This new year has its work cut out for it. 2021 inconsiderately handed 2022 a set of crucial unanswered questions that make it hard to tell if the American glass is half-full or half-empty. The next 12 months are effectively charged with starting to provide answers.
At present, the biggest socioeconomic trends are unusually resistant to any shared sense of direction, in turn leaving political prospects in an unpredictable limbo.
For example, is the coronavirus pandemic increasingly out of control or instead becoming a manageable part of normal life? It very much depends on where you live and how you look at it.
The Omicron variant appears to spread much more quickly than the Delta strain that dominated 2021. Therefore, cases in many US areas are approaching or exceeding record levels.
That’s the bad news. The extremely good news is that symptoms appear significantly milder. More importantly, as President Joe Biden accurately insists, in terms of hospitalisations this is now largely “an epidemic of the unvaccinated”.
Hospitalisations and deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in the unvaccinated population. Numerous vaccinated persons are testing positive, and often feeling ill, but usually manageably so. That’s a massive game-changer.
Yet the situation is far more critical in Republican-dominated states where governors and other leaders have been encouraging, defending and even – in at least five US states – financially rewarding vaccine refusal by extending unemployment benefits to those who have lost their jobs because they will not comply with mandatory vaccinations. Intensive care units are overflowing. Patients ailing from other illnesses are now dying because unvaccinated, and hence largely avoidable, Covid-19 cases have consumed existing ICU beds.
Republicans angrily complain that Mr Biden has failed to contain the pandemic, even though many of them are among the main obstacles to vaccination and mitigation. In much of the rest of the country, the new variant is a challenge that suggests that if vaccines are embraced, the coronavirus could well become an integrated, manageable part of normal life.
The coronavirus cup therefore seems at very least half-full.
The economy, too, is subject to radically divergent perceptions. Most indicators suggest a truly robust, arguably roaring, recovery. However, inflation continues to erode the spending power of most people and create significant, and politically powerful, anxieties. Again, who and where you are may dictate how you view the depth of the national economic pour.
2022 will probably clarify whether the US economy is bouncing back in a manner that’s felt throughout society. And the great sorting between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations on vulnerability to the coronavirus should become far more evident, giving Americans a clear choice on whether they want to wilfully remain at the mercy of Covid-19.
The political questions that are effectively corollaries of these ambiguous, or at least contested, socio-economic trends and perceptions, are considerably more consequential this year than usual.
The future of US democracy won't be decided in 2022. But the coming year will tell us much about the direction of the Republican Party, which is the centre of efforts to undermine the constitutional system, consolidate a growing pattern of starkly undemocratic minority rule and, possibly, drive the country towards explicit forms of authoritarianism.
The ability of former president Donald Trump, who brought these anti-democratic impulses into the American political mainstream, to continue to lead the Republican Party is extremely uncertain.
His grip on the sentiments and loyalty of the party base remains unmatched. But he is fixated on re-litigating the 2020 election, and endlessly repeating baseless and thoroughly debunked lies about how it was supposedly stolen from him through massive fraud.
Most recently, he announced a January 6 press conference on the anniversary of the violent insurrection he incited to try to prevent Congress from ratifying the 2020 election results. He apparently intends to yet again regurgitate the ridiculous narrative that he was cheated. Mr Trump is so obsessed with this delusion that it appears to be his litmus test for supporting Republican congressional candidates in the November midterms.
Other party leaders plainly understand that neither he nor anybody else can win the White House in 2024 running on thoroughly discredited fabrications about 2020. Yet they do not seem to have found any way to dislodge the party from his grip.
Even that might not slow the GOP’s descent into ever-deeper right-wing extremism. The cutting edge of Republican fanaticism now appears independent of Mr Trump, with numerous politicians seeking to outbid each other in rhetorical militancy and violent incitement.
2022 will indicate much about the strength of the institutions and guardrails that are meant to check efforts to exploit systemic loopholes and weaknesses in the US constitutional system. Evaporation of the requisite civic virtue seems to have depleted the American democratic glass considerably.
In the coming year, Senate Democrats must find a way to pass a national election and voting protection law. Otherwise, state-level Republican initiatives to restrict voting and undermine fair election supervision will go dangerously unchecked.
The past year demonstrated that although the attack on democracy by many Trump-supporting Republicans was a dire menace, opposition from other Republicans, including state officials and even Trump-appointed judges, thwarted the attempt to create a constitutional crisis in a bid to keep him in office notwithstanding his defeat.
Despite ongoing efforts to oust or disempower conscientious Republican officials, this indicates a venerable US democratic chalice that is still at least a quarter full. There is clearly a tenacious sense among traditional Republicans, and even some Trump supporters, that democratic norms and traditions are worth defending, despite that meaning their party might lose.
Even if the pandemic and economic outlooks brighten undeniably over the next eight months, a three-quarters full beaker doesn't guarantee Democrats a successful midterm result. It is possible, and even likely, that between historical trends, party weaknesses and Republican partisan gerrymandering and vote suppression, they will suffer a significant defeat anyway.
But if they can secure either election protection legislation or some form of expanded social spending, let alone both, as I have explained before in these pages, they will leave themselves in a strong position to retain the White House in 2024.
The prognosis for US democracy won't be decided in 2022, but the general trajectory will become clearer. And it’s quite unlikely that the pandemic and economic outlooks will be anything like as murky going into 2023 as they are now.
2022 doesn’t seem poised to introduce anything dramatically new into the US scene – although the unexpected is always just around the next corner. But the new year will have its hands full clarifying these murky and contested, yet vital, realities bequeathed by 2021.