In 1920, then-U.S. Sen, Warren G. Harding made his successful campaign for president. It was something of a surprise to the nation, if not to Harding himself.
He had hardly distinguished himself in his one term in the Senate. Even at his party’s convention, Harding did not gain a lead until the ninth ballot, winning it on the 10th. The New York Times offered what had to have been the most back-handed compliment ever by stating he was “a very respectable Ohio politician of the second class.”
How did Harding pull off the upset over James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt? Like much in politics, it was timing. Americans were less than a year removed from the end of World War I, the First Red Scare, and the Spanish Flu.
Harding, a former journalist, hit upon the slogan of “A Return to Normalcy.” In a time of upheaval, he promised a return to days past when people knew what to expect. It worked and the second-class politician won the presidency in a popular and electoral landslide.
Unfortunately for our nation, the day he was inaugurated was probably the highlight of the Harding presidency. Major scandals, both governmental and extramarital, plagued Harding during the 2½ years he served in office before his untimely death.
Both then and now, it seems the only normalcy he returned to the nation was the graft and cronyism that accompanied public office far too often. Within six years, any thought of returning to normalcy was out the window as we entered the most unprecedented times with The Great Depression.
While details may vary, it is a story that sounds familiar today. I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone recently say that they hope to soon regain some semblance of normalcy.
Vaccines have brought hope, but that hope goes far beyond that of avoiding a virus. It is a hope of life returning to the way it was before February 2020, when the only time people heard of Corona it involved a slice of lime.
While it made for a great political slogan, students of history know that it is impossible to make a return to normalcy. Time moves ever forward, regardless of desire. Human beings are creatures of experience, adjusting to every new obstacle thrown in our path. We take what we learn each day and process it to hopefully make the next day better. Some days we succeed; some days we fail. But we never move backward.
I cannot help but internally cringe a bit when someone says they hope for a semblance of normalcy. I understand the driving force behind such a statement.
Do I want this virus to be in our rearview mirror? Of course. The number of lives lost to it has been staggering, and I cannot begin to contemplate what it is like to lose a loved one to a cause so politicized. Do I want our economy to regain stability and predictability? Most definitely. Do I want to enjoy some of the creature comforts of life such as travel, concerts and athletic events? Yes!
At the same time, I hope there are areas where we never go back to what life was like pre-COVID. Never again do I want to live in a world where public health is put on the back burner or be a part of a society that turns a blind eye to tragedies such as George Floyd. Never again do I want to find myself taking church functions, dinner with friends and hugs from family members for granted or not appreciate all that we have in this life.
This past 1½ years has revealed the true nature of many people. While some complained about the putting on of the literal masks, I found it beneficial to see the removal of the metaphorical ones. Some days I saw the worst of humanity from people I thought knew better. On others I was heartened to see extreme kindness and compassion demonstrated. I saw what we all did; the fact that, try as we might, we cannot cope alone and truly need one another.
Normalcy is a fallacy. It does not exist. Today’s concept of what is normal is different from yesterday’s, as will be tomorrow’s. I think it is time we set aside normalcy as a goal and simply try to make each day better than the prior, both for us as individuals and communities.
Let us trade in normalcy for greatness.
Tommy Druen, of Georgetown, is senior policy adviser for the Office of the Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives. He can be reached at email@example.com