"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.