December 15, 2017


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By some tellings, 2017 was the beginning of the end for the Republic. America elected a volatile narcissist who threatens democratic institutions while sitting atop a golden toilet bowl, iPhone in hand, tweetstorm imminent.

To hear others recount it, 2017 was the righteous reclamation of a government beset by a scourge of elitism. The year behind us was the opening chapter of a grand tale of American revitalization—by and for the forgotten men of our nation.

Neither narrative is true, yet neither is exactly false. 2017, like any year, eludes unitary storylines. A cohesive political narrative must be woven from single threads. Three stand out above all.

2017 echoed the past. The Republicans pushed with gusto for a regressive tax plan born of the 1980s. The North American Free Trade Agreement (N.A.F.T.A.) took center stage as the administration looked to renegotiate it. The administration’s criticism of N.A.F.T.A. evoked 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot’s giant sucking sound. The Russia scandal and subsequent investigations were not too unlike Watergate. For many top officials, it’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up.

The mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in American history, embodied our endless, lamentable gun-control debate. Dozens died; thoughts and prayers were expressed; partisanship erupted; legislation to regulate “bump stocks” germinated and withered. After the latest lap of a decades-long political exercise was complete, few minds were changed.

2017 was a year of stutter-steps. In January, the administration enacted a sweeping—and pointless—travel ban. Airport protests followed, and the ban was blocked by the courts. The ban was revived in March and blocked again. Eventually, the Supreme Court allowed parts of the travel ban to be enacted. It was revamped in September, promptly blocked by lower courts, and recently reinstated by the Supreme Court. Litigation is ongoing.

In April, America fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the al-Shayrat airbase in Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s monstrous deployment of chemical weapons. Pundits cheered the move. Top national security officials promised greater action against the repressive Syrian dictator. Little was ever done.

In September, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (D.A.C.A.) executive order, which put off deportation for some 700,000 unauthorized immigrant “Dreamers,” was rescinded. The president appeared to waver on it for a while, then hardened his position. Several Republicans expressed consternation. Top Democrats promised to make immigration reform a priority. Yet many have long since forgotten.

2017 was a reminder of why America is exceptional. Our institutions successfully constrained an erratic president. Our companies were inventive, and our scientists ingenious. Our journalistic outlets, the world’s best, produced brilliant investigative work and pioneered innovative digital-first business models. Our banks and fintech start-ups pushed socially responsible investing into the mainstream. Our thinkers and scholars wrote incisively about gender, inequality, health care, and fake news, to name a few subjects.

Our challenges were as monumental as our achievements. An onslaught of storms and blazes killed hundreds and displaced thousands more. A worsening opioid epidemic, white-supremacist rallies, and gut-wrenching mass shootings made for a year pockmarked with tragedy. Yet, through it all, Americans responded with a characteristic bravery and tenacity.

A personal idée fixe: the American economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize in economics for his work on how predictably irrational humans are. His marriage of psychology and economics is a vital development for a field which has lost itself in a bog of quantification. Thaler’s Nobel is well-deserved, and all should celebrate it.

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Put together, 2017 hasn’t been America’s best year. Nor has it been our worst. Much is still to come. A congressional shake-up in the 2018 midterms could impede the president’s agenda. N.A.F.T.A. renegotiations could die down—or blow up. Perhaps the Dreamers will finally be able to rest easy in 2018—just maybe.

The #MeToo movement against sexual assault deserves a mention. As I wrote in November, it is unclear whether #MeToo will be a movement or a mania. But it will doubtless reverberate in 2018.

Optimism is our mightiest weapon going into the new year—cynicism our most loathsome foe. 2018 will bring tumult, and scandal, and spectacle, and tragedy. But through it all, this great American experiment will plod on, slowed but undeterred.

You, dear reader, are part of the experiment. America is made great in no small part by its universities. Cornell nurtures the sharpest minds, the brightest inventors, the savviest entrepreneurs, the wisest leaders. Being here is a privilege; one for which I am deeply thankful. I hope you are, too. Here’s to a 2018 replete with growth, learning, and love.

One last request: go vote in next year’s midterm elections. Young people participate in elections at dismal rates. American democracy is ours to uphold.