It’s The Culture, Stupid!

People who follow politics will remember the large sign that James Carville  posted in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters: “It’s the economy, stupid!” After Clinton won, a number of political strategists have quoted it approvingly, and certainly seem to believe that  economic performance decides elections.

These days, objective performance not so much. Thanks to a media environment that facilitates massive amounts of disinformation, even when the economy is doing very well--as it is now–partisans are able to convince large numbers of Americans otherwise.

So what does matter?

A recent podcast from Persuasion confirmed my belief that it’s the culture. Jonathan Sumption  is a British Judge , author and historian, On the podcast, he and host Yascha Mounk discussed the prospects for democracy in the English-speaking world and the power of strong political conventions.  Several observations during that discussion were intriguing–and I found a couple of them debatable– but I just want to focus on one of them.

Democracies depend on two things. They depend on an institutional framework, and they depend on a cultural background. It isn’t usually the institutional framework that fails. That’s still there. What fails is the cultural background, which is the desire of people to make it work, the desire of people to respect plurality of opinion, and to accept that sometimes they can’t get their way, however important the issue and however right they think they are. In most countries which have lost their democratic status, the institutions are still there, there are still elections of a sort, there are still parliaments—but they are largely meaningless because the culture that sustained them disappeared.

I think this is essentially correct. In the U.S., as I have written (many times!), several of our institutions are getting pretty creaky, but our deeper problem is the erosion of what political scientists call “democratic norms”–unwritten but widespread expectations about proper behaviors. In the Senate, for example, we expect that the chamber will take up a President’s nomination for a Supreme Court seat, and it was shocking–and a very significant blow to the democratic culture–when Mitch McConnell refused even to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee.

The ridiculous antics from the lunatic caucus aren’t simply embarrassing; they constitute daily assaults on longstanding norms of governance and appropriate  official behavior.

Let me suggest a rather odd analogy,  Over the past few years, I have noticed increasing numbers of drivers exhibiting dangerous behaviors: excessive speeding on residential streets and running red lights. (Not simply speeding up through yellow–zipping through intersections well after the signal has turned red.) As such bad road behaviors grow, other drivers are tempted (or encouraged) to ignore the rules. If we can no longer depend upon the vast majority of drivers to observe the culture of “traffic obedience,” driving will become far more dangerous–and vehicular behaviors that traffic engineers depend upon will no longer work.

Culture is also implicated in the reports about Trump taking boxes of Presidential materials with him when he left the White House. As an op-ed in the Washington Post noted, although the retrieval of those documents was relatively cordial,

For all the calm of the retrieval, the very fact that Trump could simply take the records — and that they could remain in his possession for so long — demonstrates that our institutions still haven’t adjusted to the problem of a lawless and disorderly president. The routines of presidential recordkeeping (and presidential transitions) anticipate a generous, bipartisan spirit of cooperation. So ingrained are these expectations that, even nearly seven years since Trump jumped into presidential politics, it’s hard to describe his willingness to take records the way we should: as an alleged theft of federal property.

It is impossible to have formal, specific rules for every aspect of official life. As the author of the Post article noted, numerous general rules rest on our ingrained assumptions about the way elected and appointed officials will behave. With respect to official Presidential records, the norm is “that the physical integrity of the records will be maintained and that they were properly created in the first place.” Neither of those assumptions was safe with Trump, who regularly “tore up briefings and schedules, articles and letters, memos both sensitive and mundane” according to reporting from The Post.”

When the social expectations we call “norms of behavior” are first violated, we are shocked, but when numerous people follow suit, it isn’t very long before those norms simply disappear. It’s one thing when it is no longer the “norm” for men to wear ties–it’s quite another when we lose the norm of obeying traffic laws. Or expectations of Presidential behavior.

The loss of democratic norms and a culture of compliance poses an existential threat to self-government and the rule of law.


  1. I’d say our institutions are well beyond “creaky,” with corrupt being the most meaningful term that comes to mind. This was pointed out in 1939 by Einstein, so they’ve only gotten much worse.

    The question then becomes, “Why can’t we all see it?”

    I have spent two years looking abroad at global institutions and then pivoted to my backyard. It didn’t take four months to find the corruption and decay in all facets of our government. Even the high church-going republicans who claim moral superiority over the baby-killing democrats are corrupt.

    The problem is they have to be fit into the corrupt institutions. My oligarchy won’t even let me run a neighborhood association. They’re scared of what I might bring to the table. They control every facet of our community, including the courts, which are the most corrupt.

    I tried to get the FBI and Justice Department in here to clean it up. They said they were around the corner in mid-January. I still haven’t seen them. Do they only work with the corporate media out of Japan? 😉

  2. In a dorm rap during the early 60’s on a campus inner city south side Chicago where the Stones held court on the streets at times unrestrained, the topic over steaming fresh pizza was the virtue of ‘disestablishmentarianism’. It was, as I recall, a very humorous however cynical debate that change is good. It was a Sunday night and the campus food service was closed. It was a safe space for open if not raucous debate though a few gunshots and sirens could be heard around us. As to the health and safety of cheap pizza, we had young stomachs to live large forever. Hope reigned.

  3. The culture of ME! ME! ME! has much to do with the current exhibitions of our inability to govern ourselves. Democracy depends on the norms of accepting majority rule. But Republicans have NEVER been about majority rule. They have ALWAYS been about acquiring power and control over money. Why? Because as we have written on this blog over and over, it’s because THEIR corruption is complete – and they’re ensuring that they stack the courts with equally corrupt judges so that their corporate/banking funders can avoid taxes and thus contribute their fair share to maintaining the social norms of responsible government.

    Remember the meme coming from the GOP in years past about running government like a business? That was one of biggest whoppers ever. Right up there with “trickle-down” economics. They KNEW they were spinning yarns. That’s what makes the Republican party so criminal.

  4. Todd, good morning.

    Interesting! But in the grand scheme of things, they aren’t going to be concerned about the issue you bring up. They more than likely feel it will sort itself out as they say in britain. Even if the “sort out” means you’d be in prison lol!

    I like the example of the traffic laws. Now, I do talk to a lot of the police in the area. The sheriff and the city police. One thing that they’ve told me, they are afraid! They don’t feel respected, and at any stop they could lose their life. 2 years ago the police responded to close to 500,000 calls. They also were active in policing the roads. In the past 12 months they’ve only responded to 16,000 calls. And, hardly any traffic stops.

    Lester sent me something yesterday, and it showed the mentality of those who claim to be Christian. They claim certain Christian qualities, but completely miss the mark on what it means to be a christian. The individual claimed that the government should be afraid of the people. Not a healthy fear, he didn’t mean it that way, he meant afraid.

    The scriptural meaning of fear including of course the fear of God and such, does not mean afraid.

    It means the fear of not doing the right thing, of not following the law as established. A fear of disappointing God, or in the governmental case, the government having a certain fear of not doing right by its citizens, especially in a democratic form of government. A government where theoretically all will be treated equally and have the same access to the quality of life and governmental benefits universally no matter what background or culture or Creed or race a person is.

    It is very obvious that the rot that has infiltrated government, and, like a gangrenous limb, will eventually destroy the body politic.

    Unfortunately, those who could readily perform the surgery would undoubtedly refuse to do so. Like I mentioned before, the current administration declaring martial law to root out the gangrenous rot. It won’t happen though because there is no trust between government and the people or vice versa. So, it isn’t even a slow slog anymore towards authoritarianism. The frog in the pot is just about boiled. No one can see the trees because the forest is blocking the view.

    The local drive-thrus, and believe me I know most of them lol, tell me that at least 1/3 of the people that pull up for their food have a gun laying on the seat. Yes, the police are afraid, but imagine if they weren’t here? People exhibit malice towards the laws, when they learn there are no ramifications, the collapse of governmental structure is well on its way. Without the enforcement of laws, without holding individuals or organizations responsible for wrongdoing, the rot will destroy the body.

  5. One thing I see is that most people believe they are following the right path. I’m not talking about the leadership, but those who follow their leaders wherever they go. We have developed into a world of sheep. It might seem that the sheep are delusional, but I believe they are simply incapable of coming to rational decisions on their own. We have failed to teach our children about logic. We have failed to teach our children how rational decisions are made. The fact is that we need a rational, semi-educated populis to maintain the norms. When you abandon the liberal arts, you encourage the illiberal arts.

  6. Yes cultural norms are fast devolving. Just look at the evangelical “Christians” who refuse to follow the teachings of The Christ yet insist their version of Christianity is correct. I have a Southern Baptist CULT preacher brother who committed heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege at Dad’s funeral. He refers to those churches that follow the common lectionary as “social clubs”. I’ve taken him to task for his behavior especially his fake graduate degrees as they diminish the value of my earned doctorate from Oklahoma State University, a real school.

  7. What we are learning is that so much of the functioning of our system depended on voluntary compliance with the law and traditions. Trump took the position that if there is no punishment associated with breaking laws and traditions, they can be ignored. We need to put real teeth into those laws and some of the traditions should be elevated to laws.

    Examples: the Hatch Act and presidential conflict of interest laws. Trump made a mockery of them.

  8. “The loss of democratic norms and a culture of compliance poses an existential threat to self-government and the rule of law.”

    I translate the above statement to the old adage, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” which is the foundation of the Republican party by joining Trump rather then speaking out and taking action against becoming a Dictatorship. They have taken the easy way out; threatening self-government, Rule of Law and stopped supporting the Constitution by ignoring their Oaths of Office with no one brave enough to call them out. The few Democrats who have joined their “culture” will never be confronted due to hiding behind the Democratic label; just as those Trumpists are hiding behind the Republican label.

    I am almost 85 years old; if Trump is reappointed to the White House, I hope to die before his inauguration because I want to die in America, even if it is only symbolic rather than the reality.

  9. “The question then becomes, “Why can’t we all see it?””

    “Democracy depends on the norms of accepting majority rule.”

    “So, it isn’t even a slow slog anymore towards authoritarianism.”

    Two years ago PM Trudeau tried to acquire to both tax, and spend power, without Parliamentary oversight. Parliament overruled him.

    On Wed., 2/16/22, PM Trudeau invoked the Emergency Act, allowing for the suspension of civil liberties.

    The government has declared the right to seize Canadians’ banking, financial, and even Bitcoin assets, without stated cause, without judicial action, and without Canadians’ right to appeal.

    On Fri., 2/18/22, PM Trudeau suspended Parliament which was scheduled to meet for debate.

    Does what is happening in Canada actually have anything to do with public health and safety, or does PM Trudeau have something else in mind?

  10. Good morning, John.

    You said a mouthful: “Without the enforcement of laws, without holding individuals or organizations responsible for wrongdoing, the rot will destroy the body.”

    I did a little experiment. The city government was feeding traffic to my media competitors, so I took them to court. The judge was very worried about the rules of the court but had no idea about moral law or in my case, business ethics. The simple concept of an impartial government was beyond the judge and the lawyers. They wanted to know what “laws were broken.”

    No clue whatsoever. The very foundation of government is lost. If people care less about God’s laws, what’s the point of man-made laws?

  11. Todd,

    I’ve been trying to say that for quite a while, LOL. Sometimes people don’t pay attention, but some of us can see the storm clouds getting darker to the west. We know that there’s something coming. How bad will it be? Probably really bad.

    We might not always agree on the reasons, but, the fundamental pillars of society are based on laws, if you don’t have laws, you have anarchy.


    I imagine Justin Trudeau probably got tired of being blocked and watching the Titanic sink so to speak. An act of desperation? Sometimes, that’s the last and only choice.

    For years I have been talking about the politically active evangelicals using bogus arguments and bogus dogma to control government and seek authority. In the end they are setting up their religion for suicide. Their beliefs are completely diametrically opposed to those of the one they claim to follow, Christ.

    I would encourage you to actually read Romans the 13th chapter. It spells it out clearly, it tells Christians what their conduct should be towards the superior authorities.

  12. We are watching a TV series now named “Joe Pickett”. I have no idea how accurately it portrays living in Wyoming in the present times but Joe in his duties as a Game Warden is well armed and so is pretty much everyone else in the movies, like in cowboy days. It’s been decades since I’ve been there so I don’t know first hand anymore but let’s say that it is credible. Thanks, GOP/NRA. The culture that the plot revolves around is kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, everyone chooses to be on top or ends up at the bottom.

    I honestly don’t know if I have ever even seen anyone practicing “open carry” in real life, but I’m sure that it’s all around the country now.

    Now that is changed culture.

  13. I’ve heard about the”15 boxes” of documents that were retrieved from Trump. I’ve not heard anyone explain how it’s known that this is a complete recovery. In other words, how do we know that documents aren’t still missing? It seems like everyone is just assuming everything was retrieved. That seems crazy to me.

    It seems likely that you take away those documents because you want a chance to go through them and selectively remove/destroy some.

    I keep thinking of the 18-plus minute gap in Nixon’s tapes.

  14. John,
    Authority, indeed, must be respected, but it still stands out that this Ottawa protest over vacc-mandates is occurring in, as the 2/20/22 NY Times characterized, “…a country with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world.”

  15. This report looks into how our society has gone from a collective attitude to the me first outlook. The study is way above my limited ability to understand how they came up with the conclusions but being 72 years old I have witnessed the progression. I have always viewed the world from a working man’s windshield driving truck cross country in the early seventies to retiring from a conductor’s seat on the nations rails. The changes are big !

  16. As Sheila’s regular readers know, this is my hot button. The challenge: if religion and “custom” were two of the legs of our cultural stool, what can we do? Both are withering and not likely to return. Perhaps, a third leg needs to be built – one built on incorporating “generally-accepted” values into our social, legal, governmental and economic behaviors.

    I still believe that such values exist in a significant majority of Americans (and, hopefully, the same worldwide) – equal opportunity, fair justice, caring for the less fortunate, freedom of opinion/expression, etc. (the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights has much of it).

    Then, these values must be “operationalized” in the rules of society. Some ideas: “real, independent”, well-funded oversight/enforcement with teeth and appropriate consequences. Research suggests that fear of punishment is not the real deterrent to crime, it is the likelihood of getting caught.

    A deep study of deaths caused by speeding in our state showed that fewer and fewer are caught and when they are, few are convicted and when they are the consequences are minimal.

  17. “It’s The Culture, Stupid!”

    And the media has returned us to the Trump culture; we are back to 24/7 watching him continue applauding himself and running his rants in front of this personal culture following. It is as if he never left the White House or us.

  18. A root cause is the Internet. It starkly enables/encourages each person to develop a personal “brand” and/or belong to one or more very tightly-defined tribes. These form .n impenetrable barrier to any larger “WE/US”

  19. John,
    Remaking a point I made yesterday:

    The Canadian COVID death rate among cases has dropped from over 50% in March, 2020, to ca. 3% at the start of 2022, to ca. 1% in Feb., 2022.

    I, admittedly, am not an epidemiologist, but I fail to see the PM Trudeau declaration of “…a national public order emergency — the first such declaration in half a century…” (as 2/20/22 NY Times reported) as warranted.

    Granted, PM Trudeau has authority that must be obeyed, but he is facing more opposition than from truckers. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is quoted in the NYT in this manner:

    “Invoking such sweeping new powers was “unnecessary, unjustifiable and unconstitutional…” CCLA plans to sue the government over the move.”

  20. Gordon,

    Sure, we might be seeing a certain decline in COVID, but it’s not gone. And there is a possibility that a more virulent form of COVID is right around the corner. Actually, there is one right now. They just are not sure how the vaccines will react to it! (Stay tuned) But another issue is arising in the Netherlands, it’s a new virulent strain of HIV that’s more easily transmitted and is still evolving so to speak. Now, if the culture ends up to be Anti-Vaxx, what’s going to happen with a virulent form of HIV that can be caught much more easily? Of course there is no vaccine for HIV, but there are injectable therapies that can basically eradicate HIV in some individuals and make it less transmittable. When individuals refuse to abide by public health standards, for any reason, it creates the possibility for an earth changing pandemic with possibly billions of deaths.

    All because people are stupid and listen to those trying to manipulate them for the purpose of gaining power.

  21. as i see it,if you dont,or can not enforce the rules, then the people do as they please. self control be damn when things are not planned or your just lazy,unorganized.ya dont need be a trumper to be there.. again,no rules, no control. though we here have probably a better understanding here why we are as we are. ive watched many a speeding,wreckless driver,and sometimes meet thier a tow truck in Los Anegeles, you will get a good picture of the left overs..the cuts or taxes, for civic enforcement has taken a back seat directly from the low wages and tax cuts. when the speed limit had a federal mandate of 55 mph, states recieved money for highway enforcement.believe me,i donated many a buck to Ohio.. today its a joke. imagine calling the state dispatch to report a drunk,out of control or , and have them ignore the call,literally. ive been there many times. back before 1996 I reported a dozen drunks doin things that would scare anyone,the HP did well, today,im ignored,as the dispatcher said,, did they hit anyone? no, then its a non issue,yea, they said that to me,more than once,and hung up…. if we had wages that had a tax base to keep civic enforcement as a point where we are not overworking the cops, then maybe we wouldnt have such rude behavior buy the cops..and states could hire people who want the job,as it was intended. now, about taxing the rich?

  22. “Laws are for the little people.”

    It has been this way for decades–perhaps it always has been this way.

    Why should the plebes obey the laws that our government,executive-class,big dollar donors and politicos refuse to adhere? Everyone is well aware that money talks. Yes,hold the less powerful accountable for (traffic violations)……Let Wall St,Oil Companies,BIG PHARMA and Lobbyists escape accountability from far reaching effects..

    From this post it appears you want to blame the plebes for the chaos. Guess what,the plebes have no political power and they don’t have the financial power of lobbyists.

  23. ” The very foundation of government is lost. If people care less about God’s laws, what’s the point of man-made laws? ”

    The point of man-made laws is that they are based on mutual assent (in a democracy.)

    God-made laws, since they are always lies by arrogant self-appointed interpreter of the unknowable, almost always serve the powerful elite.

  24. The traffic culture issue raised is exactly the one I raised when talking to a woman who flew from Wisconsin to Florida some half a year ago, while
    positive for CoVid. We were having a bit of a discussion about masking, when she brought up the issue of personal choice. I commented that
    I would not expect her to be approaching a red light and say, “screw it, personal choice, I’m just going to blow through it!” that’s when she left the
    room, went to the kitchen to talk with our hostess, as she did a little throw-up of her arms.
    In regard to Trump, his apparently lifelong history of obeying nothing but his very selfish impulses, should have alerted us to the “theft” of anything
    he coveted…for whatever reason.

  25. It’s always been this way. The difference now is that the fascist wannabes perceive that the loss of the country to people not on their side is imminent. They can see that the loss of religious dominance is imminent. Permanent and significant climate change is imminent. And, of course, most importantly to them, a white minority is imminent.

    I see these Trumpist meatheads today as exactly the same people I knew in my small town growing up. The difference now is that everything is not falling their way, and being the small minded children they are, they are throwing a tantrum.

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