This Is Not Normal: The Politics of Everyday Expectations, by Cass R. Sunstein

Despite its insights into democracy, this loosely linked collection of previously published essays and reviews leaves Lennard Davis unimpressed 

September 30, 2021
Participants pulls a balloon for the Independence Day parade in Washington, DC, illustrating review of ‘This Is Not Normal: The Politics of Everyday Expectations’ by Cass R. Sunstein
Source: Getty

Cass Sunstein’s This Is Not Normal has an unusual cover: the main title is upside down. The designer has done a great job in conveying that the book is somehow about the concept of normality and how deviations from it have affected our ordinary lives. Too bad that the author, a Harvard law professor, former Obama and current Biden adviser and political commentator for Bloomberg, didn’t listen.

But how could he? This is one of those works where previously published, unrelated essays are reprinted by an author in search of a unifying theme. I can see how Sunstein thought that the idea of normality would be such a unifier, but democracy, law, history, politics or perhaps entropy might have done as well. The reality is that the book is a tessellation of random reviews, many from The New York Review of Books, and other occasional essays, shortened and edited.

Is this deep background relevant to the work? It seems to be, because readers will be scratching their heads as they go from an essay on Ayn Rand to another on the Federalist Papers to one on being cancelled on social media. Your mission impossible, should you choose to accept it, is to find connective material between these disparate topics.

I was drawn to the book because I’ve written extensively on the concept of normality and hoped that the book would provide new material. And one chapter is indeed called “The New Normal”. But since all the chapters are quite short, there are no deep dives into normality, only quick dips that may refresh without satisfying.

That is a shame because the history of normality is one that is very relevant to our moment. The word “normal” arises in English in the mid 19th century and then spreads rapidly throughout the world. Its origin is linked to the rise of statistics and eugenics as well as the branch of that “science” dealing with race. In other words, the term “normal” is very much a part of structural racism and was used provocatively and aggressively in the “study” of women, minorities, sexual “deviants”, the poor and the disabled.

Rather than focus on this seminal and dangerous history, Sunstein uses the concept of normal in a much looser sense. His argument is that norms, never really defined, seem to be static and self-justifying but actually change over time and under pressure from various political entities. This isn’t in itself much of a controversial argument but serves as a unifying theme that throws a life preserver to each individual essay.

The reality is that Sunstein is less interested in normality than in democracy. He is an exponent of a mainstream liberal view that regards democracy as “ascendant” in the “last decades of the twentieth century and a good chunk of the twenty-first” but sees the current moment as “democracy being tested in multiple ways”. He wants us to think about the ways that norms are shifting our viewpoints on democracy, using “norms” in a very loose sense to mean dominant viewpoints that have held sway for some time.

As a booster for neoliberal democracy, Sunstein has no doubt that “with its internal morality, democracy is the best form of government”. And he adds wistfully: “It is a luxury, and a blessing, to be able to take it as normal.” However, since many of the essays were written before Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, it will strike some readers that his perspective is one that fails to account for the shortcomings that have been highlighted in the past few years. After saying that “for a long time, the United States has been a beacon for people all over the globe”, he adds the cautious proviso: “But the national record is hardly spotless.” He mentions slavery, civil rights and “legally mandated racial segregation”, but he seems to ignore the currently pressing issues of economic injustice, structural racism, sexism, ableism, audism and other significant recent issues of protest.

Where Sunstein gets interesting is when he raises the issue of the biopolitical underpinnings of the way that people decide what is normal and what isn’t. He likes to use social scientific and psychological terms such as “opprobrium expansion” and “preference falsification” to talk about how previously condemned actions and thoughts are made to seem acceptable and how people don’t say in public what they really think. So I appreciate the attempt to work in the area that David Morris and I have called the “biocultural”.

Yet the book’s use of psychological studies raises an important methodological question. How many studies make for certainty? As an example, Sunstein cites a research paper by a team of psychologists led by David Levari, who focused on what they call “prevalence-induced concept change”, meaning that people will change their long-held beliefs based on what is prevalent. A series of three studies by the same team is cited to prove that “if people are surrounded by conduct that is morally abominable…they will not disapprove of…conduct that is morally bad (but not abominable)”.

From this small database, Sunstein goes on to assert that “the rise and fall of democratic norms can easily be understood in this light”. Using the inevitable example of Nazi Germany, he shows how bad behaviour came to be accepted and uses “opprobrium contraction” as a descriptive term for the process. He then applies the whole ragout of terms to the Trump era, saying that such thinking “helps to explain public acquiescence in the face of cruel and vicious political acts”.

This is making very large generalisations based on one group’s set of studies. They may be true; they may even be obvious. But how many studies do we need to guarantee such strong assertions and conclusions? If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that science is an ongoing conversation about what we can and should call facts. We’ve seen experts reverse themselves as individual studies have been proved wrong. Science does reach facts, but not through a single study. When academics in the humanities or other non-STEM fields seize on a single study and then move on to general assertions, we need to be very careful to recognise the contingent nature of their conclusions.

Despite my quibbles about its treatment of normality, the book as a whole offers us more insight into the mind of Sunstein than into any particular aspect of normality or even democracy. It is an interesting mind which mulls mainly on the formation and maintenance of democracy. One chapter, originally published in The New York Review of Books in 2009, deals with the argument at the beginning of the American republic about the virtues of centralised government versus local rule. Federalists such as James Madison, writing under the group name of Publius, saw that a larger government would reduce the influence of corrupt single individuals, while the Anti-Federalists argued that keeping things local would allow citizens to know personally and more ably vet people elected to office. Sunstein believes that the Federalists were right, and that the US democracy has held up because of their faith in the power of federalised representation with checks and balances to stop corruption.

In the 2009 essay, Sunstein ended by saying that “the sheer longevity of the constitutional system that Publius defended, and the place it has maintained for both accountability and deliberation, attest to the power of his arguments”. But in the revised version, written in the Trump era, he added a coda: “But nothing is foreordained.” Trump showed us that the rails that guard democracy are more like wobbly cords than iron bannisters. That extra line seems like a grand sigh added to the older, more confident piece. But it also shows perhaps that what we wrote 10 years ago can’t simply be reprinted because we feel like collecting our ephemera in a book.

Lennard Davis is distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of many books, including Enforcing Normalcy: Disability Deafness, and the Body (1995) and The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era (2013).

This Is Not Normal: The Politics of Everyday Expectations
By Cass R. Sunstein
Yale University Press, 208pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780300253504
Published 23 March 2021

The author

Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley university professor at Harvard Law School, was born in Massachusetts and gained his first degree from Harvard University. He went on to a doctorate at Harvard Law School, but after clerking in the Supreme Court and working in the Department of Justice, spent 27 years at the University of Chicago.

In 2008, however, Sunstein returned to Harvard Law School. As he explained in an interview at the time, he felt that “we have a lot to learn about human behavior that goes beyond the rational actor model…There are assumptions about human behavior in property and contract law that are probably not fully accurate.” This had led him to an interest in biology and neuroscience, as well as behavioural economics and cognitive psychology, not least because “If we know more about the brain and how it produces criminal behavior or moral judgments, we might know some things that will make us think better about law.”

Although probably best known for the 2008 book he co-authored with Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which proved highly influential on governments in both the US and the UK, Sunstein’s many publications reflect this wide range of interests and address everything from animal rights to “divided democracy in the age of social media”, “the future of government”, “the world according to Star Wars” and the possible dangers of “authoritarianism in America”.

In 2018, Sunstein was awarded Norway’s Holberg Prize, perhaps the world’s most prestigious for scholars working in the arts and humanities. A representative of the judging committee described him as “one of the great intellectuals of our time”, notable for “his towering scholarship, policy advocacy, his constant search for workable solutions, his refusal to give into defeatism in the face of political and administrative complexity, and his commitment to an enlightened public discourse”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Observations on the ordinary

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Behaviour is judged within cultural contexts and, says Christine Purdon, excused if deemed positive

8 January


Featured jobs