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Beware Returning to Normalcy

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

WJ Astore
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Returning to Normalcy