YEARS ARE EASY. Decades are harder.
In other words, 2020 is here, ready or not.
But decades as clear political, cultural, social and historical eras are as elusive as centuries.
For example, did “the ’60s” as a cultural phenomenon begin on New Year’s Day 1960 (or 1961 for purists), or with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963?
Some historians would argue for the latter — or for 1965. That year marked U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War and unrest at home after historic gains in civil rights and the high-water mark of liberal achievements. This time of upheaval lasted into the 1970s.
On the other hand, a century ago, the “Roaring ’20s” appeared to have some neat bookends.
With women voting nationally for the first time, Republican Warren Harding won the White House. He promised a return to “normalcy,” forever mangling the word “normality.” But his meaning was clear: an end to war footing, Red Scare, recession and overreach of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Harding released the imprisoned socialist Eugene Debs.
An average, well-meaning man surrounded by scoundrels, Harding died in office. Vice President Calvin Coolidge succeeded him. And, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, America went on “the greatest gaudiest spree in history.”
The tombstone was placed on Victorian morals as the “flapper” era took hold. Radio revolutionized communications. Jazz — the Jazz Age is synonymous with this decade — and literature flourished. In 1926, Bertha Landes was elected Seattle’s first female mayor. Two years later, Boeing Field was dedicated.
Then the spree turned to ashes with the October 1929 stock-market crash, followed by the Great Depression.
The question now is whether our ’20s will offer as relatively distinct a narrative as their predecessor 100 years ago, or a messier transition similar to the 1960s.
No one can expect perfect vision with 2020. The best we can do is make some informed guesses.
THE BIGGEST STORY of the year and decade will be climate change and its consequences. This will be so from now on.
Last year, it became undeniable that climate scientists had badly misjudged the speed and devastation of continuing to pump massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. From wildfires and droughts to historic heat waves, predictions once considered alarmist are our new reality.
President Donald Trump’s response was to make the United States the only nation to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, while pushing for more fossil-fuel production.
Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, was more constructive. He called for “a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, industry and all people around the world who are genuinely interested (and) committed to address climate change.”
Denial, defeatism or hoping for techno-magic “solutions” are not viable responses. Unaddressed, increasing temperatures will lead to huge economic costs, historic mass migrations, the spread of tropical diseases, inundation from rising seas, and wars.
If anything will make our ’20s roar, it will be climate change.
AS I WRITE this, Trump has become only the third president to be impeached. Yet removing him from office will be highly unlikely with the Republican-controlled Senate. So he probably will run again, despite a first term that has been a rolling constitutional crisis, trashing every norm of American self-governance. Barring a recession, he might win.
The polarization in America — the worst since the eve of the Civil War — foreshadows a nasty presidential election and a fundamental shattering of our form of government in the years ahead.
We face “regime cleavage.” It’s described by political scientists as “a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself — in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.”
As a result, everything is up for grabs in a way rarely seen in American history.
Blue islands such as Seattle can’t imagine a second Trump term or the continuation of Trumpism. But they don’t represent the nation as a whole.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016. But the presidency is decided in the Electoral College, where red states hold an advantage. Clinton ran as a centrist. Today’s Democratic Party has moved to the left in the expectation that America will follow. It’s a risky bet.
As commentator Matt Taibbi trenchantly put it last year: “The average American likes meat, sports, money, porn, cars, cartoons and shopping. Less popular: socialism, privilege-checking and the world ending in 10 years.
“Ironically, perhaps because of Trump, Democratic Party rhetoric in 2020 is relentlessly negative about the American experience. Every speech is a horror story about synagogue massacres or people dying without insulin or atrocities at the border. Republicans who used to complain about liberals ‘apologizing for America’ were being silly, but 2020 Democrats sound like escapees from The Killing Fields.”
America has never elected a far-liberal to the White House. Ask President McGovern.
In addition, the 2020 election will be marked by even more of 2016’s Kremlin meddling, vote suppression, social-media trolling and media both-sidesing that obscures the truth.
It’s possible Trump could be unseated by an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders. But unlikely (and would Trump even accept the results?). Also, their big plans would require commanding Democratic control of the Senate. It’s not even certain that the Democrats can keep the House.
Make sure your seat belts are fastened and your tray tables are in their full upright and locked position.
An important national coda to the new year risks being lost in the electioneering: the Census. Historically controlled by nonpolitical civil servants, this North Star of the republic’s population count and much more is now controlled by the highly political Trump administration. One consequence could be undercounting blue cities, hurting their federal funding. Another is how the Census determines the apportionment of congressional districts.
If demographic trends continue, an honest Census will show continued erosion of America’s white majority. While this is welcome diversity in places such as Seattle, expect it to energize Trumpism on the right. There one finds the hope for a “white homeland” consisting of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington if immigration can’t be stopped.
THE “TEENS” SAW one of the biggest booms in Seattle history, with the city leading the national crane count for years and enjoying an unusually diverse economy. The area is headquarters for two of the five Big Tech companies. Seattle also benefited from the “back to the city movement” of talent and companies as well as the old backbone of Boeing (stressed by the 737 MAX crisis).
At the same time, the move to district representation on City Council and the rise of a militant left shattered the old pragmatic center-liberalism of Seattle politics.
These two phenomena operated in uneasy tandem partly because the city’s prosperity allowed for such progressive moves as the $15 minimum wage. A hot business climate paid the taxes and fees to fund such progressive priorities as addressing the diverse set of conditions lumped under the term “homelessness” (not always effectively, but generously).
The 2020s likely will see this uneasy peace shattered, with unclear consequences.
Last year’s elections put in place a solidly left City Council. Its members might see the results — helped by Amazon’s blunder of heavily funding opposition candidates — as a mandate for more radical measures.
Among them could be revisiting the jobs tax, which was hastily withdrawn in 2018 once it became clear it would affect nearly 700 companies and put Seattle at a competitive disadvantage. Another proposal likely to get traction is rent control, even though experience elsewhere shows it doesn’t widely help affordable housing.
Add in a recession — a certainty this decade, considering the age of the expansion and the stresses it faces — and the antipathy of Seattle’s political elite toward business could reap a whirlwind.
Suburbs, especially Bellevue, could gain a windfall of companies moving part or fully across the lake. This will become more inviting with the completion of light rail this decade to Bellevue and Redmond. Another unintended consequence from a jobs tax: Seattle companies, facing higher taxes, could cut funding for nonprofits.
This isn’t a certainty, of course. Cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles have implemented aggressive “social justice” measures for years while continuing to enjoy strong economies. Almost all of America’s most successful cities are blue.
Seattle also has benefited from relatively low levels of violent crime combined with a compassionate population. Majorities seem willing to support many political leaders who appear to view the safety of citizens as a low priority — the same with civility and livability in commons from sidewalks to parks. Issues such as homelessness and rent control, plus battles with Amazon, have sucked up all the air, and there’s a sense that comparatively little attention is given to public safety or providing basic municipal services.
But that could change if crime surges, quality of life suffers further and evermore funding fails to significantly reduce the unsheltered population. Ask liberal New Yorkers who lived through the 1970s and turned to “tough on crime” measures.
The political battleground of the new decade also will be complicated by passage of I-976, which guts much-needed transportation funding. If the measure stands, the damage would be statewide. But it especially would hurt transit in the Puget Sound region that could connect employment centers with more affordable suburbs.
MANY HINGES OF fate beyond politics could swing this decade.
For example, defense officials and scholars have been focused for several years on “the return of great power competition.” In other words, the United States vs. China and Russia.
The world has not seen a major great-power conflict for 75 years, the longest period of relative peace in modern history. Part of this is a result of the American-built liberal world order after World War II, now crumbling thanks to the Trump administration. Late last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said NATO is experiencing “brain death.”
Meanwhile, China is rising and wants to establish its own world order, one sometimes in conflict with the strategic interests of the United States.
Another thing that has kept the peace is nuclear weapons. “Mutually assured destruction” has worked, after its fashion. But most defense observers believe that any conventional war between great powers could turn nuclear. And rogue states such as North Korea and Iran don’t play by the old rules and could trigger a regional war that spreads.
Seattle, with its critical industries and surrounded by vital military installations, including the West Coast base of ballistic-missile submarines, would be a first-strike target in any nuclear war.
Also, any wars fought in the 2020s will include drones, cyberattacks, hypersonic missiles — weapons and tactics as revolutionary as those that shocked the participants in World War I.
Finally, peace was kept by memory of those who lived through World War II. They’re dying off, replaced increasingly by people with no firsthand knowledge of the costliest conflict in history. Similarly, an entire generation has come of age since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with no memory of the failures of communism. No wonder so many seem willing to bet on strongman rule or socialism.
Capitalism is in crisis, too, one that might grow in the 2020s. Companies are too big, industries too consolidated and endowed by the Supreme Court with unprecedented political power. Wages are stagnant for many, inequality is growing and 53 million Americans are stranded in low-wage jobs with little way out. Important checks on capitalism’s abuses have eroded.
No wonder confidence in the free-enterprise system is waning among many, and billionaires are widely despised. A neo-Bolshevik revolution isn’t in the offing — not even on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. But the situation will contribute to political and social instability.
Technology is no longer our reliable friend, either. In addition to a society beguiled by devices instead of old-fashioned human interaction, the 2020s will see tectonic shifts thanks to artificial intelligence.
A Brookings Institution study from November 2019 argued that better-paid and well-educated workers faced the most exposure of being replaced by AI. The technology is also raising concerns of privacy, bias and worse.
According to a RAND Corp. report last year, “The intersection of multiple emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to virtual reality and personalized messaging, is creating the potential for aggressors to change people’s fundamental social reality.”
For now, these are largely open questions. The answers will unspool in the coming years.
NONE OF THE direst markers listed above are destiny.
We have the means to step back from political polarization and return to constitutional norms. We can recover and strengthen the commons.
We don’t need to be a world hegemon — or go “in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams put it. Reinvigorating our alliances and returning to an emphasis on the American-led liberal world order will keep the peace.
Social democracy, as appealing as it is to some of us, might never happen in America. But we can return to the All-American policies that created the zenith of the middle class: strong antitrust, progressive taxation, robust unions, a rebuilt safety net and ladders of opportunity for all.
With climate change as the existential challenge, we can invest in high-speed trains, transit, incentives for clean energy and research on a host of fronts. Americans sent men to the moon 50 years ago. We must recover that sense of national purpose.
We can step away from calls to intergenerational warfare, whether “OK Boomer” or stereotypes of entitled whiny millennials. Unharden our hearts as tribes set against one another. Instead, we can remember that we’re all in this experiment together, knitted in what Martin Luther King Jr. called “an inescapable network of mutuality.”
That’s the new Roaring ’20s I’d like to see. How about you?