When 2021 began, it seemed it might bring some measure of resolution to three major upheavals that had defined 2020. The turmoil of the Trump presidency was set to give way to a much more traditional president who vowed a return to normalcy. Joe Biden promised to more aggressively tackle Covid-19, and the rollout of safe, effective vaccines raised hopes that the world could put the pandemic behind it in 2021. Finally, though it was surely naive to think that the widespread reckoning with systemic racism that began in 2020 would be resolved anytime soon, advocates waited to see whether the many promises of meaningful change would come to fruition.
Yet on all three counts, 2021 brought further disruption and uncertainty, rather than normalcy or resolution. It began with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s second impeachment, and Republicans — led by the former president himself — continued all year to propagate the lie that Donald Trump had rightfully won the election. Covid-19 kept spreading through hotspots in the country and around the world, and the emergence of two powerful variants made clear that the disease would remain a permanent part of daily life. And the emergent power of “critical race theory” as a political flashpoint and divisive events like the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse suggested the country was just as far — if not further — from a consensus on racial justice than it had been last year.
How will history remember 2021? WEBICNEWS Magazine asked 18 historians to envision the entry for this year in a hypothetical future history book. Many, not surprisingly, highlighted the erosion of democratic norms in the United States, most notably through the ongoing attempt to question and overturn legitimate election results. A number of submissions focused on the downstream effects of the pandemic, like labor market shifts and disruption to education. We heard about racial inequality: continued systemic racism against Black Americans, an uptick in violence against Asian Americans and an overall feeling that the country was polarized along racial lines. Other contributors believed 2021 will be remembered as as another missed opportunity to address the climate crisis, as the year the United States ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan, or as a worrisome inflection point for America’s place atop the post-World War II democratic order.
Here’s how the experts think future historians will write about this year.
A century of American global leadership began to falter
American statesmanship had forged liberal internationalist institutions and norms over the past century — falteringly before the Second World War, more decisively after it. Events in 2021 suggested that this epoch was ending. An attempted right-wing putsch at the start of the year was one blow to the country’s standing. Another was the Republican Party’s refusal to stand up to the man chiefly responsible. The collapse of moderate conservatism in the USA compared strikingly with Germany where, later in the year, Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down. After 16 years in power, she had turned her country into the de facto leader of a unified Europe, the largest democratic bloc in the world. At 67, she entered retirement more than a decade younger than President Joe Biden was at the start of his term. She was also, to state the obvious, the country’s first female head of state. Run by a competent, diverse, relatively youthful political class, Germany seemed to have learned the lessons of the past. The United States, by contrast, exited 2021 looking like a polity in trouble: bitterly polarized, spending heavily on a military it did not know how to use, facing the prospect of judicial counterrevolution from an extremist Supreme Court. In convening a summit of democracies as the year closed, was the Biden administration reaffirming American global leadership or lamenting its passing?
Goodbye, forever war; hello, forever pandemic
John Ghazvinian is executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present.
2021 was the year the “Global War on Terror” — launched with great fanfare and optimism by President George W. Bush in 2001 — finally drew to a close. The U.S. military, sent to Afghanistan to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden, crush al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and rebuild the country in America’s image, never formally acknowledged defeat. But it never needed to. The images of U.S. planes scrambling to evacuate personnel from Kabul airport, as desperate Afghans dangled and dropped from their ailerons, left little doubt about the scoresheet. After years of hawkish warnings about not “letting the terrorists win,” the U.S., had, in a sense, done just that. The Taliban, universally loathed in 2001 and firmly in the crosshairs of the most powerful military the world had ever known, had held on tenaciously for 20 years. As soon as the invader’s back was turned, it took barely a week to overrun the country. It was the most ignominious and visible defeat for American foreign policy since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The defeat in Afghanistan was symbolic of a broader shift — not as widely noticed, but one with more lasting consequences. From Riyadh to Tehran, from Baghdad to Jerusalem, the United States — for nearly a century the sun around which a constellation of Middle East rivalries and grievances revolved — had become largely irrelevant. In Washington, policymakers touted the Abraham Accords, signed a year earlier by Israel and several pro-American, autocratic Arab regimes, as a victory for U.S. interests. But arguably more important was a conference quietly convened in Iraq in August, at which arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran talked face-to-face about how to resolve the region’s differences. For the first time, the U.S. was uninvolved — a bystander in a regional initiative that would grow in the coming years into a more serious mechanism for independent leadership by Middle East powers.
The Great Resignation, in every sense of the word
Marcia Chatelain is the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in history.
In the spring of 2021— a year after some leaders in the United States acknowledged the need for heightened measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 — news media began to report on the “Great Resignation.” This phenomenon referred to the millions of people who had left their jobs for better employment opportunities, to start their own businesses, or to attend to increasing caretaking responsibilities exacerbated by the pandemic. These resignations fueled factory strikes and emerging labor organizing efforts, forcing employers to provide higher wages and better benefits.
The year we learned that education is infrastructure
Claire Bond Potter is professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research and co-executive editor at Public Seminar.
In 2021, Americans learned that schools were critical to a United States economic infrastructure that was underprepared and unready for a national crisis. Every school — onsite or online — became both a public health project and a political target. School board meetings became politicized and angry, and elections to those bodies suddenly became hot contests. As the nation’s instructors, students, parents and school administrators navigated in-person Covid-19 protocols and emergency online learning, school boards, librarians, administrators and teachers were bombarded with revived demands, often driven by political operatives, that subversive teaching materials about race, gender and sexuality be purged from classrooms.
Racism — the other epidemic
Brenda E. Stevenson is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College, University of Oxford.
2021 was a year filled with hope of return to a “normal” way of life that had been stripped bare by a global pandemic that, by New Year’s Day of 2021, had killed at least three million, more than a tenth of that number of lost lives in the U.S. Just a few weeks before the end of 2020, the first American had received the Covid-19 vaccine. There was (or seemed to be) some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel thanks to rapid development of multiple vaccines that proved largely effective in curtailing deaths of those who contracted the illness. By April, some 200 million vaccinations had been given and Americans were optimistically returning to work, school, houses of worship and more. The economy, too, experienced a recovery, with unemployment falling over the year to just over 4 percent.
A new president continued a weak foreign policy
William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and associate professor of public policy and history at the University of Texas at Austin.
The year 2021 brought more surprising continuities in American foreign policy and politics. President Joe Biden, despite his campaign promises of a dramatic departure from the Trump administration, instead continued in much the same tradition he inherited from his detested predecessor — and which Trump had in turn mirrored from Obama. The United States kept trying to conciliate Russia despite Putin’s escalating aggression; finished the Afghanistan withdrawal that Trump had started, with calamitous results; continued irking allies through combinations of neglect, disdain, and vacillation; remained indifferent to free trade; watched Iran escalate its nuclear program; and sought to avoid confrontation with the North Korean regime. Biden also embraced Trump’s more confrontational approach to China, including recognizing the Chinese Communist Party as America’s most formidable adversary, and reallocating America’s military, diplomatic, and intelligence resources accordingly.