If You Were to Write a History of 21st Century America, What Would It Look Like?

One of the best histories I have had the pleasure to read is Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. There are many things to love about this book. Allen wrote his history of the 1920’s in a jaunty, breezy style. When you pick his book up it is hard to put it down. Allen’s tone is fair, his judgements sharp, and prose delectably entertaining. The most notable thing about this history of the 1920s, however, is its publication date: Allen wrote the book in 1930. He saw it published in 1931.

I often wish Allen had more imitators. Allen’s book shines as a social history. The genius of writing such a history directly after the events took place is that the historian can narrate not just what happened in a period, but what it felt like to live through it. Names have not receded into history; the little things of daily existence are still remembered, and often still in use. Judgements of past events have not been too clouded by the downstream effects they had three or four decades down the line. There is an immediacy to Only Yesterday that I have never found in any other work of history (though I have found it in several works of fiction).

What would such a history of our own era look like? What would it include? Where would it begin? That last question is harder than it sounds. Allen lived in a rare time, one that was recognized as a distinct period in American history the moment it concluded. That period was bookended by WWI on the one side and the Great Depression on the other. Moreover, the decade that passed between 1919 and 1929 was recognized at the time as one that ushered in a series of then-unprecedented social, economic, and technological transformations. Allen did not need to convince anyone that this decade deserved its own history.

Finding the bookends of our era is more difficult. Were I to follow in Allen’s footsteps and write a history of what it felt like to live through modern times, I would start the story in 2004. This is partly for personal reasons: it was about that time that I became politically conscious enough to offer real judgements on what those days were like. But there is a broader purpose to choosing that date. 2004 was the high tide of America’s unipolar moment. It was a time of economic growth and extreme confidence in the American project. The story of my generation begins at that point–and it is in many ways the story of a country (and a generation) coming to terms with lost power, shattered confidence, and the creeping sense that we can no longer tell a coherent story about our people at all.

The other bookend is even more difficult to find. That moment has not arrived. I suspect, however, that it will arrive soon. Regardless of who wins the 2020 election, my guess is that it will be seen as a transition point, the end of a era. Generational concerns influence this perception as well. This history is a generation’s coming of age tale. By the time the 2010s close out, the very last cohort of that generation will have just graduated from college (this is a good point to remind readers that most Americans do not graduate within four years of their first freshman semester at college).

I have typed up a potential outline for what this history might look like below. Savvy readers will pick up a few of the major themes I see as the dominating threads of American social history between the years 2004-2020: social media’s first invigorating, then decaying impact on the daily round, traditional media, and our body politic; the splintering of American life into ever-shrinking, often mutually hostile social tribes (and the dynamics that led to this); the creeping isolation of the better-off from the rest of the nation; how cloistered group-think in Washington DC led to one terrible disaster after another; how the forces of globalization, automation, and finance hollowed out the American economy; the lack of public accountability and the loss of trust in American institutions this has caused; the intense emotional investment the American people have placed in their political leaders over the last decade; the growing prestige of data-centric and identity-centered ways of thinking; and the dynamism of an age where every American had the power to share their convictions and creations with the entire world. While I cannot pretend to be positive about most of these trends, life in the early 21st century has had great highs mixed in its its lows, and any history that did not capture these moments would be incomplete.

One of the difficulties with an experiential history of 21st century America (“what it felt like”), is the growing awareness of how different things feel to people who do not share your class, race, religion, region, education, or twitter feed. That may doom this project from the start. It would require an extraordinary writer–the only person who comes to my mind as being able to take this project on is Wesley Yang (though he might be a half-generation too old to sympathize with perspective I lay out below)–but it could be done. Perhaps a partnership of two writers, each from very different backgrounds, would be the ideal for this project.

It would not work if their prose did not shine. Unlike in Allen’s day, we have access to reams and reams of data produced by sociologists, economists, political scientists, and business research teams. It would be a shame if these were not included in the book. Yet I suspect the long term success of the history would depend most on its charity. Partisan screeds will be forgotten. Appraisals may sting; judgements may bruise. But if the book is not seen as even-handed, and if it does not make a sincere effort to get inside the souls of its subjects, it amount to nothing more than so much wasted space.

Below is my outline of what a book like this might look like. I have been generous on the page numbers needed for each topic; a good author might be able to write each section in half the space.

Readers are encouraged to leave a comment explaining on how they would do things differently if the book was theirs.


Chapter One: The “Average” American Family in 2004 (6 pages)

Chapter Two: Bush Triumphant (33 pages)

Iraq Erupts Into Civil War (15 pages)

  •   Snapshot of the costs of war, 2003-2013
  •   Mission Accomplished
  •   The Green Zone World View 
  •   Battle of Fallujah
  •   Abu Ghraib

–America at the Mall (8 pages)

  •   Domestic Response to Chaos in Iraq
  •   Dixie Chicks Disowned (compare the comparative furor over this to that faced by the generals, officials, etc. whose misteps led to civil war in Iraq)
  •   Politics as Gossip: Talk Radio Rules the Airwaves
  •   Politics as Comedy: Southpark, the Daily Show, The Colbert Report

-The Election of 2004 (10 pages)

  •   Mr. Kerry Takes the Stage
  •   Refighting the ’60s (Swift Boats, Killian Documents, and Boomer Angst)
  •   What’s The Matter With Kansas?  
  •   Retrospective: The Cultural Confidence of the Early Aughts

Chapter Three: The World Blogs Made (32 pages)

 –Brave New World of the Citizen Blogger (4 pages)

  •    Blogging basics: RSS Feeds, Blog Rolls, Cross Linking
  •    Big Names Change the Headlines–Two paragraph rundown of Sullivan, Yglesias, Klein etc
  •    The Old Guard gets Anxious

 —Junior Officers Blog to War (14 pages)

  •    Fiasco: Iraq, 2005-2006
  •    Abu Muqawama, Small Wars Journal, and the Search for a Solution
  •    The Nagl vs. Gentile Debates 

 –Peak Oil Meets the Internet Age (7 pages)

  •    Climate Change Policy in the Bush Years (IPCC reports, Inconvenient Truth, etc)
  •    The Climate Science Blogs
  •    Climate Skeptics Find their Platform
  •    Retrospective on the Oil Drum

–New Atheists and the ScienceBlogs Debates (7 pages)

  •    The “New Atheists”
  •    ScienceBlogs divided: PZ Meyers vs. Chris Mooney
  •    Retrospective on the Nagl vs. Gentile Debates (Compare their tone and stakes to the Meyers vs. Mooney affair)

 Chapter Four: A World Gone Viral (15 pages)

  —The Smart Phone Makes Its Debut (4 pages) 

  —How Youtube Was Used (3 pages) 

  —Memes Sweep the World (5 pages) 

  —The Novelty of Virality (3 pages)

Chapter Five: Crash (42 pages)

–Bush Administration Failures, 2005-2008 (4 pages)

  •   Spotlight Hurricane Katrina
  •   Iraq and the 2006 Elections

–Bubble (8 pages)

  •   Subprime Prices
  •   A House Built out of CODs

Bust (10 pages)

  •   Stock market tumbles
  •   Global Reverberations
  •   Who Hurt the Most?

Social Impact of the Great Recession (15 pages)

  •   Recession Songs (“Just Dance,” “Dynamite,” etc.)
  •   So Starts the Gig Economy
  •   Long Term Impacts on the Millennials’ Worldview

Bail Outs (5 pages)

  •   First Round of the Great Bailouts
  •   GM Gets Its Own Bail Out
  •   Obama Admin Refuses to Prosecute

Chapter Six: Hope and Change (13 pages)

Who was Barrack Obama (7 pages)

  •   The Keynote Speech
  •   The Personal Costs of Political Success: Obama’s Early Years
  •   Shadows on the Wall

The 2008 Campaign (6 pages)

  •   Iraq at the Center, Hillary at the Margins
  •   Technology Does Its Thing
  •   Hope and Change

Chapter Seven: Hope’s Growing Pains (23 pages)

–Broken Campaign Promises (2 pages)

The Obama Economic Program (7 pages)

  •   Stimulus
  •   Health Care

–Insurgency Redux (7 pages)

  •   Iraq Withdrawal
  •   Surge in Afghanistan 

–Mood of the Politicos in the Early Obama Years (7 pages)

  •   Tea Party Rising
  •  The Social World of Washington DC (the lobbyist/regulator/think tank/ complex)
    •   Days of Faith (for the left)

    Chapter Six: Growing Up in the New Millennium (31 pages)

    –Where Millennials Were Different (8 pages)

    •   Racial and demographic composition
    •   The Moral World of the Millennial Teen (section on Moral Therapeutic Deism)
    •   A Side Note on Gay Marriage
    •   Leaving the subculture cliques (except for emos) behind 

    –Time Series Data on American High Schoolers, 2004-2012 (2 pages) 

    Social Media (5 pages)

    •   What Myspace Was
    •   Why Facebook Won
    •   Social Media, Then vs. Now

    –A New Sort of Family Life (6 pages)

    •   The AP Kid
    •   Helicopter Moms and the Harvard Run 

    –The Other Sort of Family Life (10 pages)

    •   Growing up in single mother homes
    •   Boys Fall Behind
    •   Video Games: Halo through World of Warcraft
    •   Video Games: The Day Gaming Replaced Working

    Chapter Seven: Coming Apart (25 pages)

    –Snapshot of the American Family, 2012-2020 (6 pages)

    •    The 1%
    •    The Vanity of Occupy Wall Street
    •    Where the Recession Never Ended, Where it Ended First
    •    Class Mobility and Income Stagnation
    •    College and Marriage — the Great American Sorting Machines
    •    Six Jobs in Five Cities

    –The upper 19% (8 pages)

    •   Entertainment for the “Mass Intelligent”
    •   Other sorts of sorting
    •   Reds, blues, and greys among the creative classes

    –The lower 80% (6 pages)

    •   Pop culture contrasts with the top (GoT vs. Naked and Afraid)
    •   The sort of jobs you get in the service working class
    •   Church and community life at the top and with the nots
    •   Health and Wealth

    –The Slow Collapse of the White Working Class (8 pages)

    •   Perceptions and Mis-perceptions
    •   Anatomy of a Drug epidemic
    •   The Millions on Disability
    •   Backlash

    Chapter Eight: Fracturing Narratives (20 pages)

    Twittering Nation (5 pages)

    • Arab Spring Intro / Allure of New Tech
    • Collapse of the Blogosphere; How (and Why) Twitter-driven Conversation is Different
    • Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and the New Science of Going Viral

    –Legacy Media Falls Apart (6 pages)

    •   Stats on newspaper readership, advertising revenue, and resources cut
    •   What it takes to survive — story of Vox
    •   The improbable rise of Mr. Fisher (and the embarrassment of Mr. Thayer)
    •   “20-somethings who know nothing”

    Election Narratives (11 pages)

    •   Romney’s “49 %,” “Binders Full of Women”
    •   Spin Games
    •   Obama Wins 
    •   Liberal Victory Narratives Vindicated? 

    Chapter Nine: Lords of Tech (18 pages)

    –San Fransisco in 2004 vs. 2014 (2 pages)

    • Housing prices, other remarkable stats on silicon valley

    –The Ambitious Mr. Altman (6 pages)

    •  Sam Altman and the new American wonderworld
    •  Marc Andreeson
    •  How VC financing in Silicon Valley actually works

    Software Eats the World (6 pages)

    •  Jobs/Thiel/Bezos/Musk/
    •  Reality of most Silicon Valley business plans (B2B vs. B2C eating)
    •  Automation and its impact

    –Broader Cultural Impact (4 pages)

    •   Do you have data for that?
    •   Nerdy as the New Sexy

    Chapter Ten: The Great Awokening (16 Pages)

     –Black Lives Matter (6 pages)

    • The Murder of Trayvon Martin
    • An economic and demographic picture of Black America, 2004-2014
    •  Ferguson
    •  Black Lives Matter

     –The Left Swings Intersectional (6 pages)

    • Data
    • Intellectual Foundations
    • Academia-Tumblr-Activists-Journalists Networks All Mashed Together

     –Coates’ Critique of the American Project (4 pages)

    • Ta Nehisi Coates: Zeitgeist of the Age
    • Coates Turns His Back on the American Dream

    Chapter Eleven: A New Sort of Culture War (22 pages)

    –The Internet’s Underbelly (4 pages)

    • What was an Internet Troll?
    • Trolling as a Vocation (4Chan, etc.)

     —Gamergate (10 pages)

    • Narrative I
    • Narrative II
    • Dynamics of a Twitter Age Culture War Dispute

     –The University Campus (4 pages)

    • Intersectional Activism on Campus
    • Other University Problems here
    • Not as Bad as Folks Want it to Be, but Bad Enough

    –Various other examples (4 pages)

    Chapter Eleven: Team Obama Falters Forward (18 pages)

      —Gridlock (5 pages)

    • Intro: Sandy Hook
    • Mid-terms deliver victory to the GOP
    • The new costs of getting things done

      —Obama Meets the Culture Wars (2 pages)

    • Preacher of a faith his coalition no longer believes in
    • Obama assesses the intersectionalists
    •  Man out of his element

     –Legacy (11 pages)

    • Legacy: Obama as Commander in Chief and Head of State, 2008-2016 (ISIS, Iran, Climate Accord) 
    • Legacy: Obama as Policymaker (Executive Orders)
    • Legacy: Obama as Party Leader (Collapse of the Democrats in 2016)
    • Legacy: Obama as Symbol 

    Chapter Twelve: Election of 2016 (16 pages)

    –Sanders vs. Clinton (4 pages)

    • Sanders, an Old Choice for the Young
    •  Coronation of Hillary Clinton

    –Trump’s Rise (7 pages)

    • The Running Joke
    • Trumpism 
    • How to Dominate a Crowded Primary
    • Never-Trump

    Trump vs. Hillary (5 pages)

    • One Outrage After Another
    • “Flight 93 Election”
    • What People Expected
    •  What They Got

    Chapter Thirteen: Days of Rage (12 pages)

     –Liberal Incomprehension (2 pages)

    • Waves of rage
    • Protests, pussyhats
    • Vox still playing the same old game

     –Excuses Pile Up (8 pages)

    • Was it all Because of the Russians?
    • Was it all Because of the Racists?
    • Was it all Because We Were Too Woke?

     –Failure to Take Responsibility (2 pages)

    • The terrible candidate
    • Her terrible team
    • Terrible party organization across the entire country
    • The terrible media complex that held it all up
    •  Once again, no one held responsible

    Chapter Fourteen: Chaos Machine (14 pages)

      –Trump’s Early Days (5 pages)

    • Surprised as Anyone Else
    • Trump’s Inaugural Sets the Scene
    • Story of the Muslim Ban

      —The Trump Official Merry Go Round (5 pages)

    • Stats on # of cabinet officials
    • Stories of some individuals who took and left the stage
    • Partly Intentional on Part of the President
    • Partly Result of Poor Preparation on the Transition Team
    • Difficulty of Coherent Policy Making

      –Things Stabilize by mid-2018 (4 pages)

    • Accomplishments up to that point
    • Failures

    Chapter Fifteen: Romance and Sex in the 2010s (31 pages)

    –Intro: #MeToo and the Cavanaugh Hearing (6 pages)

    –Dating Apps Change Everything (4 pages)

    • Statistics
    • How Tinder, Bumble, etc. works
    • What it is like to use Tinder as a woman/man

    –Hook Up Angst (8 pages)

    • Myths of hook up culture
    • New norms, new expectations
    • “Cat woman” and consent

    –Generation Porn (8 pages)

    •    Statistics
    •    Effect on behaviors and views
    •    Harsh reality of a world flooded with sexual media but less and less people actually are having it

    –Sex Recession, Marriage Depression (5 pages)

    • Sex recession – perceptions and mis-perceptions
    • Marriage rates, divorce rates
    • Retrospective: Happiness and Meaning in the Age of Angst

    Chapter Sixteen: Intellectual and Cultural Life in the Age of Angst (? pages)

    Streaming Straight to You  (8 pages)

    • Why Netflix Mattered
    • A Blockbuster Age (super hero movies, decline of films into nothing but franchises)
    • Prestige TV 
    • Why Was the “Golden Age” of TV So Dark?

    –New Mediums, New Messages (? pages)

    • Youtube Channels, Patreon Accounts
    • Podcasting, Focus in on Podcasting Bros
    • The Changing Meaning of Being a Man
    • ?

    –Conservatives Adrift (? pages)

    • Difficulty Defining Trumpism
    • New Atheists Move to the Right
    • IDW
    • ?

    –Reigning Intellectual Styles (? pages)

    •   Basically just see my twitter thread

     Chapter Seventeen: America and China, 2004-202? (30~ pages)

      –Trump’s Most Lasting Legacy? (1 page)

    • Intro: Pence Speech

      —America and China, 2000-2016 (6 pages)

    • The World Is Flat, The Pentagon’s New Road Map, and Other Grand Delusions
    • US politicians get rich
    • 2008 Olympics

      –China breaks American hopes (12 pages)

    • Hints of the coming crisis: renditions, murders, thefts, and deaths
    • The hard regime of Xi Jinping
    • Obama has his chance–2012 Scarborough Shoal
    • Obama makes a deal–2016 (+assumptions of his team)

      —America Responds at Last (6 pages)

    • Trump Starts a Trade War
    • Hard bargaining (Huawei, ZTE)
    • Trade War Becomes a Cold War

      —Public Apathy, Elite Engagement (? pages)

    • Bipartisan support
    • Foreign Perceptions
    • ?
    • ?

     Chapter Eighteen: Tech’s Reckoning  (? pages)

    –Automation Eats Everything (6 pages)

    •  American Economy, 2014-202[?]: The Numbers Look Good…
    •  …But They Came With a Cost (Hollowing Out of US Economy)
    •  Automation of the American Labor Force 

    Social Media Turns on Itself (? pages)

    • Bots, Trolls, and Foreign Operatives
    • Just Ban Everybody
    • ?

    Washington Turns Against Tech (? pages)

     Chapter Nineteen: The Trials of Donald Trump, 2018-202?  (? pages)

    Chapter Twenty: Coda

    If you found this post on recent American history to your liking, you might also find the posts “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream,” Pining for Democracy” and “Honor, Dignity, and Victhimhood: A Journey Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

    Leave a Comment


    I suspect every response will make this same basic retort: you can't start at 2004 and glaze over 2001. The readiness of the American public to go along with the administrations' lies and subsequent vicious right-wing policies are surely directly attributable to 9/11. For nigh-on 2 centuries American had nonchalantly bombed and slaughtered civilians of far-away "shithole" countries, but the national psyche was unprepared for a dose of its own medicine and has still never rediscovered a mental balance in its wake. Al-Qaeda's avowed agenda in 2001 was to have America destroy itself from within; the theme of your history of 21st C America so far should be to trace the steps fulfilling that aim.

    Interesting. My start point would be a little early in 2001 on 9/11 (and all the alternative news and conspiracy sites that sprung out from that) and the early war on Afghanistan. Too young for the 90s fall of the Soviet Union, the incorrectly named 'first' Gulf War from the 'first' Bush and the 'first' technological bubble (none of these were real firsts, just for people in my generation). But I would be seeing it from a different perspective, living in an appendage to the US-western empire and 'schooled' on 'anti-imperialism'. So my takeaways would be peak Empire followed by hyper-fast Empire overreach and likely self-defeat and self-destruction. With 2019 and 2020 moving towards to fear that the outcome may be worse, more dangerous, than the 20th Century Cold War and not a 'clean' victory over 'imperialism' (but also reasonable as I'm getting older and relatively more 'conservative').

    And of course I'm missing the 'otaku' perspective. I could tell of heated discussions in Kuro5hin. Or the young Republican youths complaining about the Gundam Seed and Gundam Seed Destiny pot shots at Bush and the Iraq War.

    I agree with Andy, though with a slightly less partisan edge. 9/11 is easily the best bookend for our era, as the catalyst for a massive shift in American priorities. Of course, the challenge that I would have were I writing this book is that I would have been too young to reflect productively on the event (I was 10 at the time).

    As someone born just slightly before your starting date, I’d make the case that the crucial pivoting point between decades happened right around the 2006-2007. Experientially, that’s when the old (maybe second-generation) Internet that I felt native to in my childhood was replaced by the ecosystem of just a few unified aggregating platforms that we’re used to today. If I had to give a more specific date, I’d say November 13, 2006: the day Google bought YouTube. Facebook opened to all users in September 2006. The iPhone came out in June 2007. 2007 also saw the surge in Iraq, the peak of the housing bubble, and the rise of Obama. I seem to recall Dick Cheney giving the first speech where a Bush official mentioned the word “recession” in December of that year, but I might be wrong. In any case, 2006-2007 has always felt to me like the transition moment where the dynamics that propelled American cultural life after 2001 exhausted themselves and it started to become clear what would follow. Possibly one good way to track this would be with a retrospective poll of gut feelings on when people first thought the Republicans were guaranteed to lose in 2008 – I think Bush’s star sank to an unfixable extent at least a year before the real start of the recession, in large part due to the exhaustion of the narratives that justified the Iraq War.

    I don't really mean to quibble with the bookmarks for this project — I just think any social history of this general period should discuss 2006/2007 as a particular watershed. Life before and after that moment feels very different, in ways that can't be explained very well by the flashier political and economic dramas of 2008.

    Probably you will have to include some external events like: Arab Spring, Ukraine Maida, Putin, Xi Jinping, Euro crisis, Brexit.

    Thiel, Gawker and that wrestler judgement is a nice example of billionaire power versus social media power.

    Snowden,Anonymous and NSA.

    I agree that 2004 seems a possible if difficult starting point, especially described as the high water mark of the unipolar moment. Maybe. I'd see the period 2001 starting on 9/11 and running through 2004 as the turn of that particular tide.

    SO on that I see where Andy is coming from.

    I would question any framework in which the policies of the Bush era qualify as "vicious right-wing", as this suggests a rather challenging placement of the centre rather far to the left and a low bar for viciousness in public policy. Even based on the political spectrum of the US in the 1990s, Bush policy was fairly indifferent centre-right domestically and in foreign policy was just the neo-con [a term I use for lack of better] version of the foreign policy consensus of the 1990s.

    Also, America was mainly only bombing and slaughtering civilians of far away countries from 1898 on, and only sporadically for a first few decades after that. Before that not so much. If anything, well behind the practices of other major powers until after WW2.

    OTOH, I can see 2004 as a starting point in terms of awareness by those of the right age cohort as you suggested. It catches America struggling, but still short of all the underlying problems snapping into focus with the civil war in Iraq or the financial crisis. SO it's workable. And it might well be the right timing for a lot of the technological and social elements that rightly capture focus.

    AS an Xer born 1970, I naturally look at those events through some different lenses. But a take from a younger person laid with whose perspective I can find commonalities, laid out as you propose, would be well worth it.

    Agree with others that what jumps out the most is your starting point being too late in 2004. I'm 57, so maybe I'm biased since I strongly recall the fall of the berlin wall. In any case, I'd add a prelude chapter.

    Chapter 0: Prelude to overreach (6 pages)
    — Utter surprise and shock at fall of communism 1989 (cold warriors built up the enemy, who in the end was a hollow shell)
    — America clumsily lost when triumphant (confused at the false end of history)
    — 9/11/2001 – history suddenly starts up again
    — Overreach engaged – dusting off those cold warrior relics to spread America triumphant. Gulf war begins 2003

    I see 2004 as the start of the realization that vicariously reliving the cold war heroism by starting Gulf War 2003 was an err. But the trigger for this era was the overreach in 2003, which ultimately was based on cold warriors being left with nothing to do, and wrongly interpreting their utterly blindsided surprise of the collapse of communism as somehow being something to their credit, showing cold warriors could change the world to match whatever they saw in the mirror that morning.

    I think I would start at 9/11. I was six when it happened, and I have no memory of the broader pre-9/11 world. I don't remember flying in the 1990s, or the easy-goingness of border control, or the golden age of globalization.

    On the other hand, perhaps the best option is to move the starting option back by fifteen years, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since 1989, we have moved:

    – from one Cold War to the Pax Americana to…a new Cold War again?
    – from the final and lasting triumph of capitalism to its Bush-era binging on McMansions and bad mortgages to the 2010s resurgence of socialism, Georgism, etc. as the recovery obscures fantastic economic capture by landowners and the up-and-coming generation watches their best years go by without settling down;
    – from America as shining guardian of the democratic order to America as rather tarnished warmonger in the name of the democratic order to America as authoritarian-friendly isolationist;
    – in geopolitics, a quiet realignment from unipolarity to multipolarity, the resurgence of Russia as a major (but economically weak) geopolitical player, and of course the rise of China, first economically and then geopolitically;
    – a vague sense of hollowing-out in American civil society, as opiates replace churches, radicalism replaces centrist consensus, and institutional gridlock and senility take hold (who really trusts their local public school district anymore?)

    The era has stretched across five presidential administrations and can, I would say, be divided into three eras:

    – the Pax Americana (Berlin Wall to 9/11)
    – 9/11 to the end of the Great Recession in June 2009;
    – the Precarious Recovery (June 2009-present)



    The culture war also seems to cut itself into three eras, but perhaps in different ways. We have:

    – the Clintonite Moderation, an era in which abortion was safe, legal and above all rare, same-sex marriage was still a minority opinion even among the young, and the consensus on racial politics was "I'm not racist, I don't see skin color". This ends somewhere around 2004-2005 or so. If I had to pick a date I'd pick Hurricane Katrina, at which point mass opinion turned strongly against Bush fils and a decade of liberal advancement in the culture wars began.

    – a period of liberal triumph, capped out by Obergefell v. Hodges in the summer of 2015, two months short of a full decade. I strongly suspect that the issue of same-sex marriage provided a…lodestar, if you will, for social liberalism as a movement; first legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, it became the movement's biggest cause until Obergefell made it the law of the nation. Economically precarious, due to the Great Recession, but broad bipartisan support on foreign policy. The geopolitical spectres of the Trump era (namely China and Russia) are biding their time and rising in influence through this period, but the working geopolitical model is still Clintonite unipolarity: witness Mitt Romney being laughed at for invoking the danger of Russia's resurgence in the 2012 debates, a warning that proved eerily prescient.

    – as soon as Obergefell was read from the bench, American social liberalism suddenly met a crossroads: having won the biggest battle that it spent a decade fighting, it was suddenly at a loss as to where to go next, and splintered in a million different directions. Many of these directions (queer theory, climate change activism, BLM, etc.) had been rising in prominence for some time, but now that the biggest issue had left the stage multiple different causes tried to fill the resulting vacuum. An unshaken belief in a unidirectional history is shattered when Trump wins election, which also exposes that the unipolar world order of the Clinton years was no longer operable. A strong sense of foreboding and apocalyptism, struggle-sessions on the left and sycophancy on the right, mark the atmosphere of the era. Those trying to carve a third way out of the cold civil war are mostly attempting to return to the consensus of the 1990s (e.g. Bill Kristol), but there is little appetite for the consensus on the broader electoral market.

    It may be best to hold off on writing the book until the third and current stage ends, whatever that looks like…

    I would honestly start this book all the way back with a description of the post Cold War order and 'consensus' that was established in 1989 and whose unravelling has been the real story of the past two decades.

    But the narrative proper should definitely begin with September 11, 2001 (though perhaps with some mention of the Enron scandal, as a foreshadowing of what was to come in terms of the dysfunction of American institutions). Also because you can't have the Iraq War without the backdrop of those attacks, and they set up so much of what was to follow and would play out over the years.

    My take. I stripped things down heavily to what I thought were the essentials. I think the overriding theme may be that the 21st century has had an unprecedented amount of noise, and figuring out what's essential is probably the hardest task of all.

    Very interesting look at contemporary history, one I would surely read.

    I would like to point out one egregious gap: migration. Population migration in the 21st Century is quite possibly the single largest social, cultural, political, and environmental issue. It tends to remain below the surface because it doesn't directly effect the chattering/blogging classes. Its causes range from climate change (another glaring issue missing from this discussion), warfare, political polarization, tribalism, genocide. It is the single most prominent issue motivating and uniting the Trump base phenomenon as mere trickles of climate and political refugees from Central America seek asylum in the U.S. Not only is it caused by these various factors, it exacerbates them.

    I would ask you to relook at your outline with this in mind.

    Automation? What automation. There has been a massive productivity stagnation. Focus on that. The rest looks surprisingly good, though. Also, only one mention of the New Cold War with Russia -needs more exploration. 2004 is an awkward time politically and technologically to start, but makes for a very, very good contrast with our era.

    "This ends somewhere around 2004-2005 or so. If I had to pick a date I'd pick Hurricane Katrina, at which point mass opinion turned strongly against Bush fils and a decade of liberal advancement in the culture wars began."

    It ends in 2011.

    I second Jim H. on the topic of population migration. Specifically, you can even dedicate two sections on migration: legal v.s. illegal, their economic/demographic impact upon Red and Blue America + electoral map, and how they "intersect" with the rise of identity politics in the 2010's.
    One additional section that hasn't been brought up yet: domestic terrorism. Islamic, far right, anarcho-nihilist, and possibly, depending on the how the 2020 elections go, the far left. I know you have a sub-section on Sandy Hook, but it maybe better conceptualizing it as part of this broader trend instead of a standalone aspect of the Obama presidency. I don't think the zeitgeist c.2007 to c.2020 can be complete without accounting for all the terrifying events such as Virginia Tech, Boston Marathon, Orlando, Vegas, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Pittsburgh, etc.

    I almost forgot this. In "Chapter Fifteen: Romance and Sex in the 2010", you should add a sub-section on the rise of "alternate sexualities" (i.e. transexualism, gender nonbinary, gender queer, etc.) among late millenials and most notably in Gen Z'ers. If you can squeeze in some room, you can include how much of it was proselytized and spread on social media, and how shockingly quickly mainstream media and corporate institutions end up allying with it

    Nice layout. If you wanted, I'm sure you could publish this as a collection of essays, or hire out ghost writers for different chapters. I could write a chapter or two if you're open to it.

    Chapter Four should probably be rolled into Eight.

    In any case this is similar to an idea of mine (Lives on Hold: A Verbal History of the Crisis and After – verbal because a lot of the characteristics of oral history pertain, but not the medium.)

    I'm very late but just discovered this blog and this post was some good food for thought. (The blog is great, by the way, and there are reasonable comments! Quite an amazing feat.)

    Anyway, I'd just like to point out that while I agree with others that 2004 isn't the ideal starting point for this, I partly disagree with 9/11 being the starting point. Now, 9/11 is clearly a dividing line between eras. But I don't think starting a project like this there makes sense. I think you should either broaden the scope, and start it with the end of the Cold War, or narrow it, and start with the Global Financial Crisis.

    Basically I see modern (which I mean "current epoch") American as being divided into three eras, roughly…

    I. End of the Cold War/Tech Boom/90s-era prosperity: 1989-2001.
    II. Post-9/11/boom and bust era: 2001-2008.
    III: Great Recession and Great Fracturing: 2008-present.

    So you could view all of this as one large tome, covering the period from the end of the Cold War to the Covid pandemic. Or you could view it as three smaller books, one for each era. They could conceivably be a trilogy. Also, I think it's likely the Covid pandemic will be seen as another turning point, but precisely where you set that (the end of the pandemic, the start of it, or somewhere in the middle) remains to be seen.

    You could quibble with some of the start/end dates here: the 90s era could conceivably start with the fall of the Soviet Union in '91. I'd start the Great Recession era with the fall of Lehman Brothers in September '08, but you could start it when the recession began (December '07) or ended (June '09).

    But, anyway, that's the very high-level outline of how I'd want to see a project like this organized.

    As the thread has come back to life, you'd definitely have a new chapter to include now. Ch.10 – The Masters of Narrative Collide With Riboxynucleic Reality

    Great outline. A few suggestions— I think it would make sense to open with 9/11–it is hard to understand anything in American life without understanding that event and it’s repercussions. The centrist consensus around invading Iraq, along with the lefty critique from figures like Michael Moore or Chomsky, and the rightist critique from Ron Paul or Buchanan— all these trends would shape the Hillary v Trump election. In the “romance” section, it would be foolish to ignore things like Obergefell and Caitlyn Jenner.

    This is a fairly late comment, but if anyone reading this post in the future would actually like to see a project that approaches what is outlined here; an oral/cultural history of the 21st Century that conveys how it felt to live in it, the last two videos of this playlist do that: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ895CQuvzeURMq282OR57w-2lwdo625g

    The whole thing is worthwhile, as a matter of fact, as it covers the cultural experience of America from the 1950’s to 2019 (a coda on 2020 is planned but not yet completed.) Byrne Power, the man at the center of it, has both a deep and borad cultural and philosophical familiarity, combined with being “on the scene” during certain key time periods (San Francisco in the 1960’s, New York in the late 80’s through 90’s). Judging by my reading of this blog, both the author and the readers here will get much from it.