Comment: Now entering 2022; please lower your expectations

After surviving 2020, we put too much faith in 2021 to exceed our expectations. That was our mistake.

By Daniel W. Drezner / Special To The Washington Post

I would like to wish all readers a happy end of 2021 and a happier beginning of 2022. Unfortunately, I am concerned that most readers are too depressed to receive the greeting properly.

The sources of American anxiety are not difficult to identify. In part it is about the disappointments of 2021. Last year started out with a lot of hope. Coronavirus vaccines were starting to be distributed. Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of a rigged election had perversely torpedoed his party’s chances of controlling the Senate. A boring, seasoned politician was about to be inaugurated president. After four years of toxic politics and one year of pandemic and economic turmoil, it was possible to envision the path to a saner world.

You are a discerning reader, so of course you know how 2021 actually played out. There was a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, aided and abetted by the president of the United States. That was merely the most public example of Trump’s ham-handed efforts to overturn the legitimate results of the election. After wobbling for a few weeks, most servile Republicans decided to back Trump’s fantastical claims. The new Congress contained even crazier, dumber representatives than the previous sessions of Congress. The political devolution of supposedly independent voices like Sen. Rand Paul continued apace. And yet the GOP has recovered its popularity to the point that most political analysts are projecting Republicans to have a great midterm election.

That projection is grounded in standard political dynamics that favor the party out of power; but it is also grounded in how a lot of early 2021′s hopes proved unfounded. The pandemic did not go away. Multiple variants of the virus and resistance to lifesaving vaccines confounded policymakers. Inflation increased thanks to a combination of fiscal stimulus, monetary stimulus and global supply chain constraints. Minimal progress was made on climate change. The U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan fell. As the year came to a close, both China and Russia seemed poised for further military actions along their periphery.

Little wonder, then, that Americans are starting to lose it. Not just rank-and-file Americans, but elites taking up valuable real estate in the ideas industry as well. My Washington Post colleague Greg Sargent is writing about liberal despair. Experts are warning about a “blizzard” of omicron cases. The New York Times’s Paul Krugman is tweeting about his “sense of dread about the year ahead.”

Perhaps my Post colleague Josh Dawsey put it best on Twitter:

“Last year this time, there was lots of optimism about 2021. Feels like that has generally been beaten out of people. The cri de couer now seems to be: ‘OK 2022, just be somewhat decent and not entirely terrible.’ “

Crazy as it sounds, that may be the secret to navigating this new year. Lowered expectations would mean that 2022 will be perceived as a better year than 2021.

A big reason so many people are disappointed with 2021 is not because it was an objectively bad year, but because it so underperformed expectations. Whether one looks at GDP growth, job growth, financial criteria or health metrics, the United States bounced back from 2020 pretty well. It just did not bounce back as well as many (myself included) anticipated in January 2021.

There are some cautious reasons for optimism for 2022. It is possible that the omicron wave will be fierce but short, with some unanticipated benefits. It is possible that there is a zone for bargaining between Russia and NATO over Ukraine. And I do find it amusing that everyone assumes that the political narrative for the midterm elections has already been written with 11 months to go. That is an eternity in politics.

When I turned 50 a few years ago, I found Jonathan Rauch’s “The Happiness Curve” to be an interesting read. The most interesting insight in that book was the idea that people are happier when they expect far less and are therefore surprised that things turn out better than expected. And make no mistake, American expectations for 2022 are super low.

I confess to not being super enthusiastic about this argument. I used to expect more from my country in any given year than “avoided both great power war and civil war.” Still, after 2021, lowered expectations seems the way to go. Maybe, if the country exceeds those expectations for the first time in a while, the United States will no longer need to be graded on a curve.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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