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"Back to Normal" Isn't Just about COVID
Crime, schools, the supply chain — people just want stuff like it was a few years ago
First, a couple of programming notes. I said when we launched this newsletter that Very Serious would sometimes come out a fifth time weekly, with a weekend edition focused on lifestyle. Our first weekend issue was about the best decision I ever made: getting married. There will be another lifestyle edition coming out tomorrow — it’s about Peloton and why I came out of the pandemic having lost the necessary social skills to participate in a group fitness class, so a little less profound — and it will be only for paid subscribers.
Speaking of which, Sara and I want to thank the hundreds of you who newly became paid subscribers to Very Serious this week. Your support is what makes this independent publication possible and we greatly appreciate it.
Now, let’s talk about normal.
Even before COVID was a thing, there was a lot of talk in American politics about normalcy, and how desirable it would be to return to it.
“This is not normal!” was a cry of the anti-Trump resistance. The core of Joe Biden’s campaign pitch — again, before we were in a pandemic that disrupted nearly every facet of global life — was about looking backward, not forward: That America had been normal just a few years earlier and could be normal again, without so much noise and infighting and dysfunction.
Trump, of course, had his own backward-looking vision. Make America great again, he said. Trump’s vision of what it would mean to be normal was different from Biden’s — though there were some significant areas of overlap, such as the idea that “we need to make things here in America again” — but in each case, the idea was to restore something, not to build something brand new.
Voters in both parties wanted to look back, even if they disagreed on how far back and to what. And I think this was wise on the part of the electorate: “big structural change” is hard and usually fails, while returning to how things worked circa 2014 is a much more manageable program. It sounds like something the government might actually be able to do.
And it reflects an underlying truth: Life in the United States today is mostly pretty good, and it was even better before a few recent problems arose. We don’t need a gut renovation of our society (which is a good thing, given how difficult it is to find a general contractor these days). But there are a few broken things that were functioning within very recent memory, and we’d like someone to come fix them.
Since the pining for “normal” started before COVID, it can’t be all about COVID. It applies to a broader array of disorder and change — more violent crime, less functional schools, inflation, product and worker shortages. Now, to a large extent, these dysfunctions are downstream of COVID. But that’s not the whole story, so you won’t return them to normal just by achieving COVID normalcy.
And I’m concerned that there are a few areas where Democrats have given up on normal, or tried to redefine normal to whatever we’re experiencing now, even though people can remember how things were different — better — not very long ago. Democrats need a clearer message that “normal” is their lodestar across various issues, that they understand what the public considers to be “normal,” and that they’re really, really working on getting there.
Take the murder trend. As German Lopez summarized well at Vox, murders were up sharply in 2020 from 2019. But the rise in murders didn’t start then — it started around 2014, when the murder rate reached its lowest level of my lifetime. A common talking point you’ll hear from liberals is the murder rate is still way lower than it was in 1990, and that’s true. But the murder rate in 1990 wasn’t normal — it was the modern peak of US violent crime, and it was well understood as a crisis at the time. What people see is there were fewer murders eight years ago than there are now, and eight years ago is a pretty easy time to remember. People would like that back.
Parents see schools that were severely disrupted during the acute pandemic and that remain subject to significant dysfunction due to quarantine rules now. They like having their kids reliably out of the house on school days and learning in person in a regular classroom. Many parents would like their kids to be able to do this with a mask off. But the sense of abnormal in the schools goes beyond COVID mitigation.
Democratic pollster Brian Stryker’s research memo on focus groups with swing voters in Virginia (Biden voters who had “actively considered both candidates” in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election) is instructive here. Schools were a powerful issue for Republican Glenn Youngkin, but why? At the top of the list is that voters felt Democrats closed schools and didn’t feel bad about it. But they were also wary about other changes in educational practices:
Many swing voters knew, when pushed by more-liberal members of the group, that CRT wasn’t taught in Virginia schools. But at the same time, they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, [and] at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula.
The “reckoning” that’s happening in many parts of society — a force so powerful it isn’t even allowed to have a name — is leading to dysfunction and distraction in various organizations, especially those run by people drawn to left-wing academic ideas, as schools often are. Teachers in large districts like Loudoun County Public Schools have received expensive training about the difference between “white individualism” and “color group collectivism.” Various nonprofit employees receive Tema Okun’s bizarre training about “white supremacy culture,” which teaches that things like valuing “strong documentation and writing skills” are aspects of white supremacy, even when they’re done by people who aren’t white.
I don’t know how many people have been assigned weird trainings at work influenced by this sort of thinking, but it isn’t small.
Again from Stryker’s memo, he cites a related voter complaint:
In an attempt for inclusion, there’s a lack of respect for opinions that don’t match yours identically. It’s so divisive and if you don’t think exactly what I think then we can’t even be friends.
One thing people want is to be able to have conversations again without an overarching sense of moral reprobation being right around the corner. That felt normal, and the current environment of elevated censoriousness feels weird. People don't want to be told the choice of what color emojis to use is “more complex than people think” with academics at the ready to opine on whether you’re using the wrong ones in a way that makes you racist.
Regarding homelessness, you have a number of large cities that have decided people should be allowed to camp in certain parks, effectively removing those public spaces as amenities. This isn’t normal, and even voters in liberal Austin, Texas rejected the practice in a referendum last year. As Matt Yglesias notes, homelessness is about housing, so relaxing the city’s camping ban didn’t get anyone a house, but it did make Austin’s riverwalk much less viable as a public recreational space. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, you have progressive members of the city council working to move homeless people off the streets and into temporary housing, outraging advocates who seek to defend people’s right to live on the street as just another lifestyle choice.
Housing supply problems are major and longstanding (if getting worse in some of these metropolitan areas — Los Angeles really, really needs to permit more housing) but people remember that not very long ago there weren’t widespread homeless encampments in the places they regularly go, and they’d like that back.
And that gets at the broader umbrella of abnormal: The increasing sense of chaos, where things aren’t proceeding in the orderly manner we were accustomed to. The uncontrolled surge of migrants to the southern border fuels this. So does the strain of supply chains that has created product shortages, delays, and inflation. There’s a set of things that are supposed to be happening — products on shelves, kids in schools, police stopping crimes, entry to the US being subject to visa requirements, government agency offices open so documents like visas and Social Security cards can be issued — that people aren’t finding happening as reliably as they know is possible because, again, these things were more reliable not very long ago.
As all this is happening, you’ll have to forgive some voters for feeling like they’re being gaslit, like Liz, who wrote into this week’s Mayonnaise Clinic, surveying the repeat quarantine-driven disruptions to her children’s daycare and the local schools and wondering why some liberals keep trying to tell her everything has already gone back to normal. Liz isn’t crazy, and telling people like her to pipe down and stop complaining about imaginary or trivial problems won’t help Democrats at all.
So, what is a president to do about this?
The president does not have a “gas prices” or “inflation” dial he can turn on his desk. He cannot force your building contractor to return your phone calls. He can do a bit at the margin about supply chain difficulties, but ultimately those are driven by a huge surge in goods demand.
But what he can do is show that the government has noticed that things are weird and is laser-focused on bringing back normal.
This is roughly the Eric Adams pitch in New York. He’s not trying to be a transformative mayor. He’s trying to restore normal — pushing crime in the subways back down, getting police out in neighborhoods, returning workers to offices, opening schools. Even his eager embrace of New York City nightlife is an aspect of normality — we’re supposed to be the city that never sleeps, right? Meanwhile he’s trimming his sails on educational reform relative to Bill de Blasio. Not too many big waves, just getting back to what works.
And I think Biden could stand to be much, much more overcommunicative about this. You may have gathered from previous editions of this newsletter that I feel pretty positively about New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul. One of the things I like about her is how focused her messaging is on restoring normalcy. This means even when she imposes an abnormal condition — like when she imposed a general indoor mask mandate in December — she’s speaking clearly about its temporary nature and its role in a broader strategy to make life more normal instead of less.
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo is so far out of favor due to a lot of valid substantive critiques of his COVID policies and his personal behavior that people have lost sight of a communications matter he understood well at the peak of the crisis. The format of his daily briefings was great. His message — my government is on top of this weird condition and focused on fixing it — was what people were looking for.
Biden did a pretty good job at his two-hour press conference last month; a twice-weekly briefing focused on COVID, inflation, and the supply chain could go a long way toward fixing the impression that Democrats aren’t focused on the issues voters care about. So could more effort by Biden to personally highlight and support the local leaders working effectively to restore normal to things Biden can’t control directly, like schools.
Unfortunately, this need for more communication means Biden can’t yet deliver on something else a lot of us wanted from him — a president who we don’t have to think about quite so often — but if things actually get back to normal, and voters are not upset that the president doesn’t seem focused on the problems they are, then he can go back to fading into the background.
A good thing for Democrats about the centrality of “normal” in politics is it means the median voter, for all hiscomplaining, is really asking for something pretty modest. Satisfying his desires doesn’t require sweeping new legislation or a reimagination of the relationship between the government and the public. It just involves going back to doing things we were doing not very long ago. It’s the sort of modest presidency Joe Biden likely thought he was preparing for before COVID hit.
In some of the current areas of abnormality, the deliverable people need from politicians isn’t policy at all. Democratic politicians can improve their standing on these topics with some low-cost cultural observations. Vague things like, “I think a lot of people have gotten overly sensitive and need to find better ways to talk with people they disagree with.” Or, “Some people have let their personal behavior get out of hand during COVID and we all need to cool it a little. Be nice to the cashier at Panera.” Or, “We can’t let cultural flashpoints distract us from making sure kids are in school and learning to read and do math.”
You know, saying the kind of things normal people say.
This is supposed to be one of Biden’s strong suits. Speaking of turning back the clock, I’d like to see him bring back the “gaffe-prone” Biden from the 2019 phase of the primaries, back when “gaffe” meant Biden was talking like a normal person rather than the weirdos who staff the Democratic Party. That would be normal, too — and it’s something he’d have a lot of opportunity for at those twice-weekly briefings.
So get in front of a camera, Joe.
That’s all for today’s newsletter, but as noted above, I’ll be in paid subscribers’ inboxes this weekend with my thoughts on Peloton and why I seem to have become more attached to at-home fitness than the typical consumer. If you’re a free subscriber and you want to see that essay and participate in the comments, you can click below to upgrade.
Until then, enjoy your weekend.
By summer 2020, with the pandemic entrenched, Donald Trump’s handling of it unpopular, and progressives fixated on the idea that a big Democratic win could provide a springboard for a transformative, FDR-style presidency, Biden debuted a new slogan: “Build Back Better,” which tried to convey a vision that looks forward and backward at the same time. It’s not quite “Continuity with Change,” but I think Ben Hart is right that this muddled slogan has never been very good. Instead, Biden should split his messaging into appropriate parts: whatever son-of-BBB bill Democrats want to work on can have a forward-looking name, while the rest of the messaging is about back to normal.
On the Very Serious podcast, I asked Stryker if this was just an oblique way of white respondents saying they didn’t want to talk about race, and he said he heard similar comments from white and non-white swing voters.
Biden could also take a page from leaders like Hochul and Adams by doing more to personally model a return to normal. It was great to see Biden going out for ice cream in Washington last month — though maybe next time, he could take his mask all the way off when he’s eating outside — and it would be good to see him and the Vice President around town more, doing things, showing that even if you have a Secret Service detail it’s possible to get out and do things these days.
Or “her” complaining, but on average it’s “his.” Per New York Times pollster Nate Cohn, four out of seven persuadable swing-state voters in the last election were men.