At last, the damage done by an agonizing global recession was easing. A bitter U.S. presidential election was finally over. And as 2013 began, it seemed the year might bring news headlines offering the public some reassurance or relief.
The year started, after all, with an inauguration that held out the chance for at least a slight thaw in the nation’s political deepfreeze. The prospects were bolstered by economic tail winds that pushed unemployment to its lowest level in five years, lifted stocks to record highs and juiced home prices. News is never predictable, of course. But as 2013 unfolded, it seemed possible that a country worn by infighting, the toll of tough times and tragedy, might begin to find its stride.
Instead, the year’s headlines were often filled with tales of dysfunction, discord and misplaced trust that added distressing new chapters to an already too-long narrative. At a time when many people say that the political system and societal institutions aren’t working, the news in 2013 provided multiple sources of confirmation, both at home and abroad. It was the year that things broke down — or at least it often left many people feeling that way.
Those misgivings were validated when star cyclist Lance Armstrong and slugger Ryan Braun admitted their long, proud denials of doping were lies; by revelations of the warning signals authorities missed before the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, and missed chances to save lives after a mammoth typhoon hit the Philippines; by angry street protests in Turkey, Egypt and the Ukraine and even by a new pope who acknowledged the need to clean up the Vatican.
But the dysfunction that often grabbed the headlines this year found its anchor in Washington, D.C., beginning almost immediately after President Barack Obama took the oath for his second term and a Congress supposedly mindful of the public’s dissatisfaction returned to the capital.
For weeks, senators on both sides of the aisle spoke of a new willingness to come together on previously non-existent common ground and attempt to reform immigration laws.
“We have an obligation and the need to address the reality that we face,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a leading voice in his party on immigration.
“Now is the time,” Obama said days later.
But after the Senate passed a comprehensive bill, efforts at reform stalled in the house, putting even piecemeal changes at least temporarily out of reach.
At about the same time, with the grief of last December’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn. still fresh, the White House pushed forward on its pledge to bridge divisions and shepherd reforms to gun laws through Congress. But the more time passed the more likely it seemed that lawmakers might find nothing they could agree on, until even a push to compromise on expanded background checks for gun purchases that was widely supported by voters also failed.
“Shame on you!” two women in the Senate gallery shouted out when the results of the vote were tallied, voicing a disgust with government that, by year’s end, became the one commonality among Americans who agreed on little else. It didn’t end there.
Shadows were again cast over the government’s ability to act fairly and functionally when scandal enveloped the Internal Revenue Service over its intense scrutiny of conservative organizations. Later, it became clear, the agency had also screened liberal groups.
Then, in June, Americans were confronted by disturbing new questions. Ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the public had largely accepted the proposition that entrusting government to keep society safe meant ceding some measure of privacy and convenience. Then, a previously unknown former National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden began leaking classified documents pointing to the government’s broad surveillance of not just potential foreign enemies, but also America’s allies and its own citizens.
Still, while critics lambasted the NSA as a symbol of government unhinged, nobody questioned that the agency was at least working. By October, many Americans counting on government for more mundane services would have been grateful for such functionality. First, the Republican-controlled House refused to fund the government without cuts in spending or delays in Obama’s Affordable Care Act, resulting in a shutdown that cast a capital built on a swamp into a new morass of hot air and stagnation.
The shutdown, and the coinciding worries about whether it might soon be repeated, dominated the news even as the debut of the health care overhaul it sought to derail went largely overlooked. But when lawmakers reopened the government after more than two weeks with little, if any, discernible gain, the spotlight turned on the workings of Obama’s signature law — the one that was supposed to demonstrate government’s singular ability to deliver change — and found it almost entirely out of order, feeding the public’s broadening and deepening sense of distrust and dismay.
This was the year, after all, when one Gallup poll found public confidence in Congress at the lowest level ever — not just for lawmakers, but for any institution on record. More than 85 percent of Americans surveyed by the Harris Poll this fall said the people running the country don’t really care what happens to them, up from 50 percent in 2010. And an AP-GfK Poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans expressed mistrust of one another, continuing a four-decade drain on what is arguably a necessary ingredient for effective democracy.
No doubt, the country and the world have faced far more dire crises. But the trade-off of modern technology is that we now live in an information storm that, true to this year’s headlines, buffets us with repeated examples of institutional dysfunction, making misgivings self-confirming, said Sheila Suess Kennedy, author of “Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence.”
“We are marinating in an information society — sometimes a misinformation society — and I think it’s much harder for people to avoid,” says Kennedy, noting how the news this year fed distrust unimaginable just a few generations ago, when people were generally less aware of institutional misconduct. “I’m unwilling to say to you that life was simpler, but we thought it was simpler.”
Certainly not all of the news of the past year was in that vein. After years of sanctions and threatening rhetoric, six world powers struck an interim deal with Iran limiting its nuclear activities. Federal officials, long faulted for not going after Wall Street firms, completed lengthy investigations that saw J.P. Morgan and SAC Capital ordered to pay huge fines. Even the federal government’s health care website began to function as the year neared an end.
But that did not alleviate the continuing drumbeat of news that left the public to question, not just government, but also big business, major league sports and religious institutions.
The new pope, Francis, spoke to some of those misgivings almost immediately after his elevation, naming panels to help reform the scandalized Vatican bank and overhaul the church’s tangled bureaucracy.
But he also went a good deal further, embracing a message that has long been part of church doctrine, but addressing it as his priority: capitalism, itself, is broken, he said, warning against a culture that fosters “the globalization of indifference.”
It was one more headline, one more reminder of modern society’s shortcomings, even as it spotlighted the continued struggle to make our highly imperfect institutions work. The benefits of that struggle were easy to lose sight of as a year full of frustrations neared an end. So perhaps it was fitting that one of the year’s last big new stories — the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the remembrances of the life he lived — reminded us that resolutions to even the most intractable crises can be found when society and its leaders begin by acknowledging the problems and their capacity to address them.
“I don’t know, but there are not very many heads of state who would so easily say,’I’m sorry,'” said former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, recalling Mandela in a tribute days after his death. “And I hope that not only we, but our leaders, would emulate him.”
Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller .