The Threat Posed By the Breaking of Norms in Our Politics

For a while now I’ve thought that one of the most dangerous aspects of Trump as president is that he does so many shocking things that we cease to be shocked. That is what people mean when they warn about “normalizing” Trump – when we get accustomed to shocking behavior, it begins to seem normal.

Prior to the election, David Frum wrote about the seven guardrails of democracy that Trump had broken during the campaign. Amanda Taub picks up on the same theme to discuss how Trump’s firing of James Comey tests the strength of the “guardrails of democracy” and why that is such a threat to the country.

…critics say that Mr. Trump has himself violated a longstanding norm of American politics: the unwritten rule that presidents should not remove the F.B.I. director without extreme justification, in order to avoid politicizing law enforcement…

Political scientists who study democracy and authoritarianism know the answers will be long debated. The true significance of Mr. Comey’s firing, they say, is that it presents a kind of stress test for American democratic institutions. In unhealthy systems, norm violations can spiral into tit-for-tat retaliation, ultimately tearing democracies apart. But in strong democracies, institutions will step in to enforce vital norms, preventing escalation and protecting the democratic system.

What struck me about Taub’s analysis was that what we’ve seen from Trump isn’t the beginning of a breakdown of norms, but an escalation of the process that was unleashed much earlier.

Because any attempt to look at how norms develop over time has to start at some point in history, the process of looking back in order to determine how we got here is going to start from an artificial break with what led up to that moment. But it’s interesting that both Frum and Taub point to one particular guardrail that is critical—partisanship. Here’s Frum:

Once you’ve convinced yourself that a president of the other party is the very worst possible thing that could befall America, then any nominee of your party—literally no matter who—becomes a lesser evil. And with that, the last of the guardrails is smashed.

Here’s Taub:

And so the main significance of Mr. Trump’s firing of Mr. Comey, some academics say, may be as a test of whether today’s institutions are strong enough to maintain limits on presidential power and ensure that law enforcement is protected from political influence, a hallmark of democracy.

Partisan polarization may make that harder. Since 1980, Republicans and Democrats have been reporting increasingly negative opinions of each other, and partisanship has become a kind of tribal identity that many people see as a representation of who they are and a team to support.

What came immediately to mind as I read that was Mitch McConnell’s statement at the height of the Great Recession that the number one goal for Republicans was to ensure that Obama was a one-term president. That kind of partisanship had been the basis for how McConnell rose to power in the Senate and had fueled the so-called “Gingrich revolution” (including the impeachment of a president for lying about a sexual affair). But perhaps McConnell was the first to state it so openly in the midst of a national crisis.

The word “unprecedented” (another way of saying norm-breaking) was used often during the Obama years to describe the response of Republicans. In order to implement their plan of total obstruction, they did things like use the filibuster with unprecedented frequency. That all led to the unprecedented decision to not even give a sitting president’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing. In other words, the guardrails of democracy were being challenged by an unprecedented level of partisanship over governance. Is it any wonder that those actions led to a Republican in the White House who shockingly breaks norms and fires an FBI director that is currently investigating his campaign? Further, is it any wonder that the party that implements such unprecedented actions isn’t interested in holding that president accountable?

That is the situation we face now. But Taub has an implicit warning for Democrats from the political scientists who have studied how this kind of norm-breaking has led democracies down an even more dangerous path.

In a healthy democratic system, when politicians violate important norms, other institutions push back, ensuring that the violators pay a hefty price and the guardrails are preserved for another day.

But in collapsing democracies, the opposite happens. Instead of banding together to protect democratic norms, warring parties take violations by their opponents as justification for breaking other norms in response. “It’s a process of escalation that often begins with minor stuff and ends with coups,” Mr. Levitsky said.

Of course, people don’t necessarily engage in that escalation with the intent of consolidating authoritarian power. But without the stability and protections those “guardrails” offer, normal democratic competition can spin into a partisan battle that ultimately tears democracies apart.

As Republicans attack the guardrails that could threaten our democracy, the opposing party has a very difficult decision to make. Do the Democrats continue to uphold the norms or do they give back in kind in a way that escalates the slide into authoritarianism? It seems to me that there is no good answer to that question, there is only bad and worse.

I believe that this is the question that guided President Obama as he saw that Republicans were intent on breaking the norms of democratic governance during his tenure in office. He knew that to engage in that kind of partisanship-to-the-death was dangerous. And it was his attempts to cling to the norms that most angered a lot of liberals.

Ultimately Obama was not successful in addressing the challenge that Republican pose to our democracy via their destruction of norms. But while he did what he could to uphold them, he knew that ultimately the answer to this crisis wouldn’t come from a president or any other politician. Here is what he said about that during his 2012 speech at the Democratic Convention:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

I’m sure that is what is driving Obama’s current emphasis on citizen engagement. Take a look at what he said about leadership last week, ending with a powerful statement about how we get the politicians we deserve.

It is unlikely that Republicans will stop their attempts to destroy the guardrails of democracy via this kind of tribal partisanship on their own. If Democratic politicians engage in a tit-for-tat of doing the same thing, an escalation is certain and the end is difficult to contemplate.

The key to stopping the descent of our democracy is ultimately in the hands of citizens who have the power to band together and send a message that this norm-breaking won’t be rewarded or even tolerated. That requires a clear articulation of the threat we now face.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.