Vaccines are beginning to make their appearance. It’s wonderful news as we face the greatest surge of infections and death to date in this year long plague. When we can return to whatever a normal life will be remains to be seen. It depends in part on the willingness of the people to be patient, not try to rush things, and to continue the crude but effective safety measures that protect us all. I have only modest confidence that enough will be so willing.
In any case, it appears that a “new normal” is on the horizon, and we can expect to be here in due time. “New normal,” that’s the term trotted around the talking head circuit on television, and finding its way into news and opinion columns. I would rather we had a better term. Normal is understood in too many unique ways to be broadly shared. This year of COVID restrictions has interrupted the normal we were used to, but a new normal implies that it will be much like the old one with a few minor changes. That seems unlikely. What we call normal is really a sense that society is in equilibrium with enough predictability to confidently plan ahead. That equilibrium was shattered by COVID, the disruption exacerbated by the government’s inability to provide helpful leadership.
Equilibrium will return to society, but it will be unlike the former state of equilibrium. It will have new expectations for what is considered normal, and therefore acceptable. But like the old equilibrium, it will be predictable enough for us to plan ahead to socially engage in relative freedom. We’ve been through this before, not in the distant past, but in our own era. The First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic created enormous disruptions in society that seemed to demolish all the social standards Americans took for granted. Together with Prohibition, they ushered in the Roaring Twenties in which, as the song says, anything goes. Some thought it was a new normal, but it was only a bubble, an economic and moral spasm leading to a new, unwanted equilibrium established by the Great Depression.
The Great Depression was an equilibrium of shared poverty, hard work, low pay, and slow change for the better that came in modest steps leaving some to wonder if there had been any change at all. Times were stable if not desirable. They were predictable enough for planning ahead, even if under impoverished circumstances. That equilibrium was shattered by WWII. Being able to plan ahead for the long term was put on hold for the duration. The post war years brought a new equilibrium, one that became so stable it was called normal, the way normal was supposed to be, the American Dream come true. It’s the normal of nostalgic desire for the way things used to be. Good paying jobs were plentiful. New technologies made communication, travel, home life, and business more efficient and entertaining. Next year would always be a better year – yearly new car models promised it. Many hope the new normal we look forward to will be like that one. It won’t.
The Vietnam and Civil Rights era put an end to the post war era (so did Reaganomics, but that’s for another time). Suddenly our wars weren’t always just. Black people, who had always known their place, rose up to declare they wouldn’t take it anymore. The institutions of government and business were challenged, as were long held ideas about sex, marriage and family life. In the years that followed we struggled to accommodate new ways of more freedom for more people into an acceptable equilibrium, and a new understanding of normal. Then 9/11 hit.
The nation went into shock under tight military controlled lockdown. For months, we did not know what would happen tomorrow. Fear and restrictions eased; we learned how to make TSA a new normal of sorts. The civil rights threatening Patriot Act became just part of the background noise of daily life. We could plan again, but with more constraints, more awareness of threats, and greater cognizance of what was going on in other parts of the world. We got used to an economy engineered to transfer wealth upward and keep wages and salaries static. It seemed normal if not comfortable. At least it was predictable.
Then the biggest of all bubbles burst. The Great Recession crashed down on us. It took the last year of one administration and the first year of the next to put a recovery plan into place. In the meantime, nothing was normal, plans that had been made were unraveling, and there was nothing one could do about it. The recovery plans worked, and for eight years there was slow but steady growth in all sectors. Once again we were in equilibrium, plans for the future could be safely made, because the future looked predictable. But how normal was a black president? What happened to the American Dream of the post war years? How did China become the world’s second largest economy, and likely to be the largest in a few more years? What happened to the old balance of power with the U.S. dictating policies to the rest of the world? Tax and Spend Democrats were the ones making the nation fiscally responsible. Fiscally conservative Reagan Republicans were the ones driving up deficit and debt. It was all backward from what many had been led to be true. One way or another, it lead to Trump.
The oddity of Trump’s election, and the bizarreness of his administration seemed more like distractions than serious threats to our equilibrium. All “sound and fury signifying nothing,” but Birnam Wood was moving ,and its name was COVID. A plague more deadly than the 1918 flu that paid no attention to presidential tweets, and for which he had no plans to do anything about it. No nationwide lockdown this time, the virus went where it would while states and localities did what they believed best for their people. Travel stopped, businesses were shuttered, hospitals overflowed, 300,000 (so far) died, many who recovered found they carried long term after effects. Many learned to wear masks wherever they went. Many did not. Social distancing became the new rule. Many ignore it. Unemployment skyrocketed. Schools began teaching by Zoom – for kids who had access to high speed internet and modern computers. Zoom? Zoom didn’t exist a few years ago. Now the nation runs on it. While the stock market rose to new heights, the economy was in near free fall. It didn’t make any sense. We found ourselves in an unpredictable Alice in Wonderland world made more unpredictable by the uprising of black and brown people whom white leaders thought had been satisfied with the generous but unfulfilled promises made to them back in the 1960s. To add to the confusion, a surprising number of fascists came out from behind tea party banners to confront the nation with threats of violence. Then they turned against the very pillars of American democracy in pursuit of retaining a would be autocrat in the office of president that he lost, bigly.
Vaccines have arrived. A new administration is soon to be sworn into office. There is light ahead. How far ahead remains to be seen, but it’s predictable. People are calling for a new normal, what they’ll get is a new equilibrium in which what is normal will grow, and it will be as different from its predecessors as each new normal of the past hundred years has been. I have a few guesses. Mask wearing will be more common, even after the pandemic has ended. Jobs will return to offices, but not all of them, and to offices in more dispersed locations. Zoom, and things like it, are here to stay. If business travel is not essential, it won’t happen. A national infrastructure priority will be assurance of high speed internet in every place, no matter how rural. Cybersecurity will be our highest defense priority. Renovation of the nation’s physical infrastructure will accommodate new technologies that reduce demand for cars, trucks, and traffic flows, but will not restrict access to cars and trucks for anyone who wants or needs them. Guns will be regulated, not taken away. Gigantic cruise ships will be scrapped. Midsize and small ships will do a good business. Airline travel will rebound, but we might see more passenger friendly skies – I hope so. Unions will gain strength and status, but not like the old days. The U.S. will again be a leader among nations, but not the only one. China will not be an enemy like Russia was, but it will be our fiercest competitor, and tensions will always be high. Globalization will return, but with greater respect for national integrity, and concern for American workers. The tax code will be modified to make the playing field more level, encourage low and middle income growth, restrict super salaries, and remove the imperative for CEOs to make shareholder value their highest/only measure of success. As increasing numbers of non-white persons become more prominent in national leadership, the old normal of white (male) hegemony will slowly dissipate, but not without struggle.
Can you rely on my predictions? There used to be a celebrity fortune teller named Jean Dixon whose annual predictions made front page news, at least in the tabloids. I predict that my predictions will be as accurate as hers were.