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.