2013: An Alternative History

Chicago's Gay Community Celebrates Passing Of Same-Sex Marriage Law In Illinois

[Re-posted from last night]

Like many a columnist, I was tasked with an end-of-the-year column, and couldn’t really decide what to say. Here’s what I felt: 2013 was one of the most dreary and depressing I can remember. Politically, it seemed scarred by the Republicans’ ever greater extremism and by the Obama administration’s surprising incompetence. Brutal, dispiriting gridlock and the lame embers of an exhausted culture war set the tone for the rest. It was a year in which most of the forces propelling our culture and politics seemed played out: Obama reached his delivery moment, and he was horribly exposed. The GOP had already seen their electoral crisis the year before, and yet they failed to grasp the nettle of immigration reform and, if anything, took pure nullification to newly manic levels in the states and the Congress. No deal on long-term debt; no immigration reform; no serious infrastructure investment; and a horrible roll-out of healthcare reform.

Still, I had no sooner spelled out these core, depressing facts than I kept thinking of the other, less noticed ones. There were, after all, plenty of reasons for be cheerful in 2013. The number of US troops killed in Afghanistan reached a new low of 161, down from 711 three years’ ago. The war in Iraq remained over. Growth accelerated to 4.1 percent in the third quarter and looks set to continue next year. The Dow is now comfortably over 16,00o – more than double where it was five years ago, at the trough of the recession. The budget deficit shrank 37 percent in 2013, and was falling faster than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Yes, perhaps the austerity was premature and the big fiscal crisis has yet to hit. But an economy that’s growing and a deficit that’s fast shrinking is a pretty good combo for the time being. For good measure, the US is now in the full throes of a domestic energy revolution and is scheduled to be energy independent by 2020, a goal sought for decades. In part because of this, the US position in the Middle East is far less constrained, enabling a potentially world-changing detente with Tehran. Terror attacks – widely aca-sign-upsthought after 9/11 as a new norm – have dwindled to negligible levels in the West. Crime perked up a little, but was still way, way down from its past heights, despite the recession.

And in the US, one huge social shift cemented itself. The last few years have seen a revolution in the way in which gay people are integrated into society. 2013 saw not only the Supreme Court place the federal government firmly behind state-sanctioned gay civil marriages, but democratic legislatures also accelerated the trend across the country. There were many ways in which this titanic year for civil rights could have ended, but civil marriage for gay couples in Utah was pretty damn good. Nine more states now issue marriage licenses for gays than did this time last year – doubling the entire roster in just twelve months. Another, Illinois, will see its first weddings next June. In 2013, England, Wales, Scotland, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Mexico and France introduced marriage equality. The new Pope, for his part, defused the extremely tense religious and cultural debate by refusing to “judge” a gay person genuinely seeking to follow Christ. By any standards, this was a watershed year for an issue that has vexed humanity for centuries.

And, of course, I mention the Pope. In a few months, he has almost miraculously reasserted Christianity against all the modern “isms” of our time, utterly eviscerated the supreme papacy as envisaged by his two predecessors, and reminded billions of the core and simple message of Jesus. If he has initiated a rebirth of Christianity – as is my devout hope and wish – then this year was a turning point for the world, a moment when hope showed its endurance. And although the Affordable Care Act has gotten off to the rockiest start it could have, it remains a fact that more than nine million Americans have reliable health insurance for the first time in their lives because of it. The graph above was compiled by Amy Fried Charles Gaba on Christmas Eve. Many more applied for insurance in the following week. But the point is: these policies will be very hard to take away. I may be wrong, but I’d say the odds are solid that 2013 will eventually be seen not as a triumph for any system of medical care, but as the moment when everyone got into the same, insured boat, and we began to figure out how seriously to control costs.

usgs_line.phpIt was also the year in which the post-9/11 security state was put back on its heels. I have deeply mixed feelings about what Edward Snowden did, and deep misgivings about the utopian idea that governments should exist with no secrecy. But it is hard not to observe that, as the president’s own commission has found, the US government was doing far, far more snooping than any of us realized, that much of it is of extremely dubious value in foiling terror plots and can be highly counter-productive in the conduct of foreign policy. It felt to me as if a tide had turned. Without Snowden? Not so much.

I’d also argue that October’s simultaneous humbling of the president and exposure of the GOP leadership was a deeply salutary thing. The president needs to understand that he has to get one domestic policy right in the next three years and that’s the implementation of the ACA. Nothing else compares in importance. If the debacle of October means a leaner, more focused domestic agenda from the White House in 2014, focused on executive branch delivery and not partisan politics, then it will have been worth it. (The speed with which the website was fixed certainly gives some confidence.) As for the GOP, the Ryan deal and Boehner’s new disdain for the Tea Party suggest some mild movement back to sanity. It’s too soon to celebrate. But it is no longer crazy to hope.

So count me a revisionist. Everything on the surface this past year was horrible; but the tectonic shifts from below were anything but. We’ll see what lasts. But it helps not to forget what recedes ever so slightly from our news-cycle horizon.

Know hope. Or perhaps that requires reformulation.

Know pope.

(Hat tip for the ACA graph: Amy Fried)

(Top Photo: gay men in a bar in Chicago celebrate the dawn of marriage equality in Illinois. By Getty Images.)