The destruction of America’s political norms.” “Don’t normalize that.” “This is not normal!” “Why can’t you just be normal?

The last two decades have seen a rising attention to normalcy in American public life. Google Trends shows a steady upward slope—a quadrupling, in fact—in online interest in “normal” between 2004 and 2024.

But anecdotally, I’d say this acceleration has felt more intense since around 2015. Not coincidentally, that was the year former president Donald Trump first came to dominate national politics, and it’s also the year the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, which shifted public discourse on sexuality and gender away from gay marriage and toward new frontiers, especially on gender identity.

Normalcy has long had some moral valence. Its etymology has to do with the rightness of angles in carpentry, and from there, it’s not a long verbal journey to other kinds of rightness: conformity with rules, not just the ruler, and especially with ethical rules.

Lately it seems like that moral shade is thickening. In a secularized, fragmented society, we are running perilously short on widely accepted norms. A panic is rising. No one wants anomie, a norm less culture, but how do you set effective norms if there’s no consensus on what’s normal? On what basis do you mourn or herald the death of old norms or the rise of new ones? By what rule can we judge and instruct if we’re losing agreed-upon rules?

A fascinating case study of this quandary popped up in a recent Atlantic essay from scholar Tyler Austin Harper. Titled “Polyamory, the Ruling Class’s Latest Fad,” its first three-quarters are a critical tour de force.

Harper’s primary interest is not the titular polyamory trend nor even the recently buzzy book—More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage—which he reviews in the piece. Both are subsidiary to a larger phenomenon that Harper calls “therapeutic libertarianism”: “the belief that self-improvement is the ultimate goal of life, and that no formal or informal constraints—whether imposed by states, faith systems, or other people—should impede each of us from achieving personal growth.”

Harper explicitly builds this characterization on philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. There, Taylor contends that our culture is increasingly organized around a notion of “‘authenticity,’ or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing.’”

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Therapeutic libertarianism will be familiar to anyone who has read Alan Noble’s You Are Not Your Own or Tara Isabella Burton’s Self-Made—or simply caught a glimpse of “Instagram face.” Harper even captures the sly way in which this promise of freedom to construct oneself from scratch tends to become a grinding obligation, especially once we’ve lost the energy (and physical beauty) of youth:

We are all our own start-ups. We must all adopt a pro-growth mindset for our personhood and deregulate our desires. We must all assess and reassess our own “fulfillment,” a kind of psychological Gross Domestic Product, on a near-constant basis. And like the GDP, our fulfillment must always increase.

And he works in a class analysis too, observing that bleeding-edge fads of therapeutic libertarianism, like polyamory, tend to trend first in “wealthy, elite” circles, where people have the time and resources to spare for “interminable self-improvement projects, navel-gazing, and sexual peccadilloes.”

All told, it’s the kind of takedown that makes me—squeamish vegetarian though I am—understand the hunter’s impulse to hang a stag’s head on the wall.

But then there’s the last quarter of the essay, where the class analysis takes a different form. His problem isn’t a moral one, Harper argues. Though himself “happily, monogamously married,” polyamory doesn’t strike him “as a matter of right or wrong at all,” providing everyone involved is a consenting adult.

No, his problem is that it’s too expensive for poor people. This “brand of ‘free love’ requires the disposable income and time—to pay babysitters and pencil in their panoply of paramours—that are foreclosed to the laboring masses,” Harper writes. Across the stag’s antlers, a banner drapes: Workers of the world, unite … so you too may claim the dubious privilege of “seeking absolute freedom” and “find[ing] only abjection.”

This is a disjointed and disappointing end to an otherwise excellent essay. It’s also a striking example of the inadequacy of something like class analysis to fund effective, large-scale norms.

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Class analysis is a useful thing that often sheds real light on political and social problems. There are many public conversations in America that it can and does enhance. But the haves have X and the have-nots have not isn’t enough to decide the merits of X, to set a norm for or against it.

In this case, the analysis is particularly uncompelling because Harper has just spent hundreds of words making polyamory and the therapeutic libertarian framework sound empty, exhausting, and hopeless. In fact, he makes it all sound very much like a matter of right and wrong (as indeed it is). He makes it sound wrong and degrading and certainly not an ill we should wish on the working class in the name of equity.

I reread the ending of this essay several times, sure I’d misunderstood it. And maybe I did. Harper wants to set a norm against all this, having correctly observed that those caught on its horns are having a bad time. But, unpossessed of a widely acknowledged moral basis for that norm, he gropes around and comes up with: Well, it’s not fair that only the elite can self-inflict this narcissistic self-making and the strain it entails.

But of all the troubles he lists, that class split may be the least. The class analysis isn’t wrong, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to settle what should be normal in the moral sense, certainly not at a society-wide scale, on this issue and most others of import. It’s not enough to keep everyone from doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25), with all the chaos and enmity that ensues. And the same may be said of other bases of judgment tied to comparatively niche political, cultural, or religious perspectives.

Even fairly broad visions for moral renewal, like David Brooks has outlined at The Atlantic and The New York Times, tend to fail on this count: There’s no reason people who do not already share Brooks’s norms would buy into his proposals. Why renounce the crude style of Trumpism if you don’t already have some basis for believing cruelty is wrong? Why embrace moral formation via manners classes and intergenerational service if you don’t already believe in the goodness of charity?

“Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy,” as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote inThe Righteous Mind. Haidt recognized that declining institutional authority and religiosity lead to exactly the anomie we now face. “If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions” that produce “shared moral matrices,” he explained. Without that moral organization, when all do as they please—well, have you read Judges 19–21? Or Reddit?

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Haidt, an atheist, doesn’t specify a preferred religious norm machine. He merely recognizes that humans have a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts, and “it needs to be filled by something—and if you leave it empty, [people] don’t just feel an emptiness. A society that has no sense of the sacred is one in which you’ll have a lot of anomie, normlessness, loneliness, hopelessness.”

I am willing to specify. It’s no big reveal that I think our norms should be grounded in the Christian faith, in the revelation that God looks like Jesus dying on the cross, defeating evil, and offering us life and hope, which, yes, comes with a lot of moral claims and commands (Col. 1:15–23, 2:9–15, 3:1–14).

But, without precluding the possibility of some divine intervention—a new Reformation, another Great Awakening, the very Second Coming—I also don’t have any near-term expectation that Christianity will somehow gain universal acceptance in American society, whether as a living faith or simply as a reliable norm generator. Mundanely speaking, the trend lines on this are all exceedingly clear.

I recognize that I’m naysaying to class analysis and other solutions to our anomie without offering a better idea. Or rather, I do have a better idea—a light to banish anomic darkness—but I know why and how our culture has grown wary of its gleam.

Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.