Beware a Return to Normalcy

A century ago, Warren Harding bloviated about normalcy.

W.J. Astore

About forty years ago, I took undergraduate courses in U.S. History, where I first learned about “normalcy.” Normalcy came from the (successful) presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding in 1920. After World War I’s devastation and Woodrow Wilson’s attempt at internationalism, what Americans wanted most of all, according to Harding, was a “return to normalcy.” Harding, running against Wilson’s record though not Wilson himself, won the presidency.

Wilson himself favored a sort of high-minded preaching when he addressed Americans; in his own way, he may have been as narcissistic as Trump, and probably more racist. Again, while Harding didn’t run against Wilson, he did run against his legacy, and to many Americans he seemed like a good and decent man and was considered handsome to boot.

Another word associated with Harding’s campaign a century ago was “bloviate,” which basically means BS. A quick Google search confirms that bloviation is “a style of empty, pompous, political speech which originated in Ohio and was used by US President Warren G. Harding.” I guess I did learn something in those history classes.

I mention these two words, normalcy and bloviate, because in many ways they sum up Joe Biden’s strategy in 2020. He’s promised a return to normalcy, i.e. a return to the Obama/Biden years, and this does hold some appeal to Americans who are sick and tired of Trump’s lies and incompetence. But Biden himself has told us little about what he hopes to achieve, preferring to bloviate, which suggests he won’t be doing much to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans, assuming he wins.

The presidency of Warren G. Harding was an ill-starred one. He surrounded himself with corrupt cronies and was humiliated by the Teapot Dome Scandal. Harding died at the comparatively young age of 57 in 1923; his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, took over and led the country until 1928. Interestingly, Coolidge had made his reputation putting down the Boston police strike in the name of preserving “law and order” during the Red Scare of 1919. Perhaps his most famous sentiment as president was the idea that the business of the American people is business. It seemed to make sense during the Roaring Twenties until the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

History, as they say, doesn’t repeat itself but it does echo. Biden/Harris in 2020 is a little like Harding/Coolidge in 1920. Biden is the normalcy guy who bloviates; Harris is the VP who may well have to step in as president, but who as a “top cop” in California was no friend of labor but very much pro-business. Naturally, judging by our history, whether in 1920 or 2020, you can forget about any progressive policies unless and until we experience a cosmic crunch like the Great Depression of 1929. Even then, FDR and the New Deal didn’t come along until 1933.

History can be a depressing subject to take — a record of crimes, follies, and disasters of the past. We’re supposed to learn from it so as to avoid repeating the same. Assuming Biden/Harris win this week, we shall see if there’s any substance to them, or whether it’s just normalcy, bloviation, scandal, and business-friendly policies all over again.

23 thoughts on “Beware a Return to Normalcy

  1. You have much more faith, or hope, than I do. Only a turnabout of epic proportions will compel Biden-Harris to effect the types of changes the U. S. needs, and moreover, that would come with a huge cost of human lives (as the current paradigm is already costing lives). Biden has already “promised” not to make “any substantial changes” or alter ecologically disastrous energy policy or re-direct U. S. military spending or contributions to global militarism. Even without massive Trump-Republican corruption and crimes to thwart election results should Biden win the highly corruptible electoral vote, people will see how much indifferent Democrats are to the peoples’ needs even before inauguration. We live in a totalitarian, fascist, oligarchy, so get used to fighting in the streets — especially with the courts also populated with fascists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Biden’s bloviating sounds like a roster of half-measures, at best. As you say, he won’t really alter energy policies. He’s quite definite about not supporting the Green New Deal, but says he does plan to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2050. How will that be accomplished, absent the drastic measures that he eschews? He wouldn’t sign a M4A bill if Congress passed it, but he will tweak the ACA. He won’t offend Wall Street, but he will try to get a few weak, inoffensive boosts to the middle class enacted. In short, your last line would seem to be the correct prediction.

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  2. “… which suggests he won’t be doing much to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans, assuming he wins.” While I don’t know if you made this statement thinking the president is responsible for improving the lives of ordinary working Americans, I think a lot of Americans make the mistake of trying to elect a president who will solve, or provide solutions for, their problems. That is a mistake and one that keeps repeating itself, to our detriment.

    First of all, the world is too complex for the president to have much control over the forces that affect the vast majority of the citizens. Natural forces, decisions about war and trade by independent nations are not something the president can control. Our desire to have a president who can provide solutions is one factor that leads Americans to want to be the dominant superpower with no other competition. The fantasy is that America would be in control. Of course natural forces will still exist but we can simply deny them.

    Second, in order for the president to be able to fix the lives of ordinary working Americans the president will need dictatorial powers. That trend has been going on for several decades making the presidency more and more imperial and breaking the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government. If we want to continue to live in a representative democracy we need to elect congressional representatives who will be able to exert power, reign in the presidency and vote for laws that protect the ordinary working American. I think people have largely given up hope on this idea, hence the mistaken focus on electing an emperor who will just fix things.

    Third, people ignore state and local politics where they actually have more potential for influence. There are all sorts of local issues that have a large effect on people’s lives that they tend to ignore as they focus attention on the presidential race.

    Fourth, too many people want protection for only themselves and are not interested in policies that protect groups they don’t identify with. Americans seem to be fine with people in other countries being “collateral damage” from our military operations overseas. If they like their health care it doesn’t matter if other Americans don’t have health care. If they are paying less taxes it doesn’t matter if other Americans who can’t afford it are paying more taxes. That is one reason we keep getting leaders who look out only for their group.

    From my perspective a necessary attitude is to focus on treating others the way you would want them to treat you if you were in their shoes. That is difficult especially when it is so hard to get valid information. But that attitude will help you see through a lot of bullshit.

    Unfortunately too many people focus on treating others the way they think those others deserve to be treated. That occurs on both sides of the political spectrum and it is making things worse.

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    1. I agree we need to pay attention to state and local politics, JPA.

      I disagree that presidents would need dictatorial powers to help ordinary workers.

      Presidents have a lot of power. They help set the agenda, e.g. Trump succeeded with a big tax cut for the rich and lots and lots of conservative judges, among other deeds.

      A different president could focus on raising the minimum wage and providing health care for all. Those two steps would help so many workers across America. Meanwhile, cutting “defense” spending while strengthening the social safety net would also help. And obviously dealing with Covid-19 in a serious way — that would literally save lives, perhaps 100K+.

      I could go on, but don’t underrate what presidents can do when they truly care about workers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If the president of the U.S. were really as powerless as JPA asserts wouldn’t it follow that the average citizen shouldn’t really care who gets the job? And wouldn’t that make the great wailing and gnashing of teeth over Trump kind of pointless? No, the position does have a lot of power as you say. Of course if Biden wins, as seems likely, I expect in the future to be hearing a lot of lecturing from pundits and the Dem party patiently explaining to all of us simpletons out here that the position doesn’t have a lot of power and this is why they can’t do any of the things that a solid majority of the citizenry want and need. That’s one of the things I remember from the Obama years.

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        1. I was not trying to state the president was powerless. My point was that people wanted the president to have even more power and that the president already has too much. “Second, in order for the president to be able to fix the lives of ordinary working Americans the president will need dictatorial powers. That trend has been going on for several decades making the presidency more and more imperial and breaking the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government.”

          I can’t recall all the references right now, but I know I have read other analyses that point out how congress has created laws that give increasing amounts of power to the presidency and how this is dangerous.

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  3. Many Americans would like SOME semblance of normalcy…as was before 2016.
    https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-cheers-on-maga-calvary-that-ambushed-biden-bus

    Wonder what is in store for people going to vote on Tuesday! Trump’s “stand back -stand by”‘! It is shocking to see on the news, stores all over the country boarding up their windows..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “We’re tough and we’re Texan with necks good and Red” –Texan Love Song, Elton John– “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player” Texas faggots should be prosecuted for Reckless Driving. :/ :o)

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  4. I do recall the chapter from my Baby Boomer history book. Return to Normalcy, it focused mainly on the lack of a war, the Roaring 20’s and Cool Cal Coolidge. The public grade school I went to was named after Coolidge.

    Biden in sense is correct in his, Return to Normalcy message after the absolute chaos of the Trumpet, especially true as it relates to the handling or lack thereof to the Corona Virus.

    The Trumpet’s wild flaring tweets and executive orders were not impactful to main street America. I suspect they are largely ignored on main street. Corona was and is a game changer. The Trumpet’s gross incompetence in handling Corona is on display for all to see. Although, The Trump Cult has chosen to not only ignore it but revel in it by defying guidelines to wear a mask, social distance or accept the closures or reduced capacity at some venues.

    Biden-Harris Return to Normalcy is almost a MAGA Message to return to those days of 2008 Obama of Hope and Change.

    It will be ugly no matter who wins next week.

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    1. A goodly number of people in this world — many who study English in school as a second (or third) language — think that Americans (reputedly an English-speaking people) cannot even spell the word “grate,” as in “on your nerves.” They see no need to make America restart this bellicose behavior “again,” since Americans never stopped in the first place. Getting America to stop seems like a more urgent priority to them.

      Therefore, as the Australian Caitlin Johnstone says: since America claims authority over the entire world, everyone on planet earth has the right to try and “influence” American elections. If Americans sincerely want other people to stop trying to influence American policymakers then America needs to mind its own bloody business and stop interfering in the lives of everyone else.

      Key grammatical terminology: “grate,” the verb. Not “great” the adjective. Long ago, America used to have grammar schools where little kids learned these important distinctions. Apparently no longer.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Sorry to contradict your claim that “The Trumpet’s wild flaring tweets and executive orders were not impactful to main street America.” The sad truth is that they affected main street America in a thousand subliminal ways, which led to Racist re-emergence that had not been seen and acted-upon for decades (Racism should have been overcome long ago, but hasn’t yet been, and in many venues has gotten worse!); fear and anxiety of all (that the Nation was in the hands of a madman, a conclusion some of us have had ever since 1-20-17; erasure, yes, absolute erasure, of the norms of civil discourse and reasoned disagreement; elevation of lying to a point where main street America has, even at this moment, the burden to either entirely condemn lying to the America people and the world, or capitulation to lying, permanently eroding that standard of decency vis-a-vis Presidential treatment of the U.S. Electorate, our Allies, and non-partisan international organizations like the World Health Organization. Trump has endangered us all, by Tweet, and, more directly, by making-up tens of thousands of false-narratives these four years.
      Mr. Biden will tell the truth; he never promised “normalcy”, but is promising competency, and the valuable disposition of being able to work with people towards common goals.

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  5. Again, the point of my article here is to stress that, assuming Biden wins, let’s not assume “normalcy” is what we’ll get; or, if it is, that we can relax our vigilance and our demands for true change.

    Sure, Biden will be less vulgar, less divisive, more willing to accept scientific and medical realities, and less obsessed with tweeting about his own greatness. But it’s a low bar indeed if we praise Biden and he continues America’s wars around the world, if he tries to cut social security, if he does nothing to improve health care, and so on.

    “Normalcy” wasn’t good under Harding; it may not be good under Biden.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “the point of my article here is to stress that, assuming Biden wins, let’s not assume “normalcy” is what we’ll get”
      Understood. HOWEVER, considering millions of Americans are unemployed, elected officials have done nothing to relieve their pain, 220K have died which did not have to be, racism has become rampant and more…Americans are just fed up and want the occupant of the WH gone… that will be THEIR normalcy if Biden is elected….unfortunately they do have the luxury to think beyond that… they can not even imagine what will happen if DT is reelected.

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  6. But what has become normal in America, long preceding Trump?

    Following is something Noam Chomsky said over 20 years ago that jolted me with the insight it offers on our situation:

    “…the country is very disturbed. You can see it in the polls and you can certainly see it traveling around – and I travel around a lot. There’s complete disaffection about everything. People don’t trust anyone, they think everyone’s lying to them, everyone’s working for somebody else. The whole civil society has broken down. And when you talk about the mood of the people – well, whether it’s on right wing talk radio, or among students, or just among the general population, you get a very good reception these days for the kind of things I talk about. But it’s scary, because if you came and told the people, “Clinton’s organizing a UN army with aliens to come and carry out genocide, you’d better go to the hills.” you’d get the same favorable response. That’s the problem, you’d get the same favorable response. I mean you can go to the most reactionary parts of the country, or anywhere else and a thousand people will show up to listen and they’ll be really excited about what you’re saying – no matter what it is. That’s the trouble: it’s no matter what it is. Because people are so disillusioned by this point that they will believe almost anything.”

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