By many metrics 2020 was an awful year. But don’t forget: Americans reclaimed democracy, ousted a would-be dictator, stood up en masse against bigotry, and learned we could quickly and willingly adapt our lifestyle to a national security crisis. These aren’t small achievements.
The awfulness of 2020 has become one of the year’s most unforgettable cultural memes. But in the current cascade of 2020-bashing let’s not forget what went right this year — and what didn’t go wrong.
It yields perspective to recall that the year began with what appeared to be a national security crisis with Iran. The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and accidental downing of a civilian airliner set off protests in Iran, sent oil markets plunging, and threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Analysts feared a major regional war among nuclear powers before the year was out. Based on this unpromising start, it is remarkable that in fact 2020 saw the US involved in none of the world’s major armed conflicts, war did not break out or significantly worsen in the Middle East, and those conflicts underway — in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia and South Sudan — have thus far been kept largely to a dull roar. Moreover, despite increasing polarization, the US remained resilient against civil war.
Yes, the Trump administration badly mishandled a major health crisis, sunk the economy into a sub-oceanic trench, and rendered American passports largely useless. Even with a modest contagion index and hearteningly high recovery rate, the death toll from COVID-19 now outmatches that of all American wars, with more Americans dying per day of the disease than died on 9/11. And that’s just America: the cost in human life and medical resources worldwide is staggering, and the mental health cost incalculable.
But this moment of worldwide hibernation also gave the Earth a moment to breathe. American high-schoolers were finally able to get enough sleep, reducing rates of teen depression. The world’s peoples conducted a global social experiment in pandemic control that has better prepared us for the next onslaught. Developing nations became poster children for good governance. Faith in the miracle of science and the power of vaccination experienced a renaissance.
Americans have rediscovered the outdoors, the power of unstructured learning, the mental health benefits of hobbies and value of simple connections and staycations. They have turned out in huge numbers to local food banks and blood donation centers, filling in where the state has failed and revitalizing neighborhoods and communities. The story of the year is as much one of resilience as of catastrophe.
And as misbegotten as the US government response has been, the passivity of Trump’s response to the pandemic meant America avoided a much worse outcome. For all its flaws, for all the signs it was leading the country toward dictatorship, the Trump administration did not use that classic authoritarian tool — capitalizing on a security crisis to justify amassive centralization of executive authority and political crackdown — as might have been predicted by an administration prone toward authoritarianism and political opportunism.
Perhaps this was due to the power of the political resistance: the turnout in the streets at the travel ban and the detention camps, the trolling of Trump’s re-election campaign by youth on Tik-tok, the persistent pushback by the courts. Perhaps it was because the boredom of the lockdowns suddenly allowed an overworked, politically distracted generation both time and inclination to take to the streets en masse, risking their lives to protest racial injustice.
In so many ways, Americans demonstrated that Trump could steal democracy only at great cost, and forestalled some of the worst of which a man in his position could be capable. And ultimately, Americans removed Trump by a large margin — repudiating bigotry, corruption and creeping authoritarianism, affirming the constitution and principles on which the republic was founded, and modestly rehabilitating the country in the global gaze.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Americans learned they could quickly and willingly adapt their lifestyle to a national security crisis. For years climate activists have been begging nations to do just that, swimming against a social tide that made it seem inconceivable, even reckless, to quickly and completely stop flying, driving, polluting, consuming and straining economies to their limits. While it remains to be seen how to make this sustainable (and such strategies are contested and the impacts excruciating uneven) Americans like the rest of the world learned they were capable of sacrificing pleasantries in the service of a wider good. Nations have always been able to do this in time of war, but this was the first effort in history to adapt economic and social life so swiftly to a non-military existential crisis. While the extent to which the US has succeeded should not be exaggerated, the extent to which it has managed lends hope to its ability to do the same for other crises.
These aren’t small achievements. They are foundations on which to build. For all the 2020-bashing, it may be that we look back on this year not as a blemish, but as a historic turning point, the year when the human race began to take stock. If 2020 shocked us out of our complacency, gave us time to pause and notice what’s important, and expanded our sense of political possibility at a moment of global uncertainty, this is something to celebrate rather than scorn.
(cross-posted at Duck of Minerva)