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America the Traumatized: How 13 Events of the Decade Made Us the PTSD Nation

The Millennial Decade screwed with our heads and destroyed our national identity. Are we in for a cataclysmic century?

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Economic Meltdown

An ancillary to the doctrine of American exceptionalism is the belief that every generation of Americans will do better economically than their parents did before them. It's a ridiculous notion if you really think about it -- the cycles of economic history utterly defy it -- but one that enables the American propensity for building economic bubbles. In the 2000s, we built a big one, and today we suffer the effects of its bursting with a mighty pop.

The apparent prosperity of the early years of the decade was built on a lot of fake money (what we call credit), much of it invested in real estate, which was said never to lose value. (Did anybody bother to phone back to the '80s, when real estate values took a dive?) The deregulation of the financial industry, begun under President Bill Clinton, encouraged the creation of all manner of financial instruments -- some that were gambles animated by complicated formulas, others that allowed you to use the equity in your home as a line of credit, still others that were mortgages with adjustable rates on homes granted to buyers who could not afford them. The junky mortgages were then unloaded by their creators, lapped up by other financial entities eager to take on those debts for their promised returns.

By 2006, housing values began to dip, and the returns on that debt began to slide. By 2007, the housing bubble was on the verge of bursting. In 2008, in the midst of yet another presidential campaign, it did.

An Historic Vote

And what an election it was. The contest for the Democratic nomination lasted far longer than any in recent memory, with the two candidates left standing after Super Tuesday each representing a potential "first" for the country: If the Democrats won, the next president would either be a white woman or an African-American man. The contest drew a division between the party's two most stalwart activist constituencies, the feminist and civil rights movements. Many black women felt themselves both ignored and torn between the two candidates.

When Barack Obama emerged as the Democrats' pick, American exceptionalism both found expression in his story and a test in his candidacy. The narrative of American exceptionalism, begun in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, hinges on the idea of our nation as one hospitable to immigrants. Yet Obama's exotic name provoked an hysterical conspiracy theory based on right-wing allegations that he was not born in the U.S., and was therefore ineligible for the presidency. This theory lives on today, even though authorities and reporters have authenticated his Hawaii birth certificate.

In September 2008, the stock market crashed, all but ensuring the election of America's first black president, as his Republican opponent, John McCain, was associated in the public mind with all that had gone wrong under George W. Bush. Our traumatized republic had at last reached its tipping point. While Obama's core supporters were wild about him, his majority was secured by many who voted for him reluctantly.

Before we had an African-American president, it was easier to believe we had, as a nation, largely put that old racist past to bed. Obama's election hit the nation like a thunderclap, shaking the nuts from the trees. For those on the right, the election of America's first black president was yet another trauma added to the string that had piled up over the course of the decade. On the left, the elation felt by a constituency traumatized by the authoritarian and oligarchical excesses of the Bush years was bound to deflate when the new president was revealed to be both human and a politician.