When 2021 began, it seemed it might bring some measure of resolution to three major upheavals that had defined 2020. The turmoil of the Trump presidency was set to give way to a much more traditional president who vowed a return to normalcy. Joe Biden promised to more aggressively tackle Covid-19, and the rollout of safe, effective vaccines raised hopes that the world could put the pandemic behind it in 2021. Finally, though it was surely naive to think that the widespread reckoning with systemic racism that began in 2020 would be resolved anytime soon, advocates waited to see whether the many promises of meaningful change would come to fruition this year.
Yet on all three counts, 2021 brought further disruption and uncertainty, rather than normalcy or resolution. It began with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s second impeachment, and Republicans — led by the former president himself — continued all year to propagate the lie that Donald Trump had rightfully won the election. Covid-19 kept spreading through hotspots in the country and around the world, and the emergence of two powerful variants made clear that the disease would remain a permanent part of daily life. And the emergent power of “critical race theory” as a political flashpoint and divisive events like the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse suggested the country was just as far — if not further — from a consensus on racial justice than it had been last year.
How will history remember 2021? POLITICO Magazine asked 18 historians to envision the entry for this year in a hypothetical future history book. Many, not surprisingly, highlighted the erosion of democratic norms in the United States, most notably through the ongoing attempt to question and overturn legitimate election results. A number of submissions focused on the downstream effects of the pandemic, like labor market shifts and disruption to education. We heard about racial inequality: continued systemic racism against Black Americans, an uptick in violence against Asian Americans and an overall feeling that the country was polarized along racial lines. Other contributors believed 2021 will be remembered as as another missed opportunity to address the climate crisis, as the year the United States ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan, or as a worrisome inflection point for America’s place atop the post-World War II democratic order.
Here’s how the experts think future historians will write about this year.
A century of American global leadership began to falter
Mark Mazower is Ira D. Wallach professor of history at Columbia University.
American statesmanship had forged liberal internationalist institutions and norms over the past century — falteringly before the Second World War, more decisively after it. Events in 2021 suggested that this epoch was ending. An attempted right-wing putsch at the start of the year was one blow to the country’s standing. Another was the Republican Party’s refusal to stand up to the man chiefly responsible. The collapse of moderate conservatism in the USA compared strikingly with Germany where, later in the year, Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down. After 16 years in power, she had turned her country into the de facto leader of a unified Europe, the largest democratic bloc in the world. At 67, she entered retirement more than a decade younger than President Joe Biden was at the start of his term. She was also, to state the obvious, the country’s first female head of state. Run by a competent, diverse, relatively youthful political class, Germany seemed to have learned the lessons of the past. The United States, by contrast, exited 2021 looking like a polity in trouble: bitterly polarized, spending heavily on a military it did not know how to use, facing the prospect of judicial counterrevolution from an extremist Supreme Court. In convening a summit of democracies as the year closed, was the Biden administration reaffirming American global leadership or lamenting its passing?
Joe Biden showed that government can be the solution
Meg Jacobs teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University and is the author of Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and The Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s.
The year the Reagan Revolution ended — that is how 2021 will be remembered. With its trillion-dollar spending bills, the Biden Administration vanquished the Reagan-era idea that government is the problem, not the solution. From Covid-19 relief to the massive infrastructure bill, the single biggest federal investment to date, Biden’s legislative accomplishments rivaled those of the New Deal. 2021’s Great Depression was the Covid pandemic. And Biden revealed his grasp on the importance of government in a crisis. He promised early on, “shots in arms, money in pockets.” Was his execution perfect? No. But then again, neither was Franklin Roosevelt’s. It took several years before FDR got the Works Progress Administration off the ground, and unemployment did not return to pre-1929 levels for years. The New Deal was a radical departure in American policy, burying the laissez-faire approach once and for all. Biden’s pivot came after generations of delegitimizing government effectiveness and a moment of intense polarization. So he could not champion his successes as loudly and boldly as did Roosevelt — though some at the time argued that he should take a page from FDR’s playbook and start slapping “Build Back Better” onto every construction project and singing its praises over the airwaves and social media. Nevertheless, from the long view, 2021 may have been the year that government got the United States through a once-in-a-century pandemic, saved the economy and put the world on track to a more resilient, greener future where, as Biden was fond of saying, we “reward work, not wealth.”
Goodbye, forever war; hello, forever pandemic
John Ghazvinian is executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present.
2021 was the year the “Global War on Terror” — launched with great fanfare and optimism by President George W. Bush in 2001 — finally drew to a close. The U.S. military, sent to Afghanistan to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden, crush al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and rebuild the country in America’s image, never formally acknowledged defeat. But it never needed to. The images of U.S. planes scrambling to evacuate personnel from Kabul airport, as desperate Afghans dangled and dropped from their ailerons, left little doubt about the scoresheet. After years of hawkish warnings about not “letting the terrorists win,” the U.S., had, in a sense, done just that. The Taliban, universally loathed in 2001 and firmly in the crosshairs of the most powerful military the world had ever known, had held on tenaciously for 20 years. As soon as the invader’s back was turned, it took barely a week to overrun the country. It was the most ignominious and visible defeat for American foreign policy since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The defeat in Afghanistan was symbolic of a broader shift — not as widely noticed, but one with more lasting consequences. From Riyadh to Tehran, from Baghdad to Jerusalem, the United States — for nearly a century the sun around which a constellation of Middle East rivalries and grievances revolved — had become largely irrelevant. In Washington, policymakers touted the Abraham Accords, signed a year earlier by Israel and several pro-American, autocratic Arab regimes, as a victory for U.S. interests. But arguably more important was a conference quietly convened in Iraq in August, at which arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran talked face-to-face about how to resolve the region’s differences. For the first time, the U.S. was uninvolved — a bystander in a regional initiative that would grow in the coming years into a more serious mechanism for independent leadership by Middle East powers.
As if to underscore the point, 2021 was the year that the fate of landmark nuclear accord with Iran — after years of dramatic negotiations, abrupt withdrawals, and fruitless renegotiations — was finally sealed. Iran was simply not interested anymore. Tehran saw the depressing certainty of extreme U.S. sanctions — along with the opportunity to build a “resistance economy” and warmer economic ties with China — as preferable to an unpredictable second deal that Washington could simply withdraw from again. America, too, turned its attention to China and Russia, concluding that these priorities overrode the cost of another negotiation with Tehran. The United States, almost unnoticed, had finally given up on the Middle East. And the feeling was mutual.
But if President Joe Biden thought he was about to catch a break, or find a moment to begin addressing America’s deep domestic dysfunctions, he was sorely mistaken. The “Forever War,” as it had been dubbed by cynics, was replaced, almost immediately, by a new — far deadlier and far more disruptive — conflict, one that would also take decades to prosecute. The global Covid-19 pandemic, which had announced itself in 2020, and which the world had naively believed would be defeated within a year by a rapid global vaccine rollout, dug itself in for the long haul. The similarity between the two historical phenomena was striking. In both cases, the globe faced an “enemy” that was elusive, nebulous and persistent, but also seemingly all around, ready to pounce on the world’s weakest defences, and demanding an unprecedented kind of vigilance. “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes,” Bush had said in 2001. “Americans should expect not one battle but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” He was referring to a sinister network of radical Islamists, but his words could have easily been recycled and spoken by Biden in 2021 to describe a microscopic virus and its many mutations. The Forever Pandemic had arrived.
The Great Resignation, in every sense of the word
Marcia Chatelain is the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in history.
In the spring of 2021— a year after some leaders in the United States acknowledged the need for heightened measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 — news media began to report on the “Great Resignation.” This phenomenon referred to the millions of people who had left their jobs for better employment opportunities, to start their own businesses, or to attend to increasing caretaking responsibilities exacerbated by the pandemic. These resignations fueled factory strikes and emerging labor organizing efforts, forcing employers to provide higher wages and better benefits.
As the labor market contended with shifts in the availability of workers, there was a feeling of resignation among the nation that 2021 would not provide much of a relief from the despair of the previous year. The year opened with an insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, and ended with several members of Republican leadership still denying the extent of the damage and violence of the event. The possibility of a Democratic president addressing the economic ravages of the Covid crisis with social safety net spending for childcare and the cancellation of student debt was extinguished by recalcitrant members of his own party. Within a year of impassioned racial justice protests that united communities across the country and prompted institutions to claim they would commit to an anti-racist agenda, racists launched campaigns to undermine educational efforts to teach honest and complex history under the banner of fighting “critical race theory” in schools. Yet, for those who remained committed to realizing a healthier and more just future, job resignations and feelings of resignation would not deter their important work.
The American experiment in peril
David M. Kennedy is professor of history emeritus at Stanford University.
The year 2021 opened with a clamorous warning shot across the bow of the American ship of state. A seething mob of unhinged bozos, egged on by the duly defeated president of the United States, stormed the nation’s Capitol in an attempted coup aimed at keeping the loser in power. Yet for all their riotous fury, they managed to monkey-wrench the constitutional machinery for barely six hours. Some coup — but that was not the end of the story.
In those same early days of the year a pandemic-addled people cheered the near-miraculous arrival of vaccines to protect against the deadly Covid virus, which by then had claimed nearly 400,000 American lives. Yet rejoicing soon gave way to head-scratching puzzlement as millions of Americans defiantly refused to be vaccinated, inexplicably choosing possible self-immolation over safety and salvation.
Together, those traumas to the bodies both politic and physical starkly exposed the vexations that beset the American experiment in democracy in its third century — not to mention what they said about the timeless cussedness of human nature.
Single years are not usually highlighted in the historical record — 1066 and 1776 are rare exceptions — and 2021 is unlikely to claim a place alongside such memorable dates. But it nevertheless provided a window on some deep-running historical currents that would powerfully shape the remainder of the 21st century.
Despite its pathetic fatuity, the assault on the Capitol vividly highlighted the depths of alienation that afflicted tens of millions of citizens. To a striking degree, Americans had become distrustful people, with scant confidence in their institutions and waning trust in each other. As those grievously disaffected malcontents continued to stew in their resentments, delusions and disappointments, they sought ever more aggressive challenges to the norms, values and institutions that had sustained the republic for more than two centuries. A tribal political culture had emerged, polarizing the electorate and paralyzing the political system.
And even as the federal government’s successful promotion of unprecedentedly rapid vaccine development impressively demonstrated the awesome capacity of the modern state to marshal financial, human and scientific resources at scales and velocities once unimaginable — when political will could be mustered and focused — vaccine refusers no less impressively demonstrated the degree to which plain old irrationality could torpedo even the most beneficially enlightened policies.
Meanwhile, as Americans continued to squander their dwindling stock of social capital, and struggled to sustain an effective government of, by and for the people, on the other side of the planet, an ascendant China, repressive but remarkably resilient, was relentlessly demonstrating the efficacy of a radically different kind of social and political order.
Two societies, two systems of governance, two visions of the world ahead. Which would prevail as the 21st century unspooled was a question that lay uncomfortably and urgently in the lap of the future.
The year we learned that education is infrastructure
Claire Bond Potter is professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research and co-executive editor at Public Seminar.
In 2021, Americans learned that schools were critical to a United States economic infrastructure that was underprepared and unready for a national crisis. Every school — onsite or online — became both a public health project and a political target. School board meetings became politicized and angry, and elections to those bodies suddenly became hot contests. As the nation’s instructors, students, parents and school administrators navigated in-person Covid-19 protocols and emergency online learning, school boards, librarians, administrators and teachers were bombarded with revived demands, often driven by political operatives, that subversive teaching materials about race, gender and sexuality be purged from classrooms.
What did Americans learn? When parents became remote or essential workers, they were also expected to be teachers’ aides, revealing that underfunded schools were a critical component of an equally underfunded, and understaffed, American childcare system. When students appeared in class erratically, often on mobile phones, the country learned it had vast “internet deserts,” affecting millions of Americans’ ability to fully participate in society. It learned that many public school students, and presumably their parents, were so loosely attached to the educational system that an estimated 3 million simply disappeared. When teachers, already exhausted from 2020, quit or retired in record numbers (Florida, a state hammered by both Covid-19 and the culture wars, saw vacancies increase by more than 67 percent), the nation learned that school personnel were frontline workers, too. In 2021, Americans learned that what used to be the best school system in the world had bent and broken under a cultural and public health crisis — and that it was crucial infrastructure that had to be systematically rebuilt.
Asian Americans faced disease and discrimination
Catherine Ceniza Choy is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming book Asian American Histories of the United States (2022) and professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The racial and medical scapegoating of immigrant and U.S.-born Asian Americans, the fastest-growing group of all racial and ethnic groups in the early 21st century, as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic persisted in 2021. According to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, between March 19, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021, nearly 1 in 5 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced verbal harassment, shunning, physical assault and/or civil rights violations. Although Filipino nurses comprised just 4 percent of the U.S. nursing workforce, they accounted for approximately 25 percent of Covid-19 cases and deaths among nurses. Tragically, Asian American contributions to health care did not make them immune to coronavirus-related harassment and violence. Age-old stereotypes of Asians as disease carriers, perpetual foreigners and exotic objects were tenacious and deadly. These hate incidents and the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, 2021, which resulted in eight lives lost, six of whom were Asian American women, challenged cherished notions of the American dream and its promise of equality and upward social mobility. Asian Americans reckoned with contemporary anti-Asian violence and its longer history by organizing to raise awareness of their over 150-year-old presence and unrecognized contributions. Activists relied on existing Asian American advocacy organizations as well as created new ones. Artists and scholars documented loss, grief and survival so that we would never forget.
The nation came apart — and ignored the warnings
David W. Blight is Sterling professor of history at Yale and the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth … to pluck up and to break
Down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
— Jeremiah 1:9-10
The year 2021 was remembered most vividly by its first month, in which a sitting president and his allies, including within Congress, attempted a coup against the United States government by trying to overturn an election and install the defeated Donald J. Trump instead of the duly elected Joseph R. Biden. The unprecedented, violent insurrection of Jan. 6 prompted the second impeachment, and eventual partisan acquittal, of Trump. In the long run, however, the coup began to succeed by failing, morphing into a potent Lost Cause ideology that millions clung to as a victory narrative — a victory over liberalism and pluralism. A right-wing authoritarianism, increasingly prone to violence, craved a hopeless utopia without multiculturalism and rooted securely in local or state control.
2021 would be remembered as the year of a calming yet stymied Biden presidency, hamstrung by the Covid pandemic, by the withdrawal from Afghanistan and by divisions in his own party embodied in a senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, who saved his patriotism for his own state. The Biden presidency was also thwarted by a virulent new neo-fascism embedded in a Republican party openly devoted to voter suppression, racism, states’ rights, tax cuts, investment portfolio enhancement and one of modern history’s most pathetic yet successful “Big Lies.” The “stolen election” of 2020, Trumpism’s most potent lie, thrived by sheer dint of its repeated uttering on Fox News. Political “polarization,” between completely separate information systems organized along ideological lines, morphed by the end of 2021 into what many commentators began to label as a new kind of “civil war.” Americans steadily lost hold of the very meaning of a “nation,” a composite of many peoples, cultures, and regions that all give up something dear to build and preserve the whole.
2021 was not the single moment of apocalyptic breakup of the 21st-century American experiment in democracy but the prelude to less visible yet routine coups against the constitutional republic. 2021 revealed the dysfunctional elements of the U.S. Constitutional system, especially the undemocratic U.S. Senate, the Second Amendment, the absurd electoral college and a fatefully politicized Supreme Court serving for life and driven by righteous right-wing ideologies. That Republicans practiced voter suppression so openly led to violent clashes during elections. Advocates of universal suffrage embraced going to jail and other civil disobedience to fight voter restrictions.
The left fought back in the wake of 2021 with the tools they had. The House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 investigation exposed the crimes against the state and the Constitution by former President Trump and his allies, although only handfuls were ever prosecuted and jailed after the right-wing took back control of Congress in 2022.
Year after year book prizes and artistic and journalistic awards would go to those who served as Jeremiahs, showing the people the future of their “republic,” always teetering on the brink of political and environmental collapse. The post-Trump era would produce great history, drama, art and literature as the nation atrophied and at times exploded in the streets. Mass shootings increasingly gave to classical “tragedy” a new American meaning. Across the turbulent world ravaged by pandemic and climate change, America was increasingly considered a failing democracy and often referred to in countries where liberal democracy survived as “The United States of Guns.” The Trumpian Lost Cause built its monuments in laws and stories and well-funded networks of communication, while liberalism fought with reason and logic against a foe with too many guns.
Racism — the other epidemic
Brenda E. Stevenson is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College, University of Oxford.
2021 was a year filled with hope of return to a “normal” way of life that had been stripped bare by a global pandemic that, by New Year’s Day of 2021, had killed at least three million, more than a tenth of that number of lost lives in the U.S. Just a few weeks before the end of 2020, the first American had received the Covid-19 vaccine. There was (or seemed to be) some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel thanks to rapid development of multiple vaccines that proved largely effective in curtailing deaths of those who contracted the illness. By April, some 200 million vaccinations had been given and Americans were optimistically returning to work, school, houses of worship and more. The economy, too, experienced a recovery, with unemployment falling over the year to just over 4 percent.
But while the country witnessed in heart-wrenching real time the fragility of life, this reality did not stop the racial disparities and hate that so racks the nation and, each and every year — even in a year of masking up and sheltering in place — is responsible for meaningless loss of life. 2021 was the year that racialized health disparities finally made headlines with many studies indicating that racial and minority ethnic groups (Black, Latinx, American Indian/Native Alaskans) were twice as likely to die if they contracted Covid. It also was the year when Asian American/Pacific Islander hate crimes skyrocketed in part due to an unfounded belief that these communities were the “cause” of the pandemic. This exercise in hate tragically included the murder of six Asian American women in a mass shooting in Atlanta. Hate crimes against African Americans, always the most targeted, were up an additional 40 percent in 2021. Attacks against other racial and cultural minorities, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized peoples (immigrants, houseless, disabled, etc.) continued as well. Simply put, 2021 would be remembered in part as a year when America held onto hope of moving past one of the most destructive pandemics of the past century, but in which hate — a perverse illness itself — still flourished. This was a “normal” that no one needed.
Jan. 6 foreshadowed further strain on American democracy
Geoffrey Kabaservice is vice president for political studies at the Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.
“If destruction be our lot,” Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow Americans in 1838, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Lincoln’s denunciation of national suicide by mob rule seemed to prophesy the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by a rabble of Donald Trump’s supporters. Just a few days into this American annus horribilis, Americans and the world were shocked by the ghastly images of that day, illustrating the historic firsts and worsts of Trump’s presidency.
What few could see clearly in 2021 was that Trump’s hold over his party, and that party’s willingness to break democratic and constitutional norms, gained strength in the months following his departure from the White House. Most Republicans in Congress put party over country at every turn that year, despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recognition that Trump’s big lie of a stolen election imperiled the “shared commitment to the truth and a shared respect for the ground rules of our system” that enabled American self-government. A majority of Republican voters abandoned the responsibilities of citizenship by choosing to believe Trump’s demagogic claims despite any verifiable evidence of significant voter fraud, and almost 1 in 3 told pollsters that violence might be necessary to “save” the country.
Democrats, for their part, failed to respond with appropriate seriousness to the passage in Republican-controlled state legislatures of Trump-inspired measures to nullify democratic elections. Faced with an existential threat to the nation more consequential than even the Covid-19 pandemic, the internally divided Democrats focused their attention elsewhere and missed the opportunity to maintain a broad popular coalition that could have countered what followed.
In the cold light of historical hindsight, 2021 demonstrated that too many Americans took their democracy for granted — as a fact of life to which they gave as little consideration as the air they breathed. Ultimately, that proved to be by far a greater danger than the shambolic events of Jan. 6.
The right to vote came under attack
Keisha N. Blain, a 2022 National Fellow at New America, is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, and author of Set the World on Fire and Until I Am Free.
The year 2021 will forever be associated with widespread efforts to curb Black voting rights in the United States. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act has been under attack for decades, over the course of 2021 conservative legislators across the nation consolidated their efforts to disenfranchise Black people. In the aftermath of the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, a wave of states, including Florida, Texas, and Georgia, passed laws to restrict access to voting.
The year, in fact, witnessed an unprecedented number of attempts to pass voter suppression laws — building on the devastating 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. According to an October 2021 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, 425 bills to restrict voting access were introduced in 49 state legislatures. Nineteen of those states were successful in passing laws that would make it harder to vote. For example, Georgia — where Black people represented close to 33 percent of the population — created provisions that would allow the state government to override county election boards and potentially disqualify ballots. Other states instituted strict ID requirements, reduced early voting hours, and restricted the ways people vote by mail. These measures most often impact Black voters and other voters of color — part of longstanding efforts to disenfranchise marginalized groups. The proliferation of voter suppression laws that sprang up in 2021 closely mirrored earlier efforts to disenfranchise Black people in the Jim Crow South. While voter suppression tactics were certainly not new in 2021, the year represented a tragic moment when conservative legislators took advantage of the Shelby decision to pass pernicious laws that undermined the essence of American democracy: the right of every citizen to vote.
A new president continued a weak foreign policy
William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and associate professor of public policy and history at the University of Texas at Austin.
The year 2021 brought more surprising continuities in American foreign policy and politics. President Joe Biden, despite his campaign promises of a dramatic departure from the Trump administration, instead continued in much the same tradition he inherited from his detested predecessor — and which Trump had in turn mirrored from Obama. The United States kept trying to conciliate Russia despite Putin’s escalating aggression; finished the Afghanistan withdrawal that Trump had started, with calamitous results; continued irking allies through combinations of neglect, disdain, and vacillation; remained indifferent to free trade; watched Iran escalate its nuclear program; and sought to avoid confrontation with the North Korean regime. Biden also embraced Trump’s more confrontational approach to China, including recognizing the Chinese Communist Party as America’s most formidable adversary, and reallocating America’s military, diplomatic, and intelligence resources accordingly.
Yet while taking a hard line against China represented a rare bipartisan agreement, Biden failed to use it as a basis to rebuild national unity. Instead he continued Trump’s tradition of governing through division, catering to his fevered activist base while neglecting the middle. America’s fragile constitutional system also came under increasing strain from both sides. On the right, Trump and his acolytes continued undermining democratic institutions through efforts to overturn the 2020 election and fuel cancerous conspiracism, while on the left, the Democratic Party’s progressive wing continued undermining democratic values such as freedom of speech and religion through militant intolerance against dissenting voices. As the year ended, many Americans worried that renewal remained elusive for their beloved nation, divided at home and weakened abroad.
American democracy cleaved along racial lines
Nell Irvin Painter is the author of The History of White People and Edwards Professor of American history, emerita, at Princeton University.
2021 was the year of the attempted coup of Jan. 6 seeking to overturn the presidential election of 2020 in favor of Donald Trump. This event, visible worldwide as it occurred then circulated widely in photos and videos on social media, represented a galvanizing example of the “mediatization” (from the French recognition of politics as médiatisé) of a moment within a trend in the American public realm.
The highly mediatized attempted coup deepened the already glaring partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats deplored and investigated the assault as a mortal threat to American democracy; Republicans accepted, even praised the attempted overthrow of democracy. Supported by majorities of white voters, white public figures, and white nationalists, the Republican Party increasingly appeared — and increasingly was seen — as the party of white people.
2021 did not invent partisan colorization, which dated back to Democrats during Reconstruction, Redemption, and Jim Crow in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to Republicans’ Southern strategy in the later 20th century. In all these eras, white parties employed a range of tactics — terrorism, legislation, exhortation — to deny Black people their citizenship rights. But those earlier days, the Democratic/Republican divide had not been seen as so thoroughly Black/White. In the 2020 election, President Joseph Biden credited Black voters for his and Vice President Kamala Harris’ victory, increasing the intensity of these associations and furthering the visualization — the colorization — of American politics.
The riot stood out as a visual representation of the country’s racial divisions. As months passed and the riot lost its visual intensity, pundits talked public opinion, insisting that rural and “suburban” voters — i.e., white people — did not care about voting rights or police brutality. In 2022, Republican campaigns against so-called “critical race theory” paid off in votes, deepening the distinction between parties for and against a recognition of the role of race in U.S. history. As national Democrats turned away from the causes that had motivated Black voters, those voters no longer turned out massively, and Democratic candidates lost. By 2022 democracy had become Black, and anti-democracy had become white. The choice was made for whiteness and against democracy.
Trump’s disastrous legacy lived on
Garry Wills is professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University.
In 2021 America, the second-greatest polluter nation in the world, did nothing to thwart the greatest menace to the world: Global warming. It did not retard climate change, but accelerated it. The year’s Glasgow environmental conference was rightly characterized by the “Supergirl” foe of global warming, Greta Thunberg, as so much “Blah! Blah! Blah!” The United States sent President Joe Biden to Glasgow with empty hands and empty pockets. His pockets had been picked by his predecessor President Donald Trump, who rescinded American participation in the Paris Agreement, which pledged its 196 partners to significant cuts in carbon emissions. Biden’s hands were struck empty by a blow from a single senator who, thanks to ludicrous Senate rules, could stymie emission cuts within America. That was the singular accomplishment of Joe Manchin. The coal industry never made a better purchase than when it bought him.
Trump was bound to oppose the Paris Agreement because it was a stunning achievement by President Barack Obama and his skilled Secretary of State John Kerry. But even aside from that, any international agreement was nefarious in the eyes of Trump, who alone can fix things. Trump left Biden a mere rubble from the careful architecture of international agreements assembled after World War II — the U.N., NATO, IMF, ASEAN and all the NGOs that work beneficially under the aegis of these treaties.
President Biden inherited many disasters from Trump, including a mountain of thousands dead from the coronavirus pandemic. The death count piled up as Trump crippled the U.S. response, saying Covid-19 was no worse than the common flu and could be cured by all kinds of remedies short of vaccination — UV light, bleaches, drugs (causing a run in the stores on hydroxychloroquine). This is just one of the uncounted afflictions visited on America by Donald Trump. In 2021, we were forced to count them.
The year of the Big Lie and the persistent pandemic
Alex Keyssar is the Stirling professor of history and social policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. His books include The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy and Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
2021 was a year when the downward spiral of American political life accelerated. The year began dramatically: On Jan. 6, a mob of thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump (who had lost his bid for reelection in November 2020) attacked and occupied the Capitol building in Washington just as Congress was preparing to formally declare that Democrat Joseph Biden had been elected to the presidency. It was an attack without precedent, an assault on democratic processes and institutions, organized with the help of White House officials and grounded in Trump’s loud insistence that he had actually won the presidential election and was the victim of widespread electoral fraud. (No such fraud was ever detected, by the courts or even by Trump’s own attorney general.) Although the attack on the Capitol failed to prevent Biden from becoming president, the event set the stage for an intensified, rancorous struggle over the preservation of democratic values and institutions.
Indeed, it was what transpired after Trump left office that made the year 2021 loom so large in American political history. Instead of riding off into the political sunset as a defeated one-term president, Trump remained at the helm of his party. Nearly all Republican leaders, displaying a cult-like devotion to Trump, chose to embrace the Big Lie — that Trump had actually won the election and that Biden was not the legitimate president. They did so with substantial support from the Republican base, which was receiving nearly all of its information from right-wing media outlets. This embrace of the Big Lie — which included the ostracism of Republicans who did not follow the party line — led to partisan gridlock in Congress, stymieing much of Biden’s agenda.
More importantly in the long run, it unleashed an assault on democratic principles and procedures in many parts of the country. Ostensibly aimed at preventing fraud, laws making it more difficult to vote — particularly for poor and minority voters — were passed in states whose legislatures were dominated by Republicans. New districting maps were drawn that permitted Republicans in closely competitive states to elect large legislative majorities, as well as a majority of U.S. House seats. Procedures were altered so as to put decisions about disputed votes and procedures in the hands of partisan actors, rather than formally neutral officials. Meanwhile, federal legislation to protect voting rights and democratic processes languished in the Senate — whose own procedures permitted partisan minorities to prevent the passage of new laws. What was clear by the end of 2021 was that one of the two major American political parties had abandoned the principle of majority rule and devoted itself to durably gaining, or retaining, power with the support of only a minority of the electorate.
The political fracturing of the nation extended to its handling of the other distinctive dimension of American life in 2021: the Covid-19 pandemic. The year began with high hopes that the pandemic would soon be contained, thanks to newly invented vaccines that were being injected into the arms of millions. Death rates began to decline, as did the economic toll of the pandemic, which had severely disrupted businesses, workplaces, education and social life. By the early summer, it appeared that 2021 would be remembered as the year when Covid-19 ceased to be a threat to the well-being of Americans. But progress then stalled, with rates of infection and death bobbing up and down in different regions and then surging nationally as winter approached. The persistence of the pandemic stemmed in good part from the reluctance or refusal of a third of the population to be vaccinated. Vaccination rates, remarkably, were much lower among Republicans than among Democrats; conservative media discounted the threat while Republican state officials often declined to institute strong measures to prevent the spread of disease. In addition, the paucity of vaccines in poorer nations permitted new variants of the virus to emerge and circulate around the globe. By the end of 2021, more than 800,000 Americans had died of Covid-19, as had millions of residents of other nations. Although the pandemic would eventually recede, the year provided somber — and for many, sad — evidence that neither impressive advances in medical science nor the power of modern nation-states could fully protect everyone from the ravages of infectious disease.
Hatred toward Asian Americans — and a show of resilience
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Irvine and director of the UCI Humanities Center.
President Donald Trump left office in 2021, and upon his departure, the U.S. inaugurated the first female, first African American and first South Asian vice president. Trump’s influence on many Americans’ attitudes toward racial minorities, though, outlasted his presidency. His insistence on naming Covid-19 the “Kung Flu” or “China Virus” inspired a wave of anti-Asian incidents in 2020, 2021 and beyond. In March 2021, a shooting in Atlanta resulted in the deaths of eight people — six of them Asian American women.
The rise in anti-Asian hate, particularly toward Asian American women, was not a new phenomenon but rather the continuation of a long history of racialized and frequently sexualized othering. The Page Act of 1875 banned entry into the United States of women for “lewd and immoral purposes,” while Hollywood and the popular media promoted the racialized sexualization of Asian American women through tropes like the Dragon Lady and the Geisha Doll. And the expansion of the U.S. military into Asian countries during the Cold War stimulated the rise of a “sexual-military complex” as Asian women provided essential labor catering to the needs of U.S. military personnel. The intertwining of race and sexuality throughout U.S. history helps to make sense of why Asian American women — fantasized as submissive, alluring, dangerously exotic — became particular targets of hate and anxiety.
In response to the attacks in 2021, the Asian American community fought back in individual and collective ways. The day after the Atlanta shooting, a Chinese woman in her 70s was punched in the face on the streets of San Francisco and decided to attack her assailant. On the community level, Asian Americans organized safety escort groups, held self-defense classes and even used art and music to protest violence and demand respect. In addition, Asian American political leaders introduced and passed hate crime legislation to make it easier to report and respond to these incidents. Still, a debate remained among the community about whether to focus on countering hate crimes, such as through increased law enforcement, or on addressing less spectacular but nevertheless damaging forms of systemic racism through community empowerment.
The wave of anti-Asian attacks came alongside greater racial and political polarization in the United States overall. Yet throughout 2021, those who were targeted found ways to care for vulnerable members of their community and to protest for justice.
The end of the progressive century
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Even before Joe Biden completed a year in office, it had become apparent that his presidency was failing. Expectations that Biden would restore some sense of normalcy after the mindless tumult of the Trump interlude had enabled him to win the White House. Yet by the end of 2021, it was blindingly clear that the normalcy Americans took for granted was gone for good. This, Biden himself proved incapable of recognizing.
Biden was a center-left politician whose gifts included little by way of imagination or originality. With his “Build Back Better” reform agenda, he sought to revive a progressive tradition that had enjoyed a centurylong run in American politics. Instead of reviving that tradition, he exposed it as terminally exhausted.
Successful leaders benefit from good luck. Biden’s luck was mostly lousy. He played little direct role in the humiliating debacle of August 2021 that concluded the Afghanistan War. But as commander-in-chief, he owned it. Similarly, Biden did not take any specific action to cause the spike in inflation to a 40-year high, a sharp rise in gas prices, intermittent shortages in the availability of consumer goods, and the increase in migrants piling up at the border with Mexico. Neither was he responsible for the persistence of the Great Pandemic. But Americans had been long conditioned to believe that presidents possess extraordinary powers to anticipate and solve problems. This delusion did not survive the Biden presidency.
With the demise of the progressive tradition, a void appeared at the center of American politics. Vying to fill that void from the far right was a Republican Party that had abandoned all identifiable principles but one: supine deference to Donald Trump. Vying to fill that void from the far left was a contingent of fervent culture warriors intent on seizing control of a radically transformed Democratic Party.
In the political arena, energy, passion, and anger abounded. Nothing even remotely resembling a national consensus or even an accepted conception of the common good was evident. Under Biden, American politics had reached a dead end, with the aging president in the White House about as relevant as the even older queen in Windsor Castle. Yet the stage was now set for a reorientation of American politics as extraordinary as the one prompted by the rise of progressivism over a century before.
Echoes of an earlier era of fracture
Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.
The year 2021 saw some powerful moments that together signified much hope for countless Americans who had just witnessed four long years of ugly xenophobia wielded in the name of patriotism; civility abandoned in public discourse; and established facts as well as life-saving science ridiculed by national leaders. 2021, in stark contrast, witnessed the swearing-in of the nation’s first female and Black vice president, while elected officials worked to reestablish diplomatic relations globally, protect the citizenry with vaccines, and reattend to pressing issues such as climate change. And yet, by the end of that year, racial repression still stained the fabric of the nation in ways staggering and unforgivable. Despite over a decade of ostensibly bipartisan prison reform, for example, the needle had still barely moved when it came to shrinking what remained the world’s largest and most racially discriminatory criminal justice system. Not only were nearly two million disproportionately Black and Brown Americans still serving time at the close of 2021, but the conditions in the facilities where they were confined were worse than they had been 50 years earlier, while their ability to file suit to protect themselves from abuse and neglect had been curtailed.
More alarmingly, by the close of 2021 the nation was seriously divided in ways perilously similar to those that had fractured it entirely back in 1861. The anti-intellectualism, racial hatred and misogyny that had been so easily stoked in white Americans in the preceding years was mobilized during that year in all new ways. From the armed assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, to the support enjoyed by the governors who refused to mandate vaccinations and by vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse, to the glee with which so many greeted the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court might finally strike down a law synonymous with women’s rights for five decades, reactionaries, science deniers and white nationalists vowed in 2021 to inherit the future. Meanwhile, however, with their high rates of vaccination, their determined resistance to white vigilantism, their vocal defense of reproductive rights and their insistence that every human being would receive equal treatment under the law and on the streets, the rest of the nation made clear that year that they would not easily cede their dream of an America that would, one day, be egalitarian, just, and welcoming to all. And, thus, like in 1861, 2021 ended with the future very much uncertain.