Over the course of the year, I keep a running list of articles that strike me as especially interesting—whether they’re unusually insightful, imaginative, well written, or entertaining. As we approach the holidays, I revisit the collection to remind myself of the year that was and to see if I can find any patterns.
Obviously, it doesn’t take this kind of exercise to know that 2016 was abnormal. We’re definitely going to need the help of future historians and (hopefully) their dispassionate, clear-eyed hindsight to help make sense of its stormy politics, domestic unrest, workforce troubles, international crises, untimely deaths, unexpected athletic outcomes, and much more.
But my review did uncover something fascinating: The tumult of 2016 seems to have prompted a good bit of soul-searching and unleashed analytical creativity. While the articles in total tell the story of the year, many also seem to expose a collective state of mind: writers, in real time, reflecting on and trying to explain a seemingly inexplicable zeitgeist.
So here are 100 of my favorite articles of 2016, loosely categorized by subject. I found each to be special in its own right, and together, I think they paint an arresting picture of an extraordinary year.
Obviously, the biggest story of the year was the election. Though much of the coverage provided heat, the best writing generated bright light, enabling us to see what had been obscured and grasp what we found.
This summer, two different publications produced, nearly simultaneously, articles based on the voices of Trump supporters. They were illuminating then, even more so now: David Blankenhorn in The American Interest on listening to Trump voters and David Frum in The Atlantic on how those voters saw the upcoming election.
Awards for foresight might go to Henry Olsen’s January National Review article on disillusioned blue-collar voters and former MTV reporter Tabatha Soren’s New York Times piece on how the Hillary Clinton of the 1990s presaged the Hillary Clinton of 2016.
There were three especially good what-might-have-beens. Matt Labash’s Weekly Standard article on the protracted hindenburging of Jeb Bush’s and Mike Murphy’s “Right to Rise” was entertaining and informative. George Will’s Washington Post column made a convincing case for Mitch Daniels’ candidacy. Tim Alberta wrote an exceptional analysis of the exceptional talents of Marco Rubio and how they misfit this exceptional year.
As for analysis, Mark Thompson wrote a brilliant column on public rhetoric, populism, and “authenticism” throughout history and how they were revealed in the 2016 campaign; David Fahrenthold did some stellar gritty, shoe-leather reporting on President-elect Trump’s philanthropy; Maureen Dowd wrote on the campaign’s “fear and insecurity”; and Molly Ball wrote on the principles and posturing of Ted Cruz.
2016 saw smart writing about the serious problems associated with elitism and the condescension that can go along with it. Regarding domestic affairs, Roger Cohen penned an eye-opening piece on how Appalachia’s discouraged, resentful citizens were tired of being caricatured, and Michael Lind explained how and why intellectuals misunderstand the world.
Internationally, these issues were front and center in the Brexit vote. Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle argued that the “leave” movement was a response to technocratic elites’ presumptuousness. In Foreign Affairs, R. Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett explained the upsides of the vote. In The Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib astutely identified how the underpinnings of the vote were redolent of international events of the 1930s. Ross Douthat described how cosmopolitanism can become insular and disdainful.
Several writers thoughtfully explained how particular worldviews can cause elites to alienate their fellow citizens. Nicholas Kristof wrote of “liberal intolerance” and Vox’s Emmett Rensin chastised the “smug style in American liberalism.” In July, the New York Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, took seriously the claims that the paper was politically biased. George Will juxtaposed the hubris of statist “theism” and the humility of spontaneous order. Katharine Seelye wrote about the collision of tradition, progress, economic growth, parochialism, and entrepreneurialism in a quaint Maine town.
What an interesting year — to say the least — for the political right. Numerous top-notch conservative leaders were swiftly bounced from the GOP presidential primary, but the political map turned even redder in November. Through it all there was some outstanding writing on conservatism and its future. I found conservative British politician Michael Gove’s speech announcing his candidacy for prime minister to be captivating. Fred Bauer wrote a beautiful, short, insightful piece on Edmund Burke’s guidance for handling political strife with grace. Molly Worthen wrote about the next generation’s study of the great books of conservative thought.
Yuval Levin penned an excellent piece on how history has shown that the authors of the incomparable Federalist Papers made two big mistakes. Arthur Brooks cleverly connected the dots between America’s current residential and economic immobility. Matthew Continetti, in The Washington Free Beacon, wrote an extended piece on the ongoing tug-of-war between conservatism and populism in the Republican Party. For Commentary, Noah Rothman penned a smart, short, unsettling step-by-step guide of how to methodically undermine conservatism.
On the local front, James Fallows penned the ultimate homage to a politics of decentralization. In The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead wrote on what an energetic subsidiarity could mean for postindustrial towns, and Katrina Markel wrote in The Huffington Post what a restaurant can reveal about entrepreneurialism, social capital, history, and geography.
More conceptually, AEI published a terrific series of essays on freedom and flourishing, each discussing a giant of political philosophy; I especially enjoyed Steven Bilakovics on Tocqueville, Ryan Patrick Hanley on Adam Smith, and Susan Meld Shell on Kant.
I spend much of my time thinking about schools, and 2016 was rich with such ideas and analysis. The Philanthropy Roundtable published an excellent guidebook by David Bass on career and technical education, which smartly suggests that civil society, not the state, take the lead role. Rick Hess wrote a compelling prescription for school reform based on decentralization and modesty, and Mike McShane cogently argued in Education Week for going small. By contrast, Caitlin Emma of Politico wrote a terrific profile of Secretary John King, who prioritizes big, fast, and urgent.
Several writers explored how to make major progress in low-income urban schools. Douglas Harris and Whitney Bross showed how smart charter-authorizing practices contributed to the huge improvements in New Orleans’ schools post-Katrina. Patrick Dobard explained in Education Post that “local democratic control” — in New Orleans and beyond — doesn’t require a traditional district. Danielle Dreilinger reported on NOLA’s final, astonishing step toward an all-charter system.
John White and Joel Klein wrote in The Daily Beast on the benefits of carefully replacing persistently failing urban schools, and Jennifer Brown of The Denver Post showed how big promises and increased funding alone won’t get the job done. Alana Semuels wrote on the adult struggles of city kids grown up.
Several of my former colleagues produced valuable new research: Jason Weeby, Kelly Robson, and George Mu created a fascinating index of “education innovation” in US cities, and Juliet Squire and Allison Crean Davis studied board members of charter schools. In a series of important posts, Jay Greene made a strong case against accountability systems that lean too heavily on test scores. Melanie Asmar wrote for Chalkbeat on implementing Colorado’s policy to remove tenure from low-performing teachers.
A few very good education-related articles had implications that extended far beyond schools. The president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, explained why campuses must jealously defend free inquiry. In US News & World Report, Robert Pondiscio cleverly used a pop-culture tidbit to make a shrewd point about cultural literacy and schooling. Florina Rodov wrote a terrific article for CNN on how a school’s compassion can be perverted into pity. Adam Grant offered a compelling argument about the dangers of grading on curves. In The 74, Derrell Bradford’s contribution to the heated debate over the ed-reform ideological schism was both principled and conciliatory.
For those interested in the finer points of education policy, I’d also recommend: Alyson Klein on helping long-term English-language learners, Chad Aldeman on the difficulty of “raising the bar” for teacher preparation entry, Mike Petrilli’s Education Next piece on a schools agenda for working-class families, Kathleen Porter Magee on a great-news story for Catholic schools, Nat Malkus on the Title I funding fight, and Paul Peterson on the “Bush-Obama” approach to reform.
Law and Policy
In hindsight, the 2016 election was less about policy positions than it was about posture and personality. Nevertheless, there were numerous top-flight assessments of the state of public policy and law.
Nicholas Eberstadt wrote on the tragedy and danger of the expanding sea of nonworking men. Maybe my favorite insight of the year came from Miljenko Jergovic, who pointed out that Sarajevo was the last great city at the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire and Aleppo was the greatest on the east. John Eligon and Robert Gebeloff penned a terrific though sobering analysis of the combination of policies contributing to residential segregation by race, irrespective of income. Emerson Brooking and P. W. Singer produced a tremendous long read on the history and future influence of communications advancements on war.
Several writers discussed the important connections between the courts and political branches. Peter Wallison argued persuasively in National Affairs that the judiciary must defend federalism and separation of powers by stopping the consolidation and growth of the administrative state. Adam White wrote on the Constitutional Convention’s debate about Senate confirmations and allowing ambition to counteract ambition. A number of articles detailed how state and federal courts are being asked to solve school problems. Particularly interesting stories came from Sarah Favot on California, Tawnell Hobbs on Detroit, Bryan Lowry on Kansas, Leslie Brody on New Jersey, Paige Cornwell on Washington State — and the dean of Harvard’s education school had a fascinating take.
I particularly enjoyed three pieces related to the passing of legal giant Antonin Scalia. The Harvard Law Review published wonderful memories of the justice from an august group (including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan); in the Independent Journal Review, John Boehner recounted a nearly unbelievable story of the effort to recruit Scalia to run for vice president in 1996; and Kyle Peterson wrote an excellent piece on Scalia, constitutional interpretation, vocabulary, and grammar.
There was some terrific writing about writing this year, namely articles about books. Rod Dreher models great book reviewing — part synopsis, part analysis, part thesis — in service of Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic.” Dreher’s interview of J. D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” was also outstanding. Carlos Lozada put together an excellent compilation of books that help explain 2016. Alec MacGillis produced an exceptional two-book review that explores the history of America’s poor whites.
I thoroughly enjoyed Nathaniel Rich’s multi-book review of Jane Jacobs and her antitechnocratic worldview and this Mark Greif review of a novel about a downcast professor and a hidden library. Joanne Freeman offered an excellent review of a biography of a former first lady, unusual talent, and remarkable character, Louisa Adams, and Joseph Ellis did the same for a biography of her easy-to-admire, hard-to-like husband, our sixth president, John Quincy Adams.
Some of my favorite writing of 2016 was about music. Geoff Edgers produced a riveting interview-based account of the music-changing collaboration between Aerosmith and Run DMC. David Camp wrote a terrific Vanity Fair article about Bruce Springsteen’s memoir that’s really about the artist’s dad, depression, and demons. James Parker made a compelling case for the outsized importance of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.”
Erik Hedegaard’s piece on Keith Urban’s past and present was especially insightful and had some clever writing; it was rivaled by his excellent profile of the melodically gifted and interpersonally curious Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. Mikal Gilmore made me realize I know way too little about Merle Haggard and that the beautiful simplicity of the Ramones’ music belies the dark complexity of their history.
I really appreciated this brilliant Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton graphical analysis of the rhymes in “Hamilton,” the amazing Guilbert Gates graphical rendering of how instrumental (figuratively and literally!) George Martin was to the Beatles’ success, Chris Stewart’s vulnerable reflection on the passing of Prince, and this Spencer Kornhaber article on finding and discriminating between music in an era of endless choices.
Two scientific articles stood out to me. For NPR, Janna Levin wrote on the astonishing discovery of gravitational waves, and Kevin Hartnett penned a beautiful, challenging Quanta piece on the beautiful math used to challenge randomness.
As for sports, ESPN had a great reminder of how special Ichiro Suzuki’s career has been, Sally Jenkins assessed Peyton Manning’s last NFL act and speculated on his first post-NFL act, and Nick Selbe answered a question I didn’t know I had (Who were the 10 best number-one draft picks in major league history?).
Four pieces on mental health were especially noteworthy: a humbling history, via Jonathan Rosen, of antidepressants, Adam Grant on aspiring to be better than your authentic self, Aaron Blake’s piece on the American Psychiatric Association’s warning against psychoanalysis from afar, and David Brooks’ argument that mental toughness is concomitant with moral commitment.
And lastly, defying all categorization, these four: Hilary Potkewitz on why 4 a.m. is so productive; Mary Katharine Ham in praise of Ivanka Trump (and using “Kate Middletoning” as a verb); Sam Anderson on marble, history, expertise, stress, and the “eccentricity of loads”; and Sam Roberts’ obituary qua cultural history of the button-down shirt.
Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, president of the Maryland State Board of Education, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
This post originally appeared on AEIdeas.