There is a widespread consensus that the decade we've just brought to a close was singularly disastrous for the country: the list of scandals, crises and crimes is so long that events that in another context would stand out as genuine lowlights--Enron and Arthur Andersen's collapse, the 2003 Northeast blackout, the unsolved(!) anthrax attacks--are mere afterthoughts. We still don't have a definitive name for this era, though Paul Krugman's 2003 book The Great Unraveling captures well the sense of slow, inexorable dissolution; and the final crisis of the era, what we call the Great Recession, similarly expresses the sense that even our disasters aren't quite epic enough to be cataclysmic. But as a character in Tracy Letts's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, says, "Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm."
American progressives were the first to identify that something was deeply wrong with the direction the country was heading in and the first to provide a working hypothesis for the cause: George W. Bush. During the initial wave of antiwar mobilization, in 2002, much of the ire focused on Bush himself. But as the decade stretched on, the causal account of the country's problems grew outward in concentric circles: from Bush to his administration (most significantly, Cheney) to the Republican Party to--finally (and not inaccurately)--the entire project of conservative governance.
As much of the country came to share some version of this view (tenuously, but share it they did), the result was a series of Democratic electoral sweeps and a generation of Americans, the Millennials, with more liberal views than any of their elder cohorts. But it always seemed possible that the sheer reactionary insanity of the Bush administration would have a conservatizing effect on the American polity. Because things had gone so wrong, it was a more than natural reaction to long for the good old days; the Clinton years, characterized by deregulation and bubbles, seemed tantalizingly placid and prosperous in retrospect. The atavistic imperialism of the Bush administration had a way of making the pre-Bush foreign policy of soft imperialism and subtle bullying look positively saintly.
Toward the end of the decade, as the establishment definitively rebuked Bush and sought to distance itself from his failures, the big-tent center-left coalition took on an influential constituency--the Colin Powells and Warren Buffetts--who didn't want reform so much as they wanted restoration. This was reflected in a strange internal tension in the Obama campaign rhetoric that simultaneously promised both: change you can believe in and, as Obama said at a March 2008 appearance in Pennsylvania, a foreign policy that is "actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush's father."
If the working hypothesis that bound this unwieldy coalition together--independents, most liberals and the Washington establishment--was that the nation's troubles were chiefly caused by the occupants of the White House, then this past year has served as a kind of natural experiment. We changed the independent variable (the party and people in power) and can observe the results. It is hard, I think, to come to any conclusion but that the former hypothesis was insufficient.
So what, exactly, is it that ails us?
In pondering the answer, it's useful to distinguish between two separate categories of problems we face. The first are the human, economic and ecological disasters that demand immediate action: a grossly inefficient healthcare sector, millions un- or underinsured, 10 percent unemployment, a planet that's warming, soaring personal bankruptcies, 12 million immigrants working in legal limbo, the list goes on. But the deeper problem, the ultimate cause of many of the first-order problems, is the perverse maldistribution of power in the country: too much in too few hands. It didn't happen overnight, of course, and the devolution has been analyzed and decried by a host of writers and thinkers in these very pages.
It's also not the first time. Indeed, the story of the American Republic is the never-ending task of redistributing power that always seems to collect and pool and re-form, a cycle in which we break up the power trusts, only to find them reassembling, Terminator 2-like, and requiring yet another dose of the founders' revolutionary fervor to be broken up again.
The central and unique paradox of our politics at this moment, however, is that our institutions are so broken, the government so sclerotic and dysfunctional, that in almost all cases, from financial bailouts to health insurance mandates, the easiest means of addressing the first set of problems is to take steps that exacerbate the second.