Year in Review: Political turbulence and faltering policy solutions
Election fights, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, border security, and congressional spending dominated 2021
At the end of 2021, here’s an overview of some of the big political news of the year:
Fallout and fault lines
On Jan. 6, then-President Donald Trump gave a speech outside the White House decrying his election loss. Afterward, rioters stormed the Capitol building, delaying Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. Lawmakers and journalists fled to secure rooms in congressional office building basements while police deployed teargas. One officer shot and killed protester Ashli Babbitt as she attempted to climb through a broken window into the Capitol.
Early Jan. 7, Congress returned and certified the election results, but the fallout continued. The House launched a committee to investigate the riot and surrounding events, as well as legal efforts to overturn the election results. The committee has clashed with former Trump officials claiming executive privilege exempts them from turning over memos, phone records, and other documents. Courts have begun sentencing rioters, and the committee is still subpoenaing new witnesses.
Republicans supporting the investigation have faced blowback. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., voted for Trump’s impeachment and criticized his claims that the election was stolen from him. House Republicans voted to boot her from conference leadership. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has also been criticized for his role on the committee and announced he won’t run for reelection.
As the United States prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Biden accelerated the nation’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. U.S. officials predicted it would take months for the Taliban to reach and capture Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Instead, the insurgent group overran the country in a matter of weeks as diplomats, military personnel, and Afghans scrambled to catch flights out. Suicide bombers killed 13 U.S. service members and hundreds of Afghans at the Kabul airport, and a Pentagon airstrike intended to stop an extremist attack instead killed 10 civilians.
Veterans, aid groups, and others are still trying to help at-risk Afghans escape the Taliban, including those eligible for Special Immigrant Visas because of their work with the U.S. military. Some Afghans are resettling in the United States, while others are still wading through paperwork. Congress has established a committee to compile lessons learned from the 20-year war and examine the intelligence, military, and policy failures during the withdrawal.
Biden staked the bulk of his agenda on two massive pieces of legislation: a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that became law last month, and a nearly $2 trillion social spending package still under negotiation in Congress.
The infrastructure law received some Republican votes. It includes $110 billion for roads and highways and another $39 billion to expand public transportation, plus money for water system and electric grid updates and flood defenses. It also set aside money for new electric vehicle charging stations, and the administration recently rolled out a plan to build 500,000.
The larger social spending package needs every Democratic vote to pass the evenly-split Senate over universal Republican opposition. Slimmed down from its original $3 trillion, the package still includes a bundle of ambitious policies. Subsidized childcare and preschool, job training, eldercare and expanded Medicare, and subsidies for solar panels and electric cars are all on the list. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have withheld support for the package, concerned it will supercharge already rising inflation. Despite weeks of discussion, lawmakers broke for Christmas without a deal. The package will likely dominate Congress’ agenda again in January.
Biden entered office with promises of a gentler touch on immigration, but his administration’s focus on long-term solutions left it floundering during migrant surges at the southern border.
The president quickly rolled back some Trump-era policies, removing immigration bans from Muslim-majority countries by executive order and suggesting a roadmap to allow illegal immigrants currently in the country to earn citizenship. In October, the administration softened deportation guidelines to focus on illegal immigrants who arrived recently or pose a public safety threat.
But the administration kept a Trump-era policy that quickly returned migrants to Mexico, citing COVID-19 concerns. Surges of migration overwhelmed border officials and led to viral images of migrant teens huddling under foil blankets in detention centers and border officials on horseback whirling their reins near migrants trying to enter the United States. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took criticism for delaying visits to the border. Harris is spearheading the administration’s mission to address migration’s root causes such as government corruption in migrants’ home countries. Private companies have promised $1.2 billion in technology, textile, and agriculture investments the administration hopes will improve the economies of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, major sources of migration.
Battle of the ballot box
Lawmakers and voters wrangled across the aisle over election laws this year. Both parties lobbed accusations of undermining democracy, while auditors continued reviewing the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats said Georgia’s Republican-backed election reform law threatened voting rights. It reduced the number of ballot drop boxes added during the pandemic and required an ID to vote, not just a signature. Stricter provisions against Sunday voting and no-excuse absentee voting dropped out of the final law.
Meanwhile, the House Democrats in March approved a bill that would restrict voter roll purges, require states to send out absentee ballots, and mandate automatic voter registration. The bill has so far failed to pass the Senate.
Some Republicans have continued to claim voter fraud tipped the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Biden’s favor. While officials have found some fraud cases, investigations including an audit in Arizona have found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have altered the election’s outcome.
Voting is likely to remain a contentious topic next year as redistricting committees finish using updated census data to redraw congressional election districts in each state. COVID-19 delays to the census slowed the process, and lawsuits contesting lines drawn to give partisan advantages will further delay some maps. But the final version will affect midterm congressional elections in 2022. Some congressional Democrats are already headed for the door, and the party is likely to lose its slight majorities in Congress.
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