It was a dreadful year, obviously, and that applies to U.S. politics, too. Nevertheless, believe it or not, some stuff was worth celebrating. Here are five good developments:
Republicans for democracy: In a year when the Republican Party overall showed an alarming and apparently accelerating lack of support for U.S. democracy, we should recognize those who stepped up when it counted. Begin with Mitt Romney, who was the only senator in his party to risk the consequences when he voted to remove President Donald Trump from office. That was an honest-to-goodness-profile-in-courage moment.
And don't forget the NeverTrump conservatives who were not only able to see the flaws of the man in the White House (which really wasn't hard to do), but who were willing to examine how their own party reached the point where Trump could dominate it. And then there were the GOP politicians in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who, when push came to shove (sometimes literally), chose democracy over blind loyalty to a Republican president.
It's not that these politicians are always heroes of the republic. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for example, has gone right back to fighting to make it harder for people to vote, just as he did before the election. But when it really counted, Raffensperger and many others made the correct choice.
Elections and their supporters: A pandemic. Post office troubles. Underfunded governments. Unprecedented nonsense coming from the White House. Even threats of violence. Yet voters, state and local governments, and thousands and thousands of poll workers combined to make the 2020 elections remarkably successful. The turnout was the highest in over a century (or ever, given voter rules), and the process went relatively smoothly and with no hint of irregularities. Indeed, there was so little in the way of fraud that Trump's lawyers didn't have much of anything to allege in court, no matter what they alleged on third-rate cable-news shows.
Yes, we shouldn't ignore significant efforts to make voting harder even while the virus was spreading. But even Republican states (like my own Texas, for example) did quite a bit to make the election go reasonably smoothly.
Diversity, Republican Party edition: After several cycles in which Republicans nominated Anglo men for the overwhelming bulk of winnable open seats and seats held by Democrats, the party finally made progress in fielding candidates that look like 21st-century America. Thanks to a bit of a Republican trend in House voting, their nominations produced new elected officials — and 39% of new House Republicans will be women, with more ethnic diversity as well. Descriptive representation isn't everything. But it's not healthy for a party to choose leaders only from a fragment of the population.
Diversity, Democratic Party edition: President-elect Joe Biden is at least the third Democratic president committed to making sure that all party groups are represented in White House and executive-branch personnel. But he has one enormous advantage in fulfilling his promise: Members of previously excluded groups have become key party actors. Biden could choose from multiple female, Black and Latino candidates with conventional qualifications for every post, something that wasn't the case for Bill Clinton in 1992-1993.
Do-some-things Congress: I'm not sure what overall grade historians will give the exiting 116th Congress. It's hard to see any progress on the nation's long-term problems. In terms of deliberation and other procedural questions, there was little to brag about. The rushed impeachment, brief trial and acquittal (without even calling witnesses) of Donald Trump? We'll be fighting about that one for a long time, but I don't hear a lot of people calling it one of the institution's finest hours.
But when a genuine emergency came around, Congress acted pretty quickly. Four bills passed in rapid succession, including the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which was signed on March 27. None of these laws were ideal, of course; laws never are. And pushing the follow-up bill from April to December meant that plenty of pain that could have been avoided was not.
Still, we shouldn't ignore these accomplishments, even as people argue about what could have been better. This was a divided Congress — a Democratic House and Republican Senate — with majorities in both chambers hotly contested in the November elections. And it was a Congress that was getting no help at all from the Disrupter-in-Chief in the Oval Office, who set off random grenades throughout the process while never demonstrating any policy leadership. Congress-bashing is easy, but we should make some room to recognize achievements, too.
Do these five good things represent a low bar — more in the category of "could have been worse"? Sure. But it's 2020. Let's take what we can get, and hope for a healthier republic in 2021.
Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.