So is this the New Normal? The question gets asked about lots of things—Washington politics, the economy, terrorism, infrastructure, the financial markets. And the question gets asked anxiously because as a normal—as a baseline—this new normal (whatever it may be) is less than entirely believable. To be sure, the New Normal is recognized in conversation—as in “Well, you know, this could be the new normal.” But most often, it’s offered as a theoretical possibility acknowledged, but then quickly bracketed, because not quite believable.
Well, why isn’t the New Normal believable?
One reason, of course, is that it flies in the face of deep-seated American myths about collective and personal progress—about things getting better because well… things are supposed to get better. Problems are supposed to get fixed. Solutions are supposed to be found. That’s the way it’s always been (not true) and that’s the way it always will be (surely not).
A second and more interesting reason that this New Normal isn’t quite believable is that we recognize that things are going to change. Quantitative easing can’t go on forever. Climate change will get worse. Infrastructure, if we do nothing, will not remain at a D+. Structural corruption of politics is self-compounding. MOOC’s really are waiting in the wings to displace the traditional university. Meanwhile in almost every field, (journalism, politics, business, etc.) the people who lead really are, for the most part, mediocre. And unfortunately for us—it’s systemic: The triage, certification, and screening mechanisms designed to promote excellence and ward off decadence are themselves decadent—incapable of controlling for self-promotion effects, image manipulation or other forms of gaming. More broadly, the mechanisms we usually rely upon to recognize, name, and correct for institutional breakdowns (e.g. mechanisms such as law, politics, journalism) are themselves broken.
The upshot? Well, the affirmation that this is the New Normal really isn’t believable. Unless, of course, the New Normal is defined as 1) a precarious state of affairs that will soon change radically but 2) in ways that are utterly out of our control (and out of the control of our institutions). Now this “dynamic” conception of the New Normal, arguably does capture the moment—the recognition that things are slated to change, but in ways utterly out of our control.
And so we are waiting—essentially spectators waiting to see what is going to happen to our collective lives (and thus our individual lives). It’s not apathy or indifference. Nor is it that jaded 80’s or 90’s sense of postness—that everything worth happening already has. It’s more a sense that we are profoundly irrelevant—except, perhaps in our own micro-activities. It’s also a sense that the mindsets of the people who are relevant (think for example: Supreme Court Justices) are so historically askew to our times, so outdated in their frames, their preoccupations, their concerns, that they couldn’t possible help.
What then is this? Full circle: It is the recognition that we are a very (very) old society and that the institutions and practices we have created over the decades (the centuries) are too exhausted to deal with what they have wrought. They are incapable of naming and comprehending—they have neither the language nor the motivation to register and articulate—the cultural, political, and economic forces and agencies that our constructing us and our world. And so they just drone on (Supreme Court opinions) or they foment angry self-referential tirades (the media blogosphere) or pose and posture (Congress) or document the trivial with exacting rigor (academia) or… and so on. And so meanwhile, we (who are also them) wait, wistfully wishing for a return to the old normal and yet knowing it’s not going to happen.