, appointing right-wing ideologue judges, slashing international aid, repealing women’s rights, and ignoring dozens of other issues damn his administration. George W. Bush left the United States in far worse shape than he found it.
Certainly voters’ revolt against Republican incompetence in the 2006 and 2008 elections brought in a brighter end to the decade. Barack Obama’s election marks a true watershed in American history, though it remains to be seen to what extent voters have truly left right-wing policies behind. While Obama’s election and the enthusiasm he created among young voters gives me optimism for the future, the rise of the teabaggers and other right-wing extremist movements directly funded and supported by the Republican Party threatens not only Obama’s life, but the ability of the two-party system to function.
Even today, the Senate’s collapse as a functional institution threatens American democracy. Republicans’ cynical strategy of halting majority rule in favor of a new supermajority puts the Senate’s future into question. This thwarts the people’s will and makes it virtually impossible to pass legislation necessary for the government to operate.
The Republicans seem to act as if Democrats will not use similar measures once they lose the majority. Democrats do not have the party discipline of the Republicans, making Blue Dog defections on many votes likely. But a slight Republican majority will find it very difficult to get sixty votes. The Senate’s implosion marks a threat to the nation on par with any of Bush’s actions.
What about other decades of the 20th century? Certainly, that century saw some tough times. The 1920s witnessed mediocre political leadership, a market bubble, and deep poverty among farmers, but also saw the beginnings of modern American popular culture and expanded women’s rights. The Great Depression dominated the 1930s, but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the modern welfare state and showed what government can do to help people.
We remember the 1950s for McCarthyism. However, Eisenhower did not repeal the New Deal; political repression and the status quo did not lead to America’s finest hour, but the lives of most Americans did not get worse. Plus, the beginnings of the civil rights movement now define the decade as much as red baiting.
The 1970s saw political crises coming from Watergate, the OPEC boycott, and the Iranian revolution. But a tremendous amount of environmental and civil rights legislation meant that American life improved during the decade. Even in Reagan’s 80s, Democrats still controlled Congress for most of the decade and prevented much of Reagan’s worst legislation from passing. If you suffered from HIV, lived in Nicaragua, or were a union member, Reagan’s hurt you badly. But Democratic senators led by Ted Kennedy did a great deal to mitigate much of Reagan’s damage.
The United States had never before experienced a decade combining a disastrous war, the evisceration of decades of reforms that lifted millions of Americans from poverty, and a crippling financial collapse. American prestige abroad reached an all-time low. Banks evicted Americans from their homes at record rates. And as the decade ends, the nation seems completely unprepared to deal with climate change, the greatest threat of the 21st century.
Thankfully, the terrible 2000s have ended. It’s hard to imagine the 2010s as worse. Though given right-wing direct action, the utterly cynical nature of the Republican Party, the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, and a shaky economy, I fear for the future.
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