The 21 most important political stories of 2021 — and what they tell us about 2022 (Part 2)

click to enlarge Tornado damage to an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois. - NWS ST. LOUIS, WIKIMEDIA CREATIVE COMMONS
NWS St. Louis, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Tornado damage to an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Last week, we began our rundown of 2021's most important political stories with the Big Lie and wound our way through President Joe Biden's legislative accomplishments (and lack thereof). In Part 2, we'll start with Biden's summer from hell.

8. The heat dome

In late June and early July, an extreme heatwave baked the Pacific Northwest, setting record temperatures in Portland (116° F), Salem (117°), Seattle (108°), Spokane (109°), and Canada (121°). More than 1,000 people died.

This wasn't the only extraordinary weather event this year. There were wildfires in California and an ice storm in Texas. Earlier this month, tornadoes ravaged the Midwest, killing at least 88. The heat dome wouldn't have been possible without climate change, scientists say. While it's harder to link other specific disasters to carbon pollution, we know that the hotter the planet gets, the more often they'll occur. Since climate policy is now dictated by a coal millionaire, we should probably prepare for the Mad Max future.

9. The Afghanistan debacle

The collapse of Kabul had many fathers. But in the first draft of history, the blame fell squarely on Biden, whose White House grossly overestimated the Afghan army's strength. For more than a week in August, scenes of chaos filled TV screens as the U.S. troops scrambled to withdraw troops and rescue allies and desperate Afghans tried to find a way out. An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 American soldiers and dozens of civilians outside the Kabul airport. The U.S. retaliated by drone-striking civilians.

Republicans who'd backed Donald Trump's agreement to release thousands of Taliban prisoners and withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan accused Biden of "abandon[ing] the global stage," suggested he be removed via the 25th Amendment, and in Trump's case, said he should "resign in disgrace." Biden's popularity took a hit. Before Kabul collapsed in mid-August, Biden polled above 50%. He's been underwater ever since.

10. The Delta variant

The Delta variant was perhaps the main reason Biden failed to regain his political footing. The deadly wave of COVID-19 cases plowed through largely unvaccinated communities this summer, devastating red states — and counties — that rejected vaccines and abandoned or fought basic precautions. Republicans slammed Biden for failing to bring the pandemic to heel as promised — never mind that they were fighting mask and vaccine mandates — and economic growth slowed to a trickle.

11. Inflation

The short version of the very complicated inflation story: During the pandemic, consumers began buying a lot of stuff online. Retailers couldn't find enough delivery drivers, so they paid more generous salaries and passed those costs along to consumers. They also stored more containers before delivery and passed along those costs, too. Meanwhile, increasing sales volume combined with worker shortages to create logjams at ports and transportation hubs, slowing deliveries and forcing retailers to carry excess inventory, which, again, raised prices.

So inflation is linked to a global supply chain crisis, which is linked to labor shortages. Labor shortages are likewise a multifaceted issue, but in the United States, there seem to be three primary culprits: a declining birth rate, immigration restrictions, and most importantly, millions of Americans who voluntarily left the workforce or took early retirement during the pandemic.

None of this has a quick fix, which means no matter how well the Dow performs or how much GDP grows, inflation will be a thorn in Biden's side for at least another year.

12. Critical race theory

In the same way "cancel culture" became a universal response for any right-wing goober who faced consequences for saying or doing something gross or racist, "critical race theory" leaped from legal academia into a catch-all term for anything certain white people found discomforting.

In several states, Republican politicians raced to ban the teaching of "concepts" associated with critical race theory in classrooms. Parents' groups tried to prohibit such apparently problematic books as Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story. Wisconsin lawmakers sought to prohibit schools from using the words "colonization," "multiculturalism," and "patriarchy."

Because grievance never rests, the culture warriors have set their sights on school libraries that dare to carry books on race and gender. (The next-generation book burners recently claimed a victory in North Carolina, where the public library system in the state's largest county removed the book Gender Queer from its shelves.) After that, there will be something else. Outrage is useful, and there will always be some new threat to rile up the base.

13. Ron DeSantis and authoritarianism as freedom

Few politicians have ginned up and exploited rage with as much aplomb as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an enthusiastic would-be authoritarian who not only refused to impose COVID restrictions during the height of the Delta wave this summer but blocked local governments from doing so, banned private companies from requiring vaccines, and threatened to cut off school funding if districts mandated masks.

At least 63,000 Floridians have died so DeSantis can boast about his state's "freedom."

He also barred transgender athletes from school sports, restricted absentee voting, cracked down on public protests, and required universities to collect databases of students' and faculty members' political views. Most recently, he proposed creating his own paramilitary force and announced legislation to allow people to sue schools or businesses whose diversity policies create a "hostile" environment — a payday for racists, if you will.

DeSantis is, of course, considered a top-tier candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination should he win reelection in November.

14. Alden buys Tribune

Vulture capital firm Alden Global acquired Tribune Publishing in May, bringing its slash-and-burn profiteering to the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, and other journalism institutions across the country. Whatever bare minimum those papers have scraped by on, it's going to look like the glory days soon.

Gutting to their core has real-life effects on the communities they serve. The public is less informed and participates less in local government. Wrongs go undiscovered. Corruption flourishes. Democracy suffers.

Part 3 comes next week.

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About The Author

Jeffrey C. Billman

North Carolina-based journalist, focusing on politics and policy analysis.
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