Watching the 2010s Become History
Here are some of the stories from The Atlantic’s archives that shaped my understanding of the past decade.
At the start of 2010, Barack Obama was just 11 months into his presidency. The recovery from the Great Recession was in its early stages. The Marvel cinematic universe consisted of Iron Man and Edward Norton’s Hulk. Less than 20 percent of Americans owned smartphones.
It’s been a long decade.
In three years at The Atlantic, in a role that often has me poking around our archive, I’ve come to understand American history through the stories told in the magazine as that history was unfolding. The 1850s focused readers’ attention on financial panic and standoffs over slavery; the 1880s aroused concerns about materialism and labor conditions; the 1910s were marked by contentious debates about the free press, women’s suffrage, and the nature of war.
How will the 2010s be remembered? Looking back through the articles The Atlantic published over the past 10 years—a period during which it dramatically expanded its web presence, meaning that for the first time in the publication’s history, the news was covered as it happened—I rediscovered a decade that shocked the world, both day by day and now, looking back.
The myth of a post-racial America has been shattered.
Obama’s election in 2008 prompted speculation from some academics and news analysts that American politics had transcended considerations of race and entered a new era. But by 2010, that idea had already been shaken by the vocal birther movement (prominently promoted by Donald Trump), and would be all but obliterated by the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and the public outcry that followed.
In the September 2012 issue, Ta-Nehisi Coates explored the irony of the racial dynamics of Obama’s presidency. “Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House,” he observed, “but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.”
Atlantic writers have since reported in-depth on the entrenched racial disparities in homicide rates, debt burdens, incarceration, and overall mortality in America. And the magazine has detailed the ascent of individual white supremacists—as well as a broader ethno-nationalist coalition that helped bring Donald Trump, in all his overt bigotry, to power in 2016.
What to read:
“Segregation Now,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (May 2014 issue)
“Black children in the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades,” Hannah-Jones reported.
“The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (June 2014 issue)
“An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane,” Coates wrote. “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
“Being Black in America Can Be Hazardous to Your Health,” by Olga Khazan (July/August 2018 issue)
“Although the racial disparity in early death has narrowed in recent decades, black people have the life expectancy, nationwide, that white people had in the 1980s,” Khazan reported.
“The Nationalist’s Delusion,” by Adam Serwer (November 20, 2017)
“Americans act with the understanding that Trump’s nationalism promises to restore traditional boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality,” Serwer argued. “The nature of that same nationalism is to deny its essence, the better to salve the conscience and spare the soul.”
The impact of climate change has become widely evident—and prompted collective action.
Since 2010, as Atlantic writers have detailed, climate change has given rise to the hottest years on record; to record drought; to more extreme hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding; to melting glaciers and ice sheets; and, maybe, to the reanimation of some zombie diseases. It’s also already claimed countless lives, taking a particular toll on poor communities and countries. These years have also given rise to international diplomacy (including, most important, the Paris Climate Agreement), dedicated activists such as Greta Thunberg, mass protests for further action, and greater collective belief in climate change and support for radical policies that could help combat it.
Trump has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax,” and he has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement—but as Robinson Meyer wrote this month, dozens of states, in addition to almost every country in the world, still hope to meet their goals.
What to read:
“How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen,” by Charles C. Mann (September 2014 issue)
“On the one hand, the transformation of the Antarctic seems like an unfathomable disaster. On the other hand, the disaster will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren,” Mann wrote. “How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?”
“Welcome to Pleistocene Park,” by Ross Andersen (April 2017 issue)
“It will be cute to have mammoths running around here, but I’m not doing this for them,” Andersen was told by the director of a Russian reserve where scientists hope to resurrect an Ice Age biome. “I am trying to solve the larger problem of climate change.”
“The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” by Robinson Meyer (November 6, 2017)
“Climate change,” Meyer explained, “could awaken Earth’s forgotten pathogens. It is one of the most bizarre symptoms of global warming. And it has already begun to happen.”
“Climate Change Is Already Damaging American Democracy,” by Vann R. Newkirk II (October 24, 2018)
“As Hurricane Sandy illustrated—like Katrina had years before—disasters and hostile climate conditions don’t create inequalities; they exacerbate them,” Newkirk observed. “If American society is already trending toward greater inequality, this all means that climate change will accelerate that trend.”
The United States has experienced horrific mass shootings over and over and over again.
They felt, in the early 2010s, like a series of isolated shocks: Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others were shot at an Arizona Safeway in January 2011; a shooter killed 12 moviegoers and injured 70 more at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012; 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
But mass shootings have spread like a disease, becoming more frequent and, over time, less shocking and more expected. The coverage patterns, policy debates about gun rights and mental health, and post-shooting school reopenings have settled into something like a routine, while active-shooter drills have become a standard part of many school curricula—despite the harm they may be causing.
The calls for gun control have grown louder and louder over the same period, leading to a congressional sit-in in 2016 and the March for Our Lives two years later. “People always say, ‘Nothing changed after Sandy Hook,” a survivor of the shooting told Steven Johnson last year. But “what happened after Sandy Hook is that we, I think, came together and forced politicians to answer questions about guns. Small, simple things like that. And for five years, we’ve built that.”
What to read:
“The Secret History of Guns,” by Adam Winkler (September 2011 issue)
“We’ve also always had gun control,” Winkler wrote. “While [the Founding Fathers] did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.”
“Americans Don’t Really Understand Gun Violence,” by David S. Bernstein (December 14, 2017)
“Nonfatal gun violence has mostly been ignored,” Bernstein observed, and “as a result, survivors of gun violence are largely invisible, even to the people who work closely on the issue—including policy makers, academics, and medical professionals.”
“What I Saw Treating the Victims From Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns,” by Heather Sher (February 22, 2018)
“The bullet from an AR-15 passes through the body like a cigarette boat traveling at maximum speed through a tiny canal,” Sher, a radiologist, explained. “It does not have to actually hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding. Exit wounds can be the size of an orange.”
“America’s Unending Tragedy,” by Olga Khazan (March 24, 2018)
“But, nearly 20 years later, not even people in Littleton can agree whether the best way to prevent another Columbine is more guns or fewer,” Khazan wrote. “Todd’s experience—a 15-year-old whose brush with death-by-gun led him to respect guns more—helps to explain why there have been so few new federal gun restrictions since Columbine.”
“The Children of the Children of Columbine,” by Ashley Fetters (April 16, 2019)
“The [survivors of the Columbine High School shooting] who have become parents face an awful new reality,” Fetters wrote. “Twenty years later, they are being confronted with the idea that what happened to them could also happen to their children.”
The Republican Party has reconfigured itself around the Trump presidency.
The GOP began the decade without control over the White House or either chamber of Congress. President Obama had won the support of a new Democratic coalition of young people, people of color, and college-educated white people, along with enough working-class white voters to propel him to the presidency—and to do so again four years later. His victories left Republicans worried, despite the red waves in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, that the party couldn’t win with white voters alone and would have to change its strategy moving forward.
A shift in approach had already been set in motion in 2010 by the election of dozens of avowed Tea Party congresspeople, who worked to push the party to the right—and push out establishment figures and ideas along the way. Beyond Congress, the election of Republicans to local offices in the same wave enabled widespread gerrymandering and voter suppression.
In 2016, defying the messaging that followed the 2012 election, a Republican ticket headed by Donald Trump doubled down on the party’s white base, and won. Trump embraced a constituency of angry white Americans with his ethnonationalist and economic-populist rhetoric, ushering in a new era for the party and further alienating its more moderate adherents. The president’s support among Republican politicians has not wavered, even during his impeachment, suggesting that the party is now dedicated to following the president and his shrinking white base into the new decade.
What to read:
“The Great Republican Revolt,” by David Frum (January/February 2016 issue)
“White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for—the Republican Party of Romney, Ryan, and McConnell, which they despise as a sad crew of weaklings and sellouts,” Frum reported. “They are pissed off.”
“The Republican Party’s White Strategy,” by Peter Beinart (July/August 2016 issue)
“[Trump] is exploiting fears about Latino immigrants in ways that echo the ‘southern strategy’ through which Richard Nixon fueled and exploited a white backlash against African American civil rights,” Beinart wrote.
“The New GOP Coalition Is Emerging,” by Reihan Salam (November 14, 2018)
“The GOP has yet to develop a cohort of policy professionals capable of reconciling egalitarian populism and market conservatism in an attractive program,” Salam argued, “and the result is that Trump’s taste for invective has filled a vacuum that might otherwise have been filled by a creative and unifying new nationalism.”
“How America Ends,” by Yoni Appelbaum (December 2019 issue)
“When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost,” Appelbaum wrote.
Women have spoken up about ongoing inequities in the working world.
Early in 2010, for the first time in American history, women became the majority of the country’s workforce. Later that year, Hanna Rosin wondered if the milestone was evidence of a more sweeping economic role reversal. “It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening,” she wrote: “In the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.”
But in the years that followed, other writers addressed the obstacles working women continue to face, from the impossible riddle of professional-personal balance to the particular gender bias and discrimination of Silicon Valley to the persistent gender wage gap.
Then, in October 2017, the publication of sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein ignited #MeToo into a viral movement and elevated the outcry against structural misogyny. The movement, Catherine A. MacKinnon wrote earlier this year, “is already changing everything”—though, other writers have argued, it is still not changing enough.
What to read:
“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter (July/August 2012 issue)
“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time,’” Slaughter asserted. “But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
“Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?,” by Liza Mundy (April 2017 issue)
“The women I spoke with described a kind of gaslighting,” Mundy reported. “They find themselves in enviably modern workspaces, surrounded by right-thinking colleagues and much talk of meritocracy, yet feel disparaged in ways that are hard to articulate, let alone prove.”
“The Glaring Blind Spot of the ‘Me Too’ Movement,” by Gillian B. White (November 22, 2017)
“Though women of all races suffer the trauma of sexual harassment and violence, it’s hard to argue that America treats alleged crimes committed against white women and women of color the same,” White wrote.
“The Phantom Reckoning,” by Megan Garber (September 16, 2018)
“For #MeToo, for its part, the wraiths are emboldened each time abusers are welcomed back under the false pretenses of ‘redemption,’” Garber wrote. “This is how the status quo maintains its status. This is why the world, briefly shaken, so often settles back into its familiar grooves.”
The rise of ISIS reignited the global conflict against terrorism.
Early in the decade, the War on Terror as proclaimed by George W. Bush appeared to be winding down after years of active conflict in the Middle East. A Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq seven months later. President Obama announced plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan as well, and in 2013 he publicly redefined the fight against terrorism as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” rather than a war.
But the reemergence of the Islamic State ushered in a new wave of conflict. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group threw itself into the Syrian civil war in 2011, took control of Mosul, Iraq, and formed a self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria three years later. The group also claimed responsibility for the assassination of a number of journalists and aid workers and terrorist attacks in cities from Baghdad to Paris to Ottawa.
Following years of U.S.-led air campaigns, Kurdish and Arab offenses in Syria, and Iraqi efforts to reclaim lost ground, ISIS is concluding the decade without any territory left to its name and without Baghdadi’s leadership. But, our writers caution, that doesn’t mean it’s been defeated for good—it still has funding, and a mission.
What to read:
“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood (March 2015 issue)
“Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do,” Wood wrote. “But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”
“The Obama Doctrine,” by Jeffrey Goldberg (April 2016 issue)
“History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey, or Jordan,” Goldberg wrote. “Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and ISIS.”
“What ISIS Will Become,” by Kathy Gilsinan and Mike Giglio (November 22, 2019)
“[ISIS’s leaders] see this as a battle of attrition, and that eventually they’re going to wear everyone out,” a veteran researcher of jihadist groups told Gilsinan and Giglio. “They’re not rigid in their thinking, and they’re willing to evolve.”
Smartphones and social media have changed how people connect with one another.
The devices and platforms themselves largely predate this decade: Facebook launched in 2004, and Apple released the first-generation iPhone in 2007. But in the 2010s they became closer to ubiquitous. In 2012, the proportion of Americans with smartphones passed 50 percent for the first time; by February 2019, that figure had climbed to 81 percent. Earlier this year, Facebook reported 2.7 billion monthly users across its properties.
The result is a new set of digital social experiences, particularly for the young: Kate Bolick learned about a friend’s death through Facebook; thanks to their parents’ social-media posts, more than 90 percent of 2-year-olds had an online presence in 2010; babies formed relationships with relatives through a mediating screen; older children stumbled across their own digital lives, curated by their parents.
At the same time, Jean M. Twenge argued in 2017, traditional forms of socialization appear to have declined and left a generation of young people, coming of age in an era of ever-present smartphones, feeling more isolated and left out.
What to read:
“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Jean M. Twenge (September 2017 issue)
“Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends,” Twenge wrote. “But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.”
“What It’s Like to Wallow in Your Own Facebook Data,” by Anna Wiener (September 2018 issue)
“Here was the stuff of a life, and I had given it away to the internet,” Wiener reflected. “Much of it would likely be stored on Facebook’s servers ad infinitum, useful only to advertisers and algorithms.”
“The Dark Psychology of Social Networks,” by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell (December 2019 issue)
“Social media turns many of our most politically engaged citizens into [James] Madison’s nightmare: arsonists who compete to create the most inflammatory posts and images, which they can distribute across the country in an instant,” Haidt and Rose-Stockwell argued.
Class and racial wealth gaps have widened in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
“Three years after the crash of 2008, the rich and well educated are putting the recession behind them,” Don Peck wrote in September 2011. “The rest of America is stuck in neutral or reverse.”
That yawning gap in income and net worth divided Americans. On one side lies what Chrystia Freeland described in our January/February 2011 issue as “a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth”—the kind of one-percenters (or is it 9.9 percenters?) who might flaunt their wine caves, debate how much money they can pass down to their kids without sapping their motivation, and harbor a number of secret anxieties.
On the other side of the divide is the rest of America: a savings-poor and debt-rich middle class, a white working class left struggling with unemployment, economically stunted young adults, and disproportionately affected black Americans still reeling from the loss of home equity. A decade after the crash, despite the overall recovery of the economy, the country remained “more unequal, less vibrant, less productive, poorer, and sicker than it would have been had the crisis been less severe,” Annie Lowrey summarized in 2017. The same month, Alana Semuels went deep on the lasting impact of foreclosures and Derek Thompson predicted that the new GOP tax cut would only exacerbate wealth inequalities.
What to read:
“Can the Middle Class Be Saved?,” by Don Peck (September 2011 issue)
“One of the most salient features of severe downturns is that they tend to accelerate deep economic shifts that are already under way,” Peck wrote. “They typically allow us to see, with rare and brutal clarity, where society is heading—and what sorts of people and places it is leaving behind.”
“The Never-Ending Foreclosure,” by Alana Semuels (December 1, 2017)
“While America prides itself on being a place where people can climb up the economic ladder, it’s also a place where people can fall fast, and far,” Semuels concluded.
“The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” by Matthew Stewart (June 2018 issue)
“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children,” Stewart asserted.
Nationalist movements have become ascendant around the world, threatening modern democracy.
Strong-man leaders have ridden waves of right-wing populism to power around the world this decade. In 2013, Kurt Weyland described a “sustained, coordinated authoritarian threat” confronting Latin America after years of “democratic resilience.” Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has revived authoritarianism in Turkey since his election to the presidency in 2014, and Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 rise to the Philippines’ highest office has produced an oppressive and violent reign of “machismo populism.”
In Europe, nativist right-wing contingents have become more popular and more vocal in countries including Austria, Italy, and Hungary. Since the initial Brexit referendum, in June 2016, Britain has been navigating the terms of its own nationalist realignment. And Poland is deep in the grips of antidemocratic forces; in October 2018, Anne Applebaum took a deep dive into the polarized, conspiratorial, xenophobic, and “openly authoritarian” rule of the Law and Justice party in the country. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy,” she wrote. “Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.”
The United States made its own turn toward nationalist right-wing populism with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Atlantic writers have since broken down the president’s autocratic tendencies, his racism and intolerance, and his supporters’ cognitive dissonance. His presidency has left Americans deeply divided, in some ways reminiscent of the lead-up to the Civil War. A special issue of the magazine published last month focused on how to reconcile those divisions—or not.
What to read:
“How to Build an Autocracy,” by David Frum (March 2017 issue)
“And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them,” Frum wrote. “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me.”
“It’s Putin’s World,” by Franklin Foer (March 2017 issue)
“Right-wing populists have largely fed off the alienation of older white voters, who are angry about the erosion of traditional values,” Foer wrote, summarizing the results of a study into the roots of the new global populism. “These voters feel stigmatized as intolerant and bigoted for even entertaining such anger—and their rage grows.”
“A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come,” by Anne Applebaum (October 2018 issue)
“Polarization is normal. Skepticism about liberal democracy is normal,” Applebaum observed. “And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”
“The New Authoritarians Are Waging War on Women,” by Peter Beinart (January/February 2019 issue)
“Besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.,” Beinart noted. “They all want to subordinate women.”