Insurrection, voting laws and more: NPR readers' top political news of 2021 – NPR

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Domenico Montanaro
A pro-Trump mob gathers in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to disrupt the ratification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. So far, more than 700 people have been charged with crimes due to their actions that day. Brent Stirton/Getty Images hide caption
A pro-Trump mob gathers in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to disrupt the ratification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. So far, more than 700 people have been charged with crimes due to their actions that day.
This year was supposed to be one of recovery, but it has been far from that.
It began with the insurrection at the Capitol, a second impeachment of then-President Donald Trump and President Biden’s inauguration. As the year went on, Trump continued to lie about the election results while he remained one of the most popular figures among Republicans.
With new coronavirus variants, the deadly pandemic has continued to drag on. And even though the stock market has boomed and unemployment is down, Americans have felt the pinch of rising prices. Biden has paid the political price, ending the year with his approval ratings at their lowest point since he took office.
As we count down to the new year, we asked our readers what they thought were the top political stories of 2021. More than 1,000 responded. Here’s what they picked:
As he promised on the campaign trail, Biden ended the United States’ almost 20-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. But the withdrawal of troops was chaotic and deadly with 13 U.S. servicemembers and some 170 Afghans killed in a suicide bombing by the Kabul airport. The U.S. and its Afghan allies didn’t foresee the speed at which the Taliban would take control of the country. It has meant a reversal of years of progress for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and it hurt U.S. credibility abroad and Biden’s credibility at home that he could govern competently.
The Windy Fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove of giant sequoia trees on Sept. 21 near California Hot Springs. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption
Floods, tornadoes, fires and drought — all were too common in 2021. Multiple one-in-1,000-year events aren’t supposed to happen in a single year, but that’s exactly what happened in 2021 as the climate continues to change and legislators appear paralyzed to find solutions. And as global emissions and temperatures rise, the number of weather disasters is likely only to increase.
This year has seen the Trump wing of the Republican Party continue to be ascendant, led by brash and controversial far-right voices in the House. GOP members like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado seem more in touch with the base than Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
The intraparty divisions came to a head with an altered anime video by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., that portrayed him killing New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking Biden with knives. The House censured Gosar, but only two Republicans voted with Democrats — Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, both of whom have already broken with Trump.
President Biden and Vice President Harris arrive on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 15 for a signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images hide caption
President Biden and Vice President Harris arrive on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 15 for a signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill.
They were elected largely in response to Trump and the coronavirus pandemic. Trump was one of the most divisive figures in the history of the office, and Biden ran as something of a panacea. And his running mate, Kamala Harris, was a historic pick: the first woman, first Asian American and first Black vice president.
Their supporters saw a brighter day on the horizon, but that would soon dim. Biden was able to get through a COVID-19 relief bill and eventually infrastructure legislation, but Democratic infighting got most of the attention. The right found its footing in opposition to Biden; Biden’s popularity hit its lowest point at the end of the year; and Harris’ favorability ratings tanked. The duo has to hope for a turnaround in the pandemic and for inflation to recede to turn around their prospects.
The Democratic-led congressional committee looking into what happened on Jan. 6 hit its stride toward the end of the year. It issued dozens of subpoenas, held Trump officials who didn’t cooperate in contempt, and read explosive text messages from the former president’s son and Fox News personalities, all urging Trump’s then-chief of staff to get him to call off the insurrection. The clock is ticking on the committee, however, if it hopes to piece together all of what was happening behind the scenes. Republicans are favored to take back control of the House in 2022 and in all likelihood would shut down the investigation.
Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, but he was never able to accept that. For a man who built his brand on “winning,” losing was unacceptable. He’s lost plenty in his life. He’s taken businesses into bankruptcy and written off almost $1 billion in losses. But he was always able to spin his way out of those things. That was far more difficult to do with a presidential election. So his only off-ramp was to lie about what happened. Trump has continued to falsely assert that he won when he didn’t and managed to convince millions of his followers of the same — the first time since the Civil War that there wasn’t a peaceful transfer of power with both sides accepting the outcome.
Demonstrators gather outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin during a voting rights rally on July 8. Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images hide caption
States have moved in opposite directions this year when it comes to voting laws: Democratic-led states like Nevada or California have codified expansions offered during the pandemic, while Republican-led states have enacted new restrictions on voting. The most notable changes have happened in those GOP-led states, like Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Iowa and Montana. Most of these states enacted an omnibus package with many new restrictions, such as to mail-in voting, all in the name of “restoring election integrity.” Some other key states would have joined them, had they not had Democratic governors veto the legislation.
More than 800,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. Biden was close to declaring independence from the coronavirus in July as a result of widespread distribution of the vaccine and dropping case numbers. But the delta variant led to more infections and more restrictions, and fears began to rise again toward the end of the year with the massive surge in cases due to the omicron variant, which has infected many who are vaccinated.
Demonstrators gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1 as the justices hear arguments in a key case about a Mississippi abortion law. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption
The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in this country appears in jeopardy. Trump’s appointment of three conservative-leaning justices has meant that this year the high court took steps to gut Roe v. Wade. All indications are that it will uphold restrictions, like a 15-week ban in Mississippi, and it has so far let a Texas law stand that has all but shut down access to abortion in the state.
No shock here. This was an unprecedented event that capped off a chaotic Trump presidency. A mob of pro-Trump supporters breached the Capitol building and marauded through the halls in an attempt to disrupt the ceremonial counting of states’ votes that confirmed Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Despite the violent images broadcast on television, the handful of deaths, 140 members of law enforcement who were injured and more than $1 million in damage as a result, some on the right continue to dismiss what happened, calling it a peaceful protest. So far, more than 700 people have been charged with crimes due to their actions that day.
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