WHAT OTHERS SAY: A watershed year? Maybe not, but minds are swinging open

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 | 4:28 p.m. CST

Anno Domini 2012 was not 2 weeks old when, on Friday the 13th of January, the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a reef off Italy’s Isola del Giglio and flipped on its starboard side. Thirty people were killed and two others are still listed as missing.

It was not an auspicious start to the year, particularly as the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, had abandoned his vessel while rescue efforts were still under way. But civilian and official responders performed heroically, creating a metaphor for the rest of the year: Big problems, squishy leadership, heartening response.

It is customary at this time of year to bemoan the 12 months just past and look forward to a happier New Year. But it must be said that in some ways, the planet and its people were better off in 2012 than they have been in centuries.

In 1991, the United Nations set its Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was that the “extreme poverty rate” — the percentage of those living on the equivalent of $1 a day — would be cut in half by the year 2015. The World Bank reported data this year that revealed that this goal had been met in 2008.

Indeed, for the first time since the World Bank began monitoring these data, both the poverty rate and the actual number of those living in absolute poverty declined throughout the developing world.

Results were not even, of course. In developing nations of Asia and South America, many people are better off, but much of Africa is still in agony. Where cheap labor can reach the global marketplace, transformation has begun. Displacement has occurred in other places, including the United States. There is still significant doubt that the gains can be held as the planet gets hotter and water becomes scarcer, but in some ways and in some places, 2012 was a very good year.

A year ago, deep thinkers were suggesting that 2012 could one be seen as a watershed election year in the United States, like 1860, 1876, 1932 and 1980. Having elected its first African-American president in 2008, only to see him repudiated in congressional elections in 2010, this would be the rubber match.

History will judge whether Barack Obama’s re-election marks a watershed or not. Government is still divided; partisanship is still deep. Much will depend on whether the economy rolls off the fiscal cliff and who gets the blame if it does.

Still, demographics took a big bite out of the white male base of the Republican Party in 2012. Every four years, the new crop of 18-year-old voters is less white than the crop of voters who have passed on. The trend will last a while; this year it was reported that in 2011, for the first time, more non-white babies were born in the United States than white babies.

Republican strategists know that in presidential elections, their party will have to adapt or die. In low-turnout, heavily funded congressional races in gerrymandered districts, the future can be postponed for a while. But the long-term future belongs to candidates who appeal not just to white male voters, but to women, blacks and Hispanic voters.

Mr. Obama won his second-biggest victory of the year on June 28 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As watershed moments go, this one was hard to beat.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., with his court’s reputation on the line, found it plausible that the mandate was a tax, and thus within Congress’ powers to levy taxes. The court’s four liberal justices had found the mandate a proper exercise of the Commerce Clause. Whatever. Obamacare had been upheld. Its provisions will go into full effect in 2014. Millions of Americans will gain access to health insurance.

Eventually, economics will force the United States to adopt a single-payer health plan and the consternation over Obamacare will seem quaint. In the United States, wealth doesn’t get redistributed without a lot of grief, and at its core, Obamacare is a means to transfer wealth from rich Americans to medical providers for the benefit of the less fortunate.

This is as it should be in a progressive democracy. There is mortal danger in the fact that 10 percent of Americans control 74 percent of all its wealth, and that 1 percent of them control half of it. To raise this issue invites charges of “class warfare” from some wealthy quarters, but in 2012, the issue got its best airing in Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech to wealthy donors.

All-too-mortal danger, too, in the desperate confluence of too many high-velocity weapons with high-capacity magazines and too little capacity for treating mental illness or standing up to gun extremists. A nation that finds itself keeping statistics on mass shootings has a serious challenge to confront.

A member of Congress and her staff can be gunned down and nothing happens. Twelve movie-goers or six members of a Sikh temple can be gunned down and nothing happens. But if the 20 first-graders and six adult teachers and caregivers can be shot dead and nothing happens, we will have touched bottom.

The American mind is capable of change. Americans are capable of making wise decisions about the proliferation of guns, while still protecting the Roberts court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. Not all minds open at the same speed, but eventually most of them open.

Consider that in 2012, a president of the United States for the first time expressed support for marriage irrespective of sexual orientation. Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow sex-same marriage. In 2013, the Roberts court will consider a challenge to California’s ban on the practice.

Voters in Colorado and Washington state last month approved the recreational use of marijuana. Sixteen other states have approved its use for medical purposes. Many local jurisdictions have decriminalized its use, abandoning the war on drugs’ most useless battleground. Minds are opening.

In 2012, even as too many of their leaders abandoned ship, Americans responded on their own. The hope for 2013 is that more leaders will get back on board.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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