By Sam Buisman
The 2010s will be remembered as one of the most divisive and accelerated decades in American history.
Marked by widening polarization and the conflation of ideological and personal values, manifested in a zero-sum, “us-versus-them” approach to politics, and packaged in an instantaneous media environment, the 2010s threw into question the country’s once-infallible beliefs about its national character and left without any answers.
To reflect and recover, I took a look back and ranked the 10 events that defined or best reflected the American political landscape this decade.
10. Apple Hits $1 Trillion in Value
On Aug. 2, 2018, Apple’s stock price passed $207.04 a share, making it the first publicly-traded company to pass $1 trillion in value. The company’s stock price has fluctuated since then, occasionally dropping it back below the trillion-dollar threshold, but the company entered this decade valued at over $1.3 trillion.
Tech companies Amazon and Microsoft also passed the $1 trillion mark later in the decade.
Why this event: Apple’s trillion-dollar status is reflective of the economic prosperity and inequality that marked the US in the 2010s.
While the 2000s ended with one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression, the US economy grew throughout all of the 2010s. The astounding success of these companies reflect, and could not have existed without, these sunnier trends.
However, the benefits of this growth were not shared evenly. Income inequality in the US grew across the 2010s, and it now sits within the top third of the world’s most unequal countries. This stratification is perhaps best exemplified in the growing compensation of CEOs, which has grown 940% since 1978 to an average of $17.2 million, while average worker compensation has grown by only 12% during that same period. Accordingly, Apple CEO Tim Cook received $125 million in 2019.
9. Navy SEALs Kill Osama bin Laden
On May 2, 2011, 23 Navy SEALs raided the compound of Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and the organizer of the 9/11 attacks, and killed him. None of the SEALs were hurt. Bin Laden was then buried at sea.
Bin Laden’s killing likely dampened Al Qaeda’s morale and recruiting, but it did not cause the organization to collapse. The larger impact may have been the sense of relief and justice that washed over the US.
Why this event: The killing of bin Laden is not only historic and one of the hallmark foreign policy achievements of the Obama presidency, but it is emblematic of the war on terror at large.
The US and its allies made significant gains in combating terror groups this decade and not just against Al Qaeda. In March of 2019, US-backed Kurdish forces took back the last stronghold of terror group ISIS, which controlled 34 thousand square miles of territory at its height.
Yet, bin Ladin’s death reflects that stopping contemporary terrorism will require more than just military might. Al Qaeda is still active, and turmoil in northern Syria may be priming ISIS for a comeback. Putting an end to these terror groups will require multilateral, genuine efforts to create stability and effective governance in the region.
8. The “Unite the Right” Rally
Over August 11 and 12 in 2017, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, VA, nominally to protest the proposed removal of a Confederate statue. Effectively, the rally aimed to demonstrate the strength of white nationalist groups in the United States and terrorize minoritized people.
Counter-protesters rallied to oppose the white nationalists, and clashes between the groups turned violent. A total of 35 people were injured, and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when James Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
President Donald Trump addressed the unrest, but drew criticism for equating the counter-protesters with the white supremacists and neo-nazis in stating that he “condemned hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” Outrage continued to grow when given a chance to clarify his remarks, the president said that he thought there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Why this event: The Unite the Right Rally was both a harrowing instance and warning of the rise in xenophobic and antisemitic violence this decade.
In 2018, hate crimes in the US reached a 16-year high, with a significant spike in crimes targeting Latinos. Later, in 2019, a gunman traveled to an El Paso Walmart to target immigrants and killed 22 people.
Additionally, the Anti-Defamation League reported “near-historic levels” of antisemitism in 2018, with 1,879 reported incidents. This includes the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history: the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in which 11 people were killed.
7. Senate Fails to Repeal the Affordable Care Act
The Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed on July 28, 2017, when three Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and John McCain of Arizona, defected from their party and voted against the repeal.
Repealing the legislation would have caused almost 30 million Americans to lose their health insurance.
Why this event: This was perhaps the biggest healthcare story of the decade, and healthcare was one of the decade’s strongest reoccurring themes.
Healthcare’s importance continued into the back half of the decade. Voters ranked it as their first priority in the 2018 midterms, even above the economy. And the debate is no less intense in the 2020 Primaries, as candidates spar over the merits of a public option.
6. Senate Confirmation Hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh
After the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump nominated 53-year-old Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the seat. Then in mid-September, Psychology Professor Christine Blasey Ford went public with her allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her as a teenager at a party.
The Senate Judiciary Committee led a series of hearings beginning on Sept. 27, 2018, to hear testimony from Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh. Well over twenty million Americans watched them on TV, with millions more streaming them on other devices.
Senators voted to delay the confirmation to allow for a brief FBI investigation, after which the Senate still voted 50-48 to confirm Kavanaugh. Dr. Ford received a barrage of death threats, forcing her to move four times.
Why this event: Women’s issues were elevated to one of the biggest topics of the later decade, and Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation was its hottest flashpoint.
Before Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the #MeToo movement was already legitimizing oft-ignored claims of sexual harassment. Accusers were able to depose men of incredible power and status, including Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Bill Cosby and Al Franken.
Such feminist fervor extended into the 2018 midterm election, which ended with a record 118 women holding seats in Congress.
However, the Kavanaugh hearings best demonstrate the divisiveness surrounding this cultural shift. Americans on the left and right saw the hearings as two different events, as either a survivor speaking truth to power or a conspiratorial smear campaign.
5. Obergefell v. Hodges
On a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide on June 26, 2015. The Court ruled that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees the right to marriage to same-sex couples just as it does to opposite-sex couples.
Swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court’s liberal wing and wrote the majority opinion.
Why this event: The LGBTQ+ community also made significant strides this decade, and this decision was perhaps their biggest win.
American public opinion shifted rapidly on same-sex marriage. In 2004, 61% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while 31% approved. Even prominent progressives would not support gay marriage until well into the decade, with Barack Obama first expressing support in 2012 and Hilliary Clinton in 2013.
However, these opinions literally reversed by the end of this decade, with 61% approving same-sex marriage and 31% opposing it in 2019. After achieving such gains, LGTBQ+ activism later in the decade began to focus on the struggle for transgender rights and visibility
4. The Shooting of Michael Brown
On August 9th, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson Police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old. Conflicting eyewitness accounts surround the shooting. Some say Brown turned around and surrendered with his hands raised, while Wilson says that Brown turned and charged him.
Later, a grand jury declined to charge Wilson with any crimes related to Brown’s death. The decision sparked unrest in Fergeson as peaceful protests turned to riots and businesses were looted and set on fire. Police mounted a militarized response, arming themselves with armored vehicles, sniper rifles and mounted machine guns.
A following report from the Justice Department found systemic racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department. While 67% of Fergeson’s population is African American, 93% of the FPD’s arrests and 90% of the FPD’s instances of use of force were on African Americans.
Why this event: White police officers shooting unarmed black men became a grim motif across the decade and a touchpoint to related issues of police militarization and criminal justice reform.
Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Stephon Clark, Trayvon Martin and dozens of others became household names as a pattern of shooting, then trial, then declination of charges or acquittal extended throughout the 2010s. These individual instances drove attention to the overarching disparities in the American criminal justice system that disenfranchise black Americans.
The case of Michael Brown exemplifies both of these themes while drawing explicit connections to other areas of criminal justice reform. The he-said-she-said nature of Wilson’s trial sparked debate over body cameras, and the armed response to the unrest in Fergeson did the same for police demilitarization.
3. The Sandy Hook Shooting
On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman shot and killed 20 elementary-age children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School after murdering his mother earlier in the day. After police arrived on the scene, the shooter killed himself before he could be apprehended.
The massacre renewed debate around gun control in the US. Supporters pushed for a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, while gun rights groups like the NRA advocated for stationing more armed guards in schools.
Why this event: The 2010s were scarred by some of the worst mass shootings in United States history, but Sandy Hook perhaps best illustrates the Congressional inaction that followed them.
The Sandy Hook shooting was not the deadliest mass shooting of the 2010s, or arguably the one which sparked the most activism. But the sheer inhumanity of this shooting shook America to its core, forcing a reckoning with its 2nd Amendment.
When Congress then failed to act, it crossed the Rubicon: If the killing of twenty kids between the ages of six and seven would not move Congress to legislate, then almost nothing could, as the rest of the decade proved.
2. The United States Withdraws from the Paris Climate Accords
On Nov. 4, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US had filed to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords.
President Trump telegraphed the decision a year and a half earlier during a Rose Garden speech in which he also disclosed that the US would cease implementing the existing accords.
The US withdrawal will make it the only state in the world that is not a signatory to the deal.
Why this event: Inaction on climate change allowed it to maturate into the defining issue of the decade, and America’s withdrawal may have more impact on the climate front than any of its other actions.
The 2010s mark the hottest decade on record, across which America was scorched by wildfires, drowned by hurricanes and oppressed by extreme heat. By the end of the decade, Americans could often look to the weather report or their backyard for evidence of climate change.
Yet, the most consequential action the US took on climate change this decade was to reject it as a concern. By withdrawing from the deal, the US disinhibits the world’s largest economy from producing carbon emissions, gives cover to resistant states, and leaves a global leadership vacuum on climate issues.
- The Impeachment of Donald J. Trump
On Dec. 18, 2019, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump on two articles of impeachment related to Trump’s holdup of military aid to Ukraine to get them to investigate a political rival.
The impeachment and preceding House Judiciary Inquiry were sparked by a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump blocked the aid to pressure Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation on Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic Frontrunner Joe Biden concerning his son’s position on the board of a Ukranian oil company.
Why this event: Donald Trump is the avatar of the decade’s political zeitgeist. His impeachment is the best example of why that is and carries unique historical salience.
In a decade branded by polarization, no figure is more polarizing than Donald Trump. For Americans, Donald Trump is not just a president but a cultural touchstone through which filters their entertainment, news, romantic partners, friends and even family.
The impeachment process has borne out this division. From the start of the inquiry through the end of the year, public opinion on if Trump should be removed from office has not changed. Even before most of them came to light, Americans already had made up their minds on the facts, because the facts do not matter. What matters is how they feel about the President and what he means to them.
And as elected officials are supposed to be representative of their constituents, those feelings are reflected in House and Senate members treating the impeachment as a foregone conclusion. It does not matter what the House impeachment managers, presidential defense team, potential witnesses or anyone in the Senate trial argues: If the people that vote to keep these legislators in office have decided, then so have the legislators.
This is the politics of the 2010s and the future. It is one that is visceral and vicious. It preceded Donald Trump and will continue after him.
It will continue into the 2020s.