It should be clear that “normal” is what got us here.
And yet — as this disease kills scores each day, as cities slump into comas, as inequalities define death counts, as unemployment soars — a return to normal has become the promised reward that awaits us. Normal informs the language of the media speculation that hits us every morning. Normal is the rallying cry of Americans banished to their homes. Normal underpins the politics of the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden, whose legitimacy rests on his vice-presidential record, who believes the American public wants results and not a revolution, who promises that under his presidency, “nothing will fundamentally change.”
Aside from the disrespect this language levels at the thousands of Americans for whom normal is now an unrevivable past, with their lives, families and health irreversibly altered by this pandemic, a return to normal is also wholly undesirable. Normal built the machine that delivered us our current crisis.
In normal times, war was a bipartisan constant. Ronald Reagan launched an anti-communist crusade, George H.W. Bush dropped 88,500 tons of explosives on Iraq and Kuwait, Bill Clinton bombed medical facilities and embassies, George W. Bush invaded two countries and Barack Obama launched 540 drone strikes. Blinded by the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, we ignored how this militarism undermined our rule of law and global standing. In 2016, the dawn of “abnormalcy,” President Donald Trump’s empty but powerful promise to end “endless wars” won over veterans and the communities most affected by war. Now, in our abnormal pandemic times, the legacy of the government’s war on terror surveillance has made it impossible to build consent for the types of tracing and tracking policies that have curtailed the pandemic elsewhere. Meanwhile, federal business relief funds have run dry, our public health system is sputtering and the Pentagon’s budget remains massively inflated.
In normal times, xenophobia became institutionalized. Reagan and George H.W. Bush detained Cuban and Haitian refugees en masse, Bill Clinton passed free trade agreements that exploited Mexican, migrant and non-citizen labor, George W. Bush founded U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Obama deported more immigrants than any previous president. Tentative liberalizations like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), though important, were Band-Aids for a nation-state system that determines a human’s worth based on their citizenship. In 2016, Trump rode this long-festering current of anti-multiculturalism into office, expanding the government’s punitive anti-immigrant infrastructure. Now, in our abnormal pandemic times, immigrant workers are trapped between exploitation and deportation, with ICE raids continuing and fear hindering communities’ access to healthcare and economic relief.
In normal times, the American economy operated with reckless abandon. Beginning with Reagan, government programming consolidated, the private sector enjoyed deregulation and corporate tax rates plummeted. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, passed in 1999 under Bill Clinton, precipitated the bank deregulation that enabled the 2008 subprime mortgage housing collapse. Suddenly, with the corporate sector in crisis, laissez-faire was passé and socialism was in; a massive bailout partially revived the economy but at an enormous taxpayer cost. In 2016, Trump, himself implicated in years of economic corruption, ridiculed corporate and government inbreeding to solidify his outsider status. Now, in our abnormal pandemic times, this profit-obsessed capitalist structure persists. Thousands of Americans are losing their employment-dependent healthcare, the corporate sector has received a four trillion dollar bailout and every aspect of the social safety net — from Social Security to healthcare to food stamps — is showing the effects of decades of stagnation, neglect and defunding.
This list is not exhaustive. It is hard to encapsulate the layers of economic and social decay that have led to this moment. Years of climate and science denialism have facilitated viruses’ spread and hindered testing. America’s for-profit prison system has made detention facilities into outbreak centers. Labor market discrimination and racial discrepancies in healthcare treatment have made coronavirus more deadly for African-Americans than for any other group. More than any era in recent memory, this pandemic illustrates the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage that this country practices “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
If this seems like a belated endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ revolution, it is. Sanders was the only candidate who historicized the causes of our present injustices. In comparison, Biden’s politics are inflexible, irresponsible and insufficient for our current moment. Biden pushed the Iraq War, voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was Obama’s second-in-command, helped architect mass incarceration and befriended segregationists. He is so steeped in the politics of normal that I don’t believe him capable of imagining a platform divergent from it.
Nonetheless, I still firmly believe Biden’s election would be preferable to the continued erosive entrenchment of Trump’s violent neofascism. At the same time, I doubt Biden’s ability to win. Before this pandemic, I figured Biden’s connections to endless war, free trade and corporate America would sink him just as similar faults did Hillary Clinton. With this pandemic now facilitating voter suppression, I see almost no path for Biden. If I am wrong (as I hope), I still fear that Biden’s presidency will lay the groundwork for an even more discontented, powerful and competent alt-right movement.
Perhaps, then, it is up to American civil society to imagine a new normal. Perhaps this pandemic will shift the fiscal perspectives of the electorate, inspiring support for social safety net reform and decreasing the appetite for military spending. Perhaps we’ll finally understand the value of social solidarity, with public health and societal equity reforms reorienting the moral infrastructure of American public life. Perhaps, even, a validated progressive movement will push Biden to the left and — like he’s claimed — his administration really will be the most progressive in history.
For now, however, we wallow in collective amnesia. History has no consequences, the present has no history and the future sells the past as a sedative to put our collective angst to bed (that is, until the next crisis wakes us in the middle of the night). The national discourse’s obsession with nostalgia — from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to Biden’s harkening back to the Obama years — is nothing new, but it has always been short-sighted. In 1920, Warren G. Harding promised to reestablish the world that existed before World War I, campaigning on the slogan: “Return to Normalcy.”
Nineteen years later, Germany invaded Poland.
Zach Goodwin is a junior Diplomacy & World Affairs major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org