Conspiracy theorists pored over the cover of The World in 2016, with its collage of characters. In online musings they interpreted its “cryptic meaning and cabalistic symbolism”, even imagining that we predicted the shocking shootings in June 2016 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. All this seems to be based on a belief that The Economist has a special window into the future.
If only we did. The cover had lots to look at and put women (Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Janet Yellen) front and centre to show that they would be at the heart of many of the year’s big decisions. Yet with hindsight what stands out are two characters—one woman and one man—who are notable for their absence.
The missing woman is Theresa May, now Britain’s prime minister. Our analysis of British politics pictured David Cameron at the end of 2016 nursing a glass of claret at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, commanding the political landscape as few of his predecessors had done. In fact he resigned the day after losing the Brexit referendum. True, we said he had a fight on his hands, and warned that if he relied too much on negative campaigning he risked “handing the excitement and all the best lines” to those who wanted to leave the European Union. But we thought Britons would narrowly vote to remain.
The missing man is Donald Trump. We failed to predict his stunning takeover of the Republican Party, let alone his triumph over Hillary Clinton. The Republicans, we expected, would in the end “pick a candidate acceptable to big donors and party power-brokers—someone like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.”
Yet the angry, anti-globalist mood of voters did not come as a surprise. Our opening leader highlighted the growing threats to liberal internationalism. A guest writer, Doug Miller of GlobeScan, expected a “jolt” in America’s election season, on the basis of a prescient reading of opinion polls showing the depth of political disaffection there: “A low-trust political context is similar to a stressed physical environment where invasive species thrive.” Gideon Rachman rightly expected 2016 to be the year in which Mrs Merkel’s reputation took a dive and when “the macho style returned to Western politics”.
Plenty of our predictions proved to be correct. We were right in expecting that fears of an imminent Chinese crash would recede; that among the big emerging markets India would grow fastest; that bond yields would remain exceptionally low. We forecast that Barack Obama’s approval ratings would rise, which they have, and that Sadiq Khan would win the election to be London’s mayor, which he did. We pointed to virtual reality as the year’s hot tech trend.
Yet we underestimated the force of the rebellious tide in politics. We thought Dilma Rousseff would cling on to her job as Brazil’s president, but she was swept aside. We did not foresee the victory of the populist Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines’ presidential election. And the characters missing from our cover are the ones who speak volumes about the year.