Who were the most important individuals of the 2000s and the 2010s?
Let's play Time Magazine with the benefit of hindsight.
Every year, Time magazine releases its “Person of the Year” award. This is the person who, “for better or for worse”, “has done the most to influence the events of the year”. Very rarely, it gives out special awards — Winston Churchill as the “Man of the Half-Century” at the end of 1949, Mikhail Gorbachev as the “Man of the Decade” at the end of 1989, and Albert Einstein as the “Person of the Century” at the end of 1999. But there usually isn’t a “Person of the Decade” award.
So let’s play that game! In this post, I’ll list several contenders for each decade, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the case for each.
One difficulty of doing this for the 00s is that we now have the benefit of an additional decade of hindsight; there’s a question of whether we should consider the delayed impact of a person’s actions. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid this; our view of the importance of events will always depend in large part on where we’re standing now.
Also, just a couple warnings. First of all, the list is all men, reflecting the fact that power is a key driver of personal impact, and it’s still a highly unequal world in terms of the distribution of power. Second, you’ll notice the omission of two prominent figures of the period: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Putin resuscitated Russia and got involved in a number of wars, but ultimately Russia’s weakness limits his importance here. And Xi’s impact will be felt far more in the 2020s than it was in the 2010s, which were a decade of slowing growth and relatively few big changes for China.
Anyway, on to the list.
1) Osama bin Laden
This would be the obvious choice. A single spectacular act of terrorism — far worse than anything anyone else has managed before or since — changed the world on September 11th, 2001. It kicked off multiple bloody wars, the development of highly intrusive security states in Western nations and elsewhere, and a wave of political and social turmoil throughout the entire Muslim world.
And if we look at bin Laden’s continuing influence in the 2010s, it’s even more important. Arguably, this turmoil eventually led to the Arab Spring, the series of destructive wars that followed, and the fitful lurches toward modernization in a number of Muslim countries. The wars caused by 9/11 and the Arab Spring combined have killed millions. It’s also possible to view China and India’s crackdowns on their Muslim citizens as sequelae to the actions of al Qaeda, and Europe’s continued struggles over Muslim immigration have been deeply influenced by the War on Terror as well. And America’s reckless, clumsy response to bin Laden’s terrorism arguably started the world’s sole hyperpower on its precipitous decline, and accelerated the reemergence of the multipolar world.
2) George W. Bush
Bush is sort of the mirror image of the bin Laden choice here. Picking G.W. would be a statement that bin Laden’s act of terror didn’t have to be nearly as important as it was, and it was America’s subsequent choices — Bush’s in particular — that brought about hundreds of thousands of deaths, the development of modern security states, and the end of the unipolar moment. Also, if you want to lay a significant share of the blame for the housing crash, the Great Recession, and America’s increasing political polarization at Bush’s feet, then his influence extended beyond the 9/11 fallout.
The counterargument here is that any U.S. President would have gone into Afghanistan (perhaps with a bigger troop presence than Bush used!), that the development of the digital security state was inevitable given technological advances, that the Muslim World was a sclerotic tinderbox that was going to explode into war even if America hadn’t gone into Iraq, and that China’s rise made the end of the unipolar moment inevitable anyway. I don’t fully buy these arguments; Iraq was a huge blunder, and without it, I think the U.S. could have maintained its geopolitical prestige and clout for a decade longer. But I do think Americans’ traditional emphasis on Bush’s role in the events of the 00s overemphasizes our own country’s importance; China and the Muslim world have agency as well!
3) Hu Jintao
The Muslim world exploded into war in the 00s, and the U.S. tipped into decline, but I’d argue that the biggest change in the world happened in China. China had been growing rapidly for two decades when Hu Jintao took over the helm in 2002, but it was in the 2000s that its rise shook the world. It was in this decade that China took over from the U.S. as the biggest driver of global growth; the decade that it became the world’s largest exporter and the world’s largest manufacturer; and the decade of the “China shock”, in which Chinese competition caused huge disruptions in developed-world labor markets. But most importantly, this was the decade in which China made its biggest strides against poverty, pulling literally hundreds of millions out of indigence:
This was arguably the greatest single blow struck against global poverty in the history of the human race. It’s highly debatable how much credit Hu Jintao gets for this — the policies of his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and (especially) Deng Xiaoping, were far more important in driving China’s 2000s growth. But Hu provided a steady hand at the tiller during what might otherwise have been a time of instability, while also following Deng’s advice to keep a low profile in international affairs. So perhaps that quiet success deserves Person of the Decade status.
4) Ben Bernanke
The global economy almost collapsed into a second Great Depression in 2008. The amount of wealth destroyed in the housing crash of 2007-8, and the subsequent resulting stock crash, was certainly comparable to the 1920s and 30s. But the employment response ended up being much more muted — U.S. unemployment barely touched 10%, compared to 25% in 1933. The fall in GDP was also much more mild. The world did not turn to fascism, communism, or other radical political ideologies to get them out of the crisis; indeed, the late 2010s, after the recovery was complete, have seen far more turmoil.
Why did things turn out so much less terribly this time around? Arguably, it was because policymakers had learned from their previous mistakes. Ben Bernanke, an economist whose research dealt specifically with the economic fallout from financial crises, luckily happened to be the Fed chair at the time. His unprecedented program of emergency loans and quantitative easing (including bailing out Europe) helped prevent the crisis from reaching Depression levels, and arguably made the global recovery more rapid. Lots of people wrongly opposed Bernanke’s moves at the time; had someone else been at the Fed when disaster struck, things might have gotten a lot worse.
Of course, the argument against Bernanke as the Person of the 2000s is that most of his impact was felt in the subsequent decade.
5) Steve Jobs
Most of the options here are political figures (as is typically true of Time’s picks), and this is probably a natural bias of lists like this; science and technology take many years to show their influence, whereas politics happens fast. Furthermore, the period of 2004-2019 was one of productivity slowdown, so there’s a sense that the main things driving events in the decade weren’t in the innovation space.
The big exceptions — the two new technologies that changed human life forever in the 00s and 10s — were the smartphone and the social network. And the former was essential for the latter; it was the ability to be on Facebook or Twitter anywhere, at all hours of the day, that made them so engrossing and addictive. And that in turn created the critical mass of engagement necessary for social media to have a transformative effect on politics, social life, culture, and everything else.
Steve Jobs’ singularly forceful personality and combination of organizational acumen, product design, and systems thinking seem pretty important to the creation of the smartphone. How long would it have taken BlackBerry or some other company to gather the same convergence of technologies?
The biggest argument against Jobs here is that the smartphone didn’t have most of its impact til the 2010s.
So let’s move on to the following decade.
1) Donald Trump
Again, the obvious choice. If the specter of bin Laden loomed over the 00s, the specter of Donald Trump dominated the second half of the 2010s. Trump came to represent all of America’s culture wars — the BLM conflict, the #MeToo movement, the fight over immigration, and all the others. And his presence in the White House probably made these conflicts more intense and bitter. His candidacy in 2016 saw the return of race to the forefront of American politics, after decades of de-emphasis. He transformed the Republican party, giving ground on economic issues like Social Security and abandoning any pretense at Christian morality, while making immigration one of the party’s central issues. For half a decade, America lived, ate, and breathed Donald Trump — his tweets, his sayings, his policies, and the conflicts he represented.
The argument against Trump here is that he was primarily a symbol — much like Nixon in the previous era of turmoil. America’s culture wars began before him and will outlast him. Trump’s attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election (which technically came after the end of the 2010s) belie this somewhat, showing that he’s a singularly chaotic political force. Trump’s true impact may have yet to be felt. But in the 2010s, most of what Trump did was to become a focus for much of the culture-war shouting that took over American life.
2) Ta-Nehisi Coates
If Trump became the focus of the culture wars of the 2010s, Ta-Nehisi Coates did the most to define those conflicts. His powerful essays and widely read books became the intellectual core of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting a Black grassroots political reawakening in America and contributing substantially to the re-emergence of the crusading ideology that people now call “wokeness”.
The case against Coates is that he might have merely ridden the wave of unrest, defining its purpose and potential a bit more clearly, but not really changing its basic contours.
3) Mark Zuckerberg
It’s hard to decide whether Zuckerberg belongs in the 00s or the 10s here. He did his most revolutionary work when he created Facebook in the 00s, and adoption was substantial in that decade. I’ll re-post the chart from above:
But only in the 2010s did Facebook reach its full power — both economically (with the remarkable success of mobile ads) and socially. Ubiquitous smartphones meant that people were on Facebook all the time. It also caused the final “eternal September” event, in which normal people took over the internet from nerds and weirdos.
Lots of people debate the political significance of Facebook. Some claim it was responsible for Trump’s election in 2016; others blame it for the breakdown of consensus reality. Martin Gurri believes that social media has upended the relationship between the public and institutions, leading to an age of protracted, intractable unrest — much like the printing press led to chaos and upheaval in the early modern period.
I’m not yet sure what I think about this; there’s a lot of passionate irrationality in this debate, which to some degree has come to represent all of the tech industry’s angst about its role in the world. But I do think that Facebook’s impact has been truly global, whereas the impact of figures like Trump and Coates has mostly (so far) been confined to America and a few other countries. Also, I believe that social media has changed the entire nature of human life in ways that go far beyond politics, allowing people to keep in touch with old friends, making people’s identity more consistent over time, and causing human life to be far more public than before.
4) Jack Dorsey
The argument here is basically all of the argument for Facebook above, but with the added hypothesis that it was actually Twitter that changed world politics rather than FB or Instagram. I’ve written a ton about Twitter, and I don’t want to reprise that all here. But suffice it to say that I do think Twitter is probably more responsible for global political chaos than Facebook is, simply because Twitter is so much more adapted and specialized for arguing about public affairs.
The case against Dorsey here is that A) Twitter is as much Evan Williams’ baby as Dorsey’s, and B) Twitter hasn’t changed people’s personal lives as much as Facebook and its affiliated properties have.
5) Barack Obama
In addition to the important symbolism of being the first Black President of the U.S. — which inflamed the culture wars and caused the country to question its national identity far more than Obama wanted and far more than it should have done — Obama got some important legislative work done. He managed to push through America’s first true universal health care system, shambolic and compromised as it is. His stimulus and bailout programs were helpful in limiting the fallout from the Great Recession. And he made important progress in financial regulation and the fight against climate change. He also bolstered many parts of the welfare state. Frustrated Democrats see Obama as having been ineffectual, but his policy legacy is far more significant than they give him credit for.
The argument against Obama here is that his impact was mostly limited to the U.S. His stimulus and other economic programs helped avoid a bigger global crash, but in terms of foreign policy he was rather quiescent. He oversaw the killing of bin Laden and the effective defeat of Al Qaeda, but failed to do much to prevent Putin’s seizure of Crimea and the subsequent destabilization of the international regime of fixed borders that had been in place since WW2.
And the winners are…
I thought about this question for most of the day, and I think I’m going with:
Person of the 2000s: Osama bin Laden
Person of the 2010s: Mark Zuckerberg
(Runners-up: Ben Bernanke and Ta-Nehisi Coates)
These picks reflect my determination not to be America-centric — not to conflate what happens in the U.S. with what happens to the human race. Bin Laden kicked off a once-in-several-centuries ferment in a quarter of the world that ended up taking millions of lives. Bush was an important actor in that drama, but ultimately a supporting character. Meanwhile, the advent of ubiquitous mobile social media of the type defined by Zuckerberg has deeply altered the lives of human beings across the entire globe, even apart from its impact on politics.
Of course, both of these picks also reflect both cross-decade influence and hindsight. Much of bin Laden’s impact is still being felt, while Zuckerberg did his most important work a decade before it was fully felt. But that’s the problem with decade-level analysis; the cutoffs are arbitrary, as is the size of the time period.
Anyway, those are my picks. If you disagree, let me know in the comments!