Usually, the year leading up to an election year is all prelude -- pregame festivities that are quickly forgotten once the real game begins. But looking back at 2011, it's clear that the game - one that feels vital and filled with potential - began this year.
In 2011, what was happening outside Washington was much more important than the tired reruns going on inside the Beltway. To Time Magazine, it was the year of "The Protester," who was named the Person of the Year - a year of the outsider, of the people, of bottom-up power. It was a year in which the juxtaposition between the ongoing failure of our Washington political institutions and the vitality of forces outside Washington became impossible to ignore.
Just over a month later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. In May, protesters calling themselves "Los Indignados" ("The Outraged") filled the squares of cities all across Spain. Within two months, an estimated 6 million to 8.5 million people had taken part in the protests. In Greece, the protesters coalesced at Syntagma Square in Athens.
And on Sept. 17, a few hundred activists gathered at a little-known park in the Financial District of New York City called Zuccotti Park. But instead of becoming a one-off item buried deep in a news roundup, the protesters stayed. As their numbers grew, so did their influence. The movement spread far outside the park - to Oakland, to San Francisco, to Atlanta, to Chicago, and to Washington.
The outsider nature of the movement is hardly incidental to its success. The credibility of our political parties - and all political institutions - is at an all-time low. According to a Pew Research Center poll released this month, dissatisfaction with Washington incumbents is at a record high, with 67 percent of registered voters saying that "most members of Congress" should lose their jobs. A Gallup poll from earlier in the month put the number of those who think most members of Congress don't deserve to be re-elected at an astounding 76 percent.
Given the track record of our leaders this year, it seems unlikely next year will bring a shortage of reasons to be angry. Again and again in 2011, as the country sat mired in crises and the long-term effects of joblessness, declining wages and downward mobility, the response by the governing class could not have been more disproportionate to the problems.
Like a terrible reality show, each week brought some fresh, completely made-up five-alarm crisis. And the press would largely follow suit, breathlessly focusing its attention on Washington for the latest make-or-break negotiations. And then would come the front-page breakthrough deal that would essentially maintain the status quo - or eke out a small victory one way or the other. Remember the debt ceiling apocalypse? The one that basically kept the status quo? And last week we had the critical negotiations on the payroll tax deal that have been front-page news for weeks. The result: a continuation of the status quo. For two months. Then we get to do it again. And again. And again.
I'm not suggesting these deals are completely unimportant. It was important that the government didn't shut down and it's important to continue to give working people more money in their paychecks to pump into the economy - especially this economy. And that's the point: It's the outsized attention still being given to this manufactured clown show in Washington when we actually have very real and growing problems that we could be focusing on.
The latest data released by the Census Bureau puts the spotlight on some of these problems: nearly half of all Americans are either living in poverty or classified as low income. More than 97 million are in the latter category, while nearly 50 million are living below the poverty line. This total of 146 million is 4 million more than just two years ago.
And though the media will continue to be sidetracked by the Beltway sideshow, a national conversation about the real issues finally began to take root at the end of 2011. For example, the phrase "income inequality" was used fewer than 91 times in the media the week before the Occupy movement started, but got nearly 500 mentions the second week in November. And this month, Fred Shapiro, the associate librarian at Yale Law School, came out with his sixth annual list of the most notable political quotes of the year. Topping the list for 2011: "We are the 99 percent."
As we head into the new year, and the media continue to get sucked into the vortex of Washington, we should remember that what's going on outside Washington is the real story.
"Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions," writes Rick Stengel in Time. "But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top."
That's the story of this year. And let's hope it continues to be the story of next year, too.
(Arianna Huffington's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)