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About this book

The US continues to be the world’s most powerful nation, an enormous driver of culture and technology. The present century has witnessed many momentous (and controversial) developments, the full significance of which may take many years to assess. Rethinking a Nation offers an ambitious, historically-informed analysis to help readers understand the current state of US affairs and their likely future course. Providing a survey of US history since 2000, and considering the current state of the nation in light of the events of the past two decades, Philip Jenkins discusses the impact of the 9/11 attacks and the two lengthy wars that ensued; the causes and outcome of the economic near-collapse of 2008; critical debates over the proper role of the state in matters like health care; and the stark decline of traditional industries and working class communities.

At the fore in his exploration are themes of the growing gulf between old and new Americas; the crisis of whiteness; the challenge to masculinity; the pervasive impacts of technology; surging inequality; and the new American role in a multipolar world. With chapters covering topics and issues such as race and immigration, the Obama government, protest movements, gender and sexuality, climate change debates, social media, fracking, the Trump election, and the US in global context, this is an essential text for undergraduate and postgraduate students of American History and anyone seeking to understand the contemporary US.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
This book concerns a very recent period of US history, so recent that many find it difficult even to view it as history rather than current events. If that is so, then surely it is the proper realm of the journalist rather than the historian. But the idea of writing the immediate past as authentic history does have distinguished precedents. As early as 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen published Only Yesterday, a still-valued history of the 1920s. Not only did Allen tell the story of that decade, but he daringly ranged far beyond the conventional political narrative to explore social, cultural, and economic trends. In 1940, he followed that triumph with a parallel history of the 1930s.
Philip Jenkins

2. 1 Unsettled Accounts

Abstract
The twentieth century ended with a sense of impending catastrophe. Through the 1990s, commentators on the tech industry warned that computer programs were designed to recognize dates with the years as two-digit numbers, but many of these programs were not equipped to cope with the shift that would occur to the year 2000 – to Y2K. Computers, they claimed, would be so baffled by the date “00” that they would fail, or at best behave unpredictably. At midnight on December 31, 1999, according to this prediction, all major systems would fail simultaneously – energy, transportation, communications, finance – unleashing an apocalypse. As these prophecies evolved and circulated, many Americans prepared for the approaching Y2K disaster, assembling emergency food supplies and weaponry, hoarding cash or gold.
Philip Jenkins

3. 2 Wars on Terror

Abstract
In the last months of 2004, the US Marine Corps added a new battle honor to its long history, with a savage struggle in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Fallujah was a bastion of the Iraqi insurgent forces that resisted the US-led invasion of their country, and which variously comprised Islamist and nationalist elements, and diehard supporters of the former dictator Saddam Hussein. The city had already been the setting for one battle the previous April, and US Marines now led a second assault, supported by Iraqi and British units. Ultimately, this campaign – Operation Phantom Fury – cost allied forces 100 fatalities, almost all American, besides 600 wounded. The insurgents lost 2,000 dead, and several hundred civilians perished. This six-week-long battle involved urban combat and guerrilla warfare on a scale that the US had not experienced since the height of the Vietnam struggle in 1968. Although Fallujah was a decisive US victory, by no means did it mark the end of combat in a seemingly endless guerrilla war.
Philip Jenkins

4. 3 America’s New Faces

Abstract
In July 2004, the Democratic National Convention met in Boston to nominate John Kerry as presidential candidate, with a keynote address by rising political star Barack Obama. Obama’s speech thrilled the convention, and confirmed his image as a potential national leader. He stressed the nation’s essential unity, despite its apparent stresses – the unity of Red and Blue states, of different ethnic and racial groups – and above all, presented an optimistic message of hope, and better days to come. The speech had a special resonance at a time when ongoing military crises overseas provoked a mounting sense of despair at home. Yet as Obama recognized, such negative news was only one part of a much larger national story, when most Americans were enjoying great prosperity and participating in headlong technological growth, during an era of incredibly rapid social change and development. To borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan, the opening years of the twenty-first century felt rather more like Morning in America: it was seed-time.
Philip Jenkins

5. 4 New Economies, New Media

Abstract
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was the leading presenter at the 2007 Macworld gathering in San Francisco. Amidst many technical glitches, he introduced the iPhone, the pioneer of all modern concepts of the smartphone; as he boasted, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” The new iPhone offered internet access and a GPS (Global Positioning System) connection. The iPhone could send texts and emails, and it also incorporated a music system based on Apple’s popular iPod, as well as a convenient camera. Its touch-screen navigation and virtual interface represented a massive departure from earlier systems, which had used miniature keyboards. Little about this device was entirely new, and since 2002, BlackBerry had offered a smartphone including internet access, email, and texting. But the iPhone combined all those elements, together with elegant design, and far superior ease of navigation. It brought these technologies out of the realm of executives and tech enthusiasts, and into the consumer mainstream. Even to describe such a device today may seem ridiculous because smartphones have become so ubiquitous globally. At the time, the whole iPhone concept was so groundbreaking that some critics mocked it as an inevitable failure, but it met a phenomenal new demand. Apple sold 21 million iPhones in 2009, 125 million by 2012, 231 million in 2015. By 2017, the company’s revenue was $229 billion, and the following year, Apple became the first publicly traded US company with a market value of $1 trillion. By 2016, the number of smartphones of all types worldwide exceeded 2 billion.
Philip Jenkins

6. 5 The Crisis of the Old Economy

Abstract
For much of the twentieth century, the Michigan city of Saginaw was an industrial boomtown typical of many in the Upper Midwest, and it was the vibrant heart of a flourishing Tri-City area. That economic activity relied on several General Motors plants, mainly connected with the Chevrolet brand. In 1979 the corporation employed 26,000 people in the area. In 1968, the city briefly achieved global fame as a quintessential national symbol from a reference in the Simon and Garfunkel song “America.” From the 1980s, though, manufacturing activity declined precipitously, leaving the city with the unenviable boast of having one of the fastest-shrinking populations in the US. Saginaw approached 100,000 people in 1960, but that fell to 62,000 in 2000, and just 49,000 by 2016. In 2009, at the depths of the great recession, unemployment peaked at 23.5 percent. The city has suffered badly from crime, violence, collapsing infrastructure, and general urban blight. Similar stories of sharp contraction – if not catastrophe – could be told of many other troubled communities across Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Illinois. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Michigan was the only US state actually to decline in population.
Philip Jenkins

7. 6 Cities Reborn

Abstract
As the former capital of the US automobile industry, Detroit, Michigan, has long symbolized the decline of urban and industrial America. Since 1950, the city’s population has declined from about 1.8 million to perhaps 700,000, as many residents withdrew to the suburbs, and businesses left the city. Although causes were many, civic mismanagement and extensive corruption both played their part. Today, large areas of the city are effectively abandoned, with stretches of land reverting to grass. Lacking an adequate tax base, public services operate only sporadically. Detroit represents a process not just of decline but of deurbanization. By 2013, the city was unable to pay its debts and obligations, including pensions, forcing it to declare bankruptcy – in technical language, to seek Chapter 9 protection. Newspapers offered headlines such as “Detroit’s Reckoning,” “The Motor City Goes Bust,” and – from Time Magazine – “Is Your City Next?” Debts of $20 billion made this by far the costliest bankruptcy in US history. Some legal maneuvering was required to prevent the forced sale of the world-class collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. After a thorough financial restructuring, Detroit came out of bankruptcy protection at the end of 2014.
Philip Jenkins

8. 7 The Crash: 2008

Abstract
Founded in 1850, the investment bank of Lehman Brothers was long one of America’s most prestigious financial firms – by the start of the twenty-first century, the nation’s fourth largest. From 1997, Lehman became ever-more heavily involved in the mortgage business, with a special focus on subprime borrowers, those who would not meet the customary criteria of credit worthiness. With its daring use of innovative but risky financial instruments, the firm in effect became a real estate hedge fund rather than a conventional bank. As Lehman’s business expanded, so did its vulnerability to any downturn in the real estate market. By 2008, the firm had assets of $680 billion, supported by barely $22 billion of solid capital. Through that year, the likelihood of disaster grew daily as real estate markets plummeted, and a series of attempts to rescue the endangered firm failed. On September 15, Lehman declared the largest bankruptcy in US history, with some $600 billion in assets. The announcement provoked the steepest decline in stock prices since the terrorist attacks of that terrible earlier September, in 2001.
Philip Jenkins

9. 8 The Obama Years

Abstract
Barack Obama inspired very high expectations. In 2008, artist Shepard Fairey designed a stylized portrait of Obama that featured the word ‘Hope,’ which became one of the best-known political posters in modern American history. Although it was created several months before the financial crash, the message of hope gained new significance as the economy plunged. Recalling the image of Che Guevara that had adorned so many student apartments and dorm rooms in the 1960s, the Hope poster was displayed without irony by millions of Americans, especially among the young. It appealed to those who might have described themselves as too cynical for political dreams. Although the image is often described as ‘iconic,’ it often bore a greater resemblance to an actual religious icon than a mere poster. As we will see, religious imagery and expectations followed the candidate. At Obama’s inauguration in 2009, megachurch pastor Rick Warren declared that ‘We celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African American president of the United States. … And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.’ For his supporters, Obama’s election was a time of unlimited potential, and even a chance to remodel American society in a way that had not been done since the New Deal of the 1930s.
Philip Jenkins

10. 9 America in the World

Abstract
Stuxnet was an alarming and highly destructive new computer worm identified by IT experts in 2010. Although the worm caused widespread damage, it particularly aimed at devices that automated electromechanical processes. The principal target was the centrifuges that were at the heart of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, through which the country sought to develop nuclear weapons. Unlike most such worms or viruses, this particular example came not from malicious civilian hackers but from a government or intelligence agency, and the chief suspects were the United States and Israel, presumably working in cooperation. As an example of cyber-warfare, Stuxnet represented a whole new clandestine front in international struggles. It also demonstrated the extreme concern that the worm’s inventors had in preventing the further spread of advanced weapons of mass destruction.
Philip Jenkins

11. 10 Defending the Earth

Abstract
In 2016, law enforcement agencies confronted protests on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. At issue was the building of the Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota across the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to a terminal in Illinois. However, it was feared that the pipeline might threaten vital water supplies. Protests lasted for months, winning the support of a wide range of environmental and religious groups, both in the US and overseas. At the height of the movement, thousands joined the Native American protests and maintained an encampment, as the media regularly depicted images of fighting and alleged official brutality. The movement made clever use of social media, under the hashtag #NoDAPL (North Dakota Access Pipeline). Protesters claimed that they were not just defending their particular communities, but were protecting ancient sacred places and burial grounds. Banners carried the slogan “Defend the Sacred.” The Standing Rock affair symbolized the conflict between aggressive exploitation of energy resources and the defense of community and landscape. Advocates saw resistance as a spiritual movement as much as a political one.
Philip Jenkins

12. 11 Still the American Dilemma

Abstract
In August 2014, police received reports of a convenience store robbery in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St Louis. A white police officer, Darren Wilson, encountered two young black men whom he believed to be the offenders. As so often occurs in such situations, very different versions report what happened subsequently. The officer claims that one of the men, Michael Brown, tried to take his gun before fleeing, but a second round of violence then ensued. Wilson fired 12 shots, six of which hit Brown, killing him. Protesters claimed that Brown was shot after surrendering and raising his hands, and that his last reported words were “Don’t shoot!” The incident ignited demonstrations and riots in the St Louis area, and further protests followed when Wilson was acquitted of criminal charges. Michael Brown’s death attracted such passion because protesters saw it as a symbol of the violence all too often visited by police against young black men. The Ferguson events became a cause célèbre for protesters against police violence, and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” became a slogan nationwide.
Philip Jenkins

13. 12 Gender and Sexuality

Abstract
When Jim Obergefell married his partner John Arthur in 2013, the union was legal in Maryland, where the ceremony was conducted, but not in their home state of Ohio. As Arthur was terminally ill, Obergefell was anxious to secure proper legal recognition so that his name would appear as partner on the death certificate. A series of cases culminated in the Supreme Court, which in 2015 decided in his favor, based on the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)). The Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage throughout all 50 states, including some that were strongly opposed to the practice. In his majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke movingly of marriage as a fundamental right that could not be denied, and praised full equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples. Four vigorous dissents complained that the Court was de facto making itself a supreme legislature and overruling the democratically expressed will of many Americans. Dissenters pointed out the novelty of the same-sex marriage idea, which was assuredly not known to the Founding Fathers. The Obergefell decision highlighted many critical debates surrounding the Court, including attitudes to the Founders’ original intent, and the issue of when interpreting the law should better be understood as active law-making.
Philip Jenkins

14. 13 Culture Wars and Campus Wars

Abstract
As Halloween approached in 2015, Yale was one of many universities that advised its students how to avoid choosing costumes that might offend anyone’s sensitivities, for instance by exploiting racial or sexual stereotypes. In response, the academic couple in charge of one of Yale’s residential undergraduate colleges issued a thoughtful email justifying the legitimacy and even usefulness of acts or symbols that some might find offensive, when presented as parody or satire. Erika Christakis urged that potential conflicts should be dealt with through rational discussion, and might actually serve as effective teaching moments. This call for tolerance sparked an uproar, as students en masse confronted and harangued her husband, Nicholas Christakis, shrieking abuse in ugly moments that circulated widely on video. Protesters aggressively scorned any suggestion that the matters at issue should be the subject of intellectual disagreement, demanding instead that colleges should offer their students emotional comfort and security. The couple was forced to resign from Yale. Together with many similar incidents in these years, the Yale affair demonstrated how very radical views had become entrenched on many liberal or progressive college campuses. In other events, speakers who were deemed controversial or insensitive were silenced by what critics denounced as the state of mob rule that appeared to exist on many campuses.
Philip Jenkins

15. 14 The 2016 Election

Abstract
On November 8, 2016, the US held its presidential election. Although the polls showed a close race, the final consensus was that Hillary Clinton would comfortably defeat Republican Donald Trump by a national margin of around 2 or 3 percent in the popular vote. Some Democratic partisans ventured the hope that the polls were being too modest, and that Clinton would actually achieve a landslide victory, winning traditionally Republican states that had always seemed beyond their grasp. Very few observers challenged this consensus. By far the most accurate prediction of the actual outcome came in a comic cartoon published in the liberal magazine The New Yorker to coincide with Halloween on that October 31. Cartoonist David Sipress portrayed a child dressed in the most terrifying costume then imaginable, namely an electoral map that showed Republican red sweeping over the battleground states and conquering most of the Midwest. If not quite perfect in detail, Sipress’s map was the most accurate prophecy of the actual outcome.
Philip Jenkins

16. 15 Trump

Abstract
In August 2017, far-right protesters gathered in Charlottesville, VA, to oppose the removal of statues of Confederate leaders. This Unite the Right rally attracted white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, as well as many left-wing counter-protesters. In the clashes that ensued, a far-rightist drove a car into a crowd of protesters, killing a young woman. Reacting to the events, President Trump declared that “I think there is blame on both sides. You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides.” As his remarks were reported and interpreted, Trump was condemned for describing Nazis and Klansmen as “very fine people,” justifying the liberal attacks on him as a white supremacist. At the same time, he seemed to be condemning those people who protested against the extreme Right. Many conservatives joined in that reaction, finding his words utterly unacceptable.
Philip Jenkins

17. Conclusion: Only Tomorrow

Abstract
In discussing changing ethnic attitudes in recent history, I mentioned the case of the character Apu in The Simpsons, suggesting that it would be unimaginable for media today to portray such a figure (see above, Chapter 3). In many other areas too, a modern audience must look with astonishment at media depictions of just a quarter century past; that gulf of comprehension indicates the speed of changes in this era. So swiftly have these transformations occurred – and are continuing to occur – that only with difficulty can we imagine how they might develop in the near future, say over the next two decades. Can we even contemplate the world of 2040?
Philip Jenkins
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