Remembering 2022 as the year democracies pushed back against authoritarians and exposed their weakness
Just a year ago, we were focusing on Russian troops massing on the border with Ukraine, which the U.S. government and allies recognized as an attempt both to keep Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a longstanding military alliance resisting Russian expansion, and to test the unity of the democratic nations that made up NATO itself.
Former president Donald Trump had weakened NATO and vowed to pull the U.S. out of it if he won a second term, demoralizing our allies, but Democratic president Joe Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, had worked hard to pull the alliance back together.
Biden worked the phones and Blinken flew around the world, talking to allies not only to warn them but also to get pledges to pressure Russia, help Ukraine defend itself, and accept refugees if necessary. On one day alone, Biden spoke with leaders from the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Poland, and Romania; the secretary general of NATO; and the presidents of the European Union.
Biden and Blinken anticipated Putin’s pretenses for an invasion of Ukraine and publicized them, taking away from the Russian president a key propaganda lever. Along with their allies, they warned they would respond to any invasion of Ukraine with heavy economic sanctions that would crush the Russian economy. This was a threat many observers met with skepticism, since sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 invasion and subsequent occupation of Ukraine had not been strong enough to force Putin to a reckoning.
On February 4, Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping met in Beijing and pledged mutual support and cooperation, issuing a statement saying their authoritarian regimes were actually a form of democracy. On the same day, the Republican National Committee (RNC), meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, censured Representatives Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) for joining the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.
That attack was an attempt to overturn our democratic form of government by installing a candidate rejected by voters, but the RNC defended the events surrounding January 6 as “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” and attacked the investigation as “persecution.”
It appeared that a global authoritarian movement was coalescing for an attack on liberal democracy and that the leaders of the Republican Party were on the side of the authoritarians. The United Nations was formed after World War II to protect the idea of a rules-based international order so that countries would not unilaterally attack each other for their own advantage and start wars.
If Russia, a member of the U.N. were allowed to violate the fundamental principle that had preserved relative peace in Europe since World War II, there was no telling what might come next.
And then, on February 24, 2022, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a country that had fought Russian invaders since 2014 but was clearly—everyone knew—no match for Russia’s powerful military. Recent reports show that Russian leaders expected the assault to take ten days. Ukraine’s best hope was to get President Volodymyr Zelensky to safety to preserve the Ukrainian government-in-exile.
But then, something surprising happened.
When the U.S. offered to evacuate Zelensky, he said: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Within days, he and his cabinet had recorded a video from Kyiv, demonstrating that the Ukrainian government was still in Kyiv and would fight to protect their country. Ukrainians defied the invaders as the U.S., NATO, the European Union, and allies around the globe rushed in money, armaments, and humanitarian aid.
In Brussels, London, Paris, Munich, Dublin, and Geneva, and across the globe, people took to the streets to protest the invasion and show their support for the resisters. In their fight for their right to self-determination, the Ukrainians and their defenders reminded the United States what cherishing democracy actually looks like.
Meanwhile, at home, the administration and Congress showed Americans that the government could, indeed, help ordinary people. In his first year in office, Biden and the Democrats had passed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package to jump-start the economy after the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic. Together with Republicans, they had also passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more popularly known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, which invested in long-overdue repairs and extensions to the country’s road, bridges, broadband, and other hard infrastructure.
But with just 50 votes in the Senate, Democrats had to get all their senators on board for more legislation, and it appeared that they would not be able to do that in 2022. As global post-lockdown inflation hit the U.S., it both made lawmakers cautious about more spending and seemed to give Republicans a ready-made tool to attack Biden and the Democrats before the upcoming midterm election.
It was at this juncture that the hard work of knowing how to negotiate, something we had become unused to seeing in Washington, paid off. Over the spring and summer, Democrats worked with Republicans when possible to build the economy not through the supply-side theories of the Republicans, which say that freeing capital at the top of the economy by cutting taxes will spur wealthy investors to create jobs, but by creating jobs and easing costs for wage workers.
They shepherded through Congress the PACT Act, expanding healthcare and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits; the CHIPs and Science Act, to bolster U.S. scientific research and manufacturing, especially of silicone chips; and the Inflation Reduction Act, which makes historic investments in clean energy and finally lets Medicare negotiate drug prices (which will cap insulin for Medicare participants at $35). They passed an expansion of the Affordable Care Act that has dropped the rate of those without health insurance to a new low of 8 percent.
They passed the Respect for Marriage Act, requiring states to recognize marriages performed in other states, and reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which had languished since 2018. It passed the most significant gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years. The administration also announced debt relief of up to $20,000 for recipients of Pell Grants.
Finally, just before the end of 2022, Biden signed into law an omnibus funding bill that includes a reform of the Electoral Count Act, making it harder for a Trumplike president to use the terms of the law to overturn an election. There were key measures left undone — neither voting rights protections nor the childcare, eldercare, and education infrastructure package Biden wanted passed — but the list of accomplishments for this Congress rivaled that of the 1960s’ Great Society and the 1930s’ New Deal.
Meanwhile, the reactionary Republicans illustrated exactly what their rule would mean for the country, and it was not popular. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized reproductive healthcare as a constitutional right.
Immediately, stories of raped children unable to obtain abortions and women unable to obtain healthcare during miscarriages horrified the 62% of Americans who supported Roe v. Wade and even many of those who did not support Roe but had never really thought that the U.S. government would cease to recognize a constitutional right that had been on the books for almost 50 years.
The justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, including the three Trump added to the court, had publicly assured senators they would not challenge settled law — a key principle of jurisprudence — and their willingness to do so indicated they intended for their ideology to replace legal precedent. Just days after the Dobbs decision, in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the court decided that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases because Congress cannot delegate “major questions” to be decided by the executive branch. This doctrine threatens to undermine government regulation.
The court went on to fulfill a right-wing wish list, deciding a number of cases that slashed at the separation of church and state, expanded gun rights, and so on.
At the same time the court’s decisions were making the right wing’s plans for the country clear, the January 6th committee’s public hearings exposed the deliberate plan to overthrow our democracy. Led by chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and vice chair Liz Cheney, the committee used shocking videos and powerful testimony primarily from Trump’s own relatives and appointees and other Republican officials to show how Trump and his cronies planned even before the election to claim that Democrats had stolen victory, and then had used that Big Lie to inflame supporters to keep him in office.
Inflation, though starting to ease, was still high enough in November that political pundits expected the Republicans would sweep back into control of Congress. Instead, despite gerrymandering and the new voting restrictions many Republican-dominated states had imposed in response to the Big Lie, voters put Republicans in control of the House by only four seats. For the first time since 1934, the president’s party did not lose a seat in the Senate in a midterm election; instead, the Democrats picked one up.
At the end of 2022, more than 300 days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, what seemed a year ago to be the growing power of authoritarianism appears to have been checked. Finland and Sweden took steps to join NATO, while the Biden administration expanded its work with Europe and traditional allies by pointedly nurturing partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and Africa, investing in those regions as both Russia and China have had to pull back.
At least so far, the rules-based international order is holding. Putin’s military, which a number of right-wing Republicans had championed as more powerful than that of the democratic U.S., turns out to have been poorly trained and ill equipped as Putin’s cronies siphoned money from military contracts to funnel into expensive homes and yachts in other countries. And the Ukrainians turned out to have trained heavily and well, especially in logistics, and to be determined to fight on to victory.
The Russian economy is reeling from global sanctions, and in its troubles, Russia has turned to Iran, which is also suffering under sanctions and which has provided drones for the war in Ukraine. But Iran, too, is facing protests at home from women and girls no longer willing to obey the country’s discriminatory laws.
China’s economy is also weaker than it seemed, owing to changing supply chains, a real-estate bust, and increasing dislocations first from a zero-Covid policy that prompted extreme lockdowns, and now from the easing of those restrictions that has turned the virus loose to ravage the country.
The crisis of democracy in the United States is not over, not by a long shot. Anti-semitism and anti-LGBTQ violence rose this year, along with white supremacist violence and gun violence, while a right-wing theocratic movement continues to try to garner power. Wealth and its benefits remain badly distributed in this country, and the ravages of climate change are getting worse. Those things – and others – are real and dangerous.
But the country looks very different today than it did a year ago. I ended last year’s wrap-up letter by saying: “It looks like 2022 is going to be a choppy ride, but its outcome is in our hands. As Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), who was beaten almost to death in his quest to protect the right to vote, wrote to us when he passed: ‘Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.’”
The story of 2022 turned out to be how many folks both abroad and at home stepped up to the plate.
John Leicester (AP) and Mikhail Klimentyev (AP)
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics