If the 1990s were the decade when history ended, in Francis Fukuyama’s famous formulation, the 2000s were the decade it came back and human nature exacted its revenge for our fatuousness.
The 1990s were prefaced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an exhilarating burst of liberty for tens of millions. In the 2000s, Russia backslid into a sullen authoritarianism, and the initially stirring liberations of Iraq and Afghanistan proved more inconclusive than advertised.
Major institutions in American life took a battering. The “voice of God” role of the network-news anchor effectively ended when Dan Rather immolated himself with his fake Bush draft story. The Catholic Church was caught covering for priests who had abused young people. Baseball players cheated on a vast scale — the names McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds secured in infamy alongside “Shoeless” Joe Jackson — and the league looked the other way.
Corporate America bookended the decade with the tech and the financial bubbles, giving us Ken Lay and Richard Fuld as corporate anti-heroes. A supposed pillar of the New York financial community, Bernie Madoff, turned out to be the rankest crook. The great authorities of the 1990s boom, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, were diminished in the bust of the late 2000s.
Two of the Big Three car companies, Chrysler and General Motors, went on the federal dole. The highly touted financial industry — its titans once the subject of worshipful coverage in business magazines — nearly died in the fall of 2008, brought to the brink by its own folly. The Dow started the decade at 10,000 and ended the decade right back at 10,000.
If New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani captured the can-do spirit of the 1990s by taming the ungovernable city, California was the representative jurisdiction of the 2000s, sinking under its special-interest politics, hostile business environment, and debt.
Under old management (the DeLay Republicans) or new (the Pelosi Democrats), Congress stuffed itself with pork and earned the low esteem in which the public held it. The Congress of the 1990s balanced the budget and passed one of the most successful social reforms in decades, welfare reform. The current iteration of Congress is ladling on the debt and is on the verge of passing an ungainly, poorly financed health-care bill that won’t reduce costs or improve care.
Yes, the 2000s had its heroes. The firefighters running into burning buildings on 9/11. The troops fighting our wars. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger landing in the Hudson. But a motto of the decade could have been “put your faith not in men.” A paragon of probity as unassailable as Tiger Woods could be exposed as something entirely different within the space of a few days.
We ran into limits, and constant warnings against excess and enthusiasms. A great human contrivance like New Orleans could nearly drown under the fury of nature. Even the best-intentioned of projects, like the seemingly unobjectionable bipartisan goal of increasing homeownership, could backfire horribly. Wielding a might unparalleled in human history, we could topple tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq with relative ease, but putting those societies back together again would tax us to the breaking point.
The 2000s didn’t feature the convulsive internal shocks of the 1960s or the crisis atmosphere of the 1970s, when the Soviets were on the march and the economy was stuck in a stagflationary gear. But a drip-drip of disappointments made it a decade of disillusion. No wonder the national mood is characterized by doubt and anxiety, and — on the right, left, and in between — a bristling populist spirit distrustful of established authority.
Through democratic accountability, the rigors of the market, and the wide latitude that liberty provides for individual initiative, the American system has always reinvigorated itself. It will again — provided we don’t block the wellsprings of renewal with an administrative state operating outside democratic consent, an increasingly politicized economy, and burdensome taxation and regulation. Then, we’ll have cause to look back on the 2000s fondly.