In America, Twenty Years Is a Lifetime

Whether you relish or despise any particular change, one cannot help but fall in love with the churn.

In America, Twenty Years Is a Lifetime

Last month, I had the delight of turning twenty years old in the midst of Stanford’s final exam season. My greatest joy over the past two decades, besides family and friendship, has been to grow up alongside the country I call home, watching its still-nascent history unfold with tremendous speed. Time just seems to pass more leisurely outside its borders.

In 2004, the year I was born, less than a quarter of American adults subscribed to home broadband that beamed the internet into their living rooms; today, 80 percent have subscriptions. Of the minority without broadband, three-quarters use their smartphones instead. Add the two groups together, and the share of Americans who connect digitally with one another on a daily basis has risen from two-thirds to 95 percent.

Five years after the fact, CNET proclaimed that, “in the world of mobile phones, 2004 will be remembered for its daring designs.” The most groundbreaking change: No more external antennas! The best phone of the year was Motorola’s “ultra-desirable” RAZR V3, which delivered such incredible features as a 2.2-inch color screen, support for MP3 audio, and five whole megabytes of storage. Even if users could browse the web, they would still not be allowed on without a Harvard email address.

2004 was the second year of a war which sent hundreds of thousands of American troops to occupy Iraq. Since then, the United States spent seven years failing to manufacture an Iraqi democracy, withdrew in 2011 only for the Islamic State to move in, and returned in 2014 as ISIS began beheading American journalists. So fatigued now are Republicans—whose votes authorized the Iraq invasion—from the misadventures of nation-building, they have lost their appetites for nation-preserving in Eastern Europe.

During the final century before America’s founding, the economy of the world grew by a mere 12 percent. Compare that to the U.S. economy’s 50 percent expansion in only the last two decades, and remember that those gains arrived despite two of the nation’s worst recessions since the Great Depression.

Are Americans happy with the splendid economy they have built? Of course not... much to the chagrin of President Biden. He is bewildered as to why, after experiencing the highest inflation in two twenty-year spans, his constituents do not look at record-low unemployment and smile. Someone ought to tell the president: The difference between three percent and eight percent unemployment is five percent of voters. The difference between three percent and eight percent inflation, meanwhile, is 100 percent of voters—every day, all of the time.

In the presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, the greatest concern of voters was not terrorism, or the economy, or the war in Iraq, but (brace yourself) “moral values.” Those Americans who most valued public decency broke overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate. In 2024, Republicans will nominate for the presidency a man whose least damning criminal indictment alleges that he had sexual intercourse with a porn star while his wife and newborn child were at home. Somehow, the politically relevant question is not whether he committed this reprehensible act (which he did), but whether the $130,000 of hush money he paid the porn star technically violated New York law.

America’s most sustained shift in twenty years has also been one of moral sensibility. In February of 2004, the then-mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, took a political gamble by issuing the first same-sex marriage licenses in the nation. Gay marriage was illegal in every state (including California) at the time, and opposed by a solid majority. Today, same-sex couples can legally marry in all fifty states, and their unions are supported by 71 percent of Americans, including majorities of both young and old.

My favorite development is this one: By my fourth birthday, interracial couples made up only six percent of all heterosexual married households, my grandparents among them. Fourteen years later, that percentage had tripled. For all of this country’s blather about “equity,” we underappreciate our recent progress toward good, old-fashioned equality.

Should I be blessed with an average lifespan of eighty years or so, I will die having witnessed one quarter of America’s story. My plan is to embrace the churn—to savor every moment, whether it thrills or infuriates me—because to live in a nation whose future I cannot predict is an unparalleled pleasure. Mark Twain said of America’s birthplace, “If you don't like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” I say: If you don’t like the state of America now, just wait twenty years.

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