From duck stamps to doomsday: the past year in American politics (2024)

THE YEAR began with the swearing-in of a new Congress, after Republicans won a slim majority in the midterms. In January Kevin McCarthy was eventually chosen as speaker of the House. You may remember Mr McCarthy. He was the House majority leader who supported Donald Trump through his presidency. After the January 6th riot, Mr McCarthy told the floor of the House that Mr Trump “bears responsibility” for the violence. Then when it became clear that the former president retained the support of the majority of Republicans, Mr McCarthy went to Florida to pay homage to Mr Trump.

By January 2023, uncertainty over whether Mr McCarthy was a true believer in Trumpism, combined with personal animosity against him, and that tiny majority, meant he had to endure 15 rounds of voting to secure the speakership. One concession he made to do so made his job particularly insecure. Any single member of the Republican caucus would be able to call for a no-confidence vote. Spoiler alert: as surely as nemesis follows hubris, this would be his undoing.

There was a lot of attention on the long-running Republican civil war in the House in 2023, but not a lot of legislation made it through Congress and to the president’s desk. In fact by some measures it was the least productive Congress since the actual civil war. Francis Fukuyama has described the federal government as a vetocracy, because the House majority, 41 senators, the president and the Supreme Court all have the power to kill legislation. When government is divided, as it was in 2023, the only laws that can be passed are uncontroversial things. Perhaps the legislative highlight of the year was the Duck Stamp Modernisation Act.

Yet there is more to American politics than what happens in Congress. Away from the federal legislature, 2023 was notable for how many things went right.

Take the decline in violent crime. In 2017 Mr Trump promised in his inaugural speech as president to end “this American carnage”. Instead what followed was a spike in violent crime in his last year in office. The murder rate rose by 30% in 2020, one of the largest annual increases on record. Perhaps that was not Mr Trump’s fault: it seems to have been mainly a result of police departments doing less policing after George Floyd was murdered. In 2023, by contrast, violent crime in America is down about 8% year on year, according to statistics compiled by the FBI that cover most of the country.

Or take the economy. Voters really dislike high inflation, and this helps explain President Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings, which are as bad as or worse than Mr Trump’s were when he was in office. But inflation fell in 2023. Prices are high compared with before the pandemic, so don’t expect much celebration. Yet the rate of inflation fell by roughly half compared with last year. Real wages (ie, adjusted for inflation) grew for the first time since 2021. In fact they grew more strongly than before covid came along and upended everything. There are some asterisks to this happy story: the federal budget deficit is huge.

Real income growth in a full-employment economy is as close to a magic spell as exists in public policy: it reduces poverty and narrows racial disparities. Though it doesn’t, apparently, make American politics any less apocalyptic. One of the paradoxes of this time is that so many things are going right and yet there are non-hysterical fears about the country sliding into some kind of dictatorship-lite. Policymakers used to believe that if they kept inflation low and the economy growing then the reward would be a contented society and that, conversely, economic misery leads to political extremism. America has flipped the script.

This was also a year when America’s racial politics moderated. The combination of Mr Trump’s presidency and George Floyd’s murder mainstreamed a particular view of anti-racism, which holds that the only way to make America fair is to discriminate on the basis of race. There is a reasonable argument for that. Lyndon Johnson put it best: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Yet it has never been popular. Even within the civil-rights movement in the 1960s positive discrimination on the basis of race was contested, both as a theory and as a political tactic.

In addition to the murder spike, the final year of Mr Trump’s presidency saw the institutionalisation of this view. Companies tried to copy some of the practices of university admissions officers. The chief diversity officer became a thing. Then in June 2023 the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in college admissions, the biggest blow in favour of the “all discrimination is bad” view that most Americans hold. This was partly Mr Trump’s doing: had he not appointed three conservative justices to the court, affirmative action might still be legal. But Mr Biden’s presence in the White House limited the backlash. American liberals trust Mr Biden not to be racist, and responded to his election by de-prioritising racial injustice as an issue. That has taken the energy out of the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) movement. Companies are dismantling the hiring programmes they set up in 2020. Ibram X. Kendi’s centre for anti-racism at Boston University is scaling down.

In sum, then, 2023 was a pretty good year for mainstream liberals in the Democratic Party and for the sort of classical liberal who used to be at home in the Republican Party. Meanwhile in Congress, the year ended with another House speaker under pressure from his own caucus. Having been duly ejected under the rules he created, Mr McCarthy announced he was leaving the House, and floated the idea of serving in a future Trump cabinet. His successor, Mike Johnson, has so far kept his job by avoiding bringing bills to the House floor. That strategy will run out of road in January, when a partial government shutdown looms.

While that is going on, Republicans will hold their Iowa caucuses on January 15th, which will probably confirm Mr Trump’s grip on the party, and the Supreme Court may have to rule on a couple of important cases involving him. This confluence of events is potentially awful, and that’s before Mr Trump is in effect confirmed as the nominee on Super Tuesday in March, the day after his federal trial for attempting to overturn the result of the 2020 election is set to begin. It is therefore worth remembering that some things are actually going rather well in America right now.

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I'm an expert in American politics, particularly the intricacies of recent political developments, policy changes, and the dynamics within the Republican Party. My depth of knowledge allows me to analyze and contextualize the events mentioned in the article published on December 28, 2023.

Firstly, let's delve into the political landscape. The article discusses the swearing-in of a new Congress at the beginning of the year, with Republicans securing a slim majority in the midterms. Kevin McCarthy, who had previously been the House majority leader supporting Donald Trump, became the Speaker of the House after enduring 15 rounds of voting due to uncertainty and personal animosity within his party.

The narrative touches on the ongoing internal struggle within the Republican Party, highlighting McCarthy's precarious position as the Speaker. A key point is the provision allowing any single member of the Republican caucus to call for a no-confidence vote, foreshadowing McCarthy's eventual departure.

Despite the internal conflicts, the article notes the lack of legislative productivity in Congress during 2023, drawing parallels with the least productive Congress since the Civil War. The Duck Stamp Modernization Act is highlighted as a legislative highlight of the year.

Moving beyond Congress, the article highlights positive aspects of 2023, such as the decline in violent crime. The murder rate, which had spiked during the final year of Trump's presidency, saw an 8% year-on-year decrease in 2023. The economy is also discussed, noting a reduction in inflation and real wage growth for the first time since 2021, although the federal budget deficit remains a concern.

The article touches on the evolution of racial politics in America. It notes a moderation in racial politics during 2023, attributing this shift to both the Trump presidency and the murder of George Floyd. The Supreme Court's overturning of affirmative action in college admissions is highlighted as a significant development, influenced in part by Trump's appointments to the court.

In summary, 2023 is portrayed as a relatively positive year for mainstream liberals and classical liberals, with a decline in violent crime, economic improvements, and a moderation in racial politics. However, the political landscape remains contentious, especially within the Republican Party, with the article hinting at potential challenges ahead, including the Iowa caucuses, Supreme Court rulings, and events related to Donald Trump.

From duck stamps to doomsday: the past year in American politics (2024)
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