Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Six political lessons of 2012

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
December 24, 2012 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
<strong>January 1:</strong> Fireworks light up the London skyline just after Big Ben struck midnight, kicking off 2012. Photographers worldwide captured deadly conflicts, devastating storms, presidential politics and other memorable moments throughout the year. Click through the gallery to see 2012 unfold from beginning to end. Then check out <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/29/worldsport/gallery/2012-sports-moments/index.html' target='_blank'>75 amazing sports moments you missed this year.</a> January 1: Fireworks light up the London skyline just after Big Ben struck midnight, kicking off 2012. Photographers worldwide captured deadly conflicts, devastating storms, presidential politics and other memorable moments throughout the year. Click through the gallery to see 2012 unfold from beginning to end. Then check out 75 amazing sports moments you missed this year.
HIDE CAPTION
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
2012: The year in pictures
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: 2012 was a year of bitter domestic battles, turbulence overseas
  • He says the weakness of GOP, renewed strength of liberalism were apparent
  • Zelizer says the year also highlighted the influence of new immigrants in America
  • Zelizer: Year ended with a tragic reminder about need to act on gun control

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- 2012 has been a tumultuous year in American politics. With the presidential election capping off the year, Americans have witnessed a series of bitter domestic battles and turbulent events overseas. As the year closes out, it is worth thinking about some of the most important lessons that politicians and voters can learn from this year as they prepare for 2013.

Here are six:

The Republican brand name is in trouble: The GOP took a drubbing in 2012. To be sure, Mitt Romney ran a problematic campaign. His inability to connect with voters and a number of embarrassing gaffes hurt the chances for Republicans to succeed.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Just as important to the outcome was the party that Romney represented. Voters are not happy with the GOP. Public approval for the party has been extremely low. Congressional Republicans have helped to bring down the party name with their inability to compromise.

Recent polls show that if the nation goes off the fiscal cliff, the Republicans would be blamed. According to a survey by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 65 percent of people asked for a short word or phrase to describe the GOP came up with something negative. The Republican Party was also the lowest-rated political institution.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The exit polls in November showed that the GOP is out of step with the electorate on a number of big issues, including immigration and gay marriage. If Republicans don't undertake some serious reforms and offer fresh voices, all the new messaging in the world won't help them as the competition starts for 2016.

Opinion: Madness in the air in Washington

America has grown more liberal on cultural and social issues: The election results confirmed what polls have been showing for some time. If the 1960s was a battle over conservative "traditional family values" and liberal ideals of social relations, liberals eventually won. Throughout the year, polls showed, for example, that the public was becoming more tolerant of gay marriage and civil unions. Americans support the view that gay sex should be legal by a margin of 2-1, compared to 1977 when the public was split.

In the election, same-sex marriage was approved in three states, voters in Wisconsin sent to office the first openly gay senator, and two states approved of referendums to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Americans are accepting of social diversity, and expect that the pluralism of the electorate will be reflected by the composition of elected officials in Washington.

While there are some conservative voices who lament these changes and warn of a nation that is veering toward Sodom, a majority are more than comfortable that some of the taboos and social restrictions of earlier eras are fading and that we live in a nation which is more tolerant than ever before. These social and cultural changes will certainly raise more questions about restrictive practices and policies that remain in place while creating pressure for new kinds of leaders who are responsive to these changes.

The Middle East remains a tinderbox: In the years that followed Barack Obama's election, there was some hope that the Middle East could become a calmer region. When revolutions brought down some of the most notorious dictators in the region, many Americans cheered as the fervor for democracy seemed to be riding high.

A look back at 2012's big news
Fiscal cliff: What's next?
Boehner abandons Plan B

But events in 2012 threw some cold water on those hopes. The Muslim Brotherhood won control of the Egyptian government. In Syria, the government brutally cracked down on opponents, reaching the point in December where Obama's administration has started to talk about the possibility of the al-Assad regime using chemical weapons, though the severity of the threat is unclear. The battles between Palestinians and Israel raged with rockets being fired into Tel Aviv and Israelis bombing targets in Gaza.

Although national attention is focused on domestic policy, it is clear that the Middle East has the capacity to command national attention at any moment and remains as explosive as ever.

Our infrastructure needs repair: Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast in November, leaving millions of Americans on the East Coast without power and with damaged property. Soon after the hurricane hit, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made an important point. The infrastructure of our cities is outdated and needs to be revamped so that it can withstand current weather patterns. Speaking of the need for levees in New York, Cuomo said: "It is something we're going to have to start thinking about ... The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations."

Regardless of whether Congress takes action on the issue of climate change, in the short term cities and suburbs must do more work to curtail the kind of damage wreaked by these storms and to mitigate the costs of recovery -- building underground power lines, increasing resources for emergency responders, building state-of-the-art water systems, and constructing effective barriers to block water from flooding.

The new immigrants are a powerful political and social force: As was the case in the turn of the twentieth century when Eastern and Southern Europeans came into this county, massive waves of immigration are remaking the social fabric of the nation. Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and other new portions of the electorate who have been coming into the country since the reform of immigration laws in 1965 are coming to represent a bigger and bigger portion of the electorate.

Not only are their numbers growing as a voting bloc, but they are more organized and active than ever before, both on election day as well as in policy making.

Soon after the election, The New York Times reported that 600 members of United We Dream, a network of younger immigrants who don't have their papers, met for three days to plan how to lobby for a bill that would enable 11 million illegal immigrants to become legal. One of the leaders, Christina Jimenez, explained: "We have an unprecedented opportunity to engage our parents, our cousins, our abuelitos in this fight." They have both parties scrambling as Democrats are working to fulfill the promises that brought these voters to their side in November, while some Republicans are desperate to dampen the influence of hardline anti-immigration activists in their party.

We need to do something about guns. The year ended with a horrific shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. When a 20-year-old went on a rampage apparently using guns that had been legally purchased by his mother, the world watched with horror. Several prominent conservative advocates of gun rights, including former congressman and television host Joseph Scarborough as well as Sen. Joe Manchin, made statements indicating that the time has come to impose stricter controls and regulations on the purchase of weapons. "I don't know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault file," Manchin said.

Over the next few weeks, there will certainly be a big debate about what caused this shooting. People from different perspectives will highlight different issues but making it more difficult for people to get their hands on certain kinds of weapons, while not a cure-all, can only diminish the chances of this happening again.

There are many more lessons but these six stand out. After the trauma of the past week, let's hope the new year starts off with better days.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT