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Normalcy bias is going to kill this country if we don't snap out of it

David Colborne
David Colborne

When disaster strikes, roughly seven out of 10 people do something very curious. They don’t panic. They don’t spring into action, either. Instead, they do whatever it was they were doing before disaster struck as if it hadn’t struck at all, right up until the very moment when doing so becomes impossible.

This is called normalcy bias. Usually, when people talk about it, they talk about people dying in crashing airplanes, waiting patiently in their seats for the end of whatever it is that’s going on, instead of leaping for the emergency exits. Institutions, however, can also suffer from normalcy bias. This shouldn’t be surprising — institutions, like Soylent Green, are made of people. When we’re lucky, they collect our gifts and skills and harness them towards more productive and decisive action than we’d be able to achieve alone. Far too often, they collect our weaknesses and vices instead.

A year after January 6th, our nation’s political institutions remain pathologically incapable of meeting the threats facing this country. Faced with a former president who still thinks it was “common sense” for his followers to threaten to lynch his vice president and even now refuses to concede defeat, our political institutions have responded by putting their tray tables up and their seats in the full upright position while they wait for a flight attendant to shepherd them out of the apocalypse, all while madmen loudly scream and light the fuselage on fire.

A bit over one year ago today, now-former President Trump gathered his most fervent and violent supporters, many armed with tactical gear and batons, in Washington D.C. and then sat on his hands for three hours while they sacked the Capitol, tore down barricades, assaulted more than 100 police officers, and threatened the lives of several elected officials. More than 70 percent of Americans view the events of that day as a tragedy.

How did Nevada Republicans commemorate the event? By hosting a farcical gubernatorial debate, of course.

To be clear, any gubernatorial debate hosted at this point of the campaign season, regardless of the circumstances or the party hosting it, would be a guaranteed source of mirth and schadenfreude. To get on to the stage of an early January candidate debate, all you have to do is publicly announce you’re running for governor — the first campaign finance filing isn’t due until January 15th and candidate filing doesn’t formally begin until March 7th, so you don’t even need to raise any money, actually file to run for office, or otherwise demonstrate your intentions in writing. Consequently, any debate being organized by anyone this time of year will pit at least half a dozen gadflies working on their stand-up routines and an audience of only the most committed of fans (I’m reluctant to call the sort of people who organize and attend these events “activists” since activists are more interested in achieving political goals than entertaining themselves) against a frontrunner or two who wishes their campaign team had the good sense to tell them to stay home.

And so, predictably enough, the gadflies did exactly what gadflies do — they spouted ridiculous nonsense in the vain hope that, like a screaming toddler trying to get the attention of a harried parent, they might earn the praise of an otherwise indifferent audience. Yes, gadfly, sure you’ll stamp QR codes on the homeless so we can tax them easier — never mind that Nevada doesn’t directly collect any taxes from individuals (even sales taxes are collected by businesses — unless you’re self-employed or a business owner, you’re not mailing checks to the Department of Taxation). And I have no doubt you’ll give Nevadans free land if you’re elected to something — never mind that the reason the federal government still owns nearly 85 percent of Nevada’s lands in the first place is because, after a century of trying to give Nevada’s lands away, nobody (well, except for the Native Americans the lands were originally expropriated from in the first place) wanted them. Whatever you say, kid. Sounds exciting, glad you’re happy about something. Daddy had a long day at work. Here’s the remote, go find something to watch on Netflix and use your indoor voice, please.

Much more concerningly, Dean Heller — the one candidate on stage that evening with a snowball’s chance of not only getting through the primary but perhaps even winning the general election (the frontrunner, Sheriff Joe Lombardo, had the sense to stay far away from the event) — grabbed a torch and ran screaming towards the fuselage as well. He told the crowd he had a conversation with the President — former President Trump, that is, leaning in even harder to his persistent insistence that Donald Trump is some sort of dispossessed antipope. He told the crowd he would sign an executive order requiring voter identification and restricting mail voting — never mind the clearly documented statutory language and legislative intent to the contrary. He also attempted to regale the crowd with a factoid (the “invented fact” kind) about Las Vegas’ murder rate, which he claimed was higher than Guatemala’s.

(For the record, Guatemala’s murder rate was 22.50 per 100,000 in 2020 — at that rate, the City of Las Vegas alone, to say nothing of the remainder of Las Vegas Metro’s jurisdiction, would have to experience at least 145 murders per year to exceed Guatemala’s murder rate. Last year, Las Vegas Metro reported 132 murders within its jurisdiction, which not only includes the 640,000 people living in Las Vegas, but also the roughly 600,000 people living in unincorporated Clark County. In other words, the murder rate in Las Vegas is less than half of Guatemala’s.)

On a scale of 1 to Ted Cruz, Heller’s attempt to pander to the most intellectually evaporated depths of the Republican base by rebranding himself as a less violent version of Joey Gilbert or Michele Fiore (Gilbert used to box, Fiore fought a fellow councilwoman) who’s somehow less constrained by facts and logic is more pathetic than openly risible — not that it stopped the audience from booing and laughing at him anyway. His heart is obviously not into it — he’s a Latter-Day Saint in a suit, not a profanity-shouting louche shooting beer bottles — which is why he sounded more like a 5th grader trying to win a student council election by promising video games and early dismissals than someone with nearly 30 years of experience as an elected official.

Heller’s demonstrably futile pandering attempt, however, illustrates the catastrophic lack of imagination within previously mainstream Republican circles. To far too many Republicans, what now matters isn’t right and wrong or the success of American institutions — what matters is that Democrats lose. After all, as they like to say, we live in a republic, not a democracy. Therefore, any electoral outcome which does not advance the interests of the Republican Party is, by definition, illegitimate. Trump just demanded more openness and honesty about that line of reasoning before he lost his election than was previously considered acceptable to argue in public. Now that Trump’s demonstrated it’s possible to say the quiet part out loud and still wield political power, many of Nevada’s Republican candidates, like secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, are openly promising to “fix” future electoral outcomes in their favor. 

There was a time when winning a Republican primary didn’t mean currying favor with people who nod approvingly when their candidates promise to execute political opponents. Heller built his career during those days, but they’re done now. Merely promising to rewrite election rules so only Republicans can win elections, as many state legislatures are already trying to do, is a far more moderate position than many Republicans would prefer — rewriting election laws, after all, presupposes the continued existence of opposing political parties. The only conservatives arguing against the total abandonment of electoral politics are those with nothing to lose — confused centrists who think anyone in either party cares what they think, pundits deplatformed from conservative media for their heterodoxy, or retired political operatives like Sparks’ prodigal son Karl Rove. Anybody who actually needs to win the party’s favor knows the only way to get through a modern Republican primary is by coming across as the sort of person who would punch a liberal in the mouth for the impertinence of being within eyesight.

This, incidentally, brings me to the Democratic Party, which continues to labor under the belief that they’re competing against opponents who give a flying rip about American institutions and laws.

The good news, if you’re a Democrat, is that Nevada’s Republicans didn’t use their debate as an opportunity to demand fealty to the protestors. The bad news is that the best responses Democrats to the threats January 6th have posed are to either technocratically take Republican allegations of widespread voter fraud in good faith and argue that, no, Democrats are doing something about voter fraud, too, or just encouraging people to fill out non-binding internet petitions.

During normal times, yes, these strategies would be every bit as effective and necessary as Heller’s pandering to his base. Getting your supporters excited about showing up to the polls means, at a minimum, identifying who your supporters are and how to reach them (hence the petition), and at a maximum, telling them what they want to hear loudly enough for them to believe you represent them. 

Trouble is, what happens when one party’s supporters are telling each other that polls and electoral politics more generally are illegitimate? What happens when they decide they’re no longer willing to lose? What happens when they decide, to borrow a phrase from Vince Lombardi, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?

Democracy — or republicanism, or whatever you want to call the American system of choosing elected leaders, I legitimately don’t care — needs to be lucky each and every time. Authoritarians just need to be lucky once. Once authoritarians seize control, it takes a tremendous amount of bloodshed and loss to remove them. Fighting against authoritarianism requires courage from those tempted to steer into those currents to advance their political interests and conviction from those the authoritarians seek to control.

Should Republicans argue about education policy, COVID-19 mitigation measures, vaccine requirements, business regulations, and tax rates? Sure. Those are all public policy measures, some policies are more effective than others, and a broader philosophical debate regarding whether effectiveness is a good thing or not is healthy. Presupposing election results are illegitimate unless your side wins, however, is not. It’s one thing when random gadflies and cranks make that argument — it’s something far more concerning when their most recent president and statewide candidates are making that argument. 

Republican candidates need to actually find some courage and talk their base off of the ledge. Everyone else, meanwhile, needs to stop settling for the jailing of a few hundred protesting foot soldiers and actually hold the ringleaders of January 6th legally accountable. The normalcy bias preventing us from convicting and imprisoning Donald Trump and his allies for the events of that day must stop. Some lines must not be crossed, even if you lived in the White House for a few years — bringing a horde of angry protesters to the Capitol to overturn the results of the election is a line we should have forcefully defended a year ago and should still defend now.

To paraphrase Vox’s Kelsey Piper, our existing mechanisms for responding to the threats facing this nation aren’t good enough. The powers of love and technocratic competence won’t preserve our union. There are no adults in the room, and if we don’t become those adults — and maybe even if we do — the United States of America could die, and we may destroy our nation so completely that nothing will ever arise in the ashes.

David Colborne ran for office twice and served on the executive committees for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].


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