What did Harding mean? As a candidate for office, he was responding to the eight years of the Wilson administration. Those two terms were characterized by what one historian, R. Emmett Tyrrell, describes as “Woodrow Wilson’s excessive regulation of the economy.”
Beyond the economy, Wilson was also convinced that, as commander in chief during WWI, his “authority to exercise censorship over the press is absolutely necessary,” as Wilson said when urging Congress to pass the Sedition and Espionage acts.
Beyond economics and free speech, Wilson’s support of public education was fueled by his desire to control society. He wanted an education, not to give knowledge and skills enabling individuals to create and innovate, but rather to form the beliefs, values, and opinions of individual humans.
Wilson did not want an education which would give the citizen the tools to develop his own thought; he wanted to instill the Wilsonian progressive agenda into into individuals replacing their own thoughts. He did not want an education to empower the individual scientifically, artistically, and economically to design and originate; he wanted an education to transition the individual into a life of government regulation.
One belief of Wilsonian progressivism was that the government should empower “experts” to make decisions and take such choices away from the individual citizen, whether in the sphere of business, art, or natural sciences. He wrote that
“when I had to do with the administration of an educational institution, that I should like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.”
Warren G. Harding presented himself to the voters as an alternative - as a chance to throw off the yokes and chains of Wilson’s control, to gain more freedom, and live in an atmosphere of ‘normalcy.’
How did Harding envision this “normalcy”? Normalcy was the calm and free foundation which would allow individuals to experiment, to create, and to innovate. A wave of inventions and discoveries - whether in mechanical technology or medicine - would be unleashed during the Harding administration.
Harding’s vision was one of freeing people to think, write, and invent. Both explicitly and by implication, Harding was - as an extension of his vision - more eager than Wilson to see African-Americans exercise their right to vote.
Even radicals would enjoy Harding’s normalcy. It was Woodrow Wilson and his appointee, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who had ordered the notorious “Palmer Raids” against suspected communists. Harding was much more relaxed about the communist threat. The best way to defeat it, he felt, was not to arrest communists, but simply to show that freedom allowed for a better life than communism could facilitate. Historian Amity Shlaes writes:
One word from the speech hung in the air: “normalcy” By normalcy, Harding did not mean that people should all be normal. He meant that the environment should be normal and relatively predictable. The old progressive swings in policy disrupted too much. A currency that changed value was a problem. Extreme Red-baiting was wrong; now that the war was over, it was time for compassion. Harding had taken a sentiment felt by everyone - that there had been too much upheaval - and broadened it into a plan. Sometimes the country felt normal now; but if it could get all the way back to normalcy then commerce could do the rest of the work. Then the knotty issues of money, prices, and even tariffs could be sorted out.
After Harding took office, the Wilsonian prudes scolded him because he occasionally drank whiskey - Wilson had pushed the Prohibitionist agenda and the Eighteenth Amendment. They were further delighted when several of Harding’s appointees were enmeshed in scandals - although the wrongdoing belonged to the appointees and not to Harding.
In August 1923, Harding died suddenly. His policies and vision, however, continued under the Coolidge administration. Together, the Harding and Coolidge years saw expanding freedom and prosperity for citizens at all income levels and in all demographic groups.