- Failure of the Year – Leaders and Followers Adrift
It was a political miracle. Subsequent to centuries of contention and conflict, and out of the ashes of the Second World War, was forged the European Union. 19 countries came to use a common currency; nine others signed on as members. But, in 2015, for the first time since its inception, the union was seriously threatened with disunion. Nearly undone by a series of crises – the Greek debt showdown; Russian aggression in Ukraine; the infusion of a million refugees; terrorism and the threat of it in some of Europe’s greatest cities; and a surge in right wing nationalism – Europe struggled to cling to a semblance of unity. This is not to prognosticate the EU’s final fracture. Rather it is to point out that in 2015 the EU was seriously weakened, its member states unable in common to take on their common enemies.
- Success of the Year – Leader and Followers Align
Everyone sees it as an embarrassment, as dysfunctional. The “it” is the U.S. Congress – once an august body highly esteemed by the American people, now a national joke, an institution that for decades has been in decline and disrepute. Until Paul Ryan – until Paul Ryan became Speaker of the House in October. For weeks Ryan postured, insisting that he had no interest in the Speakership, did not want a thankless task that would take him away from his young family. In spite of his feigning disinterest – or, better, because of it – Ryan’s first two months in office have been studded with successes. Yes, successes! The most obvious among them a bipartisan budget deal that his predecessor, John Boehner, was unable to push through. It’s true that Ryan is on a honeymoon that soon will be over. Still, for 2015 he gets an “A” in Political Prowess. In scoring a personal victory he scored one also for Congress – which desperately needs a leader to restore its wretched reputation.
- Political Leader of the Year – Bernie Sanders
Who knew? A Jewish Democratic Socialist from Brooklyn threatening Hillary Clinton?! He is not in the end likely to upend her. Nevertheless, of all the improbable political successes of 2015, none was more improbable than the sturdy, steady, ascent of Senator Sanders. Our fixation has been on Donald Trump. But while Trump and the media climbed into bed together, Sanders mounted a stunningly successful challenge to the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Sanders is either leading or within the margin of error in the first primary state, New Hampshire. And, more remarkable, has been his fund-raising effort which during 2015 surpassed all expectations. By the end of last year his campaign had tapped more than 2.5 million individual donors – a number that, stunningly, surpasses any in any previous presidential election. But the numbers do not fully capture how remarkable his presence on the national stage. The idea that a nearly unheard of Vermont Senator, a self-proclaimed life-long socialist who makes no bones about his progressive political agenda, could possibly give Secretary Clinton a run for her money was laughable just six months ago. But, while the media refuses to give Bernie Sanders the time of day, so obsessed is it with Trump, Sanders seizes the day nevertheless.
- Corporate Leader of the Year – Jeff Bezos
He stays out of the limelight. Far less of a public persona that others of his ilk such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, Bezos has chosen for decades to remain behind the scenes, letting Amazon, his behemoth of a company, speak for itself. But 2015 was something of a turning point. While some analysts consider Amazon’s stock price frothy – in the last 12 months its market value more than doubled – the company’s performance in 2015 has been so obviously remarkable it’s impossible not to credit Bezos with wizardry. But that’s not my point. My point is that 2015 was a remarkably successful year for Bezos in at least two other ways as well. First, under his ownership (Bezos bought the paper in 2013) the venerated but failing Washington Post seems to have turned a corner. It has mounted a serious challenge to the New York Times online, and it is far outstripping its own previous online performance. Second Bezos is not content to rule on earth – he appears intent on ruling in space as well. In November, his privately funded aerospace company, Blue Origin, successfully launched its new space vehicle, the New Shepard. The New Shepard reached its planned altitude, and then executed an historic landing at its West Texas launch site. Stay tuned. Bezos’s almost inhuman ambition is not earth-bound.
- Followers of the Year – Syrian Refugees
Everyone wanted to stop them in their tracks, get them to turn around and go home. But they refused. They refused to do what where they were told. Huge numbers of refugees from the Middle East, especially from Syria, chose to defy the odds and the authorities. They traveled first by sea and then by land to Europe, to where they saw themselves as being safe from harm or, at least, safe in comparison to the ravaged land from which they fled. By the end of 2015 their numbers had topped one million. One million people without any power, authority, or influence capitalizing on the changing times in order to change their lives. Let’s be clear here – the fact that the context is different now from what it was is critical to understanding how such a thing was possible. How it was possible for so many non-Europeans in so short a time to lay claim to living in Europe. First was the changing culture, especially in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded that in light of Germany’s 20th century history it was not morally defensible or politically possible in the 21st to prevent asylum seekers from receiving refuge in Germany. Second was the technology. However dispossessed the refugees, they did, or enough of them did, possess smart phones. Smart phones enabled those on foot to track their trails, to trace from where they were, say someplace in Greece, to where they wanted to go, say someplace in Sweden. Technologies helped refugees in other ways as well: they documented their desolation and despair; they facilitated their connection and communication; and they recorded for the world to see the sights and sounds of aggression on the one side, and compassion on the other.
- Slogan of the Year – “Black Lives Matter”
Every now and then the English language changes, it adapts. For example, it adds to the lexicon a word or a phrase to incorporate or accommodate a new thing, or a new fashion, or a new idea. “Selfie” is one such recent word. So is “manspreading.” So is “crowdfunding.” Most of what is new in the English language are words like these, meant to name or describe something either new (“selfie”) or old (“manspreading”), but something in any case that is simple to see and easy to identify. But when old words are strung together in new ways they can, on occasion, take on entirely different, more complex meanings. And so it is with the politically powerful new slogan “Black Lives Matter” – which became in 2015 part of our national discourse, integral to America’s lingo. On the one hand is nothing new about the idea that black lives matter. Of course they matter, just like white lives matter, just like all lives matter. But on the other hand is everything new about the idea that black lives matter. In 2015 “Black Lives Matter” became a nationally known slogan with a life of its own. In 2015 “Black Lives Matter” became emblematic of the endemic tension between people in positions of authority and at least some who are not. In 2015 “Black Lives Matter” became symbolic of a racial divide that persists into the 21st century. In 2015 “Black Lives Matter” came to represent a class divide worse in the early 21st century than it was in the late 20th. And in 2015 “Black Lives Matter” became a social movement that will remain resonant long after 2016 has passed.