2011’s 10 stories that mattered most

Individuals make decisions daily that can affect the lives of others, but only the very powerful — or mass movements of the disenfranchised — can change the outlook for millions. There were many such momentous actions and decisions in 2011, but when we set out to identify the top 10 most interesting and significant political stories at the local, state, federal and global levels, these are the ones that stood out.

10. The downtown L.A. stadium deal. Few local projects have been as controversial and as long in the making as the construction or retrofit of a football stadium to lure a professional team to Los Angeles. The city has been without such a franchise for 17 years, even though it’s the second-biggest TV market in the nation. Given the factors that have blocked a deal for so long (greedy owners, voters and politicians unwilling to put up taxpayer money to subsidize a facility, environmental and traffic concerns, location questions), it’s remarkable how quickly the bid to build a downtown stadium fell into place this year. Amid unusually rapid and sensible decision-making by city and state officials to accommodate the project, there was only one major sour note. At the behest of developer Anschutz Entertainment Group, the Legislature approved a bill granting expedited judicial review for court challenges to the project. That was the right thing to do given that the entire deal might have collapsed without such a guarantee, but granting case-by-case exceptions to the requirements of California’s often-unwieldy Environmental Quality Act is bad public policy. What’s needed is a comprehensive review of CEQA that would make it work better for everybody, not just powerful mega-developers.

9. The death of Kim Jong Il. Satellite photos of the Korean peninsula at night point up both literal and figurative truths about the Hermit Kingdom to the north. While South Korea is a network of glowing lights, North Korea is as dark as it would have been in the Stone Age. And the rest of the world is just as much in the dark when it comes to figuring out what’s happening inside North Korea. This much we know: Longtime dictator Kim Jong Il reportedly died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, and his son, Kim Jong Un, is his heir-apparent. Will the army accept the leadership of this unproven and largely unseen twentysomething? Will the younger Kim demonstrate his authority by pushing his nuclear-armed nation to the brink of war, or by seeking to improve ties with the West? Will a destabilizing power struggle emerge, or will something like the Arab Spring spread to Asia? Stay tuned.

Reader opinion: 2011’s top 10 political stories

8. California redistricting. Thanks to two ballot measures, one approved in 2008 and the other in 2010, this year saw historic changes in the way representatives are chosen for the state Legislature and the House of Representatives. In the past, the district lines for these bodies were drawn by elected officials, whose key aims were to protect the seats of incumbents and reward party loyalists. These districts have now been realigned by a citizens commission. The changes don’t come without controversy; Republicans complain that the new lines benefit Democrats, and an investigation by ProPublica demonstrated that, in fact, the Democratic Party may have unfairly influenced the results by setting up bogus interest groups and witnesses to testify at commission hearings. We’re not too worried; the balance of power between the parties is unlikely to shift at either the state or federal level. What’s more important is that the parties no longer control the process; that having been fooled once, the commission will be less likely to be fooled in the future; and that the new lines may produce more competitive races.


7. Prison realignment. California’s reduced government circumstances will have severe impacts on a variety of public services, but no state agency or function is shifting as seismically as the prison system, which is sending tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates to county jails and other correctional facilities as a way of trimming the budget and reducing an excess prison population. It’s a worrisome trend, given past problems at the state and county levels with classifying prisoners according to their risk to the public. But it’s not necessarily a pathway to higher crime and, if done right, could ultimately benefit both inmates and taxpayers.

6. The slaying of Osama bin Laden. The demise of Al Qaeda’s chief and the architect of 9/11 was one of the biggest news stories of the year, but it was also one of 2011’s biggest political events, profoundly roiling the relationship between the United States and Pakistan and leading to continuing upheaval in a country that plays a critical role in the struggle against Islamist terrorism. The U.S. decision to strike Bin Laden’s compound without informing the Pakistani government provoked a furious outcry that is threatening the downfall of President Asif Ali Zardari and compromising U.S. military efforts to target insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas. With drone strikes suspended and a key air base closed to U.S. forces, the cost of Bin Laden’s life continues to rise.

5. The new Obama. There was a time when we thought we knew what President Obama stood for: ending Bush administration policies that compromised American rights or values in the name of the war on terror, returning science to the forefront when setting policy on public health, and protecting the environment. But that was before the Republican resurgence of 2010 or the election season of 2011. This year, Obama abandoned his plans to create a U.S. detention center for Guantanamo Bay prisoners and signed an executive order that will keep the military prison there running indefinitely; signed a four-year extension of the Patriot Act; overruled scientists at the Food and Drug Administration by declaring that girls under 17 shouldn’t have over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill; and kept in place a Bush-era standard on smog that experts say won’t protect the public, among other reversals. We liked the old Obama better.

4. Occupy Wall Street. The jury’s still out on whether the nationwide protests that started Sept. 17 at New York’s Zuccotti Park will really change the political environment in the U.S. or fizzle as quickly as the anti-globalization movement that spawned a mass protest of a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. The tea party, dismissed by critics as a flash in the pan until it altered the course of the 2010 elections, had similarly humble beginnings and faces similar questions about its future. The real test of the Occupy movement’s influence will come in 2012, when it will see whether, like the tea party, it can lure voters who support its aims to the polls.

3. The revolving GOP front-runner. With the economy sputtering and Obama’s popularity ebbing, Republicans have an opportunity in 2012, if only they could figure out whom to anoint. Although former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is consistently near the top in GOP polls, the highly conservative voters who tend to dominate primary elections can’t stomach his seeming about-faces on key policy issues such as public healthcare and his past liberal voting record. Some evangelicals, meanwhile, are bothered by his Mormon faith. Instead, the party faithful have turned to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who emerged as the front-runner in August only to see his support melt away after a series of high-profile gaffes; pizza magnate Herman Cain, who dropped out this month amid allegations of sexual improprieties; and now former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who comes with enough political baggage (extramarital affair, questionable record, extreme charisma deficit) to overturn a freight hauler.

2. The European debt crisis. Europe, like California, Goldman Sachs and other troubled entities, is too big to fail. That’s why a resolution of its ongoing credit mess is so vital, and why the success or failure of a deal reached this month to impose fiscal discipline on individual countries will affect the economies of the U.S. and the world. Unfortunately, there are more questions about the prospective deal than answers. Critics have rightly pointed out that it doesn’t safeguard the euro against future booms and busts, and focuses too much on austerity rather than stimulating growth. What’s clear is that Europe’s troubles are nowhere near over, and that will slow recovery on this side of the pond as well.

1. The Arab Spring. First Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya, and now (maybe) Syria: Popular rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East are toppling repressive regimes like dominoes across the Arab world. Yet to be determined is whether they’ll ultimately be replaced with something better, either for the suffering inhabitants or for prospective trading partners in the West. The signs from Egypt, in particular, are worrisome. Seemingly a model of peaceful revolution, Egyptians overthrew President Hosni Mubarak’s government in February, only to see it succeeded by a military council that is as unaccountable to the public as the former dictator. Despite this month’s voting for a new parliament, violent clashes between the army and protesters continue in Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, after two rounds of voting, Islamist parties have captured a clear majority of the seats up for grabs, fueling fears that secular protesters might actually end up losing some rights that are frowned upon by religious conservatives. Democracy isn’t easy.