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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Decade of Disappointment, Decade of Hope

Reflections on life on the Left in the 2010s.

“It is a common mistake to suppose that hope is the cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action: you act and then, as a result, you begin to hope.”

 —Roberto Mangabeira Unger

1. The Fail Decade

After all that has happened, it might be hard to believe, but as we entered the 2010s, the word of the moment was “hope.” You can’t overstate how hopeful American progressives had been back then—the most popular poster at the time was literally just a picture of Barack Obama with the word HOPE written at the bottom.

We were desperate for civic hope, because the 2000s had been terrible. Chris Hayes put it best in Twilight of the Elites—the first decade of the 21st century was “The Fail Decade.” After the apparently triumphant 1990s—with its End of History, peace dividend, and information superhighway—came a decade in which every year saw a new, disastrous institutional failure.

First came Columbine, the psychic end to the roaring ’90s. The shooting cast an eerie shadow over the coming decade, haunting us with the question of whether one of the natural endpoints of ’90s consumer ideals—from the suburbs to the shopping mall—was violent alienation.

Then came the Y2K scare, in which the whole world spent months pondering if global digital interconnectivity—then nearly always discussed as an unalloyed good—was, in fact, going to be civilization’s downfall. The first year of the new Millennium closed out with Bush v. Gore, in which the candidate who received slightly less votes than the other in the popular vote won the Presidency after receiving slightly more votes than the other at the Supreme Court. 

Just under a year later, came September 11th—the largest mass casualty on American soil since Pearl Harbor. As we were reminded by pundits over and over in the months following—often with looping video of the towers falling layered on top—the End of History was over and America’s sense of invulnerability was forever shattered. 

Then came the second tragedy of 9/11—the disastrous response. By the end of the decade, almost twice as many Americans had been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than on September 11 itself. And in just the two years between 2007 (when the United Nations began reporting statistics on Afghan civilian casualties) and the end of the decade, twice as many Afghan civilians died from the war as did on September 11. In Iraq, in just 2006 alone, over 10 times as many Iraqi civilians died from the War as did on September 11. To name just a few of the crises caused by the wars by the end of the decade: Over 2.7 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes, Afghanistan’s opium production mushroomed into a $65 billion global black market industry, and over a thousand active-duty American soldiers had committed suicide. For this disastrous response to September 11, U.S. taxpayers had, by 2010, appropriated $1 trillion.

And this is all without mentioning the cultural perversions that arose domestically in response to 9/11, from the militarization of local police forces to the mainstreaming of meaningless propaganda phrases like “they hate us for our freedom” and “War on Terror”; from warrantless wiretapping to rampant Islamophobia; and from the “orange alerts” of the “terrorism threat advisory scale” to the glorification of torture on shows like 24.

In the middle of the decade, despite four years of endless talk about “homeland security,” we failed to adequately protect our homeland as Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans’ levees, flooding 80 percent of the city. The government evacuation plan made no provision for the quarter of New Orleanians without a car, leaving most of the city’s poor, elderly, and sick residents stranded. The Federal Emergency Management Agency—which was led at the time by a political appointee whose last major position was as Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association—was slow and disorderly: Hardly any of the resources offered by various mayors, governors and foreign leaders, for example, made it to the Gulf in time.   

The storm and its aftermath surfaced racist structures for the whole nation to see. The average white household in New Orleans was over twice as likely to have a car as the average black household. When survivors went looking for food in flooded supermarkets after the storm passed, they were said to be “finding” supplies if they were white, and “looting” supplies if they were black. Many tight-knit black communities, like those in the Lower Ninth Ward, were scattered by the storm—and didn’t have enough resources to reassemble. In an interview after Katrina, Rev. Jesse Jackson put bluntly what many black Americans were feeling: “We have an amazing tolerance for black pain.” When the floodwaters fully receded, 1,800 people had died. 

The following year, Al Gore’s climate change clarion call, An Inconvenient Truth, premiered in New York and Los Angeles. When asked about whether he would watch it, President George W. Bush—who had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol at the beginning of his administration—responded: “Doubt it.

Hardly any institution was immune from early-21st century scandal. In December 2007, Congress released the Mitchell Report, a 409-page investigation into widespread steroid use in baseball. Earlier that year, over a billion dollars in settlement pay-outs for endemic child sexual abuse by priests was agreed to by Roman Catholic Archdioceses across the country.   

And then, in 2008, came perhaps the greatest institutional failure of the decade: the global financial crisis. The crisis was like a jam-packed morality tale about institutional imprudence: a grand finale for the 2000s to demonstrate how all the excesses of the previous decades—from rampant deregulation to reckless Wall Street speculation; from corporate cronyism to predatory lending; from credit-fueled McMansion fever to blinkered economic ideology—would come back to bite us. But that bite, we came to see, would be borne not by the perpetrators of those excesses, but by ordinary Americans, as the Great Recession that followed led to the loss of millions of homes, millions of  jobs, and trillions of dollars in household wealth.

I share this all to say: Despite all the recent talk about the system collapsing in 2016, the reality is that it had already collapsed in the last decade. And that’s precisely why, by the end of the 2000s, so many of us were in such a mood for hope.

2. The Old Hope

At the dawn of the 2010s, a conventional wisdom was forming about the failures of the past decade. Even those most invested in the status quo—from elite professors to Washington power brokers to cable news talking heads—agreed that much had gone wrong in the 2000s. But this admission was often paired with an offering up of certain hopeful countertrends that were going to clean up the mess. TIME magazine’s final cover of the 2000s was emblematic: “The Decade from Hell…And why the next one will be better.” In the 2010s, we were told at the time, four saviors were here to rescue us.

The first would-be savior was technology

During the 2000s, while other systems were shocking us with their failures, Silicon Valley kept wowing us with its successes. In summer 2007, as the subprime mortgage crisis deepened and the President’s approval ratings lingered in the low-30s, Steve Jobs announced the launch of something that appeared to function very well: the iPhone. By October of that year, Facebook hit 50 million users after opening itself up beyond college campuses. A year prior, the verb “to Google” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The company behind the phrase had gone public two years earlier, declaring in its S-1 prospectus that their code of conduct was simply “Don’t be evil.” By 2010, Mark Zuckerberg was TIME’s Person of the Year—the cover dubbed him “The Connector.” And in 2011, when protesters used social media to topple Egyptian and Tunisian dictators, the traditional media declared the events “The Twitter Revolution.” 

But it wasn’t just the specific products and platforms that were going to save—it was the whole ethos of Silicon Valley. Pass any airport bookstore at the turn of the decade and you’d see it. There was Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody about how traditional organizational structures were going to be upended by Internet organizing. There was Jeff Jarvis’ What Would Google Do? about how everyone could emulate the search giant’s innovative company culture. There was Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup about how “today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation” to disrupt industries. 

Networks, innovation, startups, disruption—a new way of being, doing, and organizing was poised to spread beyond its California home, beyond the tech industry, to save America. 

The second would-be savior was experts.

Among 2000s liberals, the greatest knock on the Bush era was not its callousness, corruption or even hypocrisy—it was its ignorance. Collections of “Bushisms”—bungled Bush quotes (like “Rarely is the question asked: ‘Is our children learning?’”)—were all the rage. Jon Stewart rose to prominence on a form of comedy based in making clever quips about politicians sounding stupid. While speaking at a 2002 anti-war rally, Obama famously said that he was not opposed to the proposed invasion of Iraq because it was a war, but rather because it was “a dumb war… A war based not on reason but on passion.”

The turn of the decade, however, saw a growing enthusiasm for expertise. Despite constant laments about the spread of mindless reality TV and the shortening of our attention spans, TED Talks—20 minute videos in which experts shared their big ideas—reached one billion views by 2012. Pop academia—from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature; from Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics to Cass Sunstein’s Nudge—was all over the best-seller lists. Nate Silver was becoming a political media superstar and Paul Ryan was rising through the ranks of the Republican Party for being “numbers guys.” Phrases like “I’m not into ideology, just show me the data” were becoming commonplace (often with a side of: “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.”)

Now that the era of the “cowboy President” was over, the “best and the brightest” — with their big data, pop psychology and economics, “neutral” analysis, and statistically-validated best practices — were rising up to return experts to power.

The third would-be savior was youth demographics

After Obama won the 2008 election on a wave of youth enthusiasm, the talk of the town in Washington at the turn of the decade was about a rising “coalition of the ascendant”—the new American majority of people of color, secular liberals, and young people who would, according to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg at the time, constitute 63 percent of the electorate by 2016. The Millennials were different—we were more diverse, more tolerant, more science-based, and more progressive than our parents and grandparents. We got our news from The Daily Show and the internet—which engendered a healthy skepticism of the voices and forces that allowed the War in Iraq or Financial Crisis to happen. As we got older, the argument went, the political system would improve to adjust to us. Demographics were destiny.

The fourth would-be savior was bipartisanship

The Clinton impeachment in 1998, the disputed 2000 election, and the aggressive surfacing of the “religious vs. secular” divide by the Bush reelection campaign in 2004 had led, by the second half of the 2000s, to what could be called “culture war fatigue.” On cable news shows at the time, a surefire script for gaining affirming head nods and pats on the back was to decry the “partisan bickering” on “both sides.” 2010 saw the well-publicized launch of “No Labels”—a political organization dedicated to combating partisanship and ushering in “a new era of focused problem solving.” When the Tea Party protests raged in 2010, Tom Friedman called for “A Tea Party of the radical center” in the pages of the New York Times

It was in this spirit that Barack Obama rocketed to national fame. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” the Illinois state senator declared in the iconic line of his 2004 Democratic convention speech. “There’s the United States of America.” At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger—the Republican governor who believed in climate change and gay rights—and Michael Bloomberg the Republican mayor who believed in gun control—were held up as transpartisan models. It was going to be figures like them, we were told, who were going to solve the problems created in the last decade. 

What all four of these would-be saviors of the 2010s—technology, expertise, demographics, bipartisanship—had in common was that they promised progress without politics—without fights, without protest, without acrimony, without struggle. Faith in technology and expertise was about letting the whiz kids solve our problems—not in the rowdy streets or Congressional committee rooms, but in quiet laboratories and academic offices. Seeing demographics as destiny was about waiting around until generational change inevitably occurred. Bipartisanship was literally about suppressing our political divides. 

Given how anti-political this old hope was, it’s no wonder that the most popular quote at the turn of the decade was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It captured the spirit of the moment—hope in steady, inevitable progress. 

3. The Decade of Disappointment

It’s hard to look back on these hopes today, now that the decade is complete. As we know now, 10 years on: If the 2000s was the decade of the failed systems, the 2010s was the decade of the failed saviors. And if the 2000s was “The Fail Decade,” perhaps the proper name for the 2010s is—at least for those of us who placed some hope in these turn-of-the-decade white knights—“The Decade of Disappointment.”

The popular view of technology’s trajectory has almost completely inverted—from a Jetsons-like techno-utopianism to the dystopian horror of Black Mirror. Smartphones still have that magic quality they had 10 years ago, but now we all see it as a dark magic—an addictive allure that leads us to spend, on average, three hours a day craning our necks to stare at small screens. The open web of millions of quirky personal blogs and sites—the web you “surfed” in the 1990s and early 2000s—has been corporatized, sucked up by behemoths, and organized into antiseptic, algorithmic feeds. By 2018, Google had quietly removed the “don’t be evil” section from its Code of Conduct. With a quarter of the global population on Facebook, we are beginning to wonder whether it was wise to empower a single human “Connector” to decide the rules for a social network that can be used to sway elections, spread medical disinformation, and stoke genocide. And the Twitter revolution in Egypt? Millennial social media accounts may have helped oust an oppressive government, but it was the long-standing traditional social networks of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian army that controlled the aftermath—and re-established state repression. 

Pass any airport bookstore at the turn of this decade and you’ll still see books about Silicon Valley’s disruptive culture—but this time, they’re not paeans, but muckraking denunciations. There’s John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, about how Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes used classic Valley tropes—a college dropout “genius” with a Steve Jobs black turtleneck, a new technology shrouded in mystery, a cult-like company culture— to trick powerful figures into thinking she was about to disrupt global medicine. There’s Matt Stoller’s Goliath, about how the power of recent corporate titans often stems more from their monopolistic—rather than their innovative—practices. There’s Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped, about the dramatic story of Uber, the paradigmatic example of the modern disruption model—a mix of wage suppression, regulatory avoidance, bottomless VC subsidies, and, yes, an app.

Looking back from 2020, the idea of putting our faith in Silicon Valley to solve all of our public problems seems to have been at best misguided—and at worst, calamitous. 

In the 2010s, our faith in experts did not fare much better. TED Talk-like ideas are often met with eye rolls today, because so many of the clever proposals associated with pop expert culture turned out to be inflated—or just wrong. Microloans might help a little, but they’re not the solution to global poverty. Filling classrooms with shiny gadgets turns out to inhibit learning more than it helps. Teaching the unemployed to code does not solve the Great Recession. And broken windows policing causes much more damage than the problems it was supposed to fix.

The real transformative ideas of the 2010s were the simple ones—often proposed and enacted in defiance of the nuance-obsessed experts. Transferring money directly to the poor helps fight global poverty. Raising the minimum wage to $15—far beyond where centrist economists felt comfortable—helps fight domestic poverty. Increasing public investment—and ignoring national debt hysteria—helps boost the economy. Expanding Medicaid saves lives. Unions help raise wages and create more equitable workplaces. Food deserts can be filled by public grocery stores. As Jack Meserve put it in his popular 2017 Democracy Journal essay, the best political strategy is often to “keep it simple and take credit.”  

Youth demographics, we learned in 2016, were not destiny. It turns out that coalitions—no matter how “ascendant”—need to be maintained through routine organizing and engagement. The downballot collapse of the Democrats during the early 2010s cannot be overstated—during the Obama presidency, Democrats lost 11 Senate seats, 62 House seats, 12 governorships and 958 state legislature seats. By 2015, 70 percent of state legislatures and 60 percent of governorships were in Republican hands, leaving Republicans with unified “trifecta” control in 25 states.  

This failure of routine engagement left pivotal voters disastrously disengaged by the 2016 election. Though the media spent the election’s aftermath talking mostly about Obama-to-Trump voters, an equal, if not bigger, culprit of the 2016 debacle were Obama voters who stayed home or voted third party on Election Day. The election, for example, saw the first decline in black voter turnout in 20 years—and the Clinton campaign underperformed Obama’s 2012 vote share of union households by 10 points.

All the while, Republican leaders, wary of the ascendant coalition, worked to lock in their majorities while they still had them. Throughout the 2010s, they worked to make it harder to vote—shuttering campus polling stations, purging voter rolls, and spreading a myth of rampant voter fraud. They worked to gut campaign finance rules, allowing corporate and billionaire money to flood into races, big and small, across the country. They worked to gerrymander districts so as to limit minority representation. And they worked to pack the courts with judges committed to overturning the legislation this ascendant coalition might one day pass. They did not wait for the arc of the moral universe to bend in any inevitable direction—they bent it toward the direction they wanted.

And as a result, bipartisanship never arrived. As POLITICO’s Tim Alberta shows in American Carnage, his comprehensive account of the 2010s Republican party, Mitch McConnell’s central goal of the early Obama era was to break Obama’s post-partisan mystique. So while Obama extended olive branch after olive branch to conservatives—from filling the stimulus with tax cuts, to working on a “Grand Bargain” to cut entitlements, to building his health care bill around a market-based Heritage Foundation proposal tested by a Republican governor, to nominating centrist Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court—McConnell and the Senate Republicans responded with unfailing resistance.

In parallel, while Obama attempted to bridge cultural divides—carefully watching his words in every public utterance to ensure he was not alienating American conservatives—right-wing media responded by painting him as a fringe radical foreigner set on destroying the American way of life. By the end of his term, polls showed that about half of Republicans believed that Obama was not born in the United States—and that “deep down,” Obama, an avowed Christian, was a Muslim.

Faith in elite bipartisanship never panned out—and the time and energy wasted pursuing it left a vacuum for worse divides to fester. By 2017, as President Obama was succeeded by President Trump, even the idea of a simple “Red America” and “Blue America” divide started looking good compared to the more explicit divide Trump was drawing: between “White America” and everyone else.

I share this not to say that there is no use for technology, expertise, demographic anticipation, or bipartisanship. Of course there is. In fact, perhaps the brightest spot of the past decade was helped in part by all four of these would-be saviors. Right in the middle year of the disappointing 2010s, Silicon Valley donors, YouTube videos of young people sharing their coming-out stories, generational shifts in morality, teams of legal experts, and bipartisan powerbrokers—among many other forces—did their part to push marriage equality for millions of LGBT Americans over the finish line.

But the case of gay marriage appears to be the exception that proves the rule, in the sense that it’s so often cited as the solitary example of 2010s political progress, the lone, shining star in the decade’s night sky.

Almost every other example of problems and challenges from the failed 2000s have not been ameliorated in the 2010s. This past decade, there have been multiple Columbines every year. Despite the efforts to end the Electoral College after 2000, we didn’t—and, as a result, another President lost the popular vote and won the White House. Iraq and Afghanistan are no more stable than they were 20 years ago—and in late 2018, the death toll from the invasions reached almost half a million people. Though the worst of the post-9/11 “homeland security” fever has subsided some, the practical effects of the era—from dragnet surveillance to militarized police to the flippant use of the word “terrorist”—linger. The Republican Party remains in lockstep against joining global efforts to fight climate change—even as another Katrina-like catastrophe, complete with a racist federal response and an even higher death toll, occurred with Hurricane Maria in 2017. And though the stock market and unemployment rate show a full recovery from the Great Recession, the tens of millions of Americans who were forced to trade owning a house for renting, high-wage jobs for low-wage precarity, and vibrant communities for cored-out ones don’t feel recovered at all. 

And so, many of us end this decade—a decade that began with such civic hope—completely hopeless. And to those who feel this way, it’s an especially dark type of civic despair—not the shocking despair of the system failing (like last decade), but the low, dull, simmering despair of the system failing, followed by having hope that something will fix the system, followed by having that hope dashed, as everything repeats itself, only each time getting worse and worse.

4. The New Hope

But this is not the only story of the decade. This level of civic despair is felt mostly by those still invested in the hopes of 10 years ago. The people most deflated right now are those who held on the longest to the old saviors—those who thought progress was inevitable, because that is what they were told.

Fortunately, there was a countercurrent present in the 2010s—it was present right from the beginning and it grew each year. It was a countercurrent of Americans who peeled off from the faithful, who started looking skeptically at the would-be saviors, and who lived by a different King quote: “Progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”  It was a countercurrent of citizens who gave up on the old hope—and in doing so, freed themselves to take up new kinds of action. 

While others waited for change to arrive, a ragtag group of anarchists kicked off the decade by occupying Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Declaring themselves “the 99 percent,” they refused to follow the cookie-cutter issue-advocacy model, choosing instead to hold space—literally—for more imaginative visions of what democracy could look like. As their model synapsed across the globe, they returned economic policy to the center of American politics, networked together a new generation of activists, put Wall Street billionaires on watch, and even forgave tens of millions of dollars of debt in a “rolling jubilee.”

In time, figures would arise to pair Occupy ideals with concrete ideas and institutions. A folksy law professor from Oklahoma, Elizabeth Warren, would ride the populist insurgency to a Senate seat—one she would use to challenge the corporate-friendly orthodoxy of Obama administration whiz kids like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. Two activist lawyers, Lawrence Lessig and Zephyr Teachout, would help revive the campaign to get money out of politics, shooting democracy reform to the top of the Democratic Party’s congressional agenda by the end of the decade. A soft-spoken Argentine Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio, would ascend to the leadership of the world’s largest church—and use his newfound platform as pope to condemn the “thirst for power and possessions” caused by an “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

Two years into the decade, while the Obama economic team was floating a modest raise in the minimum wage to $9, a group of fast food workers demanded more. A week after Thanksgiving 2012, 100 or so McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut workers in New York City walked off their jobs. Their demand: $15 an hour and a union. Their “Fight for $15” would spread across the country, leading dozens of cities and states to dramatically raise their minimum wages, pushing a $15 minimum wage onto the Democratic platform, and loosening the economic profession’s enforced timidity around bold economic policy.

That same year, 25,000 teachers in Chicago, dressed in matching red, went on strike against the corporate-driven education reform agenda being implemented by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In 2018, West Virginia teachers followed suit, in defiance of a state ban on teacher strikes. The “Red for Ed” wave spread to Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles, winning pay raises for millions of teachers, turning the tide on austerity- and standardized test-based education policy, and dealing a blow to the decades-long, right-wing propaganda campaign against public schools and their teachers. By the end of the decade, you can’t open a newspaper without a new story about workers who are, in the words of organizer Jane McAlevey, “raising expectations and raising hell.” 

Almost three years after Occupy, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a group of ordinary citizens would again take to the streets, demanding not just a specific reform, but a whole new civic paradigm—one in which black lives matter. They would not rest until names like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice were acknowledged and remembered across the country. By the end of the 2016 election, no Democrat could run for office without being accountable to their movement—and many white liberals were forcibly awoken from the delusion that electing the first black President was the denouement of American racial injustice. 

And again, figures would arise throughout the decade who would help extend and develop the protesters’ message. There was the hard-boiled Baltimore writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who beat the drum against the respectability politics of “pull up your pants” scolds like Bill Cosby, reminding readers week after week about the debilitating, lingering thievery of American white supremacy. There was the visionary Ohio State law professor, Michelle Alexander, who would recast mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow” in what would become the most influential book of the past quarter-century. There was the public defender and movement lawyer, Larry Krasner, whose election to Philadelphia District Attorney would help inspire a wave of public defenders—from Tiffany Cabán in New York to Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Virginia to Chesa Boudin in California to work to decarcerate America from the inside. And there was the class of young directors—from Ava DuVernay to Jordan Peele to Ryan Coogler to Barry Jenkins—who would storm Hollywood to bring black stories to wider audiences. 

While all eyes were fixed on the wheelings and dealings of media and technology moguls—from Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post to the Trumpification of Roger Ailes’ Fox News empire—thousands of hobbyists, tinkerers, and amateurs spent the 2010s building up an alternate media ecosystem. Instead of disrespecting their followers with dumbed-down clickbait and targeted ads, they built online communities through in-depth essays, podcasts and YouTube videos, supplemented by Facebook groups and subreddits—and often all paid for by the communities themselves. 

There were podcasters, Youtubers and twitchstreamers— from Chapo Trap House to Struggle Session to ContraPoints—who would break establishment taboos to show a new generation no-holds-barred versions of left-wing ideas. There were the scrappy magazines, like Jacobin and Current Affairs, that would begin to build an intellectual infrastructure for the decade’s insurgent movements. There were the niche ideological communities—from Front Porch Republic for localism to the Platform Cooperativism Consortium for democratizing tech platforms; from Solidarity Hall for Christian economics to the Modern Money Network for monetary theory—that arose to incubate and evangelize transformative ideas.

To keep up with this alternative ecosystem, new establishment media ventures improved on their predecessors. Compare the Washington Post’s editorial board, the gatekeeper of the Boomer Washington consensus, to commentary in Vox, the gatekeeper of the Millennial Washington consensus—it’s night and day. And thanks to the launch of the the Intercept, it’s unlikely there will be another drumbeat to war without a vigorous check from at least one major media publication. And when they were not busy unionizing their newsrooms, the next generation of digital journalists coming up through the old institutions—a generation raised on Gawker—spent the 2010s fighting back against the tepid, faux-neutral, “view from nowheresmarm that defined too much of the past decades’ reporting.  

Of special note was the online feminist writing of the 2010s. In thousands of dueling blog posts and conversational news cycles, the “consciousness-raising” circles of the second-wave feminists were recreated in a third-wave digital form, giving politicized names to the shared struggles of Millennial women. In the 2010s, millions of Americans learned about mansplaining, manspreading, manels, “nice guys,” micro-aggressions, ghosting, gaslighting, rape culture, misogynoir, and, of course, #MeToo—and, in doing so, the culture was forever changed.   

As a result, by the time the Trump “grab them by the pussy” tape and Harvey Weinstein scandals broke, the culture was primed to turn tragedy into action. Women and allies on hundreds of campuses forced university administrators to modernize their sexual assault prevention and response programs. Ai-Jen Poo and the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance helped introduce bills of rights in legislatures across the country for the protection of home care work—one of the most dangerous, exploited, and predominantly-female jobs. Hundreds of serial harassers in positions of power across media, industry, and government were ousted and replaced by women. And millions of moms, in hundreds of Indivisible groups, powered the on-the-ground resistance to the Trump administration, helping elect, in 2018, the most diverse Congress ever.

On a cloudy Thursday in late April 2015, in a sparsely attended press conference on the lawn outside the Capitol, a curmudgeonly Vermont socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent announced he was running for President. His campaigns’ goals: reducing income inequality, tackling climate change, and getting money out of politics. In an election that was predicted to pit two dynastic political families against each other, Senator Bernie Sanders gave the Clinton machine a run for their money, winning 23 states, earning 43 percent of the vote, and raising $185 million.

While doing so, Sanders pried open areas of American politics that had been left closed for decades. He traded the “can’t we all just get along” tone of the past decade of Democratic politics for full-throated reprisals of the “millionaires and billionaires” that were hurting the American people. He popularized Medicare for All and free college, helping raise Americans’ expectations for what they can demand from their government. At the beginning of his campaign, “socialist” was an epithet—by the end, it was the dominant ideology of the next generation

The Sanders campaign prepared the soil for dozens of bold organizations to flourish in the late 2010s. During and after the election, the Democratic Socialists of America increased 10-fold, growing into an effective organization for channeling the young left’s online anger into real-world action. The Justice Democrats arose to bring Sanders’ model of primarying establishment Democrats to Congressional races. Beating wonky naysayers at their own game, Data for Progress perfected a model of using polling data to show that bold, progressive positions are often, in fact, the “centrist” opinion of the American people.

Similarly, a new generation of bold policy wonks arose in the wake of the Sanders campaign. There was Rhiana Gunn-Wright and Abdul El-Sayed, who used a gubernatorial election in Michigan to spotlight what bold 21st century state policy could look like. There’s Matt Stoller and Lina Khan, who used concerns about the growing power of modern tech behemoths to revive anti-monopoly policy, an American tradition that had laid dormant for decades. And when Matt Bruenig was pushed out of his Washington think tank job for a rogue tweet, he turned around and created the first Patreon-funded think tank, the People’s Policy Project, to flesh out what bolder anti-poverty policy could look like. 

While the old hope’s faithful preached patience, the whole countercurrent—from the campaigns to the protests to the projects—pulsed with an urgency that grew with each passing year. “If not now, when?” takes on a deeper meaning in the age of climate catastrophe. And the new generation coming up in the 2010s—Generation Z—felt this urgency the strongest. 

And so, when the Dakota Access Pipeline was set to pass near tribal land and water, it was a group of young people in the Standing Rock tribe and surrounding Native communities who decided to fight back. It was young college students who spearheaded the fossil fuel divestment movement on campuses across the country. And in November 2018, it was the young activists of the Sunrise Movement who sat in at soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding a Green New Deal. 

Joining them in their protest, against the advice of her superiors to lay low in her first year in office, was a freshman Congresswoman-elect from Queens. The 28-year-old bartender probably felt comfortable ignoring the advice of her superiors, because ignoring establishment advice had served her well this past decade. If she had listened to them, she probably wouldn’t have volunteered for Bernie Sanders in 2016—he was a long shot, after all. If she had listened to them, she probably wouldn’t have ran for Congress against a party leader in 2018—it was political suicide. If she had listened to them, she probably wouldn’t have spoken her mind as much as she did in her campaign—best not to sound too “out there.”

But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t listen to them. And as a result, in a perfect twist of fate, the turn-of-the-decade pundits might turn out to be right—for it happens to be a tech-savvy, policy-minded, Hispanic millennial with a knack for reaching across the aisle who indeed might end up saving us after all.

But if she does, it won’t be in the way the pacifying pundits had imagined. The posters of the Ocasio-Cortez era would never say “HOPE” on them. They would say “Abolish ICE!” Or “Medicare for All!” or “Green New Deal!”—not calls to hope, but calls to action.

Because perhaps the only message Ocasio-Cortez internalized from the old saviors was something oft-repeated by the man on the HOPE poster, the man whose campaign she volunteered for, like so many of the rest of us, in 2008: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change that we seek.”

And so, after all that has happened, it might be hard to believe, but, to me, the word of the moment at the beginning of the 2020s is still “hope.” But this time around, it’s a deeper, weightier, more energizing hope — hope cultivated not by our anticipation, but by our work.


Photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez provides aid and comfort to Sunrise Movement protesters occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office.

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