What I got wrong in 2020
Time to fess up
Writing opinion columns about the state of the country and the world is a little like trying to pen an authoritative review of a film viewed from the front row of an IMAX theater. The perspective is wildly distorted, with some details magnified beyond all reason and others lost in a blur of distant, fleeting images seen from a sharply skewed angle.
This is especially true during a presidential election year, when events that consume a couple days of the news cycle can briefly come to seem incredibly important, only to be swiftly forgotten, leaving no longer-lasting mark on the broader sweep of events. Add in the worst pandemic in a century, the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the loser of the election refusing to accept the results — and well, it was an unusually challenging year to be weighing in on the news!
Given those difficulties, I'm relieved I only occasionally made a fool of myself — and even wrote a fair number of columns about which I am (perhaps inordinately) proud. Many of these are more philosophical essays about life under lockdown and the struggles of living with various forms of uncertainty, as well as columns in which I highlighted dangerously illiberal trends on the authoritarian right and woke left. I also penned some fiery polemics that struck a chord with readers — and took the time to write a pair of intellectually ambitious pieces that I hope made a more lasting contribution to understanding what's distinctive about our political and cultural moment.
But I also made some memorable missteps this year.
One noteworthy example is the absence of any sustained treatment of COVID-19 until early March. As I noted in a column titled "Confessions of a coronavirus skeptic," published on March 23, I dismissed the threat until the pandemic reached Europe and brought large numbers of fatalities to the Lombardy region of Italy. That was obviously a misjudgment — though not one that I'd drastically correct for if I could replay the events of January and February. That's because many of the reasons for my skepticism remain valid given what we knew at the time. Pundits regularly overreact to and overhype threats. I'd rather err on the side of caution than encourage panic in the face of uncertainty. Though better than both would have been some acknowledgment by mid-February of a looming epidemiological threat.
Not that I always succeeded in keeping a level head. I wrote a lot of gloomy columns about the state of the country this year, and I stand behind most of them. But I'm less convinced I got it right when writing about the economy. In an especially dark column from early April, I gave into all of my worst lockdown-fueled anxieties and predicted an economic cataclysm as far as the eye could see. The bounce-back a few months later was strong enough that my catastrophizing already seemed a little overwrought. From the perspective of the end of 2020, with several vaccines being distributed and a new relief package approved in Washington, my early spring prognostication looks more than a little unhinged.
When it came to the political consequences of the pandemic, I briefly made the opposite mistake of voicing unfounded optimism about the virus possibly forcing the right to reckon more forthrightly with reality. Instead, the opposite has happened, with the president, conservative media personalities, and libertarian-minded individuals throughout the country joining forces in encouraging outright denial of the pandemic's severity.
As the president moved from taking the virus seriously in March and April to dismissing it from May onward, I frequently lashed out against him, but I thankfully resisted the temptation to go to the extreme of blaming him alone for the severity of the pandemic in the United States. From the perspective of the mid-summer, with new COVID-19 cases rising sharply across parts of the country while European numbers were low and flat, focusing on Trump's failings made sense. But a few months later, as Europe's early successes gave way to massive fall surges in cases and fatalities, the picture became newly muddled.
This doesn't mean I always got things right on the subject. In an early column on the pandemic, I predicted that nationalists would benefit from a threat that required strong government action, restrictions on crossborder travel, and greater attention on the vulnerability of international supply chains. That may yet prove to be true, but it's also possible that the ineptitude displayed by so many nationalist governments in response to the pandemic could empower their technocratic opponents, giving experts a renewed boost. Or maybe governmental failures will be so widely distributed that the reputations of neither will be meaningfully burnished. It's still too early to say.
Making predictions and rendering judgments about electoral politics presents a different sort of challenge. Here the danger is often assigning too much significance to people and events that ultimately prove to be of peripheral importance. Tara Reade and her accusations of sexual assault against Joe Biden were a good example of this. So was the self-funded presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. There were moments in the spring when both had me spooked. In retrospect, my fears weren't warranted.
Then there was my tendency to succumb to the same kind of exuberance that led me to predict in September 2016 that Trump was poised to lose to Hillary Clinton in an historic landslide. I didn't faceplant quite as memorably this time around — because I included more hedges in my predictions of a comfortable Biden victory, and because (the president's absurd and corrosive denials notwithstanding) Biden actually won.
Yet it's worth pausing to note that at times I allowed my conviction that Trump deserved to lose to color my assessment of the likelihood that he would lose, and by how large of a margin. Of course I was aided in my misjudgment by the polls, which had Biden up by about nine points nationally on the eve of the election. He ended up prevailing by half that. But this misstates the reality of how close the election really was.
Since the column I published on the morning of Election Day spoke of an imminent Biden victory as a vindication of "reality," it's important that I acknowledge the political truth. I've spent the last four years pointing out that Trump barely won the 2016 election because he would have lost if Clinton had flipped just 78,000 votes in three states. But the fact is that Trump would have won re-election this year if he'd flipped slightly more than just 65,000 votes in three states and Nebraska's 2nd congressional district. That, and not some massive groundswell of support for Biden or overwhelming repudiation of the Trump presidency, is our American reality.
I didn't always recognize this, in part because I didn't want to believe it could be true. To my mind, the worst thing a columnist can do is fall prey to motivated reasoning driven by wishful thinking. To the extent that I did precisely this about the outcome of the presidential election, it is the 2020 error I regret most of all.