2022 is here meaning that it’s time to take a breath and regain our balance before plunging headlong into a year that looks to be as intense and complicated as the previous two. There is much to consider, but among all the possible issues there are three that are key: the very real possibility of war, the midterm elections, and the pandemic that keeps on giving.
1) The very real possibility of war
The whispers of war are beginning to multiply their echoes across Ukraine, which has become the epicenter of the inevitable clash between the expansion of the Western alliance (embodied in NATO), and Vladimir Putin’s imperialist ambitions. Officially, the U.S. and Russia are prioritizing the option of dialogue, and a first rapprochement to be held on January 10 has already been confirmed. However, there are many reasons to fear an armed conflict.
Estimates leaked to the press speak of 100,000 Russian troops (or even more) stationed on the border with Ukraine, which is supposedly doing its own to defend itself against the imminent invasion of its territory. Both Europe and the U.S. have issued warnings to Moscow regarding the possible consequences Russia would face should it decide to attack Ukraine.
The problem is that, beyond the diplomatic gibberish, there is little sign that Putin is giving in to the threats. Russia is playing the game of its rivals: It is granting merely cosmetic measures, such as the supposed withdrawal of 10,000 troops from the border, while pressuring NATO to close the door on Ukraine’s eventual integration into the Atlantic alliance.
In the background, Putin is testing the West’s resolve to engage in a full-scale confrontation, and the signs are that Moscow has concluded that it can get away with it: if Russia invades Ukraine and disguises its troops as “pro-Russian Ukrainians,” it would fuel a civil war scenario in which Biden would be unwilling to intervene militarily.
The result would be Putin gaining control of Ukraine in exchange for some uncomfortable, but surmountable economic and diplomatic sanctions. After all, for Vladimir and his gang of oligarchs to be punished by being barred from Disneyland is a very cheap price to pay in exchange for control of Kyiv.
On November 8, American voters will renew the entire House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate, in an election that will inevitably assume a “referendum” hue regarding the performance of the Biden administration. Things are not looking good for the president and his party. In fact, 2022 may well be the year of the GOP’s revenge.
Why? Because Biden won the election promising to successfully deal with the pandemic and the economy, but his administration has not lived up to expectations. The pandemic is still out of control and the economy is still not stabilizing. On the contrary, in November 2021 inflation reached its highest level in 40 years, the U.S. government made a global fool of itself with its hasty and deadly escape from Afghanistan, and the tension between Biden and his vice president is increasingly noticeable.
All this will take its toll on the DNC, and it is beginning to show. The latest polls point to 43% support for Biden, a figure slightly higher than Trump’s, but clearly lower than Barack Obama’s (both clearly defeated in their respective midterms).
In addition, more and more data supports the version of a shift of the Hispanic vote in favor of the Republicans, who also have the advantage of the growing national support for fresh leaders, such as the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis.
The conditions are ripe for the Republicans to recover much of the ground lost in 2020 and definitively wrest control of Congress from Biden, turning him (even more) into a lame duck, who might not even repeat as Democratic candidate in 2024, replaced by Kamala Harris or, at any rate, by Hillary Clinton.
3) The pandemic that remains
It was assumed that with widespread vaccination, the pandemic would be resolved, but we now know that this will not be the case. The advance of the Omicron variant not only puts doctors on alert but also challenges the strategies of governments, which need to balance their own authoritarian temptations and the paranoia of those who want perpetual confinement, with the exasperation of the majority of people, who are no longer willing to be locked up.
At the government level, some countries are opting for new restrictions; others are playing with the idea of betting on contagion and subsequent immunity. At the social level, issues such as vaccination are increasingly becoming chasms that divide families, companies and parties. Pandemic or not, such polarization is unhealthy and unsustainable. Countries that do not understand this and continue to feed the COVID hysteria (on both sides of the spectrum) will pay a very high price, both in terms of health and social conflict.
3 key issues for 2022: war, midterms and pandemic
All three issues are linked. For example, the poor Democratic outlook heading into the midterm elections could tempt Biden to become a wartime president and reap the (short-term) popularity bump that usually accompanies presidents who become involved in armed conflict. But the gigantic cost of doing so threatens to further unbalance the economy, and that entails a whole other set of electoral risks. So it’s not a simple decision.
The same goes for the pandemic. Vaccine passports and COVID-19 related public policy will increasingly be a political hallmark, passionately embraced by radicals, which not only makes it difficult to combat the pandemic, but will radically alter electoral narratives. Issues such as equal marriage, which used to be controversial and today are basically settled, will be replaced on the discursive chessboard with pro and anti-vaccine polemics. And no one knows yet which party will benefit from this change.
For now, with war, elections and pandemic 2022 will be many things, but it won’t be boring.