Editorial: The return to normalcy that wasn’t

A recent editorial by the Toledo Blade:

The year 2021 was supposed to be a “return to normalcy,” to borrow a phrase from Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign a century ago.

It hardly lived up to its billing.

The rhetoric of emergency, crisis, and imminent doom has dominated American life since about 11 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2016, when it was clear Donald Trump would win the presidency over Hillary Clinton. The tension of constant crisis defined the next three years; in 2020, it seemed to hit a breaking point.

Coronavirus. George Floyd. Elections. Crisis upon crisis. Emergency upon emergency.

Then, on the evening of Nov. 3, 2020, an exhale. Normalcy, in the person of perhaps the most established and, well, normal politician of the last few generations, seemed to have returned. But no. Frivolous lawsuits. Cynical allegations of fraud. An insurrection. The crisis had only deepened. The seemingly impossible had happened: the brief occupation of the citadel of American democracy by a mob. What else was now possible?

Blessedly, the pace of events slowed after that day. The tension has been relieved again, at least a bit. But there can be no doubt, as 2021 ends, that it was a year dominated by a sense of emergency.

Donald Trump — the ghost of elections past, and, perhaps, yet to come — still commands constant and breathless coverage, from cable news to late night. The fraternity of coronavirus variants — alpha, delta, omicron — is like the list of hurricane names: catchy but menacing, perfect for tweets and news scrolls. Talk of war over Ukraine or Taiwan, sometimes with dread but too often with a certain excitement, is mainstream.

Yes, we are living in extraordinary times. Yes, there are new and ongoing dangers to confront — medically, politically, internationally. But there is another danger — more subtle but deeply corrosive — that we should note at the end of another abnormal year: the development of an addiction to crisis.

Emergencies are frightening. Emergencies are exciting. Emergencies make us feel like we’re experiencing something truly important, like our decisions and our very lives matter on a broad and historic scale. They are all the more alluring in times like our own, marked by boredom, alienation, and doubt about the meaning of anything at all.

Even so, we must break the spell: States of emergency can become at least as dangerous as the emergencies that trigger them. Settling into a permanent state of emergency — in sentiment and rhetoric, if not officially — puts the foundation of our political order at risk.

We aren’t there yet, to be sure, but no addict plans to overdose.

We must face our challenges head on, while resisting sensationalism and fear-mongering. With every New Year that comes and goes under the cloud of crisis, we become more numb to the feeling of perpetual emergency.

Average Americans will decide whether 2022 will be another year of crisis. Are we ready to return to normalcy — or, rather, to accept a new normalcy? Or maybe we’re happier with constant crisis, always looking for the next emergency, waiting excitedly for the one that finally ends it all.

— Toledo Blade, Dec. 30, 2021