Let’s get the obvious out of the way: “Normal” is a problematic concept. Legal segregation was seen by many White people as “normal” for a long time. It needed to be overthrown. The word was deployed for decades to marginalize and mock LGBTQ people, as Andrew Sullivan underscored with the ironic title of his classic book on homosexuality published in the mid-1990s, “Virtually Normal.”
Nonetheless, in a democratic republic, “normal” politics involves a series of commitments that most citizens, I’d wager, rightly buy into. A modest catalogue of our departures from these callings brings home how strange matters have become.
The obvious example: Normal means accepting the outcome of a legitimate election your side lost and offering no sanction to a violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol to overturn the result.
Yet a recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that 69 percent of Republicans and those who lean their way don’t believe President Biden is a legitimate president, and 75 percent say the idea that Donald Trump won in 2020 is a reason to vote for him.
Normal also means not threatening to tank the American and global economies by using the debt ceiling to extract unpopular political concessions. Sure, raising the debt ceiling has often involved political skirmishes. But it wasn’t until a decade ago that Republicans (note: only when a Democrat is in the White House) were willing to take the country to the brink to force spending cuts. It’s not, by the way, about deficits. If it were, the GOP would put the big tax cuts they passed under Trump on the table, too.
Normal means that a party does not use its power in the courts and state legislatures to render elections close to meaningless by rigging district lines so their opponents can’t hope to win power unless they secure improbable landslides.
Again, this is a matter of degree. Gerrymanders have been used by both parties and go all the way back to the most famous one drawn in the early 1800s in Massachusetts and named after Gov. Elbridge Gerry. He sliced and diced Essex County to give his Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans an edge over the Federalists.
But gerrymanders have become more shameless and, thanks to technology and sophisticated data analysis, more effective. The courts, especially in Republican states (state courts threw out Democratic gerrymanders in New York and Maryland last year), have been complicit in ratifying outrageous maps.
To show how partisan this is, consider that last month, a newly elected Republican majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a ruling by the very same court (with a significantly different membership) from just a year earlier that lopsided GOP-drawn maps were discriminatory and anti-competitive. Parties can’t be held accountable if the voters are nearly powerless to remove them from power. (See: Viktor Orban.) That’s not normal for a democracy.
The ideological fights engulfing public schools and public libraries involving, among other things, the removal of books from libraries and the gutting of curriculums aren’t normal, either. It’s true that we have had battles of this sort before. In the 1960s, the radical right went after books that were seen as “socialistic and propagandistic,” said Matthew Dallek, the author of the recently published “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.” But Dallek, a historian at George Washington University, noted that the Birch-backed efforts largely “faltered” because schools and libraries “weren’t really seen as ideological. They were seen as examples of good government.”
“The biggest difference between then and now is that these efforts have become much more mainstreamed, they are positioned in the middle of the Republican Party,” he told me. “What was once widely seen as fringe has become a major force in many parts of the country.”
The breakdown of normal has been a long time in gestation. Dallek sees the end of the Cold War as having had a destabilizing effect on politics, weakening the ability of Republican establishment figures to contain their fringe. And the Great Inflation of the 1970s, rising inequality since the 1980s, the Great Recession after 2008 and the dislocations from the pandemic all contributed to a sense of economic turmoil that weakened shared bonds.
So did the end of the long New Deal-era consensus, said Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Vanderbilt University.
“The disintegration of normal has, not accidentally, coincided with the disintegration of norms,” said Hemmer, author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” “Norms are based on consensus, and when that consensus breaks down, there is a breakdown in a common set of beliefs, a common set of commitments, and the guardrails go away.
“Normal has been oppressive for many people, so it’s not that consensus for consensus’s sake is an ideal,” she told me. “But I do think that the idea of a shared set of values and a shared commitment to a political project is essential to democracy.”
Yes, and what we don’t need is for chaos to become our new normal.