A year ago, as we approached New Year’s Day 2022, things seemed grim.
Things were grim.
At home, Donald Trump was ascendant in the Republican party. Elise Stefanik’s Dear Leader sycophancy and Big Lie enthusiasm seemed to be the future. Liz Cheney’s truth-telling seemed to be the past. And it seemed that no one of any prominence would pay a price for January 6th. President Biden’s approval ratings were plummeting and a Democratic Congress was not producing legislation. A red wave for an unredeemed Republican party looked likely.
Confidence in the U.S. abroad had been damaged by the Afghanistan withdrawal. Vladimir Putin was threatening Ukraine and looked like a good bet to topple the Ukrainian government and partition the country. The mullahs’ grip in Iran appeared unchallenged as they continued to progress toward nuclear weapons. America was divided at both the elite and popular levels, the country uncertain of its global role—still apparently reeling from Trump’s presidency, but not yet strengthened by Biden’s.
The new year in 2022 was not a particularly happy one.
But politics, like life, does not proceed in a straight line.
Things turned around.
Actually, let me retract that last sentence—because it suggests fatalism and a lack of human agency concerning important events, which is both untrue and demoralizing.
It was people—both extraordinary leaders and ordinary folk—who turned things around in 2022.
At the end of 2022, Putin is still Putin. The mullahs are still the mullahs. Trump is still Trump. Those actors have not changed.
But the world around them changed because of the struggles and successes of those who fought for democracy and for freedom.
Volodomyr Zelensky and the people of Ukraine stood heroically firm. The Iranian people bravely rose up. At home, the American electorate rejected the worst of the election deniers and continued its rebuke of Trumpism for the third straight election. Congress passed a fair amount of reasonable legislation, including the Electoral Count Act. The January 6th Committee conducted itself seriously and honorably and in the course of its work documented a great deal of important evidence which was not previously known. Partly as a consequence of their labors—which were dismissed both early and late as being obscure and inconsequential—the Department of Justice now seems likely to try to enforce some accountability not just for the foot soldiers, but for the leaders of the insurrection. And for Donald Trump.
What happened in 2022 was as remarkable as it was unexpected. And as a result, we enter 2023 in better shape than we could have reasonably hoped a year ago.
Because—and this is the key part—people did not accept the reasonable expectations. They fought and organized and worked. They bent the curve of the future.
Perhaps we will one day look back at 2022 not just as a lucky bending of the curve, but as an inflection point—as a true Zeitenwende, to use the term invoked by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
But we don’t know. More to the point, we can’t know. Nothing about the future—nothing about 2023—is inevitable.
It’s equally possible that we could look back on 2022 as a bear market rally for democracy. That we will one day judge it to have been a false dawn, a brief surge of democratic willpower and energy on behalf of freedom that peters out in the face of the illiberal forces arrayed against it.
But the successes of 2022 have given those who care about liberty and democracy, about human decency and human dignity, a fighting chance in 2023.
In 2022 democracy and liberty didn’t just hold the line—they gained some ground. The defenders of liberalism fought back more effectively than the last decade suggested they were capable of doing.
What comes next will be the product not just of implacable forces, but the choices and actions of real people. Some of those people will be consequential and their choices will be seen by the world. You will know—or learn—their names. The vast majority will not be. Many of the choices will be made by ordinary people, acting individually or collectively, often in quiet—but important—ways.
Will Trump be further weakened by the end of 2023? Will demagoguery and authoritarianism be pushed back both in America and across the globe? Will Ukraine win? Will Putin remain in power? Will the Iranian people topple the mullahs?
There are unexpected opportunities for 2023. But they need to be followed through on, not frittered away.
So now is no time for celebration. To use a World War II analogy, we’ve survived Dunkirk, the Blitz and Pearl Harbor—but much damage has been done, the enemies of liberalism remain formidable, and we’ve only just begun the effort to regain ground. Even if victory is possible, there is a long and difficult road ahead.
Perhaps Churchill’s 1941 Christmas Eve address from the White House, where he was visiting Roosevelt, is apt.
“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” he remarked. And “Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasure.”
But Churchill added that, after sharing that moment of pleasure, we will have to “turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
This isn’t World War II, of course. But it is the challenge of our time. And history will judge us on whether we meet it.
Lovely piece Mr. Kristol. I am an optimist by nature and am always buoyed by your thoughtful writing.
I left twitter a couple of months ago to conserve my sanity and my hours in the day, but I do miss reading your tweets.
Great and inspiring essay Mr. Kristol.