Reasons for Optimism in 2023
(With one eye on fresh dangers.)
If 1989 was the year of global optimism, and 2016 the year of nasty surprises, then 2022 was somewhere in the middle. The breakthroughs that gave us cause for celebration were accompanied by evidence of fresh danger lurking around the corner. As we enter the new year, it’s worth taking stock. On balance, those of us who felt despondent about the past few years should approach 2023 in a spirit of cautious optimism.
1. We should be optimistic because: Donald Trump failed.
It’s well known that Trump likes to divide the world into winners and losers. And the November 2022 midterms confirmed his status as a loser.
Across the board, Trump’s favored MAGA candidates underperformed. Kari Lake lost her race for Governor in Arizona. Herschel Walker lost his Senate bid in Georgia. Nationwide, thirteen candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election ran for secretary of state; only 3 won.
This is heartening for democracy. Many Americans feared the country could be heading for an unprecedented crisis at the next election. Enough election deniers in enough key positions could refuse to certify a Democratic win and submit alternate slates of electors to the Electoral College, inspired by Trump’s bungled 2020 attempt. This scenario is now much less likely.
But MAGA’s defeat is also heartening because of what it tells us about the electorate. Moderate swing voters, it turns out, do make a difference in elections, as analysts like Nate Cohn and Matt Yglesias have pointed out. Anyone who cares about the future of democracy should breathe a sigh of relief.
Yes, but: Trump-ish philosophy has grown teeth.
The midterms were just one battle, and Trump just one commander. His 2016 victory supercharged an intellectual revolution in conservative politics, and a new stable of thinkers and politicians is busy adding intellectual meat to what is being dubbed the “New Right.”
What do they believe?
Some corners of the New Right have little real connection to Trump but are nevertheless dangerous. Adrian Vermeule is an unassuming Harvard law professor who believes that it is the role of state institutions to promote a substantive Catholic vision of the “common good.” For now, his writing (and that of his intellectual circle) is just that: writing. But others are more radical. These are the people who take seriously Trump’s recently expressed wish to suspend the Constitution. In fact, they take it much more seriously than Trump himself, going so far as to advocate for absolute monarchy or the radical overhaul of America’s republican system. It’s a strain of conservatism that is not really conservative: it is revolutionary.
Fringe voices, you might say. But their stock in the Republican Party is growing. Candidates over the next two, six, ten years will emerge who have cut their teeth in an environment where old certainties like the rule of law and separation of church and state are increasingly questioned.
2. We should be optimistic because: Global authoritarianism is weak.
Days after invading Ukraine in February 2022, Putin’s war machine ground to a halt. It turns out the Russian military is under-equipped and under-motivated. By the end of the year, major cities like Kherson which fell to Russia early on were back in Ukrainian hands.
The war remains a tragedy for the Ukrainian people: 8 million have been displaced and tens of thousands killed, both military and civilian. Nevertheless, there is real hope that Russia’s successful invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 were aberrations rather than omens, and that Putin’s downfall will prove to be—if not imminent—then certainly within the realm of possibility.
Meanwhile, resistance to authoritarianism has cropped up in some unexpected places. The waves of protest sweeping Iran are proving far more durable, and far more threatening to the regime, than any other protest since 1979. In China, civil unrest hastened a u-turn on the Communist Party’s repressive zero-Covid policy.
If 2022 proved anything, it’s that illiberal regimes are vulnerable.
Yes, but: Taiwan is feeling the heat.
The next global flashpoint could be Taiwan, a democratic island of some 23 million people that China hopes to unify with the authoritarian mainland.
The signs are not looking good. Chinese fighter plane incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone reached record levels in 2022. The Chinese Communist Party is engaging in a sophisticated disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about the viability of Taiwan’s democracy and to flip opinion in favor of unification.
Imagine a scenario in which Xi launches his much-feared invasion of Taiwan. We don't know how or whether the U.S. will choose to engage, but if it does, the consequences of a hot war with China would be dire. More than the other scenarios on this list, Taiwan has the potential to open a Pandora’s box of calamity.
3. We should be optimistic because: Scientists are making giant leaps forward.
In the closing weeks of 2022, two historic stories hit the headlines. The first was the successful launch of the Artemis 1 spacecraft, an important milestone in NASA’s mission to return humans to the moon this decade. The second was scientists’ success in generating a net energy yield from nuclear fusion.
Both will bring enormous benefits. Fusion offers the prospect of limitless carbon-free energy (however distant it may be), while a new era of space exploration will speed up technological progress with downstream benefits for decades to come, as happened in the 1950s and 1960s.
But these breakthroughs also have significant cultural import. If you read books like Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, you may have the impression that our age is one of stagnation and doubt rather than innovation and self-confidence. There is some truth there. Nevertheless, the Artemis Program and nuclear fusion are proof that, with the right attitude and a dose of patience, exhilarating progress is still possible.
Yes, but: Big tech is in crisis.
In 2022, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon all laid off thousands of workers within weeks of each other. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs suffered major setbacks. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter was greeted with cheers from some; but his troubling behavior on the platform proves that our Silicon Valley overlords are, in fact, winging it.
This matters because of the central position digital technology occupies in all of our lives. If we continue to spend the bulk of our time on these platforms despite their failures, this will inevitably color our perception of everything else going on in society—the good as well as the bad. Fragmentation and polarization will increase. People will become nastier and more alienated, clinging to the version of reality that algorithms pick out for them.
We shouldn’t blame digital technology for all our woes. But it’s hard to see how we can unite to confront the challenges we face while such technology still has such a firm stranglehold on our lives. Being optimistic about the future requires a sense of perspective—and this is precisely what social media prevents us from gaining.
So, mixed prospects for the year ahead. Nevertheless, 2022 felt like a real turning point. Ordinary people around the world are fighting the illiberal tide at the ballot box, on the streets, and in the trenches. This one fact, surely, makes up for all the others. We’re not yet out of the rut of authoritarianism and polarization that has characterized the past decade or so—but we might just be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Luke Hallam is an associate editor at Persuasion.