Biggest Stories of the Decade

Looking back at the aughts.


By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I was on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this morning, with Politics Daily's Carl Cannon, talking about the top stories of the decade. Carl is a thoughtful reporter and it was an interesting discussion. I figured that I might list here what I thought were the biggest stories from the last 10 years. Let me know in the comments section below whether I missed any (or missed on any).

(Before diving in I should note that since our calendar goes from 1BC to 1AD, without a year zero, this is not technically the last year of the decade.)

I would divide the decade's biggest stories into two broad categories: distinct, discreet events and broader trends. And in many cases these stories are woven together and interacted with each other.

In terms of distinct events, the five biggest stories:

  • The 2000 elections. The protracted election, with its voting irregularities, partisan post-election struggles, and final resolution in the Supreme Court set the tone for the political polarization that has marked this decade.
  • 9/11. I include here the reactions to and consequences of the terrorist attacks, including the U.S. war in Afghanistan. No other single event had such far-reaching effects on U.S. domestic politics and policies, U.S. foreign policies, or the lives of people in the United States and around the world.
  • The Iraq War. A historic blunder and tragic waste of national resources.
  • The Great Recession. A global financial collapse from which we are still trying to recover. But for government safe-guards (the ones that did work) and action from politicians in both parties it could actually have been much worse.
  • America elects its first black president. You could more broadly put the 2008 election into this category, including Hillary Clinton coming closer than any woman before her to winning the White House and Sarah Palin becoming the first female GOP vice presidential candidate.
  • I chose five as an arbitrary number but a longer list could include Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, the Mumbai attacks, the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of his successor, and the mapping of the human genome. What am I missing?

    In terms of trends or themes:

    •  The entrance of non-state actors onto the world stage. For good or ill, individuals and non-government organizations suddenly wield the kind of power to affect events that used to be reserved to states. I'm not only talking about al Qaeda and its followers and allies, but also private military contractors, and charitable foundations that have a global scope. For more I recommend One Nation Under Contract, a new book which details this phenomenon (the author is a friend and former professor of mine, who did an interesting Q&A with us about it in November).
    • The rise of social media. Facebook, Twitter, various wiki media and so on ... Just in terms of politics the evolution of communications media has gone from John McCain using it to capitalize on his 2000 New Hampshire victory in a way that would have been unheard of previously to Barack Obama using it to organize in 2008 to beat McCain. Ask George Allen about YouTube or the Iranian clerics about Twitter.
    • The decline and evolution of traditional media. In May of 2000 the New York Times published an article saying that daily newspaper circulation had increased slightly during the previous months, running counter to a 16-year trend of decline. That was a blip. The trend accelerated and nine years later the Times headlined: "Fall in Newspaper Sales Accelerates to Pass 7%" Newspapers are closing around the country and the rest of the news industry is trying to figure out how to survive in a transformed media environment. This isn't just a problem for we ink-stained wretches. News outlets perform a critical role in society, and one that can't be filled simply by non-journalist bloggers.
    • The return of the imperial presidency. The Bush presidency marked an aggressive power-grab by the executive branch, and one which was only belatedly and weakly resisted by Congress and the courts.
    • The rise of China. China has emerged in this decade as a global rival--perhaps the global rival--to the United States. According to an Austin-based company called Global Language Monitor, which did an analysis of news and Internet reporting from the past 10 years, the rise of China was the top story of the last 10 years. I'll be it makes the list for the next decade as well.
    • What have I missed?

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