Tag Archives: democratic norms

Will Our Barriers To Chaos Hold?

A couple of weeks ago, I read a column by Catherine Rampell that I can’t get out of my mind. Rampell began by recounting a remark by a Chinese venture capitalist who had opined that America was going through its own “Cultural Revolution.”

I remember China’s Cultural Revolution: Ushered in during the late 1960s by Chairman Mao, it was an incredibly tumultuous, traumatic period of political turmoil, supposedly intended to cleanse the People’s Republic of “impure and bourgeois” elements.

Universities were shuttered. Public officials were purged. Youth paramilitary groups, known as Red Guards, terrorized civilians. Citizens denounced teachers, spouses and parents they suspected of harboring capitalist sympathies.

Millions were uprooted and sent to the countryside for reeducation and hard labor. Millions more were persecuted, publicly humiliated, tortured, executed.

As Rampell notes, the reality of what happened in China seemed so remote from our current, relatively tame upheavals in the U.S., she laughed.

And yet I haven’t been able to get the comment out of my head. In the weeks since I’ve returned stateside, Li’s seemingly far-fetched analogy has begun to feel . . . a little too near-fetched.

Li said he saw several parallels between the violence and chaos in China decades ago and the animosity coursing through the United States today. In both cases, the countries turned inward, focusing more on defining the soul of their nations than on issues beyond their borders….

“Virtually all types of institutions, be it political, educational, or business, are exhausting their internal energy in dealing with contentious, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in basic identities and values — what it means to be American,” he said in a subsequent email exchange. “In such an environment, identity trumps reason, ideology overwhelms politics, and moral convictions replace intellectual discourse.”

We may not be exiling our academic “elites” to rural farms, as the Chinese did, but higher education is being demonized. Suddenly, what Rampell calls “cultural artifacts”– the Statue of Liberty and the American flag–have become politicized. Specific words and ideas–climate change, fetus– are stricken or banned from government communiqués.

Both Mao’s decade-long tumult and today’s Cultural Revolution with American characteristics also feature cults of personality for the national leader, who thrives in the surrounding chaos. Each also gives his blessing, sometimes explicitly, for vigilantes to attack ideological opponents on his behalf.

But the most troubling parallel is the call for purges.

Then, Mao and his allies led purges of political and military ranks, allegedly for seditious or just insufficiently loyal behavior. Today, White House officials, right-wing media hosts and federal lawmakers have called for a “cleansing” of the nation’s top law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, because the “deep state” is conspiring against the president.

Rampell ends her column with an observation that I have made on this blog more than once: our institutional arrangements–Separation of Powers, federalism, etc.– have thus far kept America from engaging in truly cataclysmic behaviors. I would add to that list respect for political “habits not embedded in the law, but compelling enough to be considered democratic norms.”

What differentiates the (fully cataclysmic) China then from the (only relatively chaotic) United Status now is, among other things, our political institutions. Our system of checks and balances. And perhaps a few statesmen willing to keep those institutions, checks and balances in place — occasionally turning their backs on their own political tribe.

The question we face is pretty obvious: will those institutions and norms hold?

The answer, unfortunately, is less obvious.

One Year Later, Same Song

A few days ago, I shared some observations from abroad about the importance of democratic norms. As JoAnn recently reminded me, almost exactly a year ago–early in January, before Trump was inaugurated–I had used an essay by Fareed Zakaria to offer similar cautions.

Zakaria warned about the prospect of what he called “illiberal democracy”–countries where people voted for leadership, but ignored the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law. Those regimes allowed the marginalization and oppression of minorities. They failed to protect freedom of the press. In other words, they were “democratic” only in the sense that they retained the franchise.

In my opinion, the “money quote” from Zakaria was this one:

What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

In the year since I commented on Zakaria’s observation, I have had many opportunities–too many–to report on the waning of those norms in the United States.

In the wake of the publication of Fire and Fury, amid all the consternation about Trump’s obvious mental incapacities, a friend made a point we too often miss: the problem isn’t Donald Trump, pathetic and ignorant and corrupt as he is. The problem isn’t even the American electorate– after all, as pundits routinely remind us, candidates other than Trump got 11 million more votes than he did. Clinton garnered three million more, and the rest were scattered among third and fourth-party candidates. He wasn’t exactly “the people’s” choice.

So what is our problem? I submit it is the behavior of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Not just McConnell and Ryan–although McConnell, especially, gets my vote for “most evil man in America”– but their obedient armies. Today’s Republican Senators and Representatives (and probably several Democrats, although they’ve had no opportunity to exhibit their version of bad behavior) have willingly abandoned those essential small-d democratic norms; they have traded them for partisan advantage.

Today’s Congressional Republicans consistently and routinely elevate party over country.

Yes, Donald Trump is an embarrassment and a danger. Yes, the Electoral College is an anachronism that has outlived any utility it ever had. Yes, the millions who did cast ballots based upon fear, ignorance and racial resentment share culpability. But the real “villains” of this sad story are the Republicans serving in what is supposed to be a co-equal branch of government who have abandoned even the pretense of statesmanship.

If those Republicans survive the midterms, American democracy (at least, as we’ve known it) won’t.

 

Constitutional Wisdom From Abroad

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the British Guardian. He recently attended the London opening of Hamilton, an event that prompted him to reflect upon his prior enthusiasm for America’s Constitution.  As he says, the musical’s idealism “struck a chord.”

In 2018, it will be 20 years since I published a book called Bring Home the Revolution. Begun when I was still in my 20s, it too was an essay in idealism, arguing that the American uprising of 1776 and the constitution that followed in 1787 were a rebellion against a system of government under which we Britons still laboured two centuries later – albeit with an overmighty, overcentralised government in place of the bewigged King George.

The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.

As Freedland tells it, his homage to our written constitution and its checks and balances came just before a series of somewhat embarrassing U.S. upheavals: the Clinton impeachment, ” hideous, only-in-America” mass shootings, and similar dysfunctions culminating in the election of Donald Trump, who–despite getting fewer votes–defeated “an infinitely more qualified opponent.”

Initially, Freedland says, he responded to these unsettling reminders of our lack of social perfection by reminding himself that he was admiring a founding ideal, not our nation’s flawed reality. But little by little, he has come to recognize some inadequacies in that founding ideal.

It’s time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.

The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president.

Freedland enumerates some of the norms Trump has ignored: refusal to divest himself of his business interests, appointing unqualified family members to high government posts (although, really–how would this unbelievably ignorant and incompetent man even recognize other people’s lack of qualifications?), firing James Comey. Etc. Then he returns to the institutional point:

But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.

Impeachment, of course, is a remedy, but as Freedland (and every other sentient observer) recognizes, nothing will happen so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.

In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like today’s Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once held sacred.

Ironically, if someone like Trump emerged in England, it would be easier to get rid of him; a parliamentary vote of no confidence is, as Freedland concedes, a lower hurdle than impeachment.

As perceptive as this essay is–and I encourage readers to click through and read it in its entirety–we are inescapably products of our own legal system, a system dependent upon adherence to our own democratic norms. (During the Constitutional debate over the addition of a Bill of Rights, Hamilton was among those making the point that written laws cannot address every possible way in which government can go off the rails.) Standards of behavior, expectations of decorum and propriety, and measures of competence are ultimately cultural artifacts, their breach punished by public opprobrium.

In November, we will see the extent to which America’s “unwritten Constitution” and democratic norms still hold.

THIS is What is so Worrisome

Fareed Zakaria is one of the more astute observers of American politics. Perhaps because of his familial background in the Middle East, where stability is rare and democratic institutions rarer, he has a focus on the institutions and norms that make liberal democracies possible. I remember being really impressed with his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom.

Last week, he had a perceptive and deeply troubling column in the Washington Post. As he began

Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.

As he points out, what we think of as democracy is really a marriage of two separate systems: the choice of political leadership by popular vote, and laws protecting fundamental individual liberties from both the government and those same popular majorities. Hence “liberal democracy.” Zacharia notes that in several countries, the two strands have separated, with democracy (in the form of the vote) persisting, but liberty “under siege.”

Here is what I believe to be his most important–and worrisome–point:

What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

I shared similar concerns in a post just last month. As Zakaria writes, we are now seeing what our American democracy looks like when those norms of democratic behavior and honorable public service erode, and populism becomes demagoguery.

The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant…What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?

I just finished reading an important book that gives “chapter and verse” on how we got to the place Zakaria describes. American Amnesia was written by eminent political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of U.C. Berkeley, and it details (as the subtitle promises) “how the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper.” I will discuss the book’s research and conclusions in blogs to come, but suffice it to say that their copious documentation amply supports Zakaria’s observations.

We can turn this around, but time is running out.

About Those Democratic Norms…

This morning’s New York Times contains a disquieting submission from two Harvard government professors. They began

Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed; indeed, no democracy as rich or as established as America’s ever has. Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.

We have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Our research points to several warning signs.

Pre-eminent among those warning signs is the emergence and electoral success of what the authors call “anti-democratic” politicians, who can be recognized by their failure–or refusal– to reject violence, willingness to curtail civil liberties, and their attacks on the legitimacy of elected governments. As they illustrate, Trump fits the bill.

Another warning sign is the weakening of democratic institutions and norms.

Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.

As the authors note, “partisan restraint” and other norms of democratic behavior have significantly eroded, replaced by naked power struggles.

The filibuster, once a rarity, has become a routine tool of legislative obstruction. As the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown, the decline of partisan restraint has rendered our democratic institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Republicans’ 2011 refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which put America’s credit rating at risk for partisan gain, and the Senate’s refusal this year to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — in essence, allowing the Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat — offer an alarming glimpse at political life in the absence of partisan restraint.

The erosion of these governing norms did not happen all at once; the signs of growing dysfunction have been visible–especially at the federal level–for decades. Although Trump did not cause the weakening of these safeguards, he was a clear beneficiary.

In the wake of November 8, pundits have scrambled to “explain” the election results. As James Fallows writes in “Despair and Hope in the Age of Trump,” most of those explanations are wrongheaded.

Fallows, too, underscores the importance of democratic norms, and the implications of Trump’s contempt for rules of any kind.

The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.

Fallows dismisses two popular explanations of that choice: the belief that this was a sweeping “change” election, and the theory that the vote reflected the “desperation and fury” of citizens living away from the liberal coasts. Change elections drive waves of incumbents out of office; as he notes, that didn’t happen. The “rage” theory is similarly wanting. As Fallows says, that theory misses

the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years….

A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.

It really is the media.

Count me among those who have become convinced that the decline of responsible journalism, the proliferation of “fake news” sites and the increasing sophistication of propaganda (Russian or homegrown)–abetted by a dangerous lack of civic literacy– are largely to blame for the disconnect between citizens and their national government, and for the erosion of those all-important democratic norms.

Fallows’ concluding paragraph is  profound.

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.