Revisiting 2006: The Year America Went Crazy

President George Bush welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao during a White House ceremony, April 20, 2006. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
Our current crack-up started twelve years ago.

America’s political and cultural meltdown is a product of recent memory. The crack-up had its genesis in 2006.

That year is close enough to 2018 that it remains unembellished by nostalgia, invented memories, and filtered photos. Then as now, Americans digested social change, rapid globalization, shifting demographics, and Big Tech’s rising omnipotence. The attendant discord expressed itself through mass rallies, saturated media fights, and electoral politics. In retrospect, it was either America’s last languid year or the beginning of its vertiginous course into an unknown future. As the tension fueling this summer intensifies, it’s worth revisiting 2006 for perspective.

The topics shaping 2018 — from immigration and protectionism to privacy and midterm elections — enraptured the masses in 2006. A coroner would report 2006 as the start of society’s decomposition. Communication technologies began incubating pernicious mobs, with outrage now serving as social media’s precious commodity.

It was the year when Twitter hatched, Facebook went mainstream, and Google snapped up YouTube. BlackBerries distracted the mind with emails and Web browsing, Razr phones wearied thumbs with T9 predictive texting, and iPods remained an essential workout accessory. Androids and iPhones had yet to overwhelm dopamine levels with pixelated screens. It was a year before Amazon unleashed the Kindle, making Borders a suburban mausoleum for books and magazines.

In 2006, previously nonpartisan cable-news networks, cognizant of the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, retired their objectivity in favor of tendentious commentary. CNN’s ratings improved when it addressed issues resonating with America’s heartland, from its series on “Broken Government” to segments on illegal immigration. Lou Dobbs presided over the network’s rendezvous with populism, hosting a show that questioned unfettered capitalism, open borders, and corporate America’s ties to “Communist China.” Dobbs railed against both parties, delineating how the elected and unelected elite failed working Americans in his book, War on the Middle Class.

While Dobbs read America’s political tea leaves, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann presented his snarky countdown to solemn “special comments.” Of course, if viewers desired a respite from the nightly news, they could tune into NBC’s The Apprentice. Donald Trump’s show remained popular with a cross-section of Americans. Its fifth season featured the debut of Trump’s children, Ivanka and Don Jr., as boardroom judges.

The Iraq War, however, remained America’s unhealing wound. The irresolvable venture ultimately proved fatal for Republicans. While the GOP confronted predicaments in the Middle East, concerns like immigration reform, U.S. port interests, and Asia created internal divisions.

Early that year, Dubai Ports World — a state-owned Dubai company — sought to manage terminal operations at six U.S. ports. The proposed sale, supported by President Bush, sparked media outrage and criticism from members of Congress. Republicans and Democrats, just five years after September 11, grew leery of foreign investment on national-security grounds. An increasingly globalized economy left Americans questioning the implications of such a deal. But the company had its defenders, with writers criticizing protectionist moves, fearing for America’s image abroad, and lamenting the precedent set by the controversy. By December, DP World announced that an American owner had acquired the U.S. port operations. Following the transaction, Bush signed a bill that required greater scrutiny by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (Cfius) of foreign direct investments (FDI).

The bill was timely, passing just as the U.S. became the world’s largest recipient of FDI. In 2006, China drew a record $63 billion in FDI, the country’s fairly recent entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) proving fruitful. But China also received increasing scrutiny for its trade and military practices. The U.S. gradually discovered that China disregarded democracy and economic liberalization as WTO membership benefits. Prior to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s visit to Beijing that December, the Bush administration released a report accusing Chinese leaders of failing to meet WTO commitments. China neither opened its economy nor ended its piracy of technology, pharmaceuticals, and other goods.

During this period, Robert D. Kaplan wrote a cover story for The Atlantic, arguing that America’s contest with China in the Pacific would define the 21st century. Kaplan warned that China would have military advantages over the U.S. in the Pacific. He also observed China’s increasing “soft” power, with its investments in the Panama Canal zone and African nations. “Pulsing with consumer and martial energy, and boasting a peasantry that, unlike others in history, is overwhelmingly literate, China constitutes the conventional threat to America’s liberal imperium,” wrote Kaplan.

In November, disaffected voters from both parties responded to the Iraq War, corruption scandals, and socioeconomic angst by delivering a sweeping congressional victory to Democrats.

National-security concerns were not limited to U.S. ports or China. In 2006, America’s southern border with Mexico exploded into a polarizing debate. According to Customs and Border Protection, there had been over 1 million arrests of illegal immigrants in the border area during the previous year. Congress attempted, but failed, to devise a response to the border’s challenges. The House and Senate, along with the Bush administration, sought to defuse the issue through “comprehensive immigration reform.”

A House bill, passed in December 2005, would have made illegal presence in the U.S. a felony. By the spring, protesters flooded city streets nationwide to oppose the bill. But government officials, especially at the local level, grew increasingly frustrated with federal inaction on enforcement measures. In the summer, Bush deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the border. This deployment didn’t satisfy local governments, which embraced ordinances intended to discourage illegal immigration. As the midterms approached, Congress managed to pass only one bill — the “Secure Fence Act,” which authorized the construction of up to 700 miles of fencing along the border. The bill also permitted the creation of a virtual fence. The impasse only intensified resentment among Dobbs’s viewership, which derided the “virtual” solution to a physical border.

The Bush administration’s virtual approach to national security raised troubling questions. In August, a federal judge ruled that the administration’s eavesdropping program was illegal and unconstitutional. The ruling, which was dismissed in 2007 by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, raised questions about privacy and personal liberties during the post-9/11 era. While the media focused on warrantless wiretapping, individuals’ privacy faded on technology platforms. This erasure remained a distant concern and overlooked cultural phenomenon.

In November, disaffected voters from both parties responded to the Iraq War, corruption scandals, and socioeconomic angst by delivering a sweeping congressional victory to Democrats. The party, which regained Congress for the first time since 1994, picked up Senate seats in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Reagan Democrats had returned to their political womb. Among the victors were Virginia’s Jim Webb, who called for economic fairness, and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who carried the state’s working-class counties. It appeared that Rahm Emanuel’s strategy — matching candidates to their districts — proved a winning formula.

In the New York Times, Jacob S. Hacker heralded the Democrats’ reunion with middle-income voters who’d previously abandoned the party. “Middle-class voters didn’t rush to the Democrats despite all the populist campaign messages, but — in large part — because of them,” wrote Hacker. Noting the rise of the “Office-Park Populist,” Hacker warned that middle-class voters, including well-educated workers, were at much greater risk of economic reversals. Their misfortune detonated with the recession a year later, creating a sustained disgust that continues to haunt both parties.

As one reviews the 2006 almanac, the modern national climate feels inevitable. For twelve years, a collective failure has lingered. The concerns, grudges, and regrets of that period remain unresolved. In retrospect, perhaps it was all foreordained. The world is more interconnected than ever. A global, tech-driven economy leaves many regions in intensive care. These heartland communities produced soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan, endured the recession’s devastation, and witnessed the changes in America’s social fabric. Their preoccupied voters remain socially and politically disenfranchised.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg TV, Allstate Corp. CEO Tom Wilson warned that artificial intelligence will hit the service economy “like a tsunami.” According to McKinsey & Co., more than 400 million people worldwide could be searching for employment by 2030 because of AI. This does not portend a favorable result for the “Office-Park Populists” who flocked to Democrats in 2006 and embraced Trump’s presidency a decade later.

Democrats believe the congressional map is in their favor for this year’s midterm election. But Emanuel’s playbook, like Bill Clinton’s warnings in 2016, is ignored by party strategists. Identity politics, a ubiquitous term but a real concept, places Democrats at a disadvantage. Districts that favored Trump in 2016 will not likely flock to the opposing party in November.

Democrats’ rhetoric on immigration, meanwhile, has dramatically evolved since 2006. There was a time when leading Democrats could embrace immigration while supporting enforcement of existing laws. But the immigration debate is far more visceral than it was in 2006, with social-media-driven protests making the subject raw and divisive. And yet the outcome is likely the same, with “comprehensive immigration reform” going nowhere, a series of immigration bills remaining in limbo, and a proposed border wall becoming the only tangible subject before the midterms. State and local governments, just like 2006, will bear the cost of this inertia.

Cable-news programs, in full op-ed mode, have turned reporting into a post-apocalyptic marathon of breaking news. Distracted Americans now stream YouTube clips of viral brawls on their iPhones while jumping from Twitter to Facebook apps. They are cutting the cord to expensive digital cable boxes, likely installed in their homes during the mid 2000s. A federal judge’s recent approval of AT&T’s merger with Time Warner will further disrupt media consumption.

Privacy is the casualty of this transformed landscape. Earlier this year, Americans briefly questioned the scandalous practices of Big Tech following Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. In 2006, the Bush administration was forced to answer for its warrantless wiretapping. In 2018, monopolistic tech and media companies have turned dopamine-addled Americans into commodities for advertisers. Information sharing scandals will persist and consumer protections will increase. But privacy remains endangered.

Hit the rewind button to 2006 for clarity about America’s present direction.

America’s Big Tech faces its own challenges with China’s rise. As the White House wages battles against China’s trade practices and intellectual property theft, Silicon Valley is fighting a Cold War for global tech supremacy. “Tech dominance will be how the U.S. and China establish political and economic influence over the rest of the world,” wrote CNN’s Dylan Byers in a recent Pacific newsletter. “The lines of the new geopolitical map will be drawn by tech companies, on a country-by-country basis.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has attempted to moderate Trump’s protectionist approach against China. In late June, the administration backtracked its plan to impose new restrictions on Chinese investment in the U.S. Trump has signaled support for a bipartisan congressional effort to broaden governmental reviews of foreign investments based on national security. The legislative move would empower Cfius, the same authority that expanded after the DP World fiasco.

For now, the nation’s mood remains dictated by the host of a hit television show in 2006. A cable-news host, Lou Dobbs, presciently outlined the frustrations of the future Trump base during that era. As the Daily Beast reported in April, he has been patched in via speakerphone to Trump’s Oval Office meetings.

To scroll through the Drudge Report this summer is to relive the feverish tension of that year. The economy, as then, appears healthy. But fears of another recession are slowly brewing. Credit-card debt surpassed $1 trillion in 2017. The middle class could once again face a fiscal tsunami.

Hit the rewind button to 2006 for clarity about America’s present direction. To paraphrase Gnarls Barkley’s hit song from that year, it helps us remember when the nation went crazy.

Charles F. McElwee — Charles F. McElwee is a writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania. He has also written for City Journal, The Atlantic, The American Conservative, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

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