Return to normalcy

At the risk of being too early, it seemed like this week brought good news. Well, maybe not good news, but less ghastly news than that of the previous few weeks. An inflection point may have been crossed with regard to the spread and damage of COVID-19, although it’s too early to tell. There are positive indicators, like the the number of hospital beds in use falling short of expectations, China reporting no new deaths (ignoring caveats), and the stock market having one of its best weeks in decades. There is much left to do and we cannot declare victory yet, but the rate of the growth may be decreasing.

Peering a few weeks in the future, one may be able to spot a life familiar to one that was being lived only three months ago. You might need to squint quite a bit. And it might not even be there - it may just be wishful thinking.

But, with that glimmer in mind, a phrase has begun to seep into the common vernacular and can already be found in the headlines of news articles and government press coferences. It hasn’t come on quite as quick as “abundance of caution”, but the polls are still open.

I’m speaking of the phrase “return to normalcy”. It’s a reassuring phrase to hear; “normalcy” is the most desired thing in the year 2020. A world in which there isn’t a pandemic sweeping the world, where businesses can attempt to transact with customers face-to-face, and where an innocuous meal out at a restaurant is an option for spending a Saturday night. I wouldn’t be surprised if some variation of “return to normalcy” becomes the phrase du jour sometime during the next few weeks.

Anyway, do you ever have certain words you feel an attachment to? Maybe a word you often use? Or maybe a word you didn’t know at first, and then looked up the definition, and then you started seeing everywhere? Well, even prior to COVID-19, normalcy was one of those words for me. I felt like I had a special bond with normalcy because I was let in on a little secret about it.

Turns out, it’s not really a word. Or, it wasn’t really an accepted word until the 20th century. It was birthed amongst waving star-spangled flags and red, white, and blue bunting, invoked during a speech in the 1920 Presidential campaign. The innovative speaker was Warren G. Harding, speaking to a crowd in Boston, who was seeking to win the presidency in the first election after the end of World War I.

Fredrick Lewis Allen, in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, titles an entire chapter about the 1920 campaign “Back To Normalcy”. In it, he describes that infamous use of normalcy1:

[Harding] had correctly expressed the growing desire of the people of the country and at the same time had unwittingly added a new word to the language, when he said, “America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; …not survey but serenity.”

Harding, a Republican, campaigned to reset the nation to its pre-WWI mindset and way of life. The outgoing Democrat president, Woodrow Wilson, had at first committed to keeping America neutral (even employing the slogan “He kept us out of war” in his successful 1916 reelection campaign), but once the US was involved in the war effort he sought to maintain and further America’s involvement in global affairs.

Upon entering the war in April 1917, Wilson eschewed the disentanglement policy that governed American foreign relations. Instead of following on that trajectory set by the founders2, Wilson took hold of the wheel and set a new course for America’s involvement across the Atlantic. The motivation was noble, with Wilson asserting that the task was nothing short of keeping the world safe for democracy. This message persisted after the war was won and the belligerents had entered into treaty discussions. Wilson sought to install a global consortium, the League of Nations, with the U.S. as a member. Wilson’s high-minded ideals, principled as they were, ran counter to the American sentiment upon conclusion of the war. The American public and politicians were both largely tepid to the idea of possible future military entanglements and American involvement abroad.

And thus, with an American appetite to broadly revert to isolationism, an opportunity emerged and Republicans & their standard-bearer Harding ran with it to the White House.

Harding eventually addressed his usage of the word3:

I have noticed that word caused considerable news editors to change it to “normality”. I have looked for “normality” in my dictionary and I do not find it there. “Normalcy”, however, I did find, and it is a good word.

It is a good word. It’s a good word because it embodies what all Americans and others around the world yearn for at this time: a world free of pandemic and a resumption of simple joys in life we often taken for granted. I welcome its continued use, as it signals that the end is near. I promise not to needle those who use it.

  1. Slightly missing the mark when reaching for a word was not an infrequent occurrence for Harding; in enumerating a list of Harding’s liabilities later in the book, Lewis includes “his choice of turgid and maladroit language (‘non-involvement’ in European affairs, ‘adhesion’ to a treaty), and in his frequent attacks of suffix trouble (‘normalcy’ for normality, ‘betrothment’ for betrothal).” 

  2. See Jefferson’s Inaugural Address, specifically “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” 

  3. Harding was not the only President that had to deal with allegations of poor grammar