The age of unknowns

Towards the end of every year the Economist publishes a special “World in…” edition. It advises readers on what to expect in the year to come, warning of the coming trends in global affairs, politics, tech, finance and much else. As you might expect, it’s generally infused with a complacent confidence: that technocratic sense that the issues it deals with are manageable, understandable and,  in some sense, predictable.

The “World in…” series has always seemed a little too sure of itself. But if the endeavor seemed like a mildly cocky contrivance in, say, the mid-2000s, today it feels more like absurdist performance art: an attempt to squeeze an increasingly mind-boggling moment into the strictures set by the Economist’s ideological framework.

2021 draws to a close with a daunting listen of unknowns. Take your pick: Vladimir Putin’s menacing approach to Ukraine and the uncertain path of the pandemic are two leading candidates. And those are only the short-term considerations. In the age of Covid, the return of great-power geopolitics and all sorts of disorienting weirdness — complete with meme stocks, NFTs and a private-sector space race — a sombre account of the ongoing “techlash” and predictions for the ongoing “Democracy v. Autocracy” (two of the Economist’s “major themes” in 2022) showdown feel beside the point.

Two recent essays are more honest about the world as it is in the final days of 2021 and have lingered in my mind since I read them a few weeks ago. The first, by Atlantic Council fellow Damir Marusic, made sense of the various geopolitical threats faced by America with unsettling clarity:

It feels like the order we have all taken for granted since the end of the Cold War is badly decaying, and has gotten so fragile that it might well shatter soon. Worse than the decay itself, however, is what feels like our inability to perceive just how advanced it is. We notice individual problems, but we don’t see how it adds up, nor how we got here.

Riffing on Marusic’s ominous warning, Matthew Continetti extended the end-of-an-era uncertainty to other fields in a column for the Washington Free Beacon. “Whether one looks at politics, economics, or the world,” he writes, “one sees a realignment of forces, a shuffling of players off and on the stage, to prepare for the next act in the drama. The Trump presidency seems less like the harbinger of a new beginning than a spectacular climax to a historical epoch. If so, we are living through a sort of denouement, a working through of conflicts left unresolved.”

Continetti concludes with an appeal to humility. Recent developments, he explains, remind us to “temper our expectations, avoid rash judgments, and be modest in our presumptions. Above all, they remind us to think seriously about how best to preserve our traditions of freedom in these strange and darkening times.”

As a daily dispatch from America’s capital, this newsletter inevitably gets caught up in incremental developments: the progress of a piece of legislation, the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the current administration, a revealing gaffe or telling unforced error. But I hope the big picture has stayed in frame.

Indeed, one of the DC Diary’s animating ideas is that the only way to observe politics is in the round. If you want a proper sense of what’s going on, you can’t snootily separate policy from “the horse race” ; or dismiss the tittle-tattle and human relationships that drive so much of Washington life; or breezily turn your nose up at “culture war” issues.

The daunting, dizzying truth is that all of this, and much else, matters. Politics happens at the point where these many things meet. Next to that collision point, we are waiting, watching closely for clues as to what happens next.

Thank you for reading in 2021. The DC Diary will return on January 3. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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What you should be reading today

Francesca Peacock: Joan Didion got inside us all
Michael Warren Davis: Live like it’s Christmas every day
Charles Lipson: Kamala’s bad press isn’t ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’
Katherine Eban, Vanity Fair: The Biden administration rejected an October proposal for free rapid tests for the holidays
Jimmy Quinn, National Review: A rift in conservative foreign-policy world
Rich Lowry, Politico: Biden’s Covid overconfidence

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Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 43.0 percent
Disapprove: 53.0 percent
Net approval: -10 (RCP Average)

Proportions of users who say they do not trust the following tech products
Facebook: 72 percent
TikTok: 63 percent
Instagram: 60 percent
WhatsApp: 53 percent
YouTube: 53 percent (Washington Post/Schar School)

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