First of all, what do we call it? Was it the zeros, as in “zero one, zero two, …”? Something seems to be missing in that handle. Or maybe the thousands, “thousand one, thousand two”? Night exactly the right ring, with all due respect to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The oh’s might work, as in “twenty-oh-one, twenty-oh-two.” But oh, as any decent mathematician will remind us, is not a number, so scratch that one.
The default seems to be the aughts, using the word that those greeting the twentieth century adopted when the 1900s began. Aught isn’t used in common parlance anymore – no one speaks of “getting married in aught five” or of “graduating with the class of aught seven,” but it may come closest to identifying the decade that began with the year 2000 and ends this week.
So, okay, let’s call it the aughts. What did the aughts do for us? What happened during the ten year span of human history that reaches its conclusion this week?
It started with great revelry, as every civilized nation in the world ushered in the new millennium with hopes of world peace seeming to grab hold in capital after capital. For those of us living in the western U.S., much of the celebration preceded our own, and through the wonders of satellite transmissions, we were able to see each major city, first in Asia and Australia, then in Europe and Africa, and finally in the eastern parts of the Americas, celebrate the seemingly significant turning of a page in the annals of human development.
It was a world-wide party that may have been rivaled in recent times only by the landing of men on the moon some thirty years earlier.
The joy lasted for most of that first year. And then it quickly dissipated.
When it began, lest we forget, Bill Clinton was completing his second term as president. U.S. unemployment was as close to zero as economists believe it can get (below four percent to be specific), a budget surplus had been achieved and the national debt was actually in the process of being wiped out (within seven to 15 years by most economists’ projections), the country was at peace and so was most of the rest of the world, and a major environmental agreement had been fashioned (the Kyoto accords) that would have marked a major step towards combating global climate change.
And in the last year of the aughts, the United States inaugurated its first African-American president to great fanfare worldwide.
In between those two years, however, things were not so rosy. And the not-so-rosiness began with the 2000 presidential election, which took six weeks to resolve and was ultimately decided by a margin of one single vote (at the U.S. Supreme Court).
What the Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore set in motion was the Bush decade, which is how I will always remember the aughts. Let’s review, perhaps for one last time, just what that man and his administration wrought (near homonym intended).
Whether he wrought it or not, 9/11 occurred on the Bush watch. Some, myself included, firmly believe he and his top staff were asleep at the switch; others are less inclined to cast blame (and, not coincidentally, instead point to the lack of domestic terrorist attacks thereafter). Either way, the cat was very much out of the bag after that horrific day, and the following years marked decisively the character of the aughts.
To be specific, the world became a far more frightening and far less peaceful place during the Bush years, as a war was poorly fought in Afghanistan and unconscionably initiated and hopelessly bungled in Iraq.
The result of these dual disasters has been a diminution of U.S. prestige and influence throughout the world and an increase in terrorist activities far beyond anything that existed when the decade began. (Again, apologists for Bush will say things would/could have been even worse; critics claim he caused or at least exacerbated the problems.)
But Bush has more to bear in his decade of dominance. His economic policies – massive tax cuts (especially for the wealthiest Americans), excessive deregulation of financial and commercial markets, and utter disdain for any attempt to deal with environmental degradation – made the country poorer in every respect. Gone are hopes of a diminishing national debt and of energy independence, and unemployment now soars at levels not seen since the early 1980s.
The other “legacy” that Bush and his gang have left is the utter destruction of bi-partisanship. Never mind that the idea of any kind of universal health care was anathema to Bush and his Chicago School of Economics pals. Eight years of the Bush brand of conservatism (marked by excessive foreign entanglements, astronomical budget deficits and a steadily dwindling middle class) have created a polarized nation in which the Republican Party is now bereft of any moderates (in the traditional sense of that word).
Perhaps the most telling statement about the aughts/Bush decade is that the U.S. Senate, long a bastion of democratic bipartisanship, has now been reduced to an undemocratic institution, wherein only a super-majority of 60 votes can pass meaningful legislation.
And while the former president has been essentially silent in the months since he left office, his chief attack dog, Dick Cheney, has maintained a robust, if often inane, assault on the new president, most recently suggesting, in constitutional terms, that he is giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy in his foreign policy decisions.
Meanwhile, even farther to the right (or perhaps “off the political spectrum entirely” would be the better phrase), a former governor of Alaska, who quit her job because she is “not a quitter,” is working up a frenzy in another legacy from the Bush decade, the tea bagger movement.
In the end, the aughts may not so much be remembered as the decade that began the “war on terrorism.” Instead, they may be noted as the years that brought the country Sarah the terror. For that reason alone, the Bush decade is best forgotten.