It’s easy to be scared and depressed. Whole presidential campaigns and a certain news channel depend on you not being able to get a grip on some optimism.
Uplifting, inspiring rescue dog memes and the like spread easily across the internet. But in 2015 good news was most often swallowed by a darkness that has fed one of the dumbest and most divisive presidential campaigns since we had actual segregationists as national candidates.
You didn’t have to look very hard to find things to depress you in 2015 — though the promising developments far outweighed the negatives. Violent crime is near a generational low, we’re experiencing the best job growth of the century, and the percentage of Americans who have health insurance is at an all-time high. Most Americans have no idea that we’re enjoying an era when both global poverty and violent conflict are plummeting.
I’ll continue talking about what was good about 2015 — but for now let’s focus on the downside.
Being more connected to the world gives us the opportunity to be more aware of the progress, suffering, and threats from abroad. But given how challenged most of us feel to keep up with our own lives, we often focus on the threats and nurture obliviousness to both misery and promises abroad. This focus on the negative has proven to be a powerful club for demagogues to beat the drums of xenophobia.
America is at a crossroads; the coming election could decide its future for the next 50 years. The next president isn’t just likely to settle the makeup of the Supreme Court for generations. She or he will also determine whether we will try to reduce the threat from the twin crises that threaten our existence — inequality and climate change — or actively make them worse. Nearly everything President Obama has accomplished — from making the tax system fairer to pursuing diplomacy in bringing rogue states into international order — is at stake in 2016.
These five events are not meant to be an exhaustive list. To be clear, number one is exponentially worse than the others. Instead these problem symbolize the worst of what we’ve experienced in 2015 with the most potential for wrecking more havoc in 2016.
5. Matt Bevin
The victory of this Tea Party businessman in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race has already had dismal consequences for the most vulnerable people of his state. He’s slashed the state’s minimum wage, stripped more than 100,000 adults of their voting rights, and abandoned the state’s massively successful Kynect insurance exchange, which is responsible for the state experiencing the most profound drop in the uninsured rate of any state in the nation. It’s not clear if he will actually revoke Medicaid expansion as he promised. But his mission to free Kentucky from access to basic health care is well underway.
Bevin’s victory points to Democrats’ inability to capitalize on Obamacare as an electoral victory even in the state where it has done the most good. The reforms poll extraordinarily well, as long as you don’t slap the “Obama” label on them. A post election poll showed almost three out of four residents wanted to retain the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid.
Republicans in the South continue to benefit from low voter turnout, coded messages that turn working-class white voters against the party of government, and the collapse of the institutions — labor and public education — that once acted as a ballast to corporatist sloganeering. If conservatism is a plot to make workers, the poor, and the sick more dependent on their bosses, Bevin proves that it’s a winner — if you can keep enough voters home or oblivious to the consequences of their votes.
4. Guns are now killing as many people as cars.
This is actually good news — but it points to a larger problem and the power of the gun lobby to prevent life-saving progress.
“The steady decline in motor vehicle deaths over the past 65 years can be attributed to a combination of improved technology and smarter regulation,” the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote. Gun deaths have also fallen since around the time the U.S. implemented a national background check system in early 1990s, but since the late 90s Republicans in Congress have blocked any research that could be used to argue for gun control, leading to a chilling effect across academia into a crisis that no other developed nation deals with on the same scale. Suicides of older men and shooting deaths of younger men continue at a scary consistency — but the mere suggestion that gun deaths are a public health problem led to Republicans blocking the appointment of the current Surgeon General.
The city of Wilmington, Delaware was so overwhelmed with gun violence that it called the Centers for Disease Control in to help. The CDC’s research is now aiding prevention of the crimes. “If there were adequate funding on firearm-related research, there would have been papers out on this a decade ago, not just in Wilmington, but in many other large cities,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, the co-director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center told The New York Times.
3. Another hottest year on record?
There have been barely any mentions of climate change in the GOP debates, but why should there be? Nearly all of the candidates still in the race have promised to encourage climate change, even if there have been more encouraging signs from less public Republican public officials.
This year looks to be another hottest year on record. And the costs keep getting greater. “Climate change could cause 10 times as much damage to the global economy as previously estimated, slashing output as much as 23 percent by the end of the century,” according to a new paper from researchers at Stanford and Berkeley.
Assuming that the guys who were wrong about Iraq, the Bush tax breaks, same-sex marriage, the Stimulus and Obamacare, will be wrong about climate change is a safe bet. It’s too bad that the well-being of all our living descendants is riding on this bet.
2. Donald Trump and the GOP Debates
The idea that Trump is the GOP’s only problem obscures that all of the Republican candidates are offering some version of his budget-busting, immigrant-bashing, and Muslim-scapegoating worldview. Politico‘s Mike Grunwald watched all of the GOP debates and came away needing smelling salts. These “madcap purity contests” ignored not only the science of climate change but of what could be the single greatest public health advancement in human history besides sanitary systems — vaccinations.
These “highly rated, mostly unrebutted advertisements for the notion that Obama is a disaster and America is in peril” have furthered the notions that we were better off in 2008 and that ISIS is an existential crisis we can only defeat by implicating all of Islam in its depravity. And while we’re rightfully worried about radicalized religious extremists in America, a terrorist who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility parroted extremist anti-choice rhetoric that was spewed from the GOP debate stage over and over. While Republicans take advantage of American’s heightened fear of terror, America’s reproductive health workers are forced to endure a never-ending threat of violence as they perform their constitutionally protected work.
A half-decade after the Arab Spring offered new hope for the Middle East, a civil war that has raged since 2011 continues horrify the world and question any sense of shared humanity.
The brutality of Bashar al-Assad is matched and often topped by the “monstrous evil” of ISIS, which is determined to distort history into a narrative that commands them to wipe out all “infidels” in the region that gave the world its three major monotheistic religions.
Over 13 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance and over 200,00 have been killed. This year the flood of refugees from the country terrorized by barrel bombs and murderers armed with captured U.S. weapons created a crisis that was purposely exacerbated by a terror attack in Paris intended to turn the world against the most abject victims of the crisis. While the President of France refused to turn against accepting refugees, conservatives in the U.S. seized on the fears to launch into an attack against accepting anyone, except perhaps Christians, displaced by the terror in Syria.
The attack in San Bernardino, which killed 14 Americans, only heightened the fears and the fear mongering. American efforts to support the Iraqi government and the Kurds against ISIS have been going on for well over a year and are finally beginning to show real promise. In the face of the failure of the world to deal with this unending misery, it’s difficult to be optimistic, especially with Russia now intervening heavily on the behalf of Assad. But the history of the Arab Spring is still being written and there’s some hope that 2016 in Syria will be better — because who can imagine what worse could even look like?
Photo: Public Domain (via)