Although this year has been a difficult year for many, it cannot be categorized as the worst in modern American history. The year 1968 was the most traumatic year yet. That year was plagued with assassinations of key leaders, the Vietnam war, and issues at home surrounding political, social, and economic unrest. This report disproves the hypothesis; “2020 is the worst year in modern American history.” Research reveals that although a lot has happened, it is too early in the year to categorize it as the most traumatic. As it stands, it is the second-most traumatic year, after 1968.
Traumatic Experiences in 1968
- In modern American history, 1968 was the most traumatic year ever, weighed down by a trivial war, assassinations, and social unease.
- It was in April 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. After two months, Robert F. Kennedy was also shot dead, as he was on his way to the presidency after winning the California democratic primaries. The American war in Vietnam came to a disastrous peak in 1968, with 50 American servicemen dying daily, on average, and a lot more Vietnamese. Politically, socially, and economically, the country was devastated as cities went up in flames.
- According to an article published by Politico, the writer states that 2020 is not yet as bad as 1968; at least not yet. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked riots in over 100 cities across the US. Later in the year, athletes at the Summer Olympics took a stand against racial discrimination and protested in silence.
Traumatic Experiences in 2020
- At only five months in, 2020 was already considered the second-most traumatic year. In comparison to the Great Depression, more Americans have been out of work in 2020, with many more needless deaths across the US. The pandemic has claimed more lives than several of America’s wars combined.
- As of September 10th, there were 6,585,288 coronavirus cases in the US; 196,132 deaths; and 3,875,666 recovered. As COVID-19 spreads across the US, its impact has been devastating as leaders grapple with the unprecedented toll it has had on the nation. Within the first four weeks, the unemployment rate in the US shot up with 22 million people filing for unemployment benefits. To add salt to the wound, the Department of Treasury was experiencing glitches which meant that there were several people that would not receive their stimulus checks.
- In the month of May, protests naturally sparked across the US after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer as he begged for his last breath, while other policemen calmly watched. The protests resulted in looting and destruction, which increased the tension with police officers who responded with force, sparking more violence across the US.
- In addition to rounding up civilians, police across different cities seemed to single out reporters by arresting them and firing tear gas and a pepper-ball gun at them. Reporters who experienced these include CNN’s Omar Jimenez, Molly Hennessey-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times, Kaitlin Rust of WAVE 3 which is an NBC affiliate, and JC Reindl of the Free Press.
- Between May 24th and August 27th, there have been several protests and riots. The map below demonstrates how widespread the issue was across the US. During this time period, there have been 10,600 demonstration events in the US. About 570 of these events, 5%, turned violent. Of these events, 80% were organized by the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Between January 1 and September 8, there have been 41,051 wildfires in the US. This is much more than the count for 2019 in the same period: 35,386. As September began, there were 40 large fires burning across Oregon, California, and Washington.
- Another potentially critical situation is the upcoming elections. The rise in tension between the Democratic and Republican parties across the US is worrisome. The recent concern is that the postal voting system, which sent out a statement that they may face voting limitations, could have been compromised in favor of the current US president. After hearing this news, protesters went to the home of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to confront him.
- Although data would support that 1968 was more devastating for the nation, the general sentiment is that things are at the worst right now with the “pandemic, economic duress, riots, and the fractious politics.” There is very little hope that things could get better. 2020 could still become the worst year ever. At this point, we can conclusively say that it is the second most traumatic year of this period.
2020: Why Does it Feel Like the Worst Year Ever?
Three reasons why 2020 feels like it’s the worst year in modern American history include social media/doom-scrolling, declinism, and continuous media (television) consumption. Unfiltered consumption of social media data is thought to cause a “never-ending dollops of our messy, nuanced, seemingly dire present,” which makes the past look rosy.
1. Social Media/Doom-Scrolling
- According to a publication by National Geographic, unfettered media consumption and endless doom-scrolling through social media posts and online news to stay abreast of the latest threats has left so many Americans with an obsession for the world’s seemingly increasing danger.
- The unending scroll through social media has led to racing hearts keeping a constant vigil for the next perceived catastrophe.
- The source further opined that people yearn to feel prepared, making them addicted to the updates, so they keep returning for more updates until they begin seeing the world as being far worse than it ever has before.
- A 2017 survey found that about 20% of Americans continuously monitor their social media feeds for updates.
- Unfiltered consumption of social media data is thought to cause a “never-ending dollops of our messy, nuanced, seemingly dire present,” which makes the past look rosy.
- Social media is said to be capable of making people perceive the present as worse than the past.
- This is said to have a negative psychological effect on the human mind.
- The times before the pandemic saw many Americans believing that the country was going downhill. Such belief stems from “Ancient Athenians who complained in the fifth century B.C., that their democracy wasn’t what it used to be.” The belief is known as “declinism or decline bias.”
- To support this theory, a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 60% of respondents thought that the influence of the United States on the world was on the decline, 31% were somewhat pessimistic, while only 12% were very optimistic about the country’s future.
- The National Geographic report suggests that “Americans might feel worse about the future than they did before, especially because stay-at-home orders and isolation have been affecting our mental health, which in turn increases the likelihood that we’ll see the world through the lens of negativity bias.”
- Another research by Carey Morewedge, a marketing professor at Boston University, suggests that people interpret current events negatively and prefer past events.
- The idea of dwelling on positive thoughts about the past instead of the negative part is known as “rosy retrospection or nostalgia bias.”
- The report further blamed the perception behind any year that feels like the worst, on the tendency of the brains to judge the present more harshly.
- Therefore, the decline bias principle is one reason behind the current year being viewed as the worst year ever.
3. Continuous Media (Television) Consumption
- A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association revealed that “respondents who kept up with the news cycle reported lost sleep, stress, anxiety, fatigue, and other negative mental health symptoms.”
- The same survey found that one in 10 Americans check the news every hour.
- Another investigation by Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 dubbed the Cultural Indicators Project, found a direct relationship between the time spent watching television and the possibility that the viewer will perceive the world as more dangerous or frightening, a phenomenon called Mean World Syndrome.
- Such stories of fear and peril from the media tend to pique our anxiety, putting the human brain on high alert. An advantage meant to protect the early man from predators and natural disasters.
- The strings of chaotic events in the United States in 2020, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, record-setting wildfires in California, protests against police brutality, and the upcoming election, have all contributed to the belief that 2020 is the worst year in American history.
2020: Significant Cultural Shifts?
American scholars and thought leaders have stated that 2020 has built a scenario ripe for the development of cultural changes in the United States. One of these changes include the greater involvement of Millennials and Gen Z members in social activism. At the political level, it is expected that if these generations exercise their right to vote, there could be substantial changes in politics in the upcoming years. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic and the health concerns that come with it could lead to a permanent change in how elections take place, with the increase of mail voting. Lastly, changes that have already begun are related to the criminal and justice system, in which state and city-level reforms are taking place in some areas of the country.
1. General Considerations and Change Drivers
- Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University has stated that “crises breed change”.
- According to a Harvard government and business professor, Roger Porter, this is because changes tend to be made when mistakes and improvements are recognized.
- Julian Zelizer, a history scholar at Princeton, states that crises such as the ones lived during 2020 allow for impediments such as partisanship to be set aside with the goal of promoting change at different levels.
- One of the drivers for change, according to Glenn Harris, the president of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation would be that the 2020 protests have involved people from different races and protest movements.
- This could be supported by the fact that 2 in 3 Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement according to The Washington Post.
- Similarly, Peniel E. Joseph, the director the of Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin also identifies the multirace involvement in the protests as well as the proposal of specific and drastic changes as drivers for long-lasting effects in the cultural landscape of America.
- The effect of 2020 could also be seen at a business level. A survey of Harvard alumni found that changes at a political level included the disposition of company heads to spend less on lobbying and elections as well as be more transparent when it comes to political spending.
2. Social Justice and Activism
- Elliott Brennan, a research associate at the United States Studies Center, states that younger generations (Millennials and Gen Z) will be more likely to become involved in social activism as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- According to Anne Lowrey, who writes for The Atlantic, a driver for this would be the fact that they have been some of the generations more hardly hit by the economic consequences of the lockdown. In addition, Millennials have now suffered through The Great Recession and now the COVID-19 lockdown.
- Tressie McMillan Cottom, a senior research fellow and associate professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill highlighted the use of technological tools such as high-tech surveillance, crowd fundraising, and the ability to communicate in real-time during the June 2020 protests.
- The adoption of these tools could be thought of as drivers for change in how protest and social activism takes place in the future.
- Representative Will Hurd supports this, as he points out the availability of live video when violent acts take place as tools for accountability.
- Similarly, the protests of June 2020, the responses of companies to the situation, and the reaction of the public to these responses shows change might be coming in the context of corporate social responsibility.
- This has led to the emergence of a new concept, Corporate Social Justice, which entails greater engagement of companies with their customers, employees, and the overall community they interact with.
- The adoption of this new model could lead to significant changes in the relationship between corporations, social justice, and consumers according to Lily Zheng, a diversity and equity consultant writing for the Harvard Business Review.
3. Justice System after 2020 Protests
- Changes in the criminal and justice system are already taking place, and they are expected to be long-lasting and impact how policing is done across the United States.
- Some changes include the banning of choke holds as well as the creation of a new crime called aggravated strangulation for disobeying this ban. This crime was created in New York state.
- Similarly, police departments in Washington D.C. are now forbidden from hiring people who have been involved in misconduct.
- Likewise, different cities and states are revising their rules regarding use of force and implementing an obligation to intervene when a fellow officer is being violent.
- Other changes include reduced funding of the police as well as schools severing their ties with police departments and hiring private security instead.
- A shift in perception about racial inequality in the country could be a driver for police reform and changes in the future. As an example, polls performed in 2015 showed that 49% of Americans believed the criminal justice system favored white people in 2015. This number rose to 67% in 2020.
- According to pollster Frank Lutz this was an unprecedented change in opinion, and he stated that the country had changed immensely in only 30 days during the June 2020 protests.
- Sociologist Neil Gross believes police reform is possible and has proposed a system through which racial disparity in traffic stops could be managed. Dr. Gross proposes the use of existing research to implement new police reforms that could be implemented in the near future.
- Kenny Irby, the community intervention director at the St. Petersburg police department, also believes police reform is possible and it might happen soon. In an opinion article for CNN he stated that “Meaningful police reform must include building bridges of trust, communication and accountability between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they have sworn to serve.”
4. Political and Electoral Changes
- As stated by Daniel Q. Gillion, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the 2020 protests could lead to the election of candidates that promote reform and oppose the policies of the current Executive office.
- Gillion states that this electoral behavior could lead to a considerable change in American politics that would last for years.
- Furthermore, according to Gillion, who has studied the history of protests in America, “We will continue to see the effects of these demonstrations in years to come. When protest occurs, we can expect that change is coming.”
- Regarding demographics, Ben Wessel, director of NextGen America, considers that as younger generations -Millennials and Gen Z- embrace voting, transition in political issues will become inevitable.
- In addition, the sheer number of Gen Z voters and Millennials -if they exercise their right to vote- and the progressive trend they have shown in general could also drive political changes influenced by the protests and economic hardships of 2020.
- Dana Fisher, professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland expresses in an opinion article that protesters participating in the June 2020 demonstrations were highly engaged in voting or were planning to become involved. Like other thought leaders, she believes this could be a game-changer in politics.
- Regarding COVID-19 and politics, Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America stated that “I think we’ll look back and see that this was like the Great Depression or a war, and that created political space to make big policy change (…)”.
- Slaughter believes that changes regarding issues such as sick leave could be permanent after the COVID-19 crisis. This change would be driven by the rising awareness regarding the need of these benefits, which according to her had been largely dismissed.
- When it comes to elections, Nick Troiano, director of Unite America states that “We may be entering a new era in which we look back a few years from now and see a transformation in the way we do democracy in our country.”
- Similarly, Tammy Patrick, senior adviser at Democracy Fund raises an important question based on the large amount of people asking to vote by mail due to health concerns caused by Covid-19 “with all these voters voting by mail, will they like it and do it next year and the year after that?”
- An important driver for this scenario is the possible adoption of online voting as well as the development of faster ways to count and report votes gathered by mail. Also, if no vaccine or cure is found by COVID-19, the cause for this increased interest in mail voting would remain.
- Troiano also believes that by 2024, a rank-choice system could be adopted, as it has been proposed in different states. This would protect mail voters in case the candidate they voted for drops from the race soon before the election.