At least until the rapid and disturbing emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, there was hope 2022 might represent a sort of bounceback year for the United States. The economy is chugging along, Americans are taking COVID-19 vaccines (kinda), and ominous rumblings of another civil war have largely subsided since a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol in the first week of this past year.
But with a constantly-mutating virus, Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance, rising consumer prices, and political parties fighting over voting rights, it’s safe to expect a bumpy ride—one in which American politics and politicians once again find a way to get uglier than ever.
Here’s what to expect as you buckle in.
A fresh episode of pandemic hell
If 2021 was the year of getting vaccines (and convincing some, painstakingly, to get the jab), 2022 will be the year of doubling down and reminding everyone that this pandemic is nowhere near finished—and that includes the Biden administration and lawmakers. With the latest variant wave, people who are doubly vaccinated and boosted are still catching cases, states are racing to meet testing needs across the country (and often failing), and hospitals that are already overwhelmed with Delta variant cases are bracing for more. Those with long COVID are also still just coming to terms with their new chronic ailments, even as they have to be on the lookout for the latest mutation in their midst.
The pressure on the Biden administration, Congress, and local leaders to step up will likely only mount in 2022. International travel to the U.S. requires a vaccine, but domestic travel is still a free-for-all, testing kits are supposed to be available but are perpetually out of stock at pharmacies and local community centers, and businesses are still postponing farcical “return to office” dates. President Joe Biden has started talking about free tests for anyone who wants one—after his press secretary infamously mocked the idea of sending them to every American—but some say it’s too little too late. And parents with children under 5, who can’t get vaccinated, will likely still be straining every day to keep their little ones safe from anti-vaxxers (although some experts say 2022 may be the year kids under 5 get a vaccine).
That’s not to mention whenever the next coronavirus wave rolls across the globe and slams the U.S., and whatever conspiracy theories jump into the mix next. At which point it may be time to start hoarding toilet-paper, masks, and test kits all over again.
Yay, economy! Boo, inflation!
Despite the threat COVID-19 poses to individuals and the nation’s businesses, academic economists largely agree that 2022 should be a year of substantial growth. That means people are likely to keep seeing plentiful job opportunities and get better pay, according to Chicago Booth School of Business professor Michael Weber.
On the down side, prices will keep inching higher, thanks to inflation.
No one’s expecting 1970s-style stagflation, despite the comparisons Republicans might—that is, often—make between the Carter years and the Biden administration. But everyday goods are expected to keep rising in price, pissing off consumers and punishing those who were able to use the pandemic to pad savings accounts or at least pay down debt.
The root cause is the massive gap between supply and demand. Consumers didn’t stop buying during the pandemic, they just shifted even more to online shopping—evidenced by the banging season holiday shoppers are giving retailers right now. But the pandemic did slow down manufacturing everywhere—and expose how poorly we pay dock workers, truck drivers, and more—hence the massive backups of ships at sea and rising stacks of shipping containers at American ports.
When more people want limited goods, prices surge. And that’s not going anywhere.
“You have all of this great consumer demand. The supply chains cannot handle the volumes that are being insisted on. We never had it at these levels. You have clogged ports, clogged supply chains. It’s going to take a while to work yourself through that,” said L. Craig Austin, who teaches logistics and supply chain management at Florida International University.
The Federal Reserve has already signaled it intends to hit the brakes on its decade-long stimulus activity and finally raise interest rates, an attempt to combat inflation. But this kind of monetary policy isn’t immediate, and that lag means Americans will feel like higher prices aren’t being addressed for maybe a year or more.
“I don’t think there’s any way out of high inflation next year,” Weber told The Daily Beast.
Abortion rights gets a run for their money
Things are topsy-turvy at best on the abortion front, as well. Americans are fresh off the heels of the Supreme Court hearing arguments over whether to reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to abortion. The case is the most serious challenge to what has been the law of the land for approximately 50 years, and lawmakers and Americans alike are bound to feel the aftershock in 2022.
Abortion-rights advocates might get glimmers of relief in early 2022—the FDA just announced it will ease some restrictions on telehealth prescription and home delivery on abortion pills, so that Americans can permanently access them through the mail. The decision could be a game-changer for women whose access to abortion clinics is limited. But for women in 19 states that have bans on telehealth visits for medication abortion, that might amount to nil. Expect lots of legal action: States could try to impose new curbs on increased access via mail, and there will likely be lawsuits challenging bans on telehealth visits for medication abortion.
Redistricting headaches loom
The 2020 election brought unified Democratic control of the White House and Congress, but the GOP’s respectable showing in state and local elections handed the party a gift that could keep giving for a decade or more.
In the United States of America, elected officials generally get to choose their voters, not the other way around. Once a decade, states redraw their congressional district maps to keep pace with the latest census data, offering plenty of chances for state lawmakers to lock in electoral gains and freeze out opponents.
For the latest map-drawing process, Republican state officials hold the advantage with partisan control over the redrawing of 37 percent of House districts relative to just 17 percent for Democrats. Meanwhile, midterm elections are typically brutal for the parties in power, but with a slim five-seat majority for control of the House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has little runway to avoid losing her party the gavel in November.
As maps get redrawn, Republicans have increasingly used their power to draw new districts, not just to tip the scales against Democrats in general but also to disadvantage Black voters and elected officials in particular. Democrats have tried to stem the tide of partisan gerrymandering with a lawsuit from the Justice Department against Texas’ proposed new map and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would institutionalize a more independent redistricting process. But those efforts face long odds in the conservative-dominated Supreme Court and in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans show no sign they’re willing to give up their institutional advantage in map-drawing.
Cautionary, cautionary, the sixth of January
This will be the year when the insurrectionist plot that disrupted the transition of power finally comes into clearer focus. Three distinct efforts—from the Department of Justice, a congressional investigation, and a civil suit from D.C.’s local prosecutor—will present in stark clarity just how close former President Donald Trump came to subverting democracy as we know it.
While the Department of Justice spent 2021 tracking down, arresting, and charging 700 of the rioters and militants who stormed the U.S. Capitol, their criminal cases have only just begun to make their way through the court system. Hundreds of the defendants are expected to plead guilty or face trial. The federal court in D.C. will produce headlines nearly every week with someone being sentenced for attacking police, entering restricted grounds, or obstructing an official proceeding. (If you still have those receipts from dating-app matches with any rioters, the FBI is probably still interested.)
Meanwhile, the bipartisan House select committee investigating Jan. 6 is expected to hold public hearings that will reveal evidence they’ve gathered about how—and to what extent—Trump and his White House advisers planned the attack. The committee hopes to make it a sort of national reckoning, the way the 9/11 Commission exposed the failures to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or the way the 1975 Church Committee revealed intelligence abuses by U.S. spy agencies.
And on the back end, 2022 could see Washington, D.C., assert its own vengeance against right-wing militants for wreaking local havoc and scaring residents. Attorney General Karl Racine just sued the Proud Boys gang and Oath Keepers militia, and the lawsuit seeks to make them quite literally pay for what they did. The goal? Bankrupt these organizations the way the Ku Klux Klan was practically sued out of existence in 1987.
The Trump factor
The final and least predictable wild card for 2022 is Trump himself. The Orange One’s rallies aren’t the standing-room-only affairs they used to be, and after getting booted from every mainstream social-media platform, his thumbs no longer command the instant attention of the Internet. But his hold on Republican voters means the GOP is still very much Trump’s party.
On top of the usual endorsements of incumbents who toed the MAGA line and challengers hoping to unseat moderate Republicans the former president considers his enemies, Trump has also set his sights on races that don’t typically attract the attention of ex-presidents. In the battleground states that tipped the election against him, Trump has waded in to endorse candidates who buy into his election-fraud conspiracies and who could prove pivotal in the administration of elections in 2024.
In the key battleground states of Arizona and Georgia, Trump has offered endorsements for MAGA-minded candidates for secretary of state, who wield enormous power over how votes get counted. And in Michigan, where Trump previously tried and failed to convince Republicans not to certify Joe Biden’s victory, the former president has given his thumbs up to a host of Stop-the-Steal enthusiasts running for the state legislature and attorney general.
But Trump’s feuds with the Republicans already in office—particularly those in leadership positions—could prove an even bigger factor in shaping politics this coming year. As midterm elections approach and the GOP strategizes about messaging and candidates, what’s left of the establishment in figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump are even more at odds. Over the past two months, Trump has blasted McConnell as a “Broken Old Crow” and blamed him for handing a “total victory for the Democrats” by allowing the Senate to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill.
From the prospect of Trump finding new ways to reassert dominance over the GOP to abortion rights hanging in the balance to redistricting fights and the push to settle once and for all that Jan. 6 was no peaceful protest, it’s clear 2022 will not offer much respite from political chaos. But the strength of the economy and the state of the pandemic may prove just as decisive in shaping how strange it is to be an American for another year.
As some have pointed out, 2022 might turn out to be 2020, too.