2012: A year that defies the lists

By Tom Baxter

It’s that time of year when we feel compelled to enumerate things. The annual tallies of the biggest stories and the best movies and books have grown into a jungle of lists – everything from the most annoying words (“Whatever” won for the second year in a row this year) to the biggest media stories (Rush Limbaugh’s tiff with Sandra Fluke took the top spot in a Politico Top Ten story).

Arguing with the selections is a big part of this New Year’s fun. (Why isn’t “proactive” ever singled out, and how could a Rush tantrum top Karl Rove’s election night performance?)  We don’t really expect these year-end reckonings to bear up to historical scrutiny.

But this year in particular the lists, considered individually or collectively, fall short. This may later be judged to have been a pivotal year in our history, so much so that no Best or Worst or Top Ten list really sketches it accurately.

According to the Associated Press annual poll of editors and news directors, the suicidal rampage in Newtown, Conn., was the top story of the year. This was a darkly tragic story, but its selection obviously had a lot to do with its having occurred near the end of the year. That’s the nature of news.

Horrible as this slaughter of innocents was, the larger story may be the boom in sales of assault weapons which followed it, as has been the recent pattern after mass shootings. The bump in gun sales should be considered in light of one of the most remarkable poll findings of 2012: an ABC/Washington Post survey  taken after the election reported that 72 percent of Republicans are fearful about their own lives in the coming year, a massive increase of 52 percent over the past six years. That’s a volatile combination.

The second story on AP’s list was, of course, the U.S. election, which continues to generate news even as the year comes to a close. Barrack Obama’s winning margin is edging close to 5 million votes as the last of them are counted, and a Pew Research study claims that African-Americans not only overwhelmingly favored Obama, but for the first time in the nation’s history, African-American turnout exceeded white turnout. That stands the conventional wisdom of five decades on its head. It’s like saying the Native American vote could swing the majority in the U.S. Senate. (Oh, that’s right – it may have.)

The day after the election, a campaign consultant named Dan Levitan posted what has to be the year’s funniest tweet: “Drunk Nate Silver is riding the subway, telling strangers the day they will die.” The Drunk Nate Silver meme quickly became this year’s version of Hitler Finds Out, expressing as it did both the giddiness of Democrats and the astonishment, not to say horror, of Republicans after the polls had closed. Nothing underscores the groundbreaking nature of this election so much as the failure of Gallup, the outfit which pioneered modern-day polling, to get it right.

Last July, a chunk of ice twice the size of Manhattan broke off the northern end of Greenland, and at the end of the year, a spate of new studies reported that polar ice is melting much faster than previously predicted – twice as fast, in the huge West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded in a study that the melting ice will produce more extreme weather events and that North America will be disproportionately affected by these changes.

This didn’t make the Top Ten stories list, just as global warming didn’t come up as a subject in this year’s presidential debates. But Superstorm Sandy weighed in as the No. 3 story. Call it one thing or another, climate change is no longer theoretical. That may be the story of the decade.

When the economy’s bad, it’s a bigger story. This year’s struggling recovery only made the No. 7 spot, between the Penn State scandal and the recent fiscal cliff impasse, but it deserves special mention among the remaining selections. Without that slow but steady improvement in hiring and other economic indicators, the outcome of the No. 2 story might have been different. Here’s hoping that in 2013, that recovery doesn’t fall victim to story No. 8.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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