Let’s Hope What Happened in 2021 Stays in 2021

Gail Collins: Bret, this is our last conversation of the year. I’ve had a lot of fun disagreeing over the past 12 months. Mentioning that partly because it’s hard to imagine a whole lot of people saying, “Remember all the great times we had in 2021.”

Bret Stephens: I had such high hopes for the year, Gail. Melania and Donald would slink quietly out of the White House, she in couture, he in ignominy. The vaccines would conquer the pandemic. Joe Biden would preside competently and serenely over a country looking for respite after four years of craziness. Relations with the rest of the world would improve. Republicans would wake up from their fever dreams and become a serious party again, or at least hang their heads in shame after the sacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Alas not. 2021 turned out to be even worse than 2020, and I’m struggling to see why 2022 will be any better. Care to cheer me up?

Gail: OK, here’s a theory. Most of the things that were terrible about 2021 were reflections of a world that’s changing hyper-fast because of new technology.

Bret: The assault on the Capitol was more Genghis than Google. Sorry, go on ….

Gail: Crazy people find it very, very easy to get in touch and swap paranoid fantasies. Mean people can gossip on sites that the targets of their ire can visit easily. (Always thinking about those teenage girls reading reviews of their clothes/figures/hair). Special events are dwindling — no point in going out to the movies if you can stream the latest attractions at home.

Bret: Very true. Social media freezes us all in a kind of permanent middle school presided over by a mean girl named Veronica.

Gail: None of this will go away, but I’m hoping that as we get more skilled in living with the good side of the web, things will balance out. Sane people will confer on how to make the world better. Families will automatically set places at holiday dinners for loved ones who can zoom in from the other side of the country. And those who are consigned to their beds by illness or old age can have fantastic adventures via virtual reality headsets.

Bret: That’s a bit too “Brave New World” for me, Gail. My hope for 2022 is that millions more Americans will realize that the worst thing they can do with their lives is to spend them working or socializing online. People should be dedigitizing — if that’s a word — disconnecting virtually and reconnecting physically. They should leave bigger cities in favor of places where nature is more accessible, homes are more affordable, neighbors are more approachable, careers are less cutthroat, the point of life isn’t the next promotion, weekends are actual weekends, people shop at real stores and read real books and have dinner with real people. Sitting around and doing nothing should be seen as a perfectly respectable use of time.

Gail: Well, I’m not going to argue with you about the glories of doing nothing. But I can’t relate to your vision of finding meaningful life by ditching the big cities. Reminds me of growing up in an era of suburban explosion where the new neighborhoods had about as much diversity as a raft of albino waterfowl.

Bret: Very insensitive to albino waterfowl, Gail.

Gail: But maybe we’re both right — if the pandemic ever fades, the future could hold lots of urban-rural options and folks will get to pick.

Bret: Well, that’s the meta-hope. The more specific hope is that we’ll finally lick the pandemic, Democrats will stop screwing up, and the country won’t get handed back to Donald — “They’re-Jewish-People-That Run-The-New-York-Times” — Trump.

Gail: I’m obviously not going to argue that the Democrats are doing a terrific job at present. But their situation — that 50-50 Senate, the pandemic-riddled economy — is pretty impossible. Don’t think any president could have delivered much in this mess. Not Reagan or Lyndon Johnson or maybe even F.D.R.

Bret: Hmmm. Reagan had a Democratic-controlled House for his whole presidency. Biden could be doing better.

Gail: Different kind of political parties back then. Trump’s turned the whole scene into something from “Attack of the Killer Bees.”

Bret: Point taken.

Gail: And oh my God, Joe Manchin. I’ll refrain from doing an hourlong rant, but this is a man whose state uses up way more government money than its people pay in taxes. Who wants to kill climate change legislation while he’s living off the millions he made in the coal business.

Bret: And I’ll refrain from reminding you that I’ve been saying for months there was no way Manchin was going to vote for Biden’s legislation. I’ll also refrain from gloating.

Gail: What I’d love to see is an election next year that gives Biden an actual, real, not-Manchin-dependent Democratic Congress so he could be tested on how he could deliver in a semi-sane world. Any chance, do you think?

Bret: Very unlikely. Midterm elections historically go against the party holding the presidency. Republicans have the built-in advantage of being able to gerrymander more districts than Democrats. Biden’s poll numbers are terrible, and I don’t think he has the kind of political charisma to turn things around. And people are scared and angry, particularly about rising prices.

Gail: Biden actually has a lot he can point to with pride, particularly in the war on the coronavirus. Still, I can’t say I disagree with you. Sigh.

Bret: The only silver lining, as far as Democrats are concerned, is that Republicans always reach for the self-destruct button whenever they have control of Congress, particularly when it comes to the House. Donald’s Footstool, a.k.a. Kevin McCarthy, is not a compelling G.O.P. figurehead if he becomes speaker.

Gail: If the Republicans have to rely on Kevin McCarthy’s charisma, that is certainly good news for the Democrats.

Bret: Turning to another subject, Gail, Covid cases are skyrocketing again. What’s your prescription for doing things differently?

Gail: The rules won’t change — get the shots, three of them, wear the damned masks and don’t patronize places that cater to crowds of people unless there’s a vaccination check at the door.

Bret: Agreed. But keep schools open no matter what. It’s bad enough having a public-health crisis without having to add mental-health and learning crises on top of it.

Gail: I’m fine with barring the unvaccinated from public places, including work, unless they’re prepared to start every day with a coronavirus test. And of course we’ve got to do battle against the right-wing ranters who try to get attention as anti-mask crusaders.

That’s your party they’re coming from — any ideas on how to make them behave?

Bret: Former party, Gail, former party. Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was the last straw for me.

Gail: Bret, weren’t you going to try to reform Republicanism from within? Not that we wouldn’t welcome you into the Democratic fold. I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi would be happy to hold a celebration, once parties are permitted again.

Bret: I’m sure Madam Speaker would gladly send me a half-eaten box of crackers and a banana peel so I could slip on it.

Truth is, I’m happy as an independent: It’s like getting to order from the a la carte menu, whereas everyone else is stuck with a bento box of things that don’t actually go together. Why do Republicans have to be in favor of more economic freedom but less social freedom? Why do so many Democrats favor something closer to the opposite? And why can’t ideologues of both the left and right wrap their heads around the Emerson line about a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds?

Gail: I believe we’ve marched into a major disagreement. It’s true both parties are flawed, although I’d certainly argue that one has turned into Flaw City. But going independent is the worst possible response.

Bret: Say more ….

Gail: The only way you make a party better is by working from within. In New York, the primaries decide who the elected officials are going to be. Voting for an independent third-party candidate is worse than a waste. Registering as an independent is like telling a charitable fund-raiser that you want to help by sending good thoughts.

Bret: Totally disagree! The more independents there are, the more Democrats and Republicans need to fight for their votes rather than take entire constituencies for granted, to bend toward the political center rather than toward the fringe, to pay attention to the personal quality of their candidates rather than insisting that they pass ideological purity tests, to accept nuance and compromise. We’ve become way too partisan as a country, and reducing the hold each party has on its own side is a good thing. I’d even say “independents of the world, unite,” but that would kinda defeat the purpose.

Gail: I dunno, Bret. Nothing more irritating than that plague-on-both-your-houses posing. I say pick a side and work to improve it in 2022.

Bret: To which I’d reply that each side should work harder to earn a vote, not assume they already own it.

A final note before we say goodbye to this lousy year. Don’t miss my favorite piece in The Times this month, which is Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s fabulous portrait of Si Spiegel, a World War II hero and Christmas tree entrepreneur who’s going strong at 97. A good reminder that mettle and moxie go a long way in a person’s life — and in a country’s, too.

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