Commentary: Normalization of deviance is wrecking our nation

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 1986 file photo, the space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center. (AP Photo/Bruce Weaver, File)

I remember the Challenger space shuttle disaster. We watched it live in elementary school. Too young to understand death or the mess of the world the grown-ups were making, I’ve learned a lot since then. Now I’m one of the grown-ups and we have some serious cleaning up to do.

Conclusions from the investigation were damning. Under pressure to launch faster, NASA’s culture shifted from proving systems were ready for launch to overriding major objections. O-rings couldn’t handle the cold. Despite prior O-ring launch concerns, there’d been no disasters, so legitimate worries were ignored. Then we lost seven astronauts and a space shuttle on live television.

The question is always where to draw the line. Zero defect mentalities are paralyzing. Failure to mitigate risks causes unnecessary destruction. But when we accept dangerous incremental change, we’ll eventually pay for it. This is “normalization of deviance:” We violate our own norms of behavior, suffer no immediate consequence, and accept increasingly unacceptable risk. Then we’re surprised when disaster strikes.

As a history teacher, I’m concerned for the future of this great country. Ben Franklin described the United States as “a republic, if you can keep it.” Can regular folks govern themselves? This remains an open question, but we’re giving autocrats good reason to stick with their systems right now.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Federal shutdowns aren’t new and both major parties have been responsible. There was a time this nuclear bargaining tool was rarely used, but now we’re in the third hostage situation within the last year — a major escalation. We’re trading our shared American identity for cheap partisan labels and finger pointing.

This is no way to run a country.

You don’t go from compassionate conservatives to flaming partisans overnight. Some folks compromised principle for political gain, establishing odious double standards. Within the past few years, evangelicals supported a philanderer, fiscal conservatives dramatically increased the debt and Republicans proved themselves largely incapable of legislating effectively when they controlled the legislative and executive branches. Who is surprised by obstructionism now? It’s a new normal.

Normalization of deviance. If neither major party can govern effectively, where do we go? It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s certainly no shining city on a hill.

Shutting down the government to get your way is deviant behavior. It’s immature, irresponsible and damaging to good hard-working Americans. It aids our foes. There aren’t that many jobs assigned to Congress in the Constitution, but appropriating funds is one of them.

Name calling is also deviant. It’s not tolerated in my classroom, my home or my place of worship. When I went through basic training I was shocked that drill sergeants never swore. In a position of authority, they took seriously their responsibility to build soldiers. Without hazing.

We see increasingly dangerous deviant behavior from the executive branch, reflected in the parties and trickling into public discourse at large. Justification is often, “But they did it first.” Can your children get away with that? It‘s not accepted in my classroom.

Houston, we have a problem. The National Mall is overflowing with garbage, real and metaphorical. If these aren’t warning signs that our Republic is fraying at the edges, we’re either blind or willfully ignorant.

We must put country before party or we’ll get a dystopian future.

We must all work to fix this. Reject double standards. Listen to understand, especially to people with different experiences and points of view. Treat others with respect, publicly and privately. Stop the rumor mill and reject wild conspiracy theories. Be honest. Hold political leaders accountable.

I expect newly elected senators and representatives to take their oath to support and defend the Constitution seriously, even sacredly. This includes responsibility to debate honestly, appropriate money fairly, and check the power of the executive.

Do your jobs. Stop living down to the bad joke: “Polytics” = many blood sucking insects. Inflicting pain on government employees and American citizens as a ploy to get your way is wrong. Stop it. Then, maybe we can move back towards a more perfect union. All of us. Stronger together. E Pluribus Unum. Americans.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a political moderate, a veteran, and a well-traveled teacher so she understands people on both sides of the political spectrum pretty well. Follow her on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1.