Few decades acquire a lasting nickname like the Roaring Twenties or Swinging Sixties. But if I had to give a moniker to the decade just past, it would be the Terrible Tens.
I don’t mean that everything that’s happened since 2010 is awful. Any decade that saw both the underdog Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals win the World Series — and a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers become a megahit — can’t be all bad. There is much to be said, too, for a decade that began with the death of one terrorist mastermind (Osama bin Laden) and ended with the death of another (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). Gay rights advanced, with same-sex marriage recognized in the United States and 21 other countries. The struggle against sexual exploitation also made progress thanks to the #MeToo movement. And from an economic perspective, the past 11 years have been pretty positive: This is the longest, if not the most robust, expansion in U.S. history. The decade was especially good for the world’s poor, with the rate of extreme poverty cut in half.
So why am I so down on the past decade? In part because we have failed to deal with existential threats. Nine out of the 10 worst wildfires in California history have occurred in the past decade. On the other side of the planet, Australia has been experiencing some of the worst brushfires in its history; 480 million animals might have died. This is in significant part because of climate change, which has caused record heat waves and droughts along with rising sea levels and melting ice caps.
Scientists warn that global warming is “dangerously close” to an irreversible tipping point — yet the leaders of the world’s major polluters have failed to implement an effective response. We are actually going backward, with President Trump pulling out of the Paris climate accord and repealing emissions regulations.
There has been a similar failure to address mass shootings in the United States. Even though crime in general has fallen, six of the 10 worst mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred in the past decade. Like the climate crisis, the gun crisis is because of a failure of political will.
Which brings me to the biggest reason the Tens have been so terrible: This is the age of freedom eroding, the center collapsing and extremism advancing. The Tens began with the Arab Spring, raising hopes that liberal democracy could spread across the Middle East. But only tiny Tunisia has democratized. The rest of the region has seen an Arab Winter with more than 370,000 people killed in the Syrian civil war, more than 100,000 killed in Yemen, and thousands more in Libya. By the end of 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees from the greater Middle East had reached Europe. This refugee crisis, along with the aftershocks of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, led to a nationalist and populist backlash.
The past decade has seen the rise of illiberal leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban (in power since 2010) and Poland’s Law and Justice party (since 2015). This has also been the decade when Brexit triumphed and far-left and far-right parties made major gains in virtually every European county, while centrist liberal parties have collapsed.
What is happening in Europe is part of a global trend: Far-right populists are abusing power in the United States, Brazil, India, the Philippines and other countries. In Russia, Turkey and Egypt, right-wing strongmen have crushed democracy.
Xi Jinping is far from a populist — he is more of a technocrat — but his increasingly repressive rule in China confirms the anti-democratic trend around the world. Freedom House records “global declines in political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018.” Everywhere rulers are harnessing the Internet, once hailed as a harbinger of human rights, to spread lies and crush dissent.
It is not just that freedom is eroding in so many countries; in a related trend, the rule of law is also eroding around the world. Witness Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s militarization of the South China Sea and the United States’ unilateral imposition of tariffs. The post-1945 international system, which spread political freedom, peace and prosperity, is on its last legs.
The hope for freedom hasn’t died, as seen in recent protests from Hong Kong to Tehran, but so far these demonstrations have been even more ineffectual than the Arab Spring. I wish we could expect better in the next 10 years, but I fear it will be another “low dishonest decade.”
The Tens end with Trump impeached. That’s a rare bit of good news. But the Twenties could begin with him acquitted and even reelected — and, as Yascha Mounk argues in the Atlantic, populists are always more dangerous in their second term.