A decade is an arbitrary 10-year span, especially since people can’t even agree on when this decade ends: with the arrival of 2020 or 2021? Still, it’s a good moment to take stock.
For the West, this decade marked the end of the post-Cold War triumph of liberalism — the belief in economic and individual freedom balanced by welfare programs and regulation at home, and support for a “liberal world order” abroad. In a way, the stage for the end of liberalism was set in the late 2000s by the financial crisis and the failure of nation-building in Iraq. But the full consequences became evident several years later.
By the end of the 2010s, much of the West was consumed by right-wing populist fever — with the ostensible leader of the free world as populist-in-chief — with a radical socialist revival underway on the left.
This decade also saw an unprecedented rise of identity politics, in the United States and in many other Western countries. The intense focus on racism that began with the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 addressed some real issues. But it also turned into a zealotry that often ignored facts, assigned collective guilt, and inflated trivial offenses. Talk of “whiteness” and “white privilege” became mainstreamed.
Gender politics followed the same trajectory, from valid concerns to polarizing rhetoric of “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity.”
Moreover, thanks to the social media explosion and the spread of technology that made it easy to capture and share videos, progressive identity politics became wedded to “attack now, check later” public shaming of perceived bigots.
The emergence of white — and white male — identity politics toward the decade’s end, culminating in the election of Donald Trump, was certainly not just a backlash against the excesses of progressivism. However, when racial and gender labeling is normalized and the stigma of racism is diluted by trivial accusations, this ultimately plays into the hands of the far right.
It is not an accident that as the decade of tribalism comes to an end, we see the comeback of violent anti-Semitism, now even in America, perpetrated by extremists of all stripes.
If we continue down this path in the 2020s, the future is grim. Optimists point to the good things that are being overlooked, including progress in medicine and in fighting poverty. But without a return of true liberalism, no gains are secure.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.