Future

The New Normal and the Prospects for a Post-Political Future

When things were normal—whether you benchmark to the Republican version or the Democratic version—politicians were still venal and governance shoddy.

|

"When will things be normal again?"

In politics, this is a powerful wish and a commonly heard refrain. It's the desire that propelled Donald Trump into the White House with a Make America Great Again cap perched atop his head. His campaign tapped into a longing for an imagined 20th century standard, when the United States was militarily, technologically, and commercially dominant abroad and relatively homogeneous at home.

Now Joe Biden is rallying voters against Trump using the same technique. Biden's "no malarkey" campaign bus is powered by the fumes of goodwill he generated in his role as Barack Obama's vice president. He is selling the pre-Trump normal, and plenty of Democratic primary voters seem to be buying.

One weird side effect of this strategy is that Biden is running a markedly conservative campaign in the literal sense of the word: He wants to go back, to conserve what we had under Obama. The contrast is stark with the socialists and progressives otherwise dominating the Democratic field. What if, the Biden campaign seductively asks, we could simply pretend the 45th presidency never happened?

The idea of a "return to normalcy" has worked before. Warren G. Harding ran for president under that banner exactly a century ago. He won despite being described by H.L. Mencken as a man "with the face of a moving-picture actor…and the intelligence of a respectable agricultural implement dealer" (and later, less generously, as "a downright moron").

"America's present need," Harding declared, "is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; not agitation but adjustment; not surgery but serenity; not the dramatic but the dispassionate; not experiment but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality."

Students of history will recall that his term ended not in equipoise but in a wave of scandal and an untimely death. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about possible parallels for the centennial of those events.

Millennials and young Gen Xers actually use normal as a term of approbation. When I meet someone new, I'm offering a high compliment indeed if I say, "He seems really normal." Perhaps as a result of my casual abuse of the word, even I—in a moment of frustration over the difficulty of staying on top of an erratic news cycle—have grumbled: "When will things be normal again?"

But I didn't mean it. Because when it comes to politics, normal is terrible.

When things were normal—whether you benchmark to the Republican version or the Democratic version—politicians were still venal and governance shoddy. Americans were continually subjected to the depredations of the federal government in general and the president in particular. Normal was cronyist and authoritarian and profligate and petty. It was dominated by mushy compromise and zero-sum thinking. And the various tentacles of the state extended into every part of American life, from what we eat to what our kids learn in school to what we watch on TV.

Normal isn't serenity and healing; it's Teapot Dome. Going back to normal means going back to a time when many aspects of our political system were in dire need of reform.

When former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D–Md.) said: "We have got to get back to normal." But normal has always been scandalous and messy and dishonest. These hearings were just the latest in a long line of inquiries into politicians' misbehavior.

Biden's version of the lament is especially amnesiac, since it places the lost golden age a mere three years ago. If you are of voting age, you remember the Obama administration clearly. In these times of sustained high dudgeon, it can be easy to forget, but there was a lot of rather lofty dudgeon in those days too.

Donald Trump has shaken things up in Washington, just as he promised he would. But the result of that shakeup has not been, as many hoped, a demystification of the presidency, a draining of the swamp, or shift in public support away from centralization. It also has not been a return to American global hegemony, as others desired. Instead, there has been an increasing focus on the presidency, thanks in part to Trump's personal insistence on live-tweeting his own administration.

His impeachment will, in the short run, make things more febrile in all the ways that people calling for normalcy lament. But as Gene Healy argues in this month's cover story (page 18), we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss impeachment and its ramifications as a tool for getting to a better status quo.

"If you elect me president, I promise you won't have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time," Democratic hopeful Michael Bennet tweeted in August. "I'll do my job watching out for North Korea and ending this trade war. So you can go raise your kids and live your lives."

Bennet was the 22nd entrant to the Democratic field and is an otherwise unremarkable moderate Colorado senator. (I had to double-check just now that he was, in fact, still in the race, so I guess he has kept his promise not to take up too much mental real estate.) Still, Bennet's tweet offers an inkling of what our post-political future could look like—the thing people are actually longing for when they pine for "normal."

Bennet told the L.A. Times editorial board that Biden's project to Make America Normal Again was delusional. "The idea that the vice president says, 'If we just get rid of Trump, then it will all go back to normal' or the way it was, that doesn't even reflect the history of the Obama administration. The last six years of that administration, we were paralyzed. We were immobilized."

We don't really want things to be normal. Normal wasn't working. We want politics to function smoothly and without much attention. We want politicians to leave us alone.

As Bennet says, we should mostly be thinking about raising our kids and living our lives. When you're not engaging with politics, and especially electoral politics, you are almost certainly spending your days making things better for other people in some tangible way. You're making peanut butter sandwiches or buying groceries or sending an email someone was waiting for or showing up for your shift on time.

When politicians retire in shame or despair—a very normal phenomenon—they often say they are leaving politics to spend more time with their families.

At long last, a good idea.

NEXT: Brickbat: It's Who You Know

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Follow these Natural Home Remedies for Dog Ear Infection. Spray a mixture of water and apple cider vinegar in the infected area. Apply five or six drops of oil of mullein combined with oil of garlic daily for 10 days.

    1. Yes! Finally some useful information from a spambot. Where can we find this oil of mullein and how much do we need to douse the entire Washington, DC metropolitan area?

      1. Spambot? I thought it was clever commentary!

      2. “how much do we need to douse the entire Washington, DC metropolitan area?” could be construed as a terrorist threat; better hope no one rains hellfire down upon you.

  2. We lost the chance to be normal in any good sense a long long time ago.

    A couple months after the Berlin Wall fell, Jeane Kirkpatrick – Cold War Superhawk – wrote an article called A Normal Country in Normal Times (notably this article is NOT online – apparently the notion is now too laughable to risk being digitized and read now). Envisioning a post-Cold War US – one that hearkened back to being able to resolve/conclude the warnings of Eisenhower about a military-industrial complex:

    A good society is defined not by its foreign policy but by its internal qualities… Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive or when it is threatened by aggression. One of the most important consequences of the half century of war and Cold War has been to give foreign affairs an unnatural importance…

    Most of the international military obligations that we assumed were once important are now outdated. … It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an usually successful, open American republic…

    The United States performed heroically in a time when heroism was required, altruistically during the long years when freedom was endangered. The time when America should bear such unusual burdens is past. With the return of ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation.

    I don’t see the problem with ‘normal’.

    1. I recall concern that George Bush would pull back on the interventionist policies of Bill Clinton.

      1. I recall the defense agencies had real concern of major cuts during the Clinton/Ginrich budget debates. Without the USSR and no enemy to worry about they had no clear purpose or goal.

        1. Yet we still went through 5 rounds of base closures. Which short-term created a lot of pain – even made the 92 recession worse. But back then it was clear that there would be a permanent ‘peace dividend’ – for regular folks – at the end. That notion has completely disappeared from both parties. R’s don’t even understand the concept now and D’s think it is entirely limited to giving bureaucrats more control/money to spend.

    2. Did she eventually join the call to push NATO into Russia’s face, or was she part of the resistance to that?

      1. She testified in favor of NATO expansion in 1997

        But the testimony is entirely about NATO being the only institution that works re collective security cuz of EU/Europe failures re Yugo/Serbia. She specifically excludes this expansion as being anti-Russia:

        What About Russia?
        NATO is a defensive alliance dedicated to deterring and, if necessary,
        defeating aggression.
        A democratic Russia will pose no threat to anyone. The most urgent
        problem in U.S. relations with Russia is to help Russian democrats
        defeat internal enemies of democracy. Our government is working hard
        on that problem.
        It should be remembered that President Yeltsin has repeatedly
        indicated that he has no problem with the inclusion in NATO of these
        independent European neighbors. We do not help Russian democrats by
        appeasing their opponents.

        Putin WAS – then as now – one of those internal enemies of democracy.

        1. That said – her testimony in 97 is still swamp thinking. We don’t have any tradition now of people leaving DC and moving back to ‘normal world’. It’s a serious problem because it means DC becomes more corrupt and ‘normal world’ becomes more non-serious.

          KMW’s ideal that ‘normal world’ should be about making PBJ’s and talking soap operas is totally arrogant bullshit. ‘Normal world’ is the only thing that can hold swamp world accountable. And the biggest problem with the anarcho wing of libertarians is they’re too fucking hipsterish and fashionably cynical to think ‘accountability’ means anything.

    3. I’ve said myself that I don’t want the US to be a “super power”, I want it to be the world’s best ordinary country.

      But it seems to me that our politics ARE normal. Trump is a normal President.

      The claims they’ve become abnormal are mostly just a temper tantrum over losing elections.

      1. +1000

        I am fine with other nations becoming more wealthy than the USA from free trade and no war.

        The Fifth Element:
        Zorg : Oh, Father. You’re so wrong. Let me explain.
        [Puts and empty water glass on his desk]
        Zorg : Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from destruction, disorder and chaos. Now take this empty glass. Here it is: peaceful, serene, boring. But if it is destroyed
        [Pushes the glass off the table. It shatter on the floor, and several small machines come out to clean it up]
        Zorg : Look at all these little things! So busy now! Notice how each one is useful. A lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color. Now, think about all those people that created them. Technicians, engineers, hundreds of people, who will be able to feed their children tonight, so those children can grow up big and strong and have little teeny children of their own, and so on and so forth. Thus, adding to the great chain of life. You see, father, by causing a little destruction, I am in fact encouraging life. In reality, you and I are in the same business.

        1. I’m not sure the purpose of your extended quote but it’s a classic example of the Broken Window Fallacy.

          Were you perhaps trying to make reference to Schumpeter’s theory of Creative Destruction instead?

          1. No dum-dum.

            My quote from a movie highlights someone purposefully causing illegal destruction and disruption of a peaceful environment and then justifying it as a common good. In other words, murdering someone and then claiming that all the cleanup crews, police, and courts needed to handle your crime was a common good.

            Marx was trying to understand what made Capitalism tick and he never could.

            No wonder you couldn’t parse the purpose from my movie quote.

            1. Yeah, Zorg was an evil madman, and even he didn’t believe what he was saying, he was just messing with the priest. As the priest himself demonstrated a moment later.

              1. Was he?
                That giant ball of evil made his forehead bleed from millions of miles away.
                Not sure he had a choice

    4. I can’t imagine there will ever be a time when we’ll look back at the last 30 years in this way:

      The United States performed… altruistically during the long years when freedom was endangered.

  3. Speaking of prospects, what is the prospect of @Reason supporting free markets and freedom of association over coercive monopolies just because it does not believe certain free markets are not possible ?

    1. Ignore the wingnuts.

      1. Sticking with this sock all week sqrsly?

        1. That’s Hihn.

          1. Doesn’t matter

  4. You’re making peanut butter sandwiches

    Sammiches

  5. The media has been freaking out a bit the last few years, but as for politics, it’s never been more normal.

  6. I wonder if normal will come about as the current generation of leaders leave the stage and next generation steps up to lead. We are currently in very turbulent times that causes anxiety that leads to anger. A lot of what Trump and Sanders are selling is addressing the anxiety laying culpability on another group (immigrants or billionaires). They are not however accepting the changing facts about demographics and economics. I think the next generation will be better at accepting these facts. That why I want younger leaders.

    1. Anxiety is caused by dumbfuck liberal educators teaching every child they are precious and nothing is actually their fault, then reality steps in.

      1. Really its is the educators! Are sure its not the news reporter telling you we are being invaded on the southern border? Or the politician telling you that your job is being shipped overseas? How about the web site telling you that everything causes cancer or that the white race is under attack? I think making people anxious is big business and we can’t get back to normal until we learn to ignore those trying to scare us.

        1. Bitch, some of us have actual life experiences.
          You may never understand this, but some people come to their own conclusions without being told what to believe

          1. Or, in spite of being told what to believe

          2. Please explain. JesseAz says its teachers making kids anxious. I suggest there is a whole industry making people anxious not teachers. Are you saying life experience makes you anxious or something else. What is normal to you and would make you comfortable?

  7. Ms. Mangu-Ward….Speaking of normal and rational, you might want to mention that to some of your staff writers. Clearly, a few of them lost their minds last year, and have a tenuous connection to logic, rationality, or Reason. The letter ‘B’ comes to mind.

  8. Donald Trump has shaken things up in Washington, just as he promised he would. But the result of that shakeup has not been, as many hoped, a demystification of the presidency, a draining of the swamp, or shift in public support away from centralization. It also has not been a return to American global hegemony, as others desired.

    I disagree completely. Trump has dragged the presidency through the mud, a good thing. He has also caused immense contempt for most of Congress, which will cause the swamp to be drained slowly at the voting booth. He has even caused supposedly libertarian institutions and intellectuals to reveal themselves for the statist swamp dwellers they actually are. Heck, I and many others cancelled our Reason subscriptions and stopped donating. That’s an accomplishment by itself.

    It appears you desire a statist solution in which the administrative state delivers increasing liberty through rational decision and rule making. In other words, you’re liberal progressives.

    1. He has also caused immense contempt for most of Congress, which will cause the swamp to be drained slowly at the voting booth.
      Congress bad, my representative good. – the voters

      1. Most representatives are elected by a minority of voters.

        Most people know little about their representative.

        Approval of one’s own representative is still low, even while higher than Congress as a whole, and that probably because people choose to live in places that are ideologically compatible

        1. NOYB2…..Let me tell you what I do know about my representative, Andy Kim (NJ D-3). I intend to vote that son of a bitch out of office. He is nothing more than a progressive fool.

          1. According to 2019 estimates from the Census, New Jersey will be losing a House District. So, whether Andy Kim gets the boot at the voting booth or from Census 2020, there is going to be a slight voting Demographics shift.

            It was not the shift Democrats were hoping for.

          2. Good luck to you, XY!

        2. The average margin of victory for the House of Representative in 2018 was 30.2.

          1. And voter turnout was under 50%, and that’s a historical high.

            So there is a 30% gap among a minority of voters. Not a ringing endorsement.

        3. Approval of one’s own representative is still low, even while higher than Congress as a whole

          It’s not my representative who’s the problem! It’s the other ones!

          1. Yeah, just keep repeating the progressive talking point that voters are ignorant fools! That will surely lead to victory!

            1. Um, no. That’s not what I said.

              1. That’s exactly what you said

    2. You nailed it on the 17A.

      I disagree on a new Constitution every generation. I believe the principles set forth in the original are pretty good. The problem isn’t with the document, it’s with the fact that it’s used as toilet paper by the government it is intended to constrain. A new Convention every twenty years isn’t gonna fix that.

      1. Additionally I would be quite fearful that a Convention today would result in something like this.

      2. Also agree on 17A….it must be abolished.

        1. But, but, but…. democracy!!!

          Which is exactly why it was put in there.

  9. When things were normal—whether you benchmark to the Republican version or the Democratic version—politicians were still venal and governance shoddy.

    In 1783, politicians in the newly established and victorious United States of America came together to work through early Republic difficulties (like an empty Treasury) and control a mutinous Continental Army. By 1789, the Founders had the US Constitution in place, George Washington was President, and the war of Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and Democratic-Republicans was in full swing.

  10. The article is extremely unfair to Harding and his “normalcy.” The scandals were of little importance in comparison to launching America on a decade of peace and prosperity. No doubt he made mistakes in appointing Harry Daugherty and Albert Fall but most of his appointments like Hughes, Hoover, and Mellon were men of character and ability. And he really was a uniter, not a divider, freeing Eugene Debs and other victims of Wilson’s repression, even though he could hardly have agreed with their political views.

  11. I consider Trump to be the most normal we’ve been in a long time simply for him calling things the way they are. NK isn’t an imaginary axis of evil, Iran is a state-sponsor of terrorism, China is the most un-free trader of all, taxes are too damn high, etc. With the exception of fiscal conservatism, Trump has mostly told us how it is, even if we don’t want to hear it. I don’t mind when people disagree with his methods of dealing with problems, but I haven’t felt that a politician has ever been this in-touch in terms of knowing what the average person actually considers to be an issue.

  12. Lincoln had to enter DC in disguise on his inauguration day, and would be assassinated soon after. His successor would be impeached in much the same way Trump has, largely over disagreements over public policy. In the first 25 years of our republic, we had 3 rebellions.

    No, politics hasn’t changed at all. The difference is that the people COVERING politics are overwhelmed by the noisy vapors they generate as they twatter about on twitter.

    1. Fifty years ago there were race riots that burned down the centers of a good number of cities in this country. In the 70s PR nationalists took over the Capitol building. ROTC buildings were bombed. It takes a complete ignorance of history to think that politics are somehow more divisive or dangerous now than they ever have been.

      1. +100

        Lefties are usually very ignorant of history. I mean they support the Democrat Party- the Party of slavery.

        1. I guess that I am back on the JournoLIST.

      2. I came of age during the Johnson years [Kennedy was assassinated when I was in the second grade] and have vivid memories the the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. It was an all out freak show with actual shoving matches between groups of delegates. Along with everything about Vietnam and the events you mentioned you would have thought civilization itself was on the brink.

        1. The Controlled Substances Act was passed in part because Nixon and establishment government types were scared shitless about kids doing drugs instead of working and being psyched about sent to die in Vietnam.

          Young people think the Great Recession was bad. The Great Depression had fathers traveling by themselves around the USA to find work. People’s entire livelihood disappeared overnight with a dust storm that swept away their farmable soil.

          Vietnam for America had:
          58,318 KIA
          153,303 WIA (excluding 150,332 persons not requiring hospital care)
          1,587 MIA (originally 2,646)
          766–778 POW (652–662 freed/escaped,114–116 died in captivity)

          War in Afghanistan:
          (OEF) 2,347 military deaths and four civilian deaths, with a total of 20,096 injured in and around Afghanistan
          (OFS) January 1, 2015. As of June 2019, there are 71 U.S. deaths and 397 wounded in this military operation.
          War in Iraq:
          (OIF) On August 31, 2010, President Obama announced that the American combat mission in Iraq had ended. There were 4,423 U.S. deaths and 31,957 wounded in that military operation.

          Young people and Lefties tend to be ignorant of history and historical perspective. For Lefties, I think, this mainly comes from wanting “Progressive” change and not look back.

  13. Normal; what I find in today’s world of constant at your fingertips news feeds, tweet storms, and endless virtue signaling, is that it’s relentless and pervasive. Every thing is political, and in our zero sum world of I/you win I/you lose, it can be a challenge not seeing others as enemies committed to f’ing with you in the most intrusive ways.

    This informational genie is out of the proverbial bottle and is not going anywhere; and there are plenty who like nothing better than to exploit and inflame our differences to their own perceived advantage [“vote for me/us or it will be the end of civilization as we know it”]. This is the new normal, and where it will lead I cannot fathom. Will we ever adapt to antithetical differences and go our own respective ways? I fear that will take an actual division of spoils, hopefully no along the lines of a Kurt Schlitcher novel. House divided against itself indeed.

  14. Donald Trump has shaken things up in Washington, just as he promised he would. But the result of that shakeup has not been, as many hoped, a demystification of the presidency, a draining of the swamp, or shift in public support away from centralization. It also has not been a return to American global hegemony, as others desired.

    Donald Trump won the election by explicitly rejecting global US hegemony. This is why the establishment hates him so much. The Washington establishment is completely wed to the concept of a US enforced global system of collective security. The establishment gets rich and gets to run the world (they think) under such a system. Donald Trump ran on rejecting that system and making the US into an ordinary great power that acted in its own interests not in the pursuit of global hegemony.

    When Donald Trump says we need to negotiate with North Korea, he is rejecting the system of US hegemony. When he says Europe needs to start defending itself, he is rejecting the system. When he walks away from the Paris accords and renegotiates trade deals with China and Mexico, he is rejecting the entire post war system of US backed collective security and free trade.

    It is one thing to debate the wisdom of that. But, whatever you think of its wisdom, it is an explicit rejection of US hegemony. It is the globalists and the establishment who want US hegemony not Trump.

    1. +1000

  15. Things will go back to normal because politics like everything else gets old after a while. And losing politics gets really old. My sense is that people are getting tired of being hysterical over politics. The left has been losing its mind over Trump for four years now. Even they are getting tired of it. If Trump wins re-election, the media and people who get paid to be hysterical will be even more hysterical. But most other people left and right will just yawn. Even if they don’t like Trump, they will get tired of being hysterical over him to no apparent end and just find something better to do.

    Trump winning re-election will do more demoralize the left and return the country to normal than anything else.

    1. +1000

    2. I don’t think the left every tires of being outraged.

    3. I hope you’re right on Trump winning re-election. TDS is rampant and a significant portion of the electorate is in “anyone but Trump” mode.

      Biden FFS is the front runner. He is actually suffering from dementia and has lost about 100 previous attempts at the presidency but he’s only winning because all of the others are completely crazy.

      1. The MSM and Lefties would not be acting this desperate if Trump was not going to win.

        Using 2016 Election as an example, Lefties and the MSM didn’t really start freaking out until the election results came in. They really believed Hillary had it in the bag.

        Election 2020 has been that Lefties KNOW that Trump will win and they cannot stop him no matter what they try.

  16. Normal for politicians is where they can fleece the public, expand government, and generate panic to ensure their re-election, without causing too much interest from the general public.
    Normal for the public would be having at least a few politicians who you may or may not agree with their policies, but you believed they actually had the people’s best interests at heart.

  17. The only “normal” presidents we have had in my lifetime of almost 49 years were Reagan, GHW Bush, and perhaps Ford, although I was too young to remember much about him. None of the boomers trapped in permanent adolescence since GHWB have been normal, yet this is exactly what everyone who seems now to miss “normal” wanted at the time.

  18. “America’s present need,” Harding declared, “is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; not agitation but adjustment; not surgery but serenity; not the dramatic but the dispassionate; not experiment but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

    Sounds like something Marianne Williamson would say.

  19. Nice essay.

  20. Sooner or later, the Democrat vote fraud machine is going to be exposed. Every time I read that ‘Hillary won the popular vote’ my gut reaction is “How do you know?”. Despite frequent denials, there is plenty of evidence of systemic vote fraud. In spite of Democrat obstructionism there have been convictions, and plenty of evidence that they are the tip of a very big iceberg.

    And self righteous people get sloppy.

  21. Biden’s “normal” is the malignant cancer of race-baiting identitarianism.

    “They’re gonna put y’all back in chains!” – Joe Biden to an African-American audience, discussing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, August 14, 2012.

  22. There are two reasons nobody believes things are “normal.”

    First, because the media are always trying to sell us on the “fact” that the story-of-the-day is a crisis and Something Must Be Done Right Now. The media have always lied to us, over and over again, but this atmosphere of chronic emergencies has made it so obvious that they have lost all their credibility and will never get it back. Indeed there is serious doubt that such a thing as objective journalism can ever exist. It appears to be against human nature.

    And second, because the “useful idiots” on the left (and only they) are not only “deplatforming” their opponents, but are using force to prevent us from attending speech events for our side and are even getting people fired from their jobs for dissent. These acts are beyond the pale of civilized behavior, and since most governments haven’t seen any reason to make them stop, literal civil war is fast becoming necessary.

    If Reason were worthy of its name it would be leading the charge to fight back against the deplatforming movement using the same methods it does.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.