America by Air: Calm Before the Storm

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

… the political storm of Election Day, that is, and the calm of this serene sunset reflecting off the Mississippi River over Hastings, Minnesota:

Pete Howell

Another reader, Peter in Vermont, explains why U.S. politics right now should be more like the aviation industry:

Thank you to James Fallows for his Trump Time Capsule on “the destruction of norms.” Through his knowledge of aviation issues he may have heard of the term the “normalization of deviance.” It is a term used in the analysis of safety issues, both in aviation and in the large field of safety (including trying to apply it to medicine).

The concept is that people work under rules that have been established for proper practice, and that over time people start ignoring those rules out of short-term expediency. The problem then is that to the psychology of the people doing it, those deviations from the rules become the new normal. There is then a mental incapacity to see deviations as deviations, and a mental inertial against doing the extra work required to follow the proper rules. Once “everybody knows” that the speed limit sign on a certain street can be ignored, then it doesn’t seem right or natural to follow it.

The point in the safety community in coining the phrase is to start the conversation about how it can be corrected. When the powers on top believe in following the rules, and the deviations are only being done by those on the bottom, then arguably you can just come down like a ton of bricks on those not following the rules. The real problem, however, is when the deviations are inherent in the power structure itself.

I hate to always be harping on it, but it is documented by those studying it that preventable medical mistakes kill over 400,000 Americans each year, at an estimated cost of at least one trillion dollars a year. The root cause of the problem is that the hospitals and the doctors don’t want to measure the mistakes, because all they want to measure are the benefits of the current state of affairs. By not measuring the “deviation,” the deviation doesn’t exist, so no one sees a problem.

The aviation industry, on the other hand, is famously safety conscious and has an amazing safety record.

That is because all of the players—from the pilots to the airline companies—have a very high inherent self-cost to any safety error. Pilots inherently don’t like crashing, and airline companies inherently don’t like losing $100 million airplanes.The measurement of those deviations are inescapable to the players. That makes everyone want to play by the rules. The result is a fantastic safety record.

The issue now is what to do when the normalization of deviance has gotten into politics. Who is to set things back on track? Let’s say that the most rule following player, Jeb Bush, had won the nomination. He would probably have lost to Hillary Clinton. If the Republicans were going to lose anyway, then it is all to their benefit to break all of the rules of politic discourse and at least get a large dedicated base out out it. There wouldn’t have been any voters after the election who would have carried on supporting Bush. But by stirring up a lot of irrational hatred, the Republicans can use that as a source of continuing power for themselves even after losing the election. They have no interest in measuring how far off they are from normal political discourse because all they want to measure are the benefits they are getting from it.

The question is, has there ever been an example in history of political order re-emerging after chaos like this has set in? Right now the Republicans have set themselves up to be a party of permanent obstruction. They are the American Nihilist party. As Groucho Marx sang, “What ever it is, I’m against it.”

“Scattered showers and a setting sun near Denver” by reader Jim Schneider

I personally don’t think anything will change unless the Republicans lose both houses by a landslide in 2018. That year, Trump and Clinton will be off the table, and it will be a time to put to a vote if people want a Nihilist government. A complete defeat of the Republicans in the off-year election would save both parties.

But like alcoholics, I don’t see anything getting better until the Republicans hit rock bottom. Things will only get better when and if the Republicans see that breaking all of the rules of normal society is no longer a source of political power for them. Let’s hope that will come sooner than later. I think it will come sooner the more of a disconnect there is seen between the on-the-ground make-it-work optimism of the country and the empty hate sloganeering of the powers at the national level.