The Promise and Peril of a ‘Normal’ Politician
During his successful run for the presidency of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said that he was fighting for the rights of every Brazilian: the right to grill barbecue on weekends, to have picanha with a cold beer, “everything the people need,” he said.
This is a promise that will be difficult to keep. But the line struck me because it’s a promise that sounds … abnormally normal. He’s not promising to make everyday Brazilians rich. He can’t stop the sea from rising or make people’s grandkids visit them or create a utopia. But it’s a vision of normalcy. Barbecue, beer and time away from politics aren’t exciting or erotic or invigorating; they’re simple things people like to do, things people should, to Mr. Lula, be able to do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about normal, particularly in the context of American politics, which have seemed increasingly abnormal over the last decade.
Despite losing what seemed like a winnable Senate race, Blake Masters is reportedly thinking of running for Senate again. I do not want this. I do not want any promises about fresh ideas in Washington or change makers. I do not want any more iconoclasts or weirdos or people who seem markedly untethered to what most people do or, critically, want to do. I do not want to see any more ads in which a tall, thin man who was apparently running for Congress handles a gun in a silent ravine in a manner some might find disquieting or concerning or a reason to perhaps call an authority of some kind. I do not want to hear any more about how we need an American Caesar or that the time has come for full revolution.
In much of my life, I feel I am awash in the strange and the loud and the extremely online people who tweet about how people who go to bars are eugenicists and wax on about how sports are for weak leftists. I am crying out for normal.
“Normal,” in this case, does not mean “good.” And it doesn’t mean “bad.” Defining “normal” can be difficult, since our versions of normalcy seem to be based on our own experiences. (For example, my father was a film librarian, so watching lots of movies all the time was extremely normal for me). “Normal” means “conforming to a type, standard or regular pattern.” If the type, standard and regular pattern for our politics is based on the American populace, then our politics should be shaped by what average Americans want, do and think.
I thought about Mr. Masters — and much of the extremely online political class he seems to represent — when I read an interview in Politico with the newly elected representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Democrat who beat a Trump-backed Republican candidate who claimed that much of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol looked “like an intelligence operation.” What Ms. Perez wanted to focus on was not Donald Trump or Jan. 6 or anything really to do with Washington, D.C. She wanted to focus on problems like, as she put it, “the indignity of supply chain problems. Catalytic converter theft. Bad infrastructure.” And, after an expletive, “roads.” That’s what normalcy looks like to me — a politician who talks about roads.
Determining how we got into this era of abnormal politics is as complicated as defining normalcy itself. It would be easy to blame Mr. Trump, but he followed a long tradition of a certain type of right-wing politicians who made their bones, in part, by performing the act of, as Representative Thomas Massie famously put it, being “the craziest son of a bitch in the race.”
We lived through a pandemic, one that guided many people — including politicians — to spend more time on online platforms, where sounding like the kind of person people would avoid at parties can get you incredible engagement. With the advent of social media generally, we are more aware of the edges and margins of our politics and somehow less aware of the people who are smack dab in the middle. Our media has a tendency to favor extremes — telling us a lot about the people on the farthest fringe (cult members, Instagram influencers who think that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote) and less about the people those extremes leave behind.
Incentives play another role here, too: Many incredibly smart people in politics find it more effective to avoid solving problems so that they can continue to campaign on them — the exact opposite of what a normal voter would like a candidate to do.
The politician already faces a natural challenge to both the appearance and the reality of normal behavior: Running for political office is not in any way, shape or form a normal thing to do. Most people don’t follow politics closely, after all, meaning that the percentage of people who are so invested in politics that they are willing to make it their career is vanishingly small. Moreover, the very process of running for office and winning removes politicians from the realm of normal. There is something alienating about any form of fame, any type of visibility in which many people can see you and know you and develop very deeply held opinions about you but you can’t see or know them back.
The pursuit of normalcy as political strategy is not a new concept and has followed tumult. Warren Harding’s 1920 campaign slogan was “A return to normalcy,” after World War I, the Red Summer of 1919 and the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed about 675,000 Americans. In a speech in Boston in May 1920, Harding said that after years of upheaval, what Americans were calling for was calm. “America’s present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy, not revolution but restoration, not agitation but adjustment, not surgery but serenity, not the dramatic but the dispassionate.”
However, Harding’s presidency was notably absent of anything normal (or wise), as he managed to combine fiscal corruption with a sexual adventurism that would have left any of our more recent, more satyric presidents exhausted. And that was just the problem. He promised normalcy but delivered corruption — leading to a tendency for voters to see normalcy as a promise of bad acts and bad actors.
In 2022 many of the most performatively weird candidates, such as Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Mr. Masters, lost their races, and some of the analysis of those results centered on the idea that people were perhaps finally a little tired of very strange people performing very strange things. And I am relieved by that apparent development, but I am also struck by and wary of the consequences of the pursuit of normalcy.
Normalcy requires something to be in opposition to normalcy; something or, more accurately, someone must be abnormal. I’ve been thinking about abnormality in terms of performance — the ways in which people set themselves apart from the majority in order to seem superior to the majority. (Perhaps you have experienced the “I don’t even own a television” guy.)
But in our political fun-house mirror, the “abnormal” who get targeted by legislatures and individuals aren’t the Matt Gaetzes of the world who are performing, quite literally, for the cameras. They’re simply people. People who practice a particular religion. Or trans kids. Or folks who are struggling with homelessness or addiction.
A normalcy-based politics (one that favors conforming to a type, standard or regular pattern) would marginalize weirdo-outlying performance-art politicians. It would favor a majority of the public, to the detriment of a minority. A minority that includes, well, me. I’m a biracial bisexual adult. I am fortunate enough to be living at a time of increased acceptance for L.G.B.T.Q. people. But I am also witness to a cynical backlash driven, in my view, by people who believe themselves to be in pursuit of “normal” — meaning, of course, straight and cisgender.
I am tired of peak weird. But I’m not tired of minorities or religious people or somebody who wants to write a long treatise about living in the woods. I’m tired of the performance of weird politics, of people running for office to prove a point or tell Washington what’s what (on Tucker Carlson’s show, no less) while everyday people — everyday people who are, by the way, also trans or gay or religious or wish emo would come back or weird in some other way — are getting the catalytic converter stolen from their Kias.
People want to vote for people who seem, if not like them, at least as if they share the same goals. That could turn into a superficial search for a stream of political candidates who look and sound and marry the same way, another eternal quest for the soccer mom or NASCAR dad or whatever guy that polls well.
But it should mean that candidates stay tethered to the ground their voters walk on — who touch grass, as the very online might say. Voters want candidates who exist in their world. People who have at one time had a normal day, consumed at least one beer and watched one sporting event or mainstream movie from start to finish without analyzing it or pronouncing it woke or problematic.
People want to vote for people who know what an overdraft fee feels like and what a garbage strike smells like and what it feels like when your water heater stops working — candidates who know what a practical and solvable problem looks like and, more important, want to solve it. Problems like bad roads and catalytic converter theft and struggling with homelessness. Sure, it’s not exciting. But our lives are exciting enough. Our politics shouldn’t be.
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