In the screen-blue half-light of the early hours of 4 November, it appeared to millions of nervous British election-watchers that the American people were going to return the worst president ever, and arguably one of the worst people ever, to the White House for a second term. Hate had triumphed over hope. In a year riddled with “worst moment” contenders, this one was right up there.
But of course, they – the American people – hadn’t. Arizona flipped. Michigan. Wisconsin. Some days later, Pennsylvania and Nevada turned blue. Even Georgia by a whisker, which had been red since Clinton lost it in 1996. Waiting for the results of the recounts was delicious torture. As the likelihood of a Biden victory grew, the good people of Instagram shared memes of pure, gleeful genius (do watch the subtitled US election version of ‘Oh, Happy Day’ from Sister Act 2).
The race may have been between two old, white men but the result gave us a glimpse of a future where resistance is not futile. After the piercing loss of RBG and the horror at her replacement, Amy Coney Barrett, feminist Twitter revelled in a rare moment of unity in celebration of Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour to be elected vice president, and Stacey Abrams, the Georgian lawyer, politician, activist and romance novelist whose organisations, Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project, generated 800,000 new voter registrations, many of them from among minority communities. The English language needs a word for what happens when millions of people smile all at the same time.
Biden will not be the perfect president. His agenda isn’t especially progressive, at least not by AOC standards. And it is probably true that the fickle British people and press are bored of him already. But boring is better than boorish.
Besides, whilst it was Biden’s win that seemed to mark the turning of the tide – not least because it was followed so quickly by the first good news about a vaccine (the 90 per cent success rate for Pfizer’s early trials was reported on 9 November) – the shift in public spirit began much earlier in the year.
One of the most visible and memorable expressions of belonging this year, from a British perspective, came at 8pm on ten consecutive Thursdays between 26 March and 28 May. Noise, even collective noise, won’t save the NHS of course, but the national doorstep ritual of the “Clap for our Carers” proved to be disarmingly moving.
Even those of us who have been spared the worst horrors of the pandemic have been compelled to count our blessings and search our consciences. Grief both real and metaphorical, has stalked, and humbled, us all.
Soon after the Clap for our Carers came collective action of another kind, provoked by the killing of George Floyd on 25 May. There were the mass protests, of course. But there were also less righteous forms of protest: the black squares that replaced the rainbows on social media accounts. This was the year we started to interrogate what differentiates a meaningful expression of support from a cynical one.
Under-informed, over-confident and seemingly untroubled by the possible consequences of words or actions, Trump-style leadership was found out and found wanting in 2020. It is too early to say for sure, but the departure of Dominic Cummings from Number 10 seems to be more than individual comeuppance for his Barnard Castle brassneck. The loss of the PM’s key advisor could yet prove to be the first, firm tug at a loose thread in the fabric of the Downing Street boys club.
The corollary of this is the relative success of female heads of state in handling the early waves of the pandemic – borne out by the data even when correcting for demographic and economic factors – has opened up a more serious analysis of what citizens, consumers and employees need and expect from their leaders. Empathy need not get in the way of decisiveness, after all.
In business, too, where leaders have had to grapple with challenging commercial conditions, tedious health and safety requirements and, in many cases, an overnight shift to remote working, they have needed their human resources people as much as their accountants to keep the show on the road. Workplace culture has traditionally been an undervalued thing, so it is good that employee wellbeing is finally being recognised in boardrooms as a commercial imperative not an ideological nice-to-have.
What’s more, for those of us with office-based jobs and decent access to broadband, the benefits of remote working have been significant. We have commuted less and communed more. To discover that video conferencing not only works but is a reasonably good proxy for face-to-face contact is a miraculous surprise. The humanising effect of seeing co-workers in their natural habitat, the makeshift home offices and kitchen table desks, has been an antidote to the unhelpful formality of hierarchical workplaces.
A caveat: we need to watch out for “Zoom fatigue” and “digital presenteeism”, and there’ll never be a substitute for a warm handshake or a supportive hug. But it’s worth noting that the technology that has made homeworking work has also kept families together. If you can’t tuck your children up at night in person, cosying up to read a bedtime story over Zoom is a precious thing indeed.
Of course, live music and theatre haven’t flipped so easily to video. Lockdown has ripped the seams from our cultural infrastructure, emotionally and financially. Yet many creative people – musicians, comedians, artists – have served up unforgettable, homemade cultural treats, from the Twitter Listening Party to the Kitchen Disco and much else besides.
BBC Bitesize was a lifeline for harassed homeschooling parents. Joe Wicks’ morning workouts rightly earned him national treasure status. Small Axe and I May Destroy You set a new standard for television drama. Programmes like The Repair Shop and Grayson Perry’s Art Club soothed and sustained us.
One final silver lining. A combination of competitive Zoom background curation and Renni Eddo-Lodge have driven a surge in physical book sales. Reading a book on white privilege will no more eliminate institutional racism than voting Trump out of office will nix the far right. If only it were that simple. But at the end this year, unlike last, we can at least dare to hope for change.