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Lecture: Contemporary America (2008-2020)


Recession and A New Hope (2008-12)
A Dangerous World
Trump's America
Equity and social justice
Continuing topics:
    Presidents and the Media
    Cell phones and web culture
    Home, family, and the states
    A Medicated Society, continued
    Globalization and global effects
    Pop Culture
The Recent Elections and Covid

From Avatar (2009), where the trope of the conquest of nature for the sake of profit is critiqued in the guise of efforts to exploit another planet.

Keep in mind that this lecture cannot really be "history", since not enough time has elapsed for proper analysis. What's here is essentially my interpretation of contemporary and current events, so I've tried to point to trends and themes.


Recession and A New Hope 2008-2012

We have themes about leadership, the presidency, war and the economy.

Obama Hope Poster

There was much talk during the Democratic primaries of 2008 about doing something "historic". This was because the two front runners were a female Senator, Hillary Clinton, and a mixed-race black Senator, Barack Obama. By 2008, the Republican party was split and unable to coordinate against a persistent errors of the Bush II administration. But because the several previous elections had been so close, the Democratic nominee was crucial. Following the victory of Barack Obama, the Democratic party closed ranks quickly. Young people were an important factor, supporting the candidate in record numbers.

Within the first few days, the new president began an amibitious program of stimulating the sagging economy with government money, contacting Muslim leaders worldwide, signing a measure to close controversial military prisons, and voicing opposition to previous policies on everything from medical marijuana to "don't ask, don't tell" for gays in the military. He then went on to health care (actually health insurance) reform. Because many of his measures met strict opposition and ended in compromise, the honeymoon seemed to be quickly over, but at the same time the response internationally held fast. Seen as isolationist in many ways, the United States under Obama began to gain back some of its moral leadership outside the country, despite the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. On May 1, 2011 officials announced that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was dead, killed in a raid.

The emergence of the Tea Party during this era can also be noted in the victories of certain Republican candidates in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Their protests concerning taxation, constitutionality and spending would make for excellent themes! On the opposite side of the political spectrum, protesters from Occupy Wall Street (and other "Occupy" protests) sought to open the dialogue and create participatory democracy (similar to the protests of the 1960s and the Arab Spring revolts) in response to environmental degradation, years of expensive warfare, and loss of opportunity and the American dream. The difference between the OCW and the Tea Party movements is that the former wanted more responsible government to handle the country's broken system, which was being dominated by corporate interests, while the Tea Party wanted lower taxes and less governmental interference.

Image comparing tea party and ows

copyright Bloomberg Business Week, 2011

Given the split in American sentiments indicated by the influence of both the far right and far left, Obama's re-election in 2012 was a surprise to many. It was followed by increasing political divisions, with polarized parties in Congress refusing to work with each other. American government became a global embarrassment.

A Dangerous World

The Obama administration removed many US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2013. At the same time, support for rebels against the Syrian government, and continued instability in Iraq, created conditions for the rise of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and other groups whose goal was an apocalyptic road to a caliphate. Their military successes, use of YouTube to show executions of Westerners, and financial connections made the world seem much less stable once again. Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin solidified his power in Russia and began trying to recreate the Soviet Union with a combination of military actions in Crimea and Ukraine.

Domestically, other patterns became apparent. Although in general violent crime was on the decline, mass killings captured media attention. It is possible that the media focus on the killers (their family, upbringing, mental problems) helped create copy-cat killings. Gun control, ignored since the Brady Bill of 1993, became an issue again following multiple school shootings, beginning with high school in 1999 but escalating through the 2010s. Cities went bankrupt as the Midwest factories and mines closed down. Racial divides began to open further, and college students began demanding hate speech protection through trigger warnings and other restrictions on free speech (see below). Environmental protection declined as oil became once again less expensive. The Citizens United v FEC Supreme Court case (2010) allowed corporations and others to contribute as much as they wanted to political advertising, on the premise that money qualifies as free speech, which had been practiced by media corporations anyway.

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Outrage became the acceptable response to many of America's problems. This tendency was magnified by the immediacy and pervasiveness of the internet. Media outlets vied for attention by becoming more sensationalist, which encouraged the trend of low-level discourse, which encouraged the polarization of views. At a time when the country most needed an intelligent, cogent defense of democracy, it was unable to create one. The presidential campaign of 2016 would show a four-part political division, each party with a radical wing. And yet what all had in common was fear and anger.

Trump's America

When Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016, many were surprised. But they shouldn't have been. A few months before, similar elements in Britain had voted for that country to leave the European Union. There too the forces for change were based on anti-liberal, anti-global, anti-immigrant ideas — and both the "Brexiteers" and Trump supporters saw their current governments as being out of touch. Liberal democracies, including that of this country, had become complacent, assuming a rational understanding of long-term economic and political goals, including the Obama administration's foreign policy. And few understood history, the lessons of what happens when authoritarian rulers come into office to "fix" things. The American election was just the latest of a trend in anti-liberal elections and support throughout the world.

The approaches of the Trump administration have mystified far more experienced historians and analysts than me, of course. But there have been a few distinct trends.

One was deregulation. Normally, this word is used to mean private takeover of things previously provided publicly (like food stamps, welfare, federal roads, prisons). And yes, that has been happening, but it precedes the election of 2016. Other deregulation presented itself, ironically, in the takeover of regulatory agencies by business leaders who supported President Trump's election. While there have certainly been other presidents who have done this quietly, putting friends and supporters into positions of power, this president gloried in it. Thus, in a way that echoed George Orwell's 1984, the very departments in charge of regulations were dismantling them. The foxes, it was said, were in charge of the henhouse.

Much of this reversed the success of acts and departments to regulate business in order to protect the public good. One example would be the Environmental Protection Agency, founded in 1970. Although criticized often for failing to create stringent enough regulations to prevent environmental pollution and global warming, the EPA was the only federal agency dedicated to environmental protection. But once President Trump took office, it was invariably been run by people who want to dismantle, if not the entire agency, then most of the protective, anti-pollution regulations it had created in the past 50 years.

In addition, President Trump defied not only convention in what he said and did, but maintained holdings of his corporation's wealth-producing properties, even when they created a conflict of interest with being president. So what in most democratic countries would be considered corruption became standard procedure, and set new precedents. Much of what was done did not violate any particular law, and it became apparent how much of presidential demeanor and power had been a matter of habit and precedent. There were few guidelines other than what previous presidents had done, and presidential power had been steadily increasing since the early 1990s (some historians say much earlier). Congress had repeatedly ceded their authority to defer to presidential actions (the War for Kuwait is one example), and Trump took advantage of these precedents. His supporters were delighted that he was shaking the tree, and didn't necessarily connect his government's actions to their own problems. The reality for many of his supporters was lives challenged by technological change, the ignorance of elites on both coasts to the problems of the middle, and the perceived lack of traditional moral values. On the far left, identity politics took hold, dividing Americans into groups by gender and ethnicity, denouncing "privilege" and engaging in grievance politics. The edges of each party saw America in completely different ways, with little that provided common ground.

One example was Steve Bannon, an early Trump advisor who saw political differences between conservative and liberal as an epic battle of civilizations.

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Compromise was unlikely with such views. The word "populism" came to mean something quite different in the last decade than it did in the days of the populist parties at the turn of the last century. Although ostensibly based in the lower income sectors of our society, and promoted as being for their benefit, such movements relied on charismatic leaders that could easily become despots. Whether on the right or left, the "populist" movements of the 2010s were based in an anti-intellectual tradition that saw all institutions as repressing individual rights. These institutions were seen as being controlled by "elites". At the turn of the last century, these elites might include millionaire tycoons, but in recent timesmillionaires were exalted for defying a system controlled by educated elites. This perception undermined rational thought and analysis, and the importance of scholarship, and replaced it with emotions, particularly fear and anger.

So it's here where I want to bring us back to the post-modern world. Both extremes value emotion and feeling over facts and scientific rationality, and those in the middle are scarcely heard among the roar of outrage. How strong are our ethics and democratic values if they can be undermined so easily? The response will require a concerted, determined articulation of the values of liberal democracy, which most Americans both assume and treasure.

Equity and social justice

Fearless girlOne of the most powerful symbols of the 2010s arose out of an advertising campaign for State Street Global Advisers. They were advertising a fund that contained a high percentage of female-dominated companies. Kristen Visbal's bronze statue of Fearless Girl, defiantly standing her ground, was installed in March 2017 in front of the 1989 statue of the charging bull, signifying the good markets of Wall Street.* Neither had been installed officially -- both were examples of guerilla art.

The installation was particularly timely given the Women's March two months before, to protest President Trump's election in light of his dismissive (and possibly abusive) treatment of women and minority groups. Millions marched in protests around the world, some wearing "pussy hats" (pink, handmade, with ears) to recall Trump's claim that women allowed him to grab them by their vulva. Some saw in the March the start of the #MeToo movement, where women in larger numbers began publicly revealing themselves as victims of sexual abuse and harassment.

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But "social justice" and "equity" also became larger themes, and were connected to the post-modern rejections of language that could marginalize people. Racism, instead of being seen as something an individual felt or displayed against people of a different color skin, culture, or tradition, was seen as "structural". The academic field of sociology, always associated with studies of race, class, and gender, took the lead in defining acceptable and unacceptable views and speech. The study of institutions was key to demonstrating that the poor treatment of, and lack of agency among groups of people was engrained in cultural norms, and in spaces like schools, prisons, and government.

"White privilege" prevented other groups from understanding or acknowledging these structural barriers to progress. One of the strongest journalistic voices was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who articulated  his own experiences with cultural racism in his 2015 book Between the World and Me. Episodes of violence against black Americans, particularly police brutality like that in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, disillusioned many that there could be an end to racism. Ultimately, a number of writers and sociologists took the position that white people couldn't even understand their privilege, and there was no point talking to white culture at all.

At the same time, appreciation for the hardships of black experience, and the experiences of other "minorities" in America, increased. In academe, efforts had been going on for some time to include readings and sources from people who had not been mainstream, or white, or wealthy, or in power. This tradition went back to at least the 1940s, when economic and social histories emerged to counter the history of elites. This trend of inclusion expanded to a focus on "equity", which could mean different things. To some, it meant recompense for slavery, or measures that privilege non-whites, or separation from the integration ideas of Martin Luther King. To others, it meant acting with fairness toward all.

Other elements in the culture saw the downside of these approaches to social justice, in particular the incursions upon free speech. With the post-modern critique of language had come the call to restrict language. Unacceptable derogatory terms were expanded to include "micro-aggressions" that a person might commit unthinkingly but could offend someone. College students in particular began to protest professors and speakers who had views that were in opposition to the new prevailing social justice norms, ironically at places like UC Berkeley which had been champions of free speech in the 1960s. With the increasing focus given to transgender people in the media and court cases over male/female bathrooms in schools, the divide increased even more, with most Americans in favor of tolerance, some angry about the perceived attack on morality, and others complaining that "tolerance" implied lack of acceptance.

Continuing topics

These continue from the previous lecture, as if we were providing evidence for themes. A short sampling:

Presidents and the Media

In the previous lecture, we looked at the way the media treated presidents before Watergate, compared to how they portrayed them after Watergate. Unlike President Franklin Roosevelt, whose sexual indicretions had been ignored, Clinton's had been emphasized.

While President Obama gave little opportunity to the press to publicize presidential indiscretions, the election and presidency of Donald Trump began a press war that reflected larger cultural issues. Press neutrality disappeared as right-wing websites and press outlets were encouraged to accuse other media of "fake news", while left-wing and centrist media outlets abandoned any semblance of unbiased coverage. While it is not new that presidents might be criticized by the press, and return the disdain, the very liberties on which the press was founded were threatened by both media outlets and the White House.

Cell phones and web culture

Possible theme: with each advancement in technology, something significant is lost.

iPhoneIn the first decades of the 21st century, cell phones became the main gateway to information and e-moderated social interaction. Phones became first smaller, then larger as people began using them like computers. Along with tablets (which run cell-phone operating systems), cell phones not only accessed the internet, but used private "apps" that created their own communities and networks. At the same time, broadband internet was more widely available, prompting the FCC to declare it a utility in 2015. Net neutrality (the idea that vendors of internet access should not be permitted to provide more service to some customers than others) was an issue. Electricity and water companies are not permitted to deliver their products in different amounts to different types of customers. Net neutrality supporters made some headway during the Obama administration, then the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality as of April 2018, then reconsidered.

Socially, culturally, and psychologically, the "always on" world of ubiquitous communication took its toll of health, time, and emotions. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012), Sherry Turkle examined the alienation caused by our dependence on instant communication. Here's a TED talk presentation she gave on the subject. Scientific studies also revealed that cell phone addiction, with its inability to stop checking ones phone for the latest pings and updates, is caused by the positively reinforced cycle of adrenaline and serotonin in the brain as it responds to stimuli. This modern version of scanning the environment (a safety measure when people lived in caves) can cause stress.

TED talks themselves were symbolic of another trend, toward "chunking" information and making it entertaining. The internet encouraged the development of the "hypertext mind" (hypertext is another word for link - it makes it possible for you to click and go elsewhere). Attention shifted with the continual use of the web and the "smart" phone. The entire field of educational technology emerged at the same time, offering teaching methods and products like Canvas, the learning management system we're using now. The social impact had, like most things, good and bad sides. On the one hand, information was easier to find, on pretty much any topic. Connecting with others was, in some ways, easier too, especially across distance. But people's minds were being trained to jump to the newest sparkly object, instead of being able to follow a sustained argument. This had vast repercussions for democracy, which requires the participation of citizens.

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Home, family, and the states

The decision that marriage was male-female became a rallying point for advocates of gay marriage in the new millenium, and in response several states began to legalize same-sex marriages in addition to civil unions. The Supreme Court decision in 2013 to strike down key elements of DOMA meant a reinterpretation for federal benefits for married couples. At the same time, states began to take on the issue of gay marriage. Slate.com created a map of the legality of gay marriage following the Supreme Court's refusal to review gay marriage decisions in several states, tacitly allowing states to decide for themselves. In a 5-4 decision on Obergefell v Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty, and protected by both the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th amendment. Although same-sex marriage bans in 13 states were then unconstitutional, difficulties continued as public opinion shifted and further cases (like the Masterpiece Cakeshop case) came to the Supreme Court.

What's interesting here is the reassertion of the states. States rights, which were a battle cry in the Civil War for southern states trying to preserve their property (especially slaves), emerged nation-wide in response to President Trump's federal changes. California, for example, promised non-cooperation with federal agents trying to remove undocumented people and deport them. The state created sanctuary cities, and even issued grants for protection against federal incursion. When the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris treaty on climate change, a number of states signed on instead, as states. As the lawsuits flew back and forth, states were asserting their rights once again.

A Medicated Society, continued

Many politicians throughout American history, particularly after the Great Depression, had floated the idea that health care was a basic civil right, and should be funded by the government. A number of other countries in Europe, and even Canada, socialized health care for this reason.The champion of socialized medicine in the modern era had been Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and First Lady Hilary Clinton had also tried to get consensus on the issue. It was at the top of President Obama's agenda, and he struggled to create a plan that could gain support. But when he managed to institute health care reform in 2010 with the Affordable Care Act, the premise was to require people to have health insurance, rather than good medical care. This was a compromise with the insurance companies, because fear remained about socializing any elements of America that had been privatized. As medical costs increased, fewer people could afford to pay, and employers began to trim back their benefits. With the decline of unions, fewer companies could be pressured into offering better coverage. Insurance companies spread the risk, but they only did so if enough people enrolled, balancing the expenses of the sick with the savings of the well.

heroin bottle - vintageSince 2008, a phenomenon called the Opioid Epidemic came to public attention. Opium is derived from certain kinds of poppies, and has been used medicinally throughout human history (on derivative is heroin, as seen in the bottle of medicine here from the turn of the 20th century). Opium derivatives, such as laudanum and morphine, are the only strong pain managers humans have been able to develop, which is why they are needed for cases of severe pain, such as terminal cancer and post-operative pain. The market expanded with the increased production of cheaper opioid derivatives, and they began to be prescribed for moderate forms of pain (post-natal, tooth extractions) and even mild pain (sprained ankles) where a milder analgesic (like ibuprofen or acetaminophen) would have been more appropriate. Like antibiotics, they were overprescribed by doctors trying to help people. Opioids have always been addictive. In th 1840s China had tried to stop the importation of opium due to high levels of addiction, which were so bad they were affecting families and the economy. The result  had been British gunboats and the Opium Wars to keep the market open. Deaths from overdose increased, and the seriousness of the problem was one of the few things the political parties agreed on in the new millenium. As with most things, however, the recognition of one problem has led to another, in this case the underprescribing of opioids for serious pain.

By 2018, in light of the drug-addiction epidemic, the government shied away from reforming "Obamacare" too much, partly because many people support it and need it, and they were unable to design anything better. At the same time, marijuana legalization efforts picked up traction in a number of states, for both medicinal and recreational use. The movement was supported by the ongoing neglect of federal enforcement (which needed the funds for personnel and violent crime), the rise of marijuana as a treatment for opioid addiction, and the realization that money could be made in cannabis growthe and distribution under state regulation. Needless to say, this was controversial. The era also saw the normalization of smoking, which had been declining in popularity, with e-cigarettes. These used non-combusted tobacco, often in flavors that appealed to young people. A trend across the world, some saw it as increasing tobacco abuse, while others saw it as a safer way to smoke.

Globalization and global effects

One of the biggest criticisms, as we've seen, of the 1990s was the success of globalization. The WTO protests were not the only example of feeling against global competition, or of a sense that the rich were getting richer while the poor got poorer. President Clinton himself had tried to explain that the growing pains would balance out into a improved marketplace for all, but not everyone understood. To be fair, he could not have predicted the rise of the technology giants and the global internet as forces for anything but good. Perhaps we shoud call this the "internationalist" perspective, which was continued by President Obama. Cooperation with other nations reached its height.

Nationalism returned in the mid-2010s. The rise of nativist populism in Europe and the United States was seen as opposition to globalization. Anti-immigration feeling emerged against certain groups of people, based on the idea that foreign people were taking jobs and controlling markets. Internationally, right-wing parties opposed to immigration got more and more votes. The Trump administration continually reassessed all foreign entanglements as a matter of course, and went to draconian lengths to control illegal immigration. Such measures were more political than essential: immigration was down, and businesses were clear that they needed cheap labor, particularly with the administration's "Made in America" rules.

Google signBut there was a form of internationalism still in play. Where once the big corporations were General Electric, Ford, and Standard Oil, there were now Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They went global in a way that Rockefeller could have only dreamed. At first it looked like the computer age would be marked by hardware and software disputes (Microsoft vs Apple, for example). But what began as disputes over operating systems installed on devices as monopolies, became an argument about infrastructure. The internet depends on wired connections (DSL, fiber optic cable, television cable) or wireless structures (cell towers). As noted above, as the internet became as common as electricity and household water, the question arose as to whether the web is a public good or the domain of private companies. Arguments about Net Neutrality (the right for all internet traffic to be treated the same in terms of speed and access) sounded like previous disputes over water rights. As with water, the likelihood of socialization was low. Government cooperation with corporations, as with health insurance, was far more likely.

Pop culture

The arts changed radically in the early part of the century, reflecting not only cultural trends like post-modernism but new market issues created by the internet. By 2005, the rise of the internet and file-sharing app Napster threatened the big music companies. According to the book The Song Machine (2015) by James Seabrook, the response was the mechanization of pop music hit-making, creating an assembly-line collaborative method for song-writing and selling. Instead of a long-term, individual, creative act, popular songs were written by a handful of artists using what Seabrook calls the "track-and-hook" method of creating a backbeat track, then having individual singers create their own melodies over it. Naturally, this made many songs sound the same, since many had the same track. At the same time, services like Pandora and Spotify began making money, indicating that music heard over streaming services was becoming more popular and economically viable than owning objects that contain music, such as records, CDs, or MP3 files.

Fiction writing was similarly subject to formulas, and self-publishing was only just beginning to form a serious challenge to publishers. As with music, marketing was key. Amazon took over from the corporate bookstores (like Borders and Barnes and Noble) who had before taken over from independent bookstores. Electronic books, read on a screen, took a big chunk of the market, and forced prices down. Textbooks, for years unchallenged as essential for college classes, were questioned as the monopolies they were. After years of charging students for "new editions" that contained only minor revisions, publishers were having to rethink. The new trends toward Open Educational Resources, while not yet providing the quality of commercially-produced textbooks, provided options.

Fewer motion pictures were being made in this era. Many movie theatres went backward, reinventing themselves as places for the middle class to view a movie in some luxury. At the same time, streaming services like Netflix created their own programming in a way that challenged both broadcast and cable television, as well as cinema movies. Home screens got larger, and the trend toward staying home to be entertained continued.

And lest we think poetry just somehow died since the 1960s, or just turned into rap and stayed there, meet Rudy Francisco (and he's local):

The Recent Elections and Covid

Voting turnout had been low for the presidential election in 2016, as far fewer young people voted. Former President Barack Obama created a public service announcement:

According to the United States Election Project, 47% of voters turned out for the midterm elections, the highest in 50 years. Although the predicted "blue wave" didn't exactly happen, the Democratic Party did re-take the House of Representatives, ending the Republican control of the federal government.

In February 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the globe, and began almost immediately following the same trajectory as the Influenza pandemic of 1918-19:

The issues were also the same for both: unprepared governments, people and their representatives unwilling to engage in safety measures to prevent the spread, frantic attempts to create a vaccine. The differences were emphasized, for example that the Covid pandemic was most dangerous to the elderly and those with medical problems while the 1918-19 flu had hit mostly people in their 20s and 30s. Historians were most distressed at the lack of attention to the data gathered from the earlir pandemic -- it was as if no one had ever dealt with a plague before.

The presidential election of 2020 was seen as a referendum on Donald Trump, who continued to contest results after his loss. Voter turnout was high, despite efforts to suppress the vote, particularly in southern states that had been subject to Reconstruction (remember the beginning of this class?). The country remained divided, with the far right seeking to suppress the agency and power of the lower classes, while the far-left privileged personal identity over collective cooperation. Both sowed division and exacerbated polarization, with media playing their role in the same way as they did a century before: emphasizing those divisions to make money.

Last words

In recent surveys, my students have shared with me their concern about issues that have not been addressed sufficiently by our culture. The top two worries are the environment (particularly climate change and the failure to do much about it) and gun control (same problem). The election of Joe Biden to the presidency may bring these issues to the fore.

And now you have done something impossible just 30 years ago -- you've taken an entire class over the internet, during a global pandemic. You may have been challenged by the technology, by the necessity for self-direction, or by your hypertext mind. But you've done it.


* Fearless Girl was moved to in front of the Stock Exchange in January 2019.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2020. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.