Looking back at the 2020s from our vantage point in 2030, the first great event was the complete destruction of Donald Trump’s Republican Party. As the former Republican consultant Mike Murphy had noticed, there were roughly 300 state and federal elections during the Trump years and Republicans did horribly in most of them. The 2020 vote was a continuation of that trend. Trump’s landslide defeat left him humiliated, and the Republicans lost their Senate majority.
Trump cried fraud and tried to whip up his followers, but they turned their backs. He went from idol to scapegoat in an instant. It seemed they could forgive him everything but losing. Many temporarily retreated from political life, the way evangelical Christians did after the ignominy of the Scopes trial.
President Joe Biden faced an interesting dynamic in his party. The political power was with moderates. The intellectual power was with the left. People of color, whose views were largely more moderate, became the crucial swing faction.
As president, Biden resisted the interest groups that wanted him to address health care first. Instead, he did child and earned-income tax credits, infrastructure, expanded early childhood education, expanded prison reform, and so on — what some writers called “reparations by any other name.” He gave regulatory czar Elizabeth Warren a special portfolio to take on Big Tech.
The major events of the decade were cultural, not political. The Trump era had witnessed a crisis of connection at the bottom of society and a crisis of authority at the top. Social repair was the top order of the day once a new president took office.
The first whiff of the cultural restoration was the “Accountability Clubs” that spread across the nation’s campuses. College students realized that America stinks at accountability. Either there is no accountability (Wall Street after the financial crisis) or people have their lives destroyed for a “problematic” tweet.
The Accountability Clubs bore the motto “Truth and Mercy.” Students wanted to restore a culture in which facts mattered. They were also searching for a way to judge others in a graduated and humane manner, allowing for repentance, forgiveness and restoration. Marshall McLuhan once remarked that “moral indignation is a technique used to endow an idiot with dignity.” Suddenly indignation, the keystone emotion of the Trump years, was lame. Empathy made a comeback.
The second cultural trend of the decade was the rise of the urban church. Suburban megachurch attendance fell, because the pastors had disgraced themselves under Trump. But suddenly there was a surge in church plants in places like Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco, as highly educated people found homes for their spiritual longings.
The churches were liturgically highly charismatic (Bethel music) and highly universalistic and intellectual (Richard Rohr). Their politics were an odd mix — pro-LGBTQ, pro-life, active on climate change, pro-animal rights (one of the signature moral causes of the decade). The religious left gained on the religious right.
At the same time, the racial justice conversation went intimate. America is involved in a multigenerational process of truth and reconciliation. In the teens, the truth-telling had generally revolved around historic events — slavery, lynching, redlining. In the 2020s, a series of writers, artists and directors gave us vivid descriptions of the subtleties of contemporary black life.
The profusion of video streaming networks allowed a new generation of artists to take audiences inside the psychological lives of people of color. These artists realized that structural change would happen when people learned to see one another whole.
The most important cultural change came to be known as the Civic Renaissance. During the first two decades of the century, hundreds of thousands of new civic organizations came into being — healing political divides, fighting homelessness, promoting social mobility and weaving communities. But these organizations were small. They did not grow into the big national chapter-based structures that had repaired America’s social fabric a century earlier — the YMCA, the Rotary, the Boy Scouts.
By the 2020s, philanthropists and community builders realized the only way to change culture and weave the social fabric was by creating an AFL-CIO of civil society, with big national voices and large, decentralized national organizations so that people across America had easy and practical pathways to get involved in community revival.
In the 2010s, it seemed like the liberal order was cracking up. In the 2020s, that feeling vanished. The decline of the Chinese economy delegitimized the authoritarian model. It turns out you can’t run a centrally controlled economy without a lot of waste, corruption and riot police.
Meanwhile, the American political system began to work better. The GOP re-emerged under Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio as a better version of a working-class party — socially right, economically left. Democrats remained dominant through the decade. Their party’s biggest accomplishment was in foreign affairs — the repair of America’s alliances and the restoration of global American leadership.
Americans were more collaborative in the 2020s. And the New York Mets won the World Series every single year.