The time draws near for the annual Lieberman Award winner, the world's foremost award for being the absolute worst human being in a calendar year. And while I could (and do) plausibly say this every year, looking at the past 12 months leaves me wondering where even to begin.
No, seriously. How do I even start to sort through all the bad things that happened this year and the people responsible for them.
It is too easy and too trite to simply do Trump every year. I am of the school of thought that Trump is a symptom of all that's wrong with our politics and our society, not a unique or aberrant manifestation of something that had to be forced on (at the very least) a large minority of Americans. To focus exclusively on Trump is to suggest – wrongly – that ridding ourselves of Trump solves the fundamental problem. It does not, and I think the actions of a lot of people over the past four years (and especially recently) demonstrate how much bigger than him our problem is.
Similarly, it seems a major stretch to give the award to anyone in opposition, no matter what mistakes or misjudgments they're responsible for. To say "Well the Democrats didn't do a very effective job of fighting Trump"…it may be true, but the structure of the sentence alone is enough to show where the real problem lies. Yeah, they need to get their heads out of their asses quickly and figure out how to prevent Trump or something worse than him from returning to power in 2024. But truly the worst people? Not in the running.
There's also a temptation to start casting around the media, since the elite end of that industry did such a comprehensively terrible job in 2020. It's as if they set out to prove how little they learned from 2016. However, a substantial part of the media was committed to providing accurate information about the pandemic; as low of a bar as that is, the non-right wing media certainly could have made things worse by indulging the kind of both-sidesism they bring to their political reporting. As for right-wing outlets like OANN or Fox, what's the point. They did nothing more or less than what they always do and what anyone could have expected them to do.
The strongest temptation is to point the finger at millions of Americans who refused to take the pandemic seriously for their own ignorant or selfish reasons, but I found myself pulling up at the last second. Yes, people are idiots. But there are people in this country whose job it is to keep this ship afloat notwithstanding how dumb people are. I believe that people were as dumb as they were permitted to be; you can't have state and local governments (to say nothing of the national) telling people "Be safe" while issuing mask "recommendations" and reopening bars and restaurants because nobody wanted to pony up to provide financial support to businesses or individuals. When basic public health precautions are "recommendations," you have left the door open for people to be idiots. When you permit bars and hotels and vacation resorts to be open and eventually full of idiots, the idiots did nothing more than what idiots could be expected to do. The more important question than "Why are these people so dumb?" is why we made it so incredibly easy for people to do the dumbest possible things throughout all of this. To call the signals governments sent during the pandemic "mixed" is an understatement.
So, ultimately that is where I ended up focusing, where my gaze kept falling over and over: on state and local elected officials, the people most directly responsible for the rules that dictated what would and would not take place, what individuals could and could not do. For better or worse, neither the president nor Congress has the power simply to order everyone to stay home, to open or close the schools, to let people go to bars, to require certain public health precautions. They blew it. You can point to examples of people who did a better job than most, or even a few who did legitimately well. But as a group, they failed miserably, torn between the desire to "be safe" and also to reopen everything as fast as humanly possible. They did what universities did – for financial reasons they brought undergraduates to campus under ridiculous – like, patently ridiculous – plans to prevent contagion and then when the plans that obviously were never going to work did not work they wagged their fingers and said "Gosh, you students blew it." No, the decision-makers who came up with such an abysmal plan that it relied on tens of thousands of 19 year olds behaving completely responsibly at all times blew it. Blaming individuals is easy and often makes people feel good. But it's misguided. The people who define the choices and the options available to people, they are where we should focus.