2021: A year of unique disappointment

It wasn’t as bad as 2020. But it wasn’t as great as we’d hoped for either, thanks to a few choice individuals.

Illustration by Maxine McCrann
Originally Published: 

There are some Decembers where we collectively skip toward the new year, full of enthusiasm and levity, knowing with absolute certainty that our next spin around the sun will be a good one. And there are some Decembers where we drag ourselves, exhausted and bloodied, across the finish line, too beat down by the past year’s parade of indignities and offenses to spend much time caring about what lies ahead.

But somewhere between those two polar extremes rests the past 365-ish days — a year that’s been something of a mixed bag. While 2021 rarely, if ever, scraped the bottom of the zeitgeist’s barrel of calamity the way 2020 did, neither did it live up to the expectations of so many of us who were desperate to spend this year making up for everything that went wrong in the last. And in part, that’s our fault. Like Icarus gazing up at the sun, only to crash into the waves below, the sense of disappointment that permeated 2021 stems in no small part from our perpetual sense of optimism and fervent belief that we, too, deserve to soar after having spent so long crawling ourselves through the 2020 mud.

Hubris, my friends. That’s what it is. Not that the shift from 2020 to 2021 was quite as catastrophic as Icarus’s death dive into the sea, but the chasm between how we thought 2021 would go and how it actually went has been wide enough to leave us all feeling, well, a bit empty.

2021 wasn’t so much the year of solving the pandemic entirely as it was the year of abortive half-measures.

Consider the pandemic (as if you haven’t spent almost every day of recent memory obsessively doing just that). When was it that you started to realize that those first few weeks of March 2020 weren’t a fluke, but were, instead, the prologue to a much longer, much more protracted state of being? Was it when companies started admitting they wouldn’t be opening their offices back up until the coming summer, and then the fall, and then the winter? Was it when Target and CVS and all the rest started having mask-and-hand-sanitizer endcaps? Whenever it was, did you — like me — assume that even in the most pessimistic longview imaginable, things would still get better in 2021? Of course you did, because the idea of living through a pandemic that would stretch through 2021 was, at the time, inconceivable.

Joke’s on us.

While things have certainly improved since those heady first few months of COVID panic, 2021 wasn’t so much the year of solving the pandemic entirely as it was the year of abortive half-measures. If anything, the most concrete development (and perhaps the most crucial) was an ossified defiance to any sort of pandemic mitigation from a political right-wing convinced that wearing a mask and getting a vaccine is somehow akin to 1938 Berlin. Rather than tackle the pandemic as a unified body, we’ve spent a year not wasted, exactly, but distracted by having to navigate a patchwork of incongruous rules about who can get what injection when, and where certain people need to wear masks, and how best to distance yourself from people who live in a paranoid fantasyland where the pandemic is simply over because they say so.

In no small part, that our progress in stamping out the pandemic plateaued during 2021 is a direct result of the deliberate politicization of coronavirus by conservatives, conspiracy theorists, and virtue-signaling grifters who have staked their short-term successes on the long- term perpetuation of the virus. It has induced enough people to dig their heels in to such a degree that the already-labyrinthine process of making real progress against a pandemic — a challenge under the best of circumstances! — has been burdened with the even more difficult task of convincing a critical mass of people that fighting the pandemic is worthwhile and necessary to begin with.

Yes, progress has been made. Vaccines are moving from laboratories into the arms of more, and younger, people, and booster shots have proven effective at keeping us protected from each successive wave of the pandemic so far. But has 2021 seen the sort of dramatic return to life without the intense pressure of a global health disaster breathing down our necks that we’d hoped for? With the Omicron variant and its attendant uncertainties surging, and hospitals once again overwhelmed and underresourced, not really. Better luck in 2022, I guess.

The idea that voting Trump out of office would mean he’d suddenly disappear from the zeitgeist has proven laughably and predictably false.

Oversimplification is a slippery slope, but in the case of 2021, it’s fairly easy to make the case that the prevailing sense of being underwhelmed can be traced to a single person: Donald Trump, the former president who, just days into 2021, staged a full-blown coup against the government before fleeing to his private resort in Florida to lick his wounds. So much of 2020 was focused on getting Trump out of office, with the implied — and often expressly stated — promise that things would suddenly become much, much better in his absence.

Don’t get me wrong: Not having a narcissistic septuagenarian racist actively pulling the levers of executive federal power has been a marked improvement from the past four years. But the idea that voting Trump out of office would mean he’d suddenly disappear from the zeitgeist has proven laughably and predictably false in two ways. First off, it was broadly predicated on the false idea that Trump was a unique aberration rather than an inevitable outcome of decades (centuries!) of American racism and nationalistic fascism. More acutely, however, it failed to take into account the degree to which Trump is preternaturally adept at forcing himself into the limelight, regardless of any shrapnel or attrition brought about by his need for attention.

The end result is that even though we no longer have to worry about the now-former-president say, starting a war, or declaring a state of fascist emergency, he nevertheless managed to make 2021 in part about himself, shoving his name into as many headlines as possible and robbing us of our naive dream of a Trump-less year. Every revelation about his criminality in office; each time he made a local congressional race all about himself and his (debatably significant) endorsement; every time he took obvious glee in teasing whether or not he’s going to run again in 2024; the cumulative effect has been to taint what could — should — have been an opportunity to take a break from the man. Instead, we’ve been left with the socio-political equivalent of a houseguest who just won’t fucking leave. Would things have been much worse if Trump remained president through 2021? Of course. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t manage to kneecap the past year on his way out the door, regardless.

The overarching trend of 2021 has been the achingly painful process of winnowing down ambition.

And then there’s Congress. When Democrats managed to nab a narrow Senate majority while holding on to a slim majority in the House after the 2020 election, expectations were high that the relatively progressive promises President Joe Biden used to beat Trump in the general might actually have a chance at becoming law in 2021.

Not so much.

While the Biden administration has managed to notch a few significant legislative wins on its belt (the sincerely impressive American Rescue Plan comes to mind), the overarching trend of 2021 has been the achingly painful process of winnowing down ambition to appease the basest, most uninspiring members of the president’s own party. If this disappointment could be personified, it’d be West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. Sure, he’s technically a Democrat, but beyond his ostensible DNC affiliation, what has he actually done for his fellow party-members beyond underperforming while overexposing himself? Keep in mind that this is a person who is beholden to the coal industry to the point of potentially dooming our species, while making a special point to oppose potentially seismic social legislation for the sake of his state’s non-existent billionaire class.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, things are even worse: Despite a Democratic congressional majority, a significant amount of air in Congress has been sucked out by the Republican Party’s eagerness to not only appease the most extreme, most overtly violent, hateful, racist members of its caucus, but to boost those same villains into higher and higher positions. Despite having their legislative power curtailed by censures and committee expulsions, Republicans like Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert have become the public face of American conservatism. It’s left the country in a situation wherein Democrats have spent the past year with a congressional majority, but are regularly stuck reacting to an increasingly unhinged agenda set by the right. The expectations that soared sky high when Georgia’s Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock tilted the balance of senatorial power leftward have been tempered to the point of laughably low approval levels across the board.

If I had to offer a single episode that encapsulates the underwhelming vibe of 2021, it would be this: The first-ever commercial space flight, conducted by billionaire Richard Branson this past summer, was heralded as a new and exciting chapter in our species’s trajectory toward expanding off our home planet. But the fact of the matter is, Branson never even made it into actual outer space. Was his flight significant as a step in the right direction? Of course. But was it as monumental an achievement as packaged and promised by Branson and others? Hardly.

So where does this all leave us? Well, we have a a decision to make: We can be optimists, who can choose to see 2022 as the year where we finally collect on the reserves of good karma we’ve built up over the past few disappointing trips around the sun. We’ve sure earned a year of unambiguous wins. Or we can choose to be realists, pragmatists, and — unfortunately — pessimists. 2022 is probably not going to be the utopian manifestation of all our unrealized dreams. Elon Musk is not going to get lost in space en route to some doofy Mars colony. Trump is not going to get surreptitiously photographed while he’s stuck on a slightly-too-small toilet seat. It’s important to keep our expectations reasonable

2022 will be better than 2021 in some ways, and probably worse in others. That’s just how this whole thing works. “Happy” New Year is, at its core, an aspirational sentiment. Perhaps we should set our sights a little lower this time, and on Dec. 31 we all just agree to wish each other a Tolerable 2022. It’s not quite so inspiring, but at least it’s less likely to disappoint.