Got a Feeling ’21 is Gonna Be a Good Year

Today, as I write this, is December 7, 2020.

Seventy-nine years ago, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 people and cementing American involvement in the Second World War, a number that has been surpassed by daily COVID-19 deaths here in the United States every single day this month, which means that today, again, will probably do so too.

This has been a strange year in a strange time, one that is blessedly not long for this world. It’s a year in which we’ve been shaken to our core. The year began with the president being acquitted of brazen criminality and then promptly purging his enemies. This was followed in quick succession by a creeping awareness that the virus would precipitate a massive public health crisis, yet the federal government (and countless state and local governments) not only did nothing to prepare, but then pretended it wasn’t a big deal, even as New York City started digging mass graves and a sepulchral pallor fell over a silent city once renowned for never sleeping. As the year progressed, decades upon decades of police brutality against the Black community boiled over into what were by far the largest sustained protests this country has ever seen, a public reckoning with racism that drew upwards of twenty-six million people into the streets as cities like Minneapolis burned. That this year would end with the president demanding state governments and the Supreme Court overturn his loss would be shocking if it weren’t so predictable and, in fact, had been predicted over and over since his victory in 2016. Democracy in the United States has never felt more tenuous.

I wish I could call it the year reality finally caught up with us, but if that were true, I’m not sure seventy-four million people would have turned out to the polls and said “yes, we want more of this.” More of what? I genuinely can’t understand how anyone could ignore the brute fact of this administration’s cronyist incompetence in the face of an immense public health crisis, let alone its many other scandals. For that matter, I can’t understand how Donald Trump failed to grasp that the pandemic could have cemented his second term, if only he could be bothered to care. In an election year, his political opponents were basically asking him to bribe the electorate on his own behalf and he just wouldn’t. Rather, he was content, as we’ve seen over and over again, to just let it kill off those “Democrat-run cities” he so despises — and his followers followed him through it all.

It’s been, as if you need to be reminded, a hard year, our annus horribilis, and the real pain millions of Americans feel as they remain cut off from their loved ones for the holidays is just bilious icing on the pandemic cake. But is there reason for hope?

Hope fascinates me because it represents our best selves, the “better angels of our nature” that Lincoln spoke to in his 1861 inaugural speech, delivered (as Biden’s will be) to a nation in the grip of massive internal conflict. Four years later, the nation’s civil war came to an end, and he would be dead less than a week later, the dream of Reconstruction dying under his successor. But hope remained, and his words, over and over again, would be invoked to speak to the American soul, inviting us to remember the promise of our principles and asking us what kind of people we wanted to be. It has taken a long time, but the protests we witnessed this summer — even the former capital of the Confederacy had statues of its leaders taken down by force — speak to how strong that hope remains. That, I think, is what President Obama meant when he talked about hope’s “audacity” so long ago. It’s defiant, willful, and stubbornly refuses to give in to the reality of here and now. Hope doesn’t only endure; it helps us endure.

We’ve been saying, every year since the end of 2016, that next year would be better. Each time, next year was somehow worse. But that doesn’t stop us, and God willing it never will. Because the alternative to hope is despair; despair that nothing will change, despair that our democracy will be even further hollowed out, despair that the racial reckoning we briefly allowed to flower will prove ephemeral, despair that the America we thought we lived in not only didn’t exist, but never will. But that way lies nothing. Nothing at all. Only hope can help us now, and I am confident that we have reason for it.

I could list lots of reasons, actually: Joseph Robinette Biden will be the forty-sixth president of the United States in a little over a month, and we have multiple viable vaccines. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter hasn’t gone anywhere, and the political coalition it marshalled has every intent on continuing. We had the highest turnout in the election in over a century, which showed that Americans — especially Americans under forty — are engaged in the governance of their country and expectant of change, even after their own prospects have been irreparably harmed, first by the Great Recession and now for a second time because of the pandemic. The courts have consistently recognized that they are being asked to participate in a coup. There is, and will continue to be, an American Dream. The problems may seem insurmountable, but take heart. We will face them. I have every surety.

So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. There is pie in the sky when we die. We can have our cake, and eat it too. The future is bright. However you want to couch it, however you reconcile yourself to the fantastical feat of Nietzschean will that hope requires, never fail to tell yourself that next year is going to be better, because that’s how we make it better. Not with despair, or cynicism, or inertia, but with hopes and dreams so powerful that they compel us to action. That is fundamentally the entire point of America: to try, bit by bit, to bring those dreams to life.

2021 is not going to be a panacea to what ails us; the same obstructive forces that have made COVID relief a non-starter remain in Congress, and millions upon millions of Americans have already insisted they will flatly refuse to be vaccinated. Our news media remains credulous and ossified, our trust in science is at a low ebb at a time of critical importance, and our government grows less representative by the day. But then I think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was a man who had no reason whatsoever to have faith in this country. Growing up Black in the Jim Crow south put him face to face with some of our cruelest impulses, and yet, he fought as hard as anyone could, put up with assaults and denunciations and brutality and prison in search of America’s elusive and indefinable promise. It cost him his life. But we continue, and draw from his life and example to this day. So much of where we are now, the progress we have made in extending recognition of the rights of this country’s most marginalized peoples — especially American Indians, Black Americans, the LGBT community, and women — has the life and preaching of Dr. King in its soul. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” he once wrote, “but it bends toward justice.”

If a man like that could have hope, so can I.

New York Times Bestselling author of seven books. CEO of Ericho Communications