Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Decade's most influential people in the world

By Rick Morris

Since we passed the 3/4 mark of the decade a few months ago (to little fanfare), I hatched an idea for a blog post about the most influential sports figures of the decade, largely because I firmly believe that the individual befitting that award goes unmentioned by all. But it occurred to me that a list of the most influential people in the world as a whole would be interesting as well.

I'm basing these rankings on the amount of influence these individuals have had over the ways we live, the ways that society functions and the ways society will function in the future. These influences can be for good or ill -- influence is influence, after all.

First of all, I want to give honorable mention to Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, the founders of YouTube. When the history is finally written about the technological advances of our day, I'm convinced that they will be on a very short list of the most important innovators. While Internet video certainly existed before YouTube came about in 2005, it wasn't nearly as mainstream. The invention of this website dovetailed nicely with the explosion in various types of broadband availability and served as THE entity most important in developing video-on-demand on the Internet. Quite simply, Hurley, Chen and Karim created something that will affect the way we consume media far into the future.

5. (TIE) Vladimir Putin and Howard Dean. Surely, this is an odd couple if ever there was one! But since my rankings were only five-deep, I could not choose between them for the final spot.

Let's examine Putin first. For several decades leading up to the Nineties, the leader of the USSR would have had to make such a list. For example, could a Top Five of the Eighties have not included both Reagan and Gorbachev? Unlikely. But as the Soviet Union faded into history, it took with it its vast influence over the world. Russian President Boris Yeltsin would certainly not have made such a list in the Nineties, at the low ebb of power for that country in the last hundred years. But Putin's Russia has roared back with a vengeance this decade, taking advantage of openings caused by ramifications of American foreign policy mistakes. While Russia has asserted itself as a key player on the world stage, make no mistake, the means it has chosen will be a major cause of strife and a threat to free societies in the years to come. The old Soviet axis seems to be reconstituting in a way, as Putin gathers up any adversaries of the U.S. that he can find to befriend (Iran, Venezuela and to a certain extent China). Also, his regime is taking on disturbing fascist tendencies at home, as our blog post from August documented. Even after his term as president ends next year, Mad Vlad will continue pulling the strings in the Kremlin and the effects of just the actions he's already set in motion will already be extraordinarily far-reaching.

Now to Howard Dean, who emerged from complete obscurity as governor of the gay-friendly state of Vermont to become one of the most important American political figures of the last 50 years. While he's best-known nationally as a punchline with his infamous speech after the Iowa caucuses in 2004, Dean actually emerged from that election cycle as an enormous transforming figure in the political system. In the months following the end of the first phase of the war in Iraq, when George Bush was appearing in front of "Mission Accomplished" signs and the public was still savoring the heady feeling of having deposed Saddam Hussein, Dean rode his opposition to the war to the front of the pack in the Democratic presidential field. This was made possible in large part by Dean harnessing the nascent blog movement and the organizing power of the Internet to level the financial playing field with an absolute blizzard of small-time contributors. By combining grass-roots political practices with the technological possibilities of the Web, Dean managed to bring the antiwar movement into the mainstream and changed forever the ability of political insiders in both parties to dictate party nominations by fiat. Personally, I regard the former as a great negative and the latter as a great positive, but the far-reaching influence is undeniable and led to his selection as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

4. Osama bin Laden. I imagine that an explanation of bin Laden's influence in the 2000s needs little elaboration. The fact that he's not #1 on the list is certainly a measure of the extremely consequential presidency we've lived under for the last seven years. The phrase "9/11 changed everything" became a cliche long ago, but as I always say, cliches get to be cliches because they are true. OBL belongs on the list if for no other reasons than the fear he instilled by launching the first attack on the American mainland since the War of 1812 and the resulting security measures that followed -- and those factors are just the tip of the iceburg. There's certainly a spot waiting for bin Laden in Hades, but in the meantime, he resides both in the hinterlands of Pakistan and at #4 on our list of the decade's most influential people.

1. (TIE) George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. For one man to trump bin Laden's influence this decade in the aftermath of 9/11 would have seemed unlikely, but three would have seemed preposterous! Yet, the style of governance in America the last seven years has made it so. Bush is, as he says, "The Decider," and must therefore be listed here as the man with the final word. But his chief deputies belong right with him for the directions they've successfully pushed for him to adopt, Cheney in foreign policy and Rove in domestic policy.

First, Cheney. He and his neoconservative fellow-travelers persuaded Bush to enter into war in Iraq. Effects of this conflict will be felt for decades. Most are negative, from the diminishing of our deterrent threat around the world to hostility stirred up in Arab countries to the trillions of dollars we are sending over there to the fact that the American people were able to turn against a war so quickly after 9/11. Cheney was the chief backer of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the successes of 2007 would never have occurred if Rumsfeld had not been forced out and the surge policy inserted in. The positive side of the ledger for Cheney is mostly in his rare forays into domestic policy, such as pushing Bush to pursue positive tax policies (leaving aside the disastrous spending ones).

Rove, while no longer in government, did more to shape Bush's theories on government than any other figure. Like the Clintons, he merged policy with politics in a crude manner. Unlike the Clintons, he was not quite so skilled at it. True, he helped Bush manage to slip across the finish line in 2004, although the jury is out about whether it could have been accomplished against a candidate better than the pathetic John Kerry. Rove's notion of "compassionate conservatism," a feel-good compilation of contradictory blather, became Bush's domestic governing philosophy and ultimately his political undoing along with the Iraq mess. Rove had greedy dreams of stitching together a Republican dynasty like the one in the early 1900s, but he sold the conservative soul to do so. From education (the horrific "No Child Left Behind" boondoggle and reprehensible sellout of poor kids by abandoning vouchers in the face of bullying from Ted Kennedy) to health care (burdening generations to come with the asinine Medicare prescription drug fiasco) to spending (completely condoned as long as Republicans were operating Congress and operating the old pork dispenser) to immigration (let the illegals flow in unchecked so that Big Business contributors can hire them for 10 cents per hour) to the basic issue of competence in government (Katrina, which in fairness was also victimized by state and local lack of government), the Rove/Bush philosophy of trying to build a permanent majority by being all things to all people did nothing but alienate the base. Their tone-deaf White House political apparatus was constantly a day late and a dollar short in answering Democratic attacks after the 2004 reelection campaign and led straight to the debacle of 2006. There would be no Speaker Pelosi or Majority Leader Reid were it not for the bumbling of this Republican trinity. Even as they fade into history, however, their legacy will loom strong for at least a quarter century. And that gives them a collective influence the likes of nobody else this decade.

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