What is ‘Normalcy’ and is it Really What People Should Want?

(Photo: ABC News)

By Sam Lewis – Contributor

In my last piece, I looked at a singular aspect of this year’s presidential election, and this time I have decided to look at one of its key themes. For the victor, now President-elect Joe Biden, an old phrase ‘normalcy’ has resurfaced, with major papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Bloomberg using the phrase as a way of praising his campaign in contrast to his more ‘radical’ counterparts such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It is therefore important to ask, what is ‘normalcy’, where does it come from and what does it mean? By asking these questions we can determine the negative side of this concept, from its less than desirable origins to its negative consequences for the political system.

When looking at the origins of the term ‘normalcy’ we must look no further than the 29th President Warren G. Harding. When talking about his presidency historian Hugh Brogan claimed that, ‘Harding was not intelligent or firm or hard-working enough to be a successful President’, not exactly what you want from the originator of a key concept in American politics. In order to understand these origins, we must look at his rise to power. Harding was nominated by the Republican party in 1920, despite not being one of the top two candidates, winning due to a split vote. Harding was running following the highly controversial second term of Woodrow Wilson, with the US having just fought in the First World War, one of its first steps from being an isolated country to becoming the global superpower we see today. Harding’s premise was therefore simple, he ran not on a platform of reform but on a return to a simpler time, a time of small government and isolation. With this platform of what he called ‘normalcy’, a highly underqualified unknown, who was third choice even within his own party, became the president of the United States.

Exactly 100 years in the future the situation can be said to be very similar. Love him or hate him it cannot be disputed that Trump’s presidency has been one of deep uncertainty. Like Wilson, Trump has set in motion a change in America’s global position through his use of protective tariffs and pulling out of international organisations such as NAFTA. The world is also once again in a point of crisis but instead of a war against other nations, it is now one against a virus with Covid-19, a pandemic the likes we have not seen since the Spanish Flu (a flu that was very much around in 1920). It is therefore understandable how people (like they did 100 years ago) would desire a bit of ‘normalcy’ after four years of chaos. However, the solutions are not as simple, if America not only wants to get out of these dark times, but make sure they do not happen again, then some difficult questions have to be asked about how such crises emerged and the reality of their legacy. When looked at in this way it must be said that Biden’s ideas are not only underwhelming but potentially dangerous, as if the issues that created Trump are not dealt with properly, then will simply return in another form.

To understand this idea, we must once again look back to the 1920s. Despite many criticisms of Harding’s administration, including numerous claims of corruption and misconduct, the concept of ‘normalcy’ was adopted by subsequent Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, leading to ten years of ‘small government’ and limited reform. The result was an economic crash the likes of which the world had never seen. It was only the vast reforms of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and the creation of welfare states across Europe that lead to its recovery, whilst the entire world reeled from the World War that was arguably triggered by it.

One must especially consider these effects in relation to race. During the last four years Trump has generated racial tension not seen since the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Such tension have been the cornerstone of the Biden campaign with his first nomination video expressing his disgust at the events of Charlottesville whilst papers such as the New York Times have reported on Biden’s popularity among black voters. However, Biden’s views on the issues, especially in the recent discussion on police brutality must be seen to be anachronistic at best. In the first debate, when asked about police brutality, Biden emphasised the idea that there were ‘bad apples’. If you, like me, have seen the extreme violence of police responses to Civil Rights protests this year it is fair to say that the problem is more than dealing with just a few bad apples. The problem is expanded by his comments on Charlottesville as his claim that, ‘this is not the America I remember’ demonstrates Biden’s desire to claim these were singular incidents and hence a lack of desire to tackle the vast reform required to address the constant issue of systemic racism in America that has never, and may never, be dealt with. It is crucial that the current protests do not become a flash in the pan issue like the Rodney King riots but lead to something substantial, and one must question whether Biden is the man to make this happen.

Of course, a natural counter is to claim that we should judge Biden on what he is actually going to do rather than what he is not. The two main pillars of a Biden administration are most likely to be the introduction of gun control measures and the maintaining of Obamacare. Whilst they both certainly have merit, once again we have to look at the circumstances in which Biden has been elected in. Worldwide economies are collapsing, and healthcare systems have been put under exceptional strain. Biden’s main rival, Bernie Sanders, had proposed a ‘Medicare for all’ system, whilst supporting the ‘Green New Deal’, an attempt to create new jobs during a massive rise in unemployment. This is not to say that Biden will do nothing, but it is clear which some claim that another candidate could have done a lot more.

As perhaps the biggest election in American history draws to a close, it is important to consider what the narrative is going to be. For me it is important that we shift away from the ‘evil Trump’ and the ‘good Biden’ and look at this election for what it really was: The Tyrant versus The Lame Duck. Although Biden is certainly better than Trump, it does not mean he will be a good President. All we can do now is observe and learn from our mistakes. Of those mistakes there is one key lesson, if we ever want to move forward as a society we have to accept those who want to change and improve the system, not those who want to drag us backwards but, just as importantly, not those who want to keep us the same.


NY Times: https://www.newyorker.com/news/campaign-chronicles/joe-biden-the-normalcy-candidate-keeps-winning-in-abnormal-times

Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-11/joe-biden-s-return-to-normalcy-campaign-has-echoes-of-1920

Overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIDk3vPDA8U&t=76s

Biden Campaign Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVaJzhAjjrY

Hugh Brogan, the Penguin History of the USA

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