Nobody makes a more convenient punching bag than a pundit. We're superficial, some people say. We're unaccountable, we're told. Or the most common insult of all: We're wrong. I could quibble with all of these assertions, but it remains true that any professional class needs outside criticism. And I pinch myself every day when I realize that people pay me to write what I think. I have no right to complain about anything.
In the interest of being of better service to you, dear readers, you who help me to put food on my family, here's an exercise in looking back on what I covered most in 2016 and considering where I was wrong, where I was right, and speculating about what's to come in 2017.
1. Global populism
This is the big one, the one that left almost the entire pundit class with egg on its face, starting with myself. Browsing through my 2016 columns on Donald Trump, my mix of incomprehension, high-wattage emotion, and bafflement is kind of embarrassing. I didn't believe he would win the Republican primary, and when he did, I didn't think he would win the White House. That almost everyone else screwed up on this is no excuse. I don't add any value to anyone when I go with the herd.
That said, I will readily claim that I correctly identified the underlying causes of Trump's success. Reform conservatives like myself have for years been warning that the Republican Party had been selling its working-class base short, and that it needed to embrace a working-class focused agenda for both policy and political reasons. Instead, this didn't happen, and it blew up in the GOP's face.
The wave of populism, of course, has been global. I also didn't think Brexit would happen (although I was right when I said that it wouldn't crater the British economy, despite countless elite warnings). Closer to home, I confidently confided to a friend that Nicolas Sarkozy would sweep the conservative primaries in France. Then, anti-incumbent fervor defenestrated him, as well as incumbent President François Hollande.
What does this wave of populism portend in 2017? Trump's temperament promises failure at many levels of government. Although with Trump, who knows? In the U.K., Brexit will keep grinding on, as the interminable negotiations about the highly technical business of disentangling Britain and the E.U. keep hogging the headlines. In France, although the conservative candidate remains the bookies' favorite, the French presidential election has been thrown wide open. Germany also has an election coming up, and for the first time in many years, Angela Merkel looks to be in trouble.
The key question is whether governing elites will gather some humility and realize that the way to defuse this populist wave is to eat some humble pie and regain the trust of the masses, rather than beat them down as a bunch of know-nothings. In the United States, restoring broad-based growth requires a mix of more redistributive fiscal policy with supply-side regulatory reform. In Europe, it requires a profound rethinking of how key European supranational institutions, especially the E.U. and monetary policy, work. I am not confident that either of these things will happen, and therefore I forecast more strange and painful populist upsets in 2017 and beyond.
2. Catholicism in France
One thing I got right was the rise of Catholicism in France, both as a social and political phenomenon. In one of the world's most secular and socially liberal countries, where Catholicism (except in its most watered-down forms) has been proclaimed moribund for decades, this is quite a shift. François Fillon won this year's conservative primaries in a striking upset that was prompted in part by his support from Catholics.
Meanwhile, the National Front's Marine Le Pen seems determined to antagonize Catholic voters, doubling down on her hard-line secularist rhetoric and her abortion flip-flop. I suspect she reasons that, with Fillon in the race, Catholics aren't going to vote for her anyway, but I think that will cost her votes and possibly split her party, which does have a sizeable conservative Catholic wing led by her telegenic and crafty niece Marion.
What will happen next with the Catholic wave in France, spiritually, socially, and politically? The new generation of French Catholics are heart-on-their-sleeve radicals. If Fillon wins, as seems most likely, what will they do once he inevitably betrays them? Will they retreat from politics once again? Shift to the National Front? Do something even more strange? Catholicism transformed France once before, and it has the potential to do it again. For many reasons, personal and political, I will be watching this with trepidation in 2017 — and hoping to affect it.
3. Prayer and forgiveness
In 2016, I started praying more regularly, and it has changed my life. Pope Francis also dedicated 2016 as a Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church. While I have questioned some of this Pope's moves, I will remain grateful to him for putting the theme of mercy at the heart of his pontificate, and trying to remind as many people as possible that the Christian God is a God of mercy. This year, I have had occasions to exercise mercy, and it has proved a source of strength and peace.
If you care about the state of the world, by all means follow politics and be active in politics. But please, in 2017, cultivate a deeper spirituality, cultivate kindness and moral courage, and cultivate mercy. These are the only things that can truly change the world for the better.