Democracy Is Norm Erosion

by Corey Robin on January 29, 2018

Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that has kept coming back to me since: The discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought.

And now we have this oped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zilblatt, two of the premier scholars of norm erosion, about the dangers of norm erosion. Nowhere in it will you find the word authoritarianism, though there is a glancing reference to “Trump’s autocratic impulses.” What you find instead is concern about “dysfunction” and “crisis.”

What you find is this:

Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook. And if they retake the Senate in 2018, there is talk of denying President Trump the opportunity to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. This is a dangerous spiral.

Now imagine—bear with me—that it’s 2020, and Sanders is elected with a somewhat radicalized Democratic Party in Congress. Or if that’s too much to swallow, imagine some version of that (not necessarily Sanders or the Democrats but an empowered electoral left) in 2024. Or a realignment of the sort the US saw in 1932. Realignments always involve a contestation over norms; realignments change norms; realignments erode norms. And all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization—which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP—will now come rushing back at the left.

And how could they not? When you set up “norms” as your standard, without evaluating their specific democratic valence in each instance, the projects to which they are attached, how could you know whether a norm contributes to democracy, in the substantive or procedural sense, or detracts from it? How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or anti-democratic?

Levitsky and Zilblatt mention two norms: mutual toleration and forbearance in the exercise of power. Sometimes forbearance serves the cause of democracy; sometimes it does not. But by their lights, a lack of forbearance, by definition, becomes a problem for democracy.

Consider this revealing moment in the piece:

Could it happen here? It already has. During the 1850s, polarization over slavery undermined America’s democratic norms. Southern Democrats viewed the antislavery position of the emerging Republican Party as an existential threat. They assailed Republicans as “traitors to the Constitution” and vowed to “never permit this federal government to pass into the traitorous hands of the Black Republican Party.”

The authors want to posit the 1850s as a moment that “undermined America’s democratic norms,” strongly suggesting that prior to the 1850s, there was a robust enjoyment of democratic norms in America. Most of us would argue that when one portion of the people enslaves another, denying them their humanity (and the vote), there’s no real democratic norm in play. (Not to mention that one-half of the population, white and black, didn’t have the suffrage at all.) And while it would have been awfully nice if the southern slaveholders had simply agreed to vacate the stage of history peacefully, most of us realize that was never in the offing. Outside the South, wrote C. Vann Woodward, the end of slavery was “the liquidation of an investment.” Inside, it was “the death of a society.” These weren’t the sort of people to go gentle into that good night.

If American slavery were to be eliminated, someone had to call the question. That’s what the abolitionists (and the Republican Party) did. They polarized society. (For a representative example of how polarizing their discourse could be, read this.) And the result—however awful the Civil War was (and make no mistake, it was more awful than you can imagine)—was not the destruction of democracy and its norms but the creation of democracy —a “new birth of freedom,” Lincoln called it—which then got undone after Reconstruction, which was also a politics of norm-shattering.

As Jim Oakes has shown, the Southern Democrats were right to be terrified of the Republican Party, to see that party as an existential threat. The Republicans did want to destroy slavery, they did want to break the back of the slaveocracy, to gut a longstanding way of life. They wanted to do it peacefully, but they also understood that if war came, it would offer an opportunity to do it violently, an opportunity that they would not fail to seize. The Republicans were norm-breakers: they didn’t just want to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories (and whether limiting expansion of slavery was a norm in antebellum America is very unclear; in fact, we might say that the argument over that question was more the norm than any settlement of it; see Mark Graber’s book on Dred Scott); they wanted to limit that expansion as prelude to destroying the institution everywhere. Freedom national.

Levitsky and Zilblatt know that norm erosion and polarization were afoot during the 1850s. Only they want to put the onus entirely on the slaveholders. That way, they can take a stand against norm erosion without endorsing slavery; that way, they can pin the polarization of the era entirely on the Southern Democrats; that way, they can have their discourse of norm erosion and eat it, too. That’s politically understandable, in some sense, but wildly off the mark, historically.

And perhaps, in the end, not so politically understandable. For it suggests—no, says—that had the southerners merely shown some forbearance toward the Republicans, democratic norms would have persisted. On the question of slavery’s persistence, Levitsky and Zilblatt have nothing to say.

(I should note here that Zilblatt and I had an interesting exchange on these issues on Twitter.)

A similar, though perhaps less fraught, moment arises in their treatment of the Constitution:


We should not take democracy for granted. There is nothing intrinsic in American culture that immunizes us against its breakdown. Even our brilliantly designed Constitution cannot, by itself, guarantee democracy’s survival. If it could, then the republic would not have collapsed into civil war 74 years after its birth.



One of the last books Robert Dahl wrote was How Democratic is the American Constitution? His answer: not very. Yet in the same way that the discourse of norm erosion re-describes antebellum America, half of which was a slaveholder society, as a democracy, with democratic norms needing protection from polarizing forces, so does it re-describe the Constitution as a “brilliantly designed” text that is necessarily, though not sufficiently, connected to “democracy’s survival.”

What the oped does is show what the real object of concern is in the discourse of norm erosion: not authoritarianism, as I said, but extremism—whether that extremism comes from slaveholders or abolitionists, the Republicans shutting down the government to deny people healthcare or the Democrats shutting it down to allow immigrants to live here. Both sides do it.

To press the point a little further: Let’s take one of the cases that Levitsky and Zilblatt mention: the recent shutdown. Now one of the strongest arguments in favor of the notion that Trump is an authoritarian is the treatment of immigrants. The Democrats shut down the government in order to secure some sort of deal that would allow hundreds of thousands of Dreamers to live in the country where they have lived most of their lives. The question is: assuming a shutdown would secure that outcome, is a shutdown democracy-enhancing or norm eroding? Arguably, it’s both, and not in an unrelated way: arguably the latter is necessary to the former. Arguably, norm erosion is not antithetical to democracy but an ally of it.

If your highest value is the preservation of American institutions, the avoidance of “dysfunction,” the discourse of norm erosion makes sense. If it’s democracy, not so much. Sometimes democracy requires the shattering of norms and institutions.

I fully recognize that the devil is in that “sometimes.” Some norms should be shattered, some should not. Some norm erosion undermines democracy, some enhances it. But that’s the real discussion we need to have: not a general toxin against norm erosion as somehow the bane of democracy—which may set us up for a centrist politics but not for a democratic one—but a more normatively informed discussion of what democracy requires.

For now, I’ll merely leave us with this thought: Democracy is a permanent project of norm erosion, forever shattering the norms of hierarchy and domination and the political forms that aid and abet them.

{ 64 comments }

1

LFC 01.29.18 at 3:38 pm

My knowledge of the Levitsky/Ziblatt position comes from recently hearing them give a talk about their book How Democracies Die (and also from some subsequent informal conversation with Steve Levitsky).

During the q-and-a session, someone asked Levitsky how forcefully the Democrats should ‘push back’ against Trump (that’s my paraphrase of the question), and the questioner implied that the emphasis on mutual toleration and forbearance might lead to the Dems not being forceful enough. Steve’s reply was, roughly, that in some cases very forceful pushback indeed would be indicated, but it would be best if the Dems got as many allies in this, beyond the traditional Dem base, as possible. In answer to another question, Levitsky noted that the mutual Dem/Rep toleration of the period from c. 1877 to at least the early 1960s rested, in effect, on an acceptance by both sides of Jim Crow and racial exclusion, and he thereby implied that mutual toleration can come, as in that instance, at a very high moral price (he didn’t use those exact words; that’s my reading of the implication of his answer). He also during the talk said that “the Republican Party has to change,” i.e., become more than just an overwhelmingly white and Christian party, if the current dynamics of polarization are to be mitigated or reversed, though he did not say whether he thought that was likely to happen (or how likely).

Btw, Levitsky is a specialist on Latin American politics and Ziblatt a specialist on European politics (in historical perspective), and what they say about the U.S. is necessarily influenced by their study of other national trajectories/experiences. That doesn’t mean that everything they say about the U.S. is sensible/defensible/valid/etc., but I think it’s probably worth knowing where they’re coming from, in the sense just mentioned.

2

MisterMr 01.29.18 at 3:38 pm

Something that I think is related to this (I hope it’s not OT):

What is the “left”?
I think that the simpliest and largest definition of the “left” is “political egalitarianism”.

From this point of view, even things like freedom or democracy can be seen as a form of “egalitarianism”: for example a leftie will see keeping immigrants out as something against democracy, because then you have a fraction of the population that cannot vote, and against freedom, because then you have a fraction of the population that cannot live freely in the country; on the other hand a rightie could see kicking out the immigrant as an expression of the free and democratic will of the citizens.

So on the whole “freedom” from the point of view of a leftie means “equality of rights” (between, for example, immigrants and citiziens).

However the idea of egalitarianism was strongly shattered by the failure of the USSR, that after all was supposed to be an egalitarian society but turned out to be an authoritarian dictatorship.

So for a long period lefties (expecially people on the center left) choose to not utter the word “equality” anymore, and we are still at this point, where for example many people want an economy whit much less inequality but for some reason call this “economic democracy” instead of economic egalitarianism, so it sounds less extremist (which is funny because “economic democracy” literally means central planning).

I think that as long as the left isn’t able to be honest with itself, and cannot state clearly what it wants, it will be reduced to playing wack-a-mole with the various schemes of the right that it doesn’t like, using a vocabulary and a conceptual framework that it derives from the right, and therefore giving anodine condemnations of things it doesn’t like without being able to explain properly why it doesn’t like it (e.g. we don’t like Trump because he has some racist tendencies and because he is making clearly pro-rich policies, not for procedural reasons).

3

Mark Victor Tushnet 01.29.18 at 3:48 pm

4

bianca steele 01.29.18 at 4:02 pm

LFC: Interesting. It’s also interesting that “it would be best if the Dems got as many allies in this, beyond the traditional Dem base, as possible” might mean either the Ds should appeal more to socially conservative but economically populist members of the so-called “white working class,” or that the Ds should rescue American Rs like David Frum who feel they have lost the control of their party they believe they deserve, and help them regain it.

5

Layman 01.29.18 at 4:33 pm

For my money, “it would be best if the Dems got as many allies in this, beyond the traditional Dem base, as possible” is a recommendation that they get some unicorns.

6

J-D 01.29.18 at 5:03 pm

Respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse. Respect for institutions reinforces the power of those who already hold it; the democratic impulse is to reduce the power of those who already hold it.

7

Jim Harrison 01.29.18 at 5:08 pm

The “extremism” of pre-Civl War Republicans differed in one crucial way from whatever you call the radicalism proposed for modern Democrats. The former had a straightforward realizable goal, the abolition of slavery. The left these days has no such simple, feasible program. As readers of this blog ought to painfully aware, there is no clear-cut, doable program on order as a global replacement for the current system. Capitalism may be late capitalism; but however long- in-the-tooth it has become, it doesn’t seem to have a successor. It mutates constantly, of course; but each new form turns out to be another avatar, not a revolutionary alternative. There are plenty of things that can be done and need to be done, but “moderating inequality and finding ways to remedy the democratic deficit…” doesn’t fit on a poster. You wind up with a platform as long and unreadable as Hillary’s campaign brochure. Indeed, you petty much wind up with Hillary’s campaign brochure. Effective politics ideas are scrawled in crayon. Where’s our slogan? Or is the romance of the idea of revolution taking the place of a substantive aim?

8

anon 01.29.18 at 5:21 pm

“but a more normatively informed discussion of what democracy requires.”

Isn’t this statement fundamentally backwards? A reasonable simplification of ‘democracy’ is ‘will of the people.’ Thus, what democracy requires is simply ‘politically enact the will of the people.’

But your statement ‘normatively informed discussion of what democracy requires’ is not that: it is that the norms-whatever they are-precede the will of the people: democracy’s requirement is to fulfill norms: the will of the people is contingent on that (if in conflict, it is either overrules or transformed to eliminate the conflict, presumably).

In short: I don’t think your conflict is between ‘authoritarianism’ (whether Trump or Nixon, or 1850’s America) and ‘democracy’ (as traditionally defined). It is between your own view of a just society (presumably egalitarian in a way that our ‘democracy’ isn’t supporting) and others’ view of a just society (as one example: lotsa immigrants, or fewer immigrants). The fight between the two can take many forms: voting, Supreme Court declarations, riots or peaceable assemblies, or Civil War. But democracy doesn’t belong in this discussion.

anon

9

TM 01.29.18 at 5:33 pm

CR: “its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits”

Illustration: The Czech Republic is now getting a government led by a corrupt right-wing billionaire supported by the extreme right and the Communists. Progress against the rotten liberal status quo! I sincerely wonder whether Professor Robin has ever paid much attention to how democracies died in the interwar period.

10

steven t johnson 01.29.18 at 6:10 pm

Reading the op-ed first, I saw ” There were instances of executive overreach (Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon), but the most egregious abuses were checked by Congress and the courts.” There are always reasons why conventional wisdom is conventional, but it often seems that being wise is never one of them. Apparently Levitsky and Zilblatt think that executive overreach is identified not by being unilateral and highly consequential, but carried out in defiance of all previous norms. But for them executive overreach is like treason. If it’s successful, it’s not treason.

The most outrageous examples of executive overreach at a guess would be Jefferson’s Embargo Act; Jackson’s defiance of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Cherokee and permitting the South to censor the federal mails; Polk’s invading Mexico by crossing the Nueces River; James Buchanan’s refusal to act against secession; Andrew Johnson’s protection of mass terror; William McKinley’s creation of a colonial empire; Woodrow Wilson’s segregation orders; FDR’s undeclared naval war against Germany; Truman’s Korean War without a declaration of war. At least they noticed Nixon.

It’s odd enough that they really think acting against a grotesquely obstructive Supreme Court that repeatedly defied Roosevelt’s majorities in a mere Congress is really overreach, but it was slapped down…It is equally conventional wisdom that the court changed its policy and accepted the laws after the confrontation. Most of these breaches of previous norms were not successfully resisted. The one that came closest was the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. But everyone since has favored this failure of executive overreach, gratified to know that the President is the sovereign representative of the people.

And some of Nixon’s worst overreaching, notably the “secret” war in Cambodia (the Cambodians knew, how can that be called a secret?) and impoundment of funds and claiming executive privilege as part of escaping any legislative control…It is not clear that any of these could possibly have led to his impeachment, much less conviction. Perhaps memory misleads me but ordinary criminal offenses like burglary, perjury, obstruction of justice by destroying evidence were the ones that did him in. Executive overreach, not at all.

And as for the notion that courts stop executive overreach, the one example I can think of they didn’t list as executive overreach. But Thomas Jefferson’s intervention in the Aaron Burr treason trial surely counts. The thing is, I rather suspect the conventional wisdom holds that John Marshall was in the wrong. The thing is, despite ignoring it, political prosecutions are historically possibly the most destructive break in their forbearance. Terrorizing people by dismissal on mere accusation, as in the post-war purge of the left, would have been an even worse attack on democratic forbearance, were it not for that salutary effect of leaving a New Improved Real Left.

In short, Levitsky and Zilblatt like bipartisanship, that is, for the rulers to gang up against the rest of us. Then they write “American democracy retains important sources of strength, including vast national wealth, a vibrant media and civil society, and a robust judiciary and rule of law.” In fact, the economy is producing poverty at a rate that is apparently starting to shorten life spans; the media are heavily monopolized but committed to a reporting model of stenography of government claims no matter how preposterous, especially in foreign affairs; civil society is in terrible shape precisely because of the bigoted rage of the religious, and lastly, the judiciary is shockingly corrupt, and heavily infiltrated by the Federalist Society, the Masonic conspiracy of high-minded reaction.

As to the rest of the OP, haven’t read it yet.

11

bob mcmanus 01.29.18 at 6:24 pm

anon at 8 says what I would say

You say Democracy, and I remember Occupy. Of course everyone gets an equal vote, but before the vote is the discussion or discourse, and it is very difficult to give everyone an equal voice, and impossible without rules and norms. In a democracy these are provisional tools, reversible or suspended at any time, according to a process with its own norms and rules. But they remain necessary, so democracy is not only norm erosion, but also norm creation and maintenance. There will likely always be hierarchies and institutions created in the discourse, and these will be contingent and local. If we give speakers 5 minutes and call them alphabetically, perhaps the advantaged first ten will not be representative, and so the randomness must be countered by the application of a pre-existing norm. Etc

12

steven t johnson 01.29.18 at 6:31 pm

Typographical errors: “Apparently Levitsky and Zilblatt think that executive overreach is identified not by being unilateral and highly consequential, but carried out in defiance of all previous norms. But for them executive overreach is like treason. If it’s successful, it’s not treason…” should read “Apparently Levitsky and Zilblatt think that executive overreach is identified not by being unilateral and highly consequential, carried out in defiance of all previous norms. But for them executive overreach is like treason. If it’s successful, it’s not executive overreach.”

13

Paul Davis 01.29.18 at 6:44 pm

I find it somewhat telling to juxtapose these two fragments, one from the book, one from the Robin/Zilblatt twitter exchange. Book:

We should not take democracy for granted. There is nothing intrinsic in American culture that immunizes us against its breakdown. Even our brilliantly designed Constitution cannot, by itself, guarantee democracy’s survival. If it could, then the republic would not have collapsed into civil war 74 years after its birth.

Twitter (Zilblatt):

In our book we say nascent norms of mutual toleration emerging in early 19th cent Fully agree america was NOT a democracy pre 1965, let alone 1860. The short hand “democratic norms” is admittedly misleading. Main point: we have no normative prefer for stability over democracy

The first quote is rendered irrelevant if they acknowledge that during the time period under discussion, the US was not actually a democracy. That’s not just “misleading”, its not even on the field.

14

mpowell 01.29.18 at 6:54 pm

There is some subtlety to this argument, but on the whole I disagree with it – both the title and final thoughts. You sustain a healthy democracy through the establishment and maintenance of appropriate norms, especially related to institutional structures. Democracy and a rights based system of government is otherwise not a normal condition of human politics. And yes, sometimes it might be worth breaking some eggs to make your omelette – 1850s America being a prime example. If you think our current state is a similar example… I think your risk and/or value assessment is grossly in error.

15

Adam 01.29.18 at 7:12 pm

But you don’t necessarily choose the norms that get broken. And the norm you break today in the name of “democracy” can be cited by your worst political enemy to justify breaking another norm you cherish tomorrow.

Norms are laws backed by less than the violence of the state. Be careful breaking norms, Roper, lest the devil turn round on you and you find yourself without a place to hide.

16

LFC 01.29.18 at 7:52 pm

@ Paul Davis
The name is spelled Ziblatt, not Zilblatt. The latter is a typo in the OP.

One could argue that the early American republic was a highly imperfect, compromised sort of democracy, becoming a democracy in the full sense only gradually (with women suffrage, then eventually the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its enforcement). A similar kind of argument could be made e.g. re Britain (1832, 1867, 1884 Reform Bills etc.).

What you (P. Davis) have done, btw, is juxtapose a quote from an op-ed with a quote from Twitter. The latter, I would suggest, is not probative of much of anything given the necessarily telegraphic nature of tweets.

On a more general point:
It’s not clear to me that L/Z would disagree w the penultimate paragraph of the OP, which says that *some* norm erosion undermines democracy, whereas *some* enhances it. Indeed, put in this general way, they’d probably agree. Then the discussion, to be more fruitful, would have to become more specific (and not only w.r.t. the 1850s).

Btw R. Mickey’s book on the democratization of the U.S. South is relevant here, and is something that L/Z consulted.

17

LFC 01.29.18 at 8:01 pm

Further to my comment @14:

Antebellum America certainly looked like a democracy (of a particular kind) to Tocqueville, who happened to be quite sensitive to the way it was compromised by slavery and by the treatment of Native Americans.

18

Whirrlaway 01.29.18 at 8:20 pm

Norms support process. Bending norms into new shapes is how culture progresses, but in the meantime no norms is exactly anarchy. Forbearance in the exercise of power is just what a norm is, you can’t do any old thing just because you can. If contending parties can’t arrive at mutual toleration, that is forbear in the exercise of their power, then what you have is a dogfight. Evidently you can still have majoritarianism, but not the desired quality of respect for minorities (racial, sexual, ethnic).

That’s the present situation. Even Authoritarianism has its norms of submission to the authority, whereas the cultural ideal is all about individualism, self-empowerment, self-actualization. T is an authoritarian in his own mind but he lacks what it takes. Not so different than Hillary or any of our other pols in this regard. The question for the future would seem to be just how far down the anarchy hole we are going to have to go this time before we can construct some society-scale norms useable for the next round.

… about Slavery, I agree that it is an abomination, but I can’t understand why people are willing to unreservedly commit to the idea that the Civil War (which both sides drastically failed to anticipate the awfulness of) was the best way to proceed. Slavery was and is an age-old evil that was and is gradually gradually getting rolled back. 19c Abolitionism was a global movement that had already generally peacefully closed the international trade and emancipated many places. How long before there would have been an embargo on Southern cotton? As it is, all that death and destruction and the racist norms didn’t get bent, the South didn’t get reconstructed, and as you would expect here it is in revolt again. Shall we do better this time?

19

NomadUK 01.29.18 at 9:02 pm

Be careful breaking norms, Roper, lest the devil turn round on you and you find yourself without a place to hide.

I just love that film so much. What a fabulous piece of work.

20

patiniowa 01.29.18 at 9:25 pm

This partly depends on how one sees history, right? My conservative brother thinks that William F. Buckley changed his position on lynching (he was for it) because his thinking evolved and he was persuaded that killing human beings in the service of Jim Crow was wrong.

I think he changed his position because he lost a battle to people who didn’t care all that much about civility.

As suggested above, breaking one norm (don’t march down the street calling whitey “racist”) was necessary to create another (don’t burn Black people alive for being uppity).

We should all read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” every day.

21

TM 01.29.18 at 9:47 pm

J-D 6: “Respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse. Respect for institutions reinforces the power of those who already hold it; the democratic impulse is to reduce the power of those who already hold it.”

Don’t you think it matters a slight little bit who is doing the disrespect and what is being disrespected, and how the disrespect is being expressed? When the autocrat in control of the state apparatus disrespects the institutions that are supposed to limit his power, is that on the same plane as a powerless opposition group expressing its disrespect for the autocrat? Is Donald Trump on the same plane as Pussy Riot because both break norms as a means of politics? Is Trump’s norm-breaking – his openly expressed racism and misogyny, his attacks on the press, attacks on judges, critics, people with handicap, his habitual lying and bullying and so on – likely “to reduce the power of those who already hold it”?

That I even have to ask these questions is kind of depressing.

22

Brett 01.29.18 at 10:57 pm

I fully recognize that the devil is in that “sometimes.” Some norms should be shattered, some should not. Some norm erosion undermines democracy, some enhances it.

This. TM brought up the Czech example, but you could also use Venezuela after Chavez, or the end of the Roman Republic. There’s always a serious risk that norm erosion will enable harsher elite competition and/or oligarchical capture, which can then break a regime – and it rarely breaks democratic after that (authoritarianism is much more common).

But I agree that it often has to be done. It’s just a risk, I suppose.

23

christian h. 01.30.18 at 12:43 am

TM @21: It’s the liberal discourse around norm erosion that ignores the question of who is doing the disrespecting and who is being denied respect. That this needs to be pointed out to you is, to quote someone, kind of depressing. Of course you also seem to believe the postwar fairy tale (designed to facilitate the reinstallation of the very people in government who had allowed the fascists into power in the first place, and administered that power on behalf of the fascists) that European democracies in the interwar period were brought down by the extremist rabble eroding democratic norms, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

24

LFC 01.30.18 at 1:11 am

Have read the OP more carefully, and the op-ed, but have commented at C. Robin’s blog so won’t reproduce here what I said there.

But as for steven t johnson @10, any executive action he views as reactionary or retrogressive he labels overreach. But ‘overreach’ is being used here to mean something much more specific.

Constitutionally and by Sup Ct precedent, for ex., presidents have wide though not unlimited authority in foreign affairs. So a lot of actions that s t johnson (and I) might not like in that area are not necessarily ‘overreach’ in the sense of going beyond one’s legal powers or authority. Some may be and some may not; there are gray areas when it comes to presidential authority generally, as Justice Jackson, iirc, said in the famous opinion in the Steel Seizure case that all con law students have to read.

25

Faustusnotes 01.30.18 at 1:52 am

Surely if the GOP in 2016 refused to confirm a judge and got away with it they have set a new norm; so if the Dems do it in 2019 they’re upholding a norm.

26

Paul Davis 01.30.18 at 2:21 am

LFC @ 16: I’m not taking a position (here and now) on whether or not the pre-1965 or pre-civil war USA was or was not a democracy.

I am taking a position, however, on “the necessarily telegraphic nature of twitter.”

If Ziblatt agrees with Tocqueville (which is a fairly defensible position), then I cannot see why he would write (capitalization his): Fully agree america was NOT a democracy pre 1965, let alone 1860., even on twitter.

Clearly Robin and Ziblatt’s twitter exchange, they did close the gap a little on their difference of opinion. But I have no idea how Ziblatt reconciles the claim that what happened with the civil war was a failure to protect a democracy with his apparently strong feeling that there wasn’t an actual democracy to protect.

Presumably, democracy comes in shades of democratic-ness, and their point is merely that whatever has existed at any point in time is still worth of protecting, even if it’s not a “real” democracy. That’s a position worth defending, which you don’t do by saying Fully agree america was NOT a democracy pre 1965, let alone 1860. in response to Robin’s point.

27

steven t johnson 01.30.18 at 3:36 am

LFC@24 Near as I can tell L&Z’s notion of overreach very much includes things that are arguably justified, yet nevertheless are violations of the unspoken rules. Against mos maiorum, not against the law. Examples I came up with tend to be reactionary because most presidents are reactionary, not because I think reactionary defines overreach. Were it not that L&Z practically define overreach as the executive being defeated, probably the biggest example of unilateral executive action changing things was the Emancipation Proclamation. Except most people favor that one. FDR packing (or reforming) the Supreme Court in my view is more like Jackson’s pet banks, more reaction than overreach.

The quarrels about whether the US was a democracy before **** tend to rest upon a surreptitious identification of “democracy” with socialism, or at least social democracy, a kind of poli.sci. steampunk. Democracy in ancient Athens and Sparta, or the ancient Roman Republic, was about a political system that united the population so that they could conquer their enemies. It was a way to rise above tribalism (in the original sense of the word, not in John Holbo’s newfangled version.)

But ultimately democracy was about preventing stasis (civil war.) This is where the notion of democracy as majority rule comes into its full importance I think. In a civil war, the side with the most adherents has an edge to win. Instead of actually fighting it out, counting noses serves as a less destructive substitute. The ages long disdain for democracy was precisely because this was not conducive to minority rule, the preferred system of ruling classes everywhere always.

Democracy as the high road to empire did not require equality of all persons. In fact for most of history democracy meant mixed government in which there were distinctly different classes. The “democratic” element was about the way the common people were at least one of the classes represented. The extreme egalitarianism of the Spartan version approached a primitive communism (emphasis on primitive.) But in the Roman version the centuriate assembly openly relegated the lower strata to a generally nominal role, with the tribunes exerting no more than veto power (literally.)

In my opinion anyone who somehow decides that the American Revolution was not a democratic revolution because, for instance, the new nation was dedicated to conquest, is a prisoner of illusions about what democracy is for.

28

J-D 01.30.18 at 7:45 am

TM

J-D 6: “Respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse. Respect for institutions reinforces the power of those who already hold it; the democratic impulse is to reduce the power of those who already hold it.”

Don’t you think it matters a slight little bit who is doing the disrespect and what is being disrespected, and how the disrespect is being expressed? When the autocrat in control of the state apparatus disrespects the institutions that are supposed to limit his power, is that on the same plane as a powerless opposition group expressing its disrespect for the autocrat? Is Donald Trump on the same plane as Pussy Riot because both break norms as a means of politics? Is Trump’s norm-breaking – his openly expressed racism and misogyny, his attacks on the press, attacks on judges, critics, people with handicap, his habitual lying and bullying and so on – likely “to reduce the power of those who already hold it”?

That I even have to ask these questions is kind of depressing.

I am sorry to hear that asking the questions depressed you. Now that they have been asked, I hope it helps somewhat that I am happy to answer them.

To the first question: yes, I do think it matters a bit who is doing the disrespect, what is being disrespected, and how the disrespect is expressed; but a sound general principle does not cease to be one solely because qualifications in detail are applicable.

To the second question: no, it’s not the same; but one way it’s not the same is that in an autocracy, by definition, the autocracy itself is the most powerful and important institution, and the autocrat demands respect for it, harnessing the anti-democratic impulse to respect institutions; also, autocrats by definition disrespect other people, and while respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse, respect for people is a democratic one.

To the third question: no, they aren’t; but the question is framed to ask about the breaking of norms, a subject on which I didn’t comment; it was respect for institutions which I averred is an anti-democratic impulse, not respect for norms; ‘respect no norms’ would itself be a norm, and therefore self-undermining, but ‘respect no institutions’ is not an institution.

To the fourth question: some of Trump’s breakings of norms do involve disrespect for institutions and are therefore, again, outside the scope of what I was asserting; his misogyny and racism, for example, are not directed at institutions or at established holders of power; if he does sometimes attack established institutions then, yes, in those instances, as far as they go, he is attacking some of the holders of power, but obviously he does not attack or disrespect the most powerful institution of all, the Presidency, but rather demands increased respect for it, expressing an anti-democratic impulse; clearly his behaviour generally is not governed by any democratic impulse, and this remains true even if the point is subject to qualification in detail.

29

TM 01.30.18 at 10:12 am

christian 23: “It’s the liberal discourse around norm erosion that ignores the question of who is doing the disrespecting and who is being denied respect.”

Point me to some examples. I am not aware of anybody in the “Trump is dangerous for democracy” camp who frames the argument in that way, that the problem with Trump is merely his norm violations, regardless of what norms are violated and to what end, without reference to the specific reasons why the particular violations Trump commits matter. I have followed the debate quite closely, I have myself participated in anti-Trump protest events, and I have *never* encountered the strawman argument you are putting up here.

J-D 28: The term “institutions” doesn’t simply refer to “holders of power”. For example parliamentary democracy can be referred to as an institution, separate from the particular people who hold positions of power within that institution at a given point in time. When one refers to the judiciary as an institution, one doesn’t refer to the people who currently happen to be judges but to the function of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Further, when you equate opposition to established institutions with a “democratic impulse”, you completely disregard the question of what motivates that opposition: it could, and often is, be motivated just as well by an antidemocratic or autocratic impulse. Hitler sincerely hated the Republic and its institutions, and he even spent time in prison for trying to bring it down. Your argument, if it were true, would prove Hitler’s “democratic impulse”. Or perhaps for that minor historical figure we need to make one of those “qualifications in detail” while holding on to the “sound general principle”.

For most of my life, it was true that those who questioned the political system did so mostly from a progressive point of view. They criticized established institutions as undemocratic, uninclusive, unjust. The impulse to disrespect those institutions, the disruptive violation of the norms of political discourse, was mostly a domain of the left. That isn’t true any more. Leftists still must question the political system and oppose unjust institutions but they must understand that the rhetoric of disrespect and norm violation and disruption isn’t automatically progressive any more. The extreme right (as well as a new generation of plutocrats, often aligned with the right) have learned to use those weapons for the opposite purpose. We are now in the position of the SPD in the Weimar era who had to defend a flawed, very imperfect political system against those who wished to bring it down – not in order to make it better but to make it worse. And like those defenders of the Republic, it seems that we have to contend with a fraction of the left that recklessly cheers the demise of the hated, flawed, imperfect system. Only today, we don’t have the excuse of ignorance. We know how the story continued.

30

steven t johnson 01.30.18 at 2:23 pm

Jim Harrison@7 ” Where’s our slogan? Or is the romance of the idea of revolution taking the place of a substantive aim?”

Sorry, forgot to comment on this earlier.

The real difficulty of course is, who is this “we?” So I can’t say what Jim Harrison would want. But if it seems pretty easy to come up with a bunch of pithy placards, ranging from “Kill the billionaires” and “Hang the warmongers” to “Production for use” and “The abolition of classes.” The traditional, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” is a trifle long. Also, the strong hate the idea they should be required to do the heavy lifting.

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PGD 01.30.18 at 2:28 pm

The institutionalist backlash to Trump is pretty clearly anti-democratic, as one would expect given that Trump was democratically elected, as was the Congress that supports him. A pro-democratic response to Trump would focus on organizing to beat Trump in the next election and threatening Congress-people who support Trump with being beaten in the next election. It wouldn’t focus on questioning the legitimacy of elections and getting the secret police to throw Trump out of office based on a far-fetched story about collusion with foreigners. This is pretty obvious, it takes some effort to overlook it.

There was a recent piece by Jeet Heer in TNR attacking those who supposedly minimize Trump’s authoritarianism, which calls out Corey among others, and includes the following tidbit:

“Put another way, governance is not just a matter of enacting policies, but having stable norms. Among those norms is to respect the autonomy of those referee institutions which hold power accountable (law enforcement, the media).”

So democratic governance is a matter of having a police state! (“Respecting the autonomy of law enforcement” — fully autonomous law enforcement is a police state). Respecting the autonomy of the press is also rather transparent, since what is clearly meant by the “press” here is only those who already agree with the preferred narrative, not e.g. Breitbart or Wikileaks or Fox or Glenn Greenwald.

(Heer piece linked here — https://newrepublic.com/article/146748/trump-weak-effective-authoritarian)

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Glen Tomkins 01.30.18 at 3:23 pm

No one has mentioned the strongest concrete example of anti-slavery extremism and norm-shattering, state and local nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Had the Civil War been, to its participants, the struggle between states’ rights Southerners and Unionist Northerners, the victorious North would have passed amendments getting rid of Art IV, sec 4, the 2d Amendment and the 10th Amendment, the Constitutional basis of nullification and secession. Instead they used the absence of Southern delegations in Congress and Southern state houses in the 3/4 needed for amendments to pass, to pass the 13-15th Amendments to get rid of slavery and make blacks equal. The North failed to end states’ rights because their assertion of states’ rights was credited with the resolve to fight the war, and then to win its opening, critical phases.

Had there been no nullification movement in the North, there would have been no focus of resistance to the slavocracy. Nullification galvanized the North, showed abolitionist forces their true strength at a time when we didn’t have polling to measure popular opinion. When the administration failed to even threaten to send in the US Army to stomp out nullification and enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, that told slavocrats and abolitionists both that the slavocracy had too weak a hold on the federal govt to allow that govt to move against states’ right abolitionism. The decades’ long domination of the federal govt by Democrats was a paper tiger. A revolt by anti-slavery forces was to be feared, because it would succeed. The Republican victory in 1860 could not have happened without the nullification movement showing that anti-slavery had already won, already commanded at least an electoral majority.

Had the Illinois militia not been more mobilized and ready to move, because of the activities of the Wide Awake paramilitary wing of the Republican Party, than Missouri’s, Missouri would have been able to complete the secession it started. The same applies to the Massachusetts militia and Maryland. The Confederacy likely would have won if Missouri and Maryland had been allowed to secede instead of being forcibly held in the Union by the invasion of federalized Republican state militias.

The North did not end states’ rights in the aftermath of the Civil War because it rightly attributed its victory to nullification and state militias large enough to overawe the federal armies.

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Random Scot 01.30.18 at 4:31 pm

Does Joe Arpaio’s repeated election to the post of Sheriff of Maricopa County between 2000 and 2012 represent ‘democracy’? Anybody who claims to want democracy needs to reflect on that matter.

I believe a substantial portion of the electorate craves authoritarianism and will vote for authoritarian candidates in elections.

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Jerry Vinokurov 01.30.18 at 6:38 pm

The pearl-clutching about “norms” is the ne plus ultra of modern-day centrist liberalism, bereft as it is of any identifiable moral center. The rending of garments about how awful it would be if Democrats became an actual opposition party perfectly illustrates the slavish devotion to a procedure for which all justifications have long faded away. It’s nothing more than advocacy for unilateral disarmament, and if elected Democrats had any sense and spine, they would do the absolute opposite. It is positively good to shut down the government if that government is run by right-wing reactionaries. It’s actually good if ICE can’t get funding or if Scott Pruitt has to spend an extra day at home rather than working to actively undermine the EPA.

“Norms” don’t matter to anyone who actually has to live with the consequences of politics. Unlike conservatives, liberals have yet to learn the basic political principle that you reward your friends and punish your enemies; the only question that matters is who has the power and what they will do with it, or, in Lenin’s formulation, “кто кого?” Everything else is either posturing, disingenuous, or both.

35

Just loooking 01.30.18 at 7:32 pm

This might prompt a question: what does a given erosion of norms achieve? Freeing the slaves is about as big as it gets. And the tangible outcomes of recent norm erosion in the cultural sphere by progressives are… what, exactly?

36

Howard 01.30.18 at 9:30 pm

The focus on norms misses the point. Norms, like laws, are sometimes beneficial and sometimes repressive. In the South, many unjust laws were broken by civil rights activists. Should we then say that democracy is law-breaking? Clearly not– it’s hard to imagine a democracy surviving like that. Does this really need saying?

The real problem with the op-ed is the usual desire to blame both sides. The fact is, all the Democratic examples he cites are responses to Republican breaches of norms. He could’ve added the Democrats’ use of the nuclear option, which was a response to a breach of the norms on confirmation of judges. I suspect that the sam is true of the pre-Civil War era: there weren’t “canings,” there was one (near-fatal) caning of a Massachusetts senator by a senator from South Carolina, This mania to blame both sides undermines democratic accountability moree than anything.

@6Respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse. Respect for institutions reinforces the power of those who already hold it; the democratic impulse is to reduce the power of those who already hold it.

No, respect for institutions is an anti-chaos impulse. Lack of respect for democratic institutions is an authoritarian or fascist impulse.

@18 T is an authoritarian in his own mind but he lacks what it takes. Not so different than Hillary or any of our other pols in this regard.

Yes, and let’s add Mussolini and Martin Luther King. All pretty much ther samer. WTF??

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Jason Osgood 01.30.18 at 11:54 pm

Gerrymandering made candidates more partisan.

Escalating campaign costs and increased control over K Street made defections less common.

Restoring “balance” (the consensus, the ability to govern) requires reversing these two phenomenon.

I recommend

1) Replacing FPTP with Approval Voting for executive races and Proportional Representation for assemblies.

2) Public financing of campaigns.

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Ray Vinmad 01.31.18 at 2:24 am

Here are some norms that eroded. Note: They aren’t norms that everyone believed in deeply. They are simply ideas that people in national office almost always hesitated to openly oppose. The period of norms I’m speaking of was short-lived, of course.

Still, presence of these norms was a fairly good thing.

(1) The idea that any citizen could be as American as any other citizen, whatever their race, ethnicity or religion.

(2) The idea that no American should face severe and lasting economic deprivation…This got gradually downgraded to the idea that no working American should face severe and lasting economic deprivation. This norm is almost invisible now.

(3) The idea that all Americans are entitled to a good education. The norm that this should include higher education was a bit more short-lived than the K-12 norm.

(4) There was a lot of bipartisan back-and-forth about prisoners & whether to empathize with them rather than dehumanize them. But that’s another place norms have eroded significantly.

Yes, there was a lot of secret norm-violation in foreign policy. But now there can be open violation in foreign policy without reprisal. This is also a norm that has degraded. There was a much stronger anti-intervention contingent in Congress–even up through the mid-90s.

What people are also talking about with ‘norm erosion’ is that certain events were regarded as career-killing scandals that would hardly be remarked upon now. It’s unlucky there’s be Iran-Contra hearings now, even if Democrats had more power.

I’m not sure what people would say if we began to re-live some of the stories of the Bush years, like Abu Ghraib. But I think the outcry would not elicit public explanations or apologies.

There are others. This is actually why people will talk about past Republicans (delusional, of course) with fondness. They miss the norms.

(MisterMr. I love this comment. I agree completely.)

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F. Foundling 01.31.18 at 3:26 am

@TM 01.29.18 at 5:33 pm

>The Czech Republic is now getting a government led by a corrupt right-wing billionaire supported by the extreme right and the Communists. Progress against the rotten liberal status quo!

That support is only hypothetical for the time being, but for context, I would like to point out that the opposing side includes mostly neoliberals (since this term seems to confuse people here, I’ll spell it out: pro-spending cuts, pro-austerity, anti-welfare state, pro-privatisation) and social conservatives, united even in issues like the advocacy of the restoration of church property from Austro-Hungarian times, who fielded an extreme neoliberal Austro-Hungarian aristocrat speaking with a German accent as a presidential candidate last time. Certainly, the newly re-elected president Zeman has been exploiting anti-Muslim fears cynically (largely a theoretical issue due to the virtual absence of Muslims in the country and the opposition to immigration across the political spectrum), and the billionaire Babiš, while mostly a centrist populist rather than an emphatic right-winger, is most likely corrupt in one way or another (corruption being rampant in the country anyway). However, it was, as usual, precisely the rotting of the status quo that made the success of their respective strategies possible. The centre-left (which supported Zeman, who originally belonged to it) has lost most of its support, due in large part to conducting neoliberal policies itself; and, in the absence of a genuine and credible left, cynical populists have flourished, with Czech politics being reduced to a culture war between cultural/symbolic populists and cultural/symbolic elitists (‘the Prague café society’), in addition to geopolitical differences (flirtation with geopolitical foes of the US vs. completely slavish alignment with US and German foreign policy). This mutation of politics into a symbolic culture war is a well-known recipe from the US and more part of the status quo than a rejection of it. Zeman and Babiš are unsavoury, but I see absolutely no reason to lament, from a left-wing perspective, the defeat of their opponents either; what I do lament is the vacuum that they have occupied.

@MisterMr 01.29.18 at 3:38 pm
>many people want an economy whit much less inequality but for some reason call this “economic democracy” instead of economic egalitarianism, so it sounds less extremist (which is funny because “economic democracy” literally means central planning).

Well, apart from democratic central planning, there is always the possibility that one means some form of direct decentralised democracy: council communism, anarcho-syndicalism and suchlike. In any case, I do like the term ‘economic democracy’ because it emphasises both an important part of what is wrong with capitalism and an important part of what is needed for meaningful socialism. If anyone simply means and wants more equality in the distribution of money, goods and access to services, regardless of the way in which those are achieved, they certainly shouldn’t call that ‘economical democracy’; equality in empowerment, including the ability to make individual *and* collective decisions about issues that affect one, is crucial, and the equality of money, goods and access to services is a necessary part (both a cause and an effect) of that empowerment.

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J-D 01.31.18 at 6:01 am

TM

The term “institutions” doesn’t simply refer to “holders of power”. For example parliamentary democracy can be referred to as an institution, separate from the particular people who hold positions of power within that institution at a given point in time. When one refers to the judiciary as an institution, one doesn’t refer to the people who currently happen to be judges but to the function of an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

In practice, people exhibit respect for parliament by exhibiting respect for members or officers of parliament when they are discharging their parliamentary functions; in practice, people exhibit respect for the judiciary by exhibiting respect for judges or officers of the court when they are discharging their judicial functions. You can’t, in practice, have one without the other.

Further, when you equate opposition to established institutions with a “democratic impulse”, you completely disregard the question of what motivates that opposition: it could, and often is, be motivated just as well by an antidemocratic or autocratic impulse.

I failed to make myself as clear as I could have. I do not affirm that every time respect is shown to an institution it reflects an anti-democratic impulse, still less do I affirm that every time an institution is opposed it reflects a democratic impulse. A general propensity to show respect for institutions, not just when there are other reasons to do so but even when there aren’t, reflects an anti-democratic impulse; at least as importantly, and probably more so, a general demand to show respect for institutions, not just when there are other reasons to do so but even when there aren’t.

Since you mentioned the judiciary, I’ll use the example of judges. Judges typically have a difficult and important job to do. Like anybody else who has a difficult and important job to do, they deserve respect if they do it well. But judges who don’t do their job well don’t deserve respect just for being judges. The same is true of the President of the United States, or anybody else who holds a position of institutional power.

Hitler sincerely hated the Republic and its institutions, and he even spent time in prison for trying to bring it down. Your argument, if it were true, would prove Hitler’s “democratic impulse”. Or perhaps for that minor historical figure we need to make one of those “qualifications in detail” while holding on to the “sound general principle”.

Hitler did not exhibit a general propensity to oppose institutions as such. He disrupted some institutions, but he also created or greatly strengthened others.

For most of my life, it was true that those who questioned the political system did so mostly from a progressive point of view. They criticized established institutions as undemocratic, uninclusive, unjust. The impulse to disrespect those institutions, the disruptive violation of the norms of political discourse, was mostly a domain of the left. That isn’t true any more. Leftists still must question the political system and oppose unjust institutions but they must understand that the rhetoric of disrespect and norm violation and disruption isn’t automatically progressive any more. The extreme right (as well as a new generation of plutocrats, often aligned with the right) have learned to use those weapons for the opposite purpose. We are now in the position of the SPD in the Weimar era who had to defend a flawed, very imperfect political system against those who wished to bring it down – not in order to make it better but to make it worse. And like those defenders of the Republic, it seems that we have to contend with a fraction of the left that recklessly cheers the demise of the hated, flawed, imperfect system. Only today, we don’t have the excuse of ignorance. We know how the story continued.

The SPD in the Weimar era–that is, in the last part of the Weimar era–was in the position of resisting powerful institutions. The Presidency was an institution; the Chancellorship was an institution; the Cabinet was an institution. Resisting these institutions meant aligning with or defending other institutions such as the Reichstag, but the reason for siding with the Reichstag against the Presidency, the Chancellorship, and the Cabinet was not because of their properties as institutions but because of what those institutions were doing, or trying to do (which is equivalent to saying, what the people who were wielding the power of those institutions at that time were doing or trying to do). Likewise, a contemporary American trying to decide which side to take in a conflict between the Presidency and the Congress, or between the Presidency and the Supreme Court, or between the Congress and the Supreme Court, or between the Senate and the House of Representatives, or between the Federal government and a State government, should choose not on the basis of their properties as institutions, but on the basis of what the President, the Senators, the Representatives, the Justices, and the Governors are trying to do. In the current circumstances, are you calling for more respect for the Presidency?

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nastywoman 01.31.18 at 8:01 am

Okay? –
as my ”norm erosion” comment was deleted let’s try to argue in a more ”normal normative” way.

You are… afraid? that ”all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization—which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP—will come rushing back at the left.” – and I argued – that there is no danger – as it might be true that ”the devil is in that “sometimes.” –
and
”That some norms should be shattered, some should not. Some norm erosion undermines democracy, some enhances it” – which led to your question:
”How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or anti-democratic?” – which in Trumps case is as easy to answer as almost all the questions Trump himself presents.
And –
like you – I somehow didn’t like the Levitsky and Zilblatt mentioning of ”the polarization over slavery” either – which supposedly ”undermined America’s democratic norms”.
And I much rather would like to point to the reasons Trump believed that the Special Counsel Mueller should be fired.
They were: a) Mueller carried a grudge over membership fees at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.
b) Mueller had worked most recently for the law firm that represented Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and
c) Mueller had talked to Trump about returning as FBI director shortly before being named special counsel.
These ”reasons” without any questions are ”norm erosions” which threaten any democracy which is -(kind of?) build on… getting ”reasonable”… or let’s call it ”straightforward” answers to questions – any ”democratic” questions –
as why?????! –
if all what Trump really wants is a ”golden toilet” –
WHY????! is he asking for a Van Gogh?

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nastywoman 01.31.18 at 8:19 am

and –
as without any doubt ”Democracy Is Norm Erosion” – the very democratic tendency to answer any question now with Monty Python’s:

”and now to something completely else” –
(like ”Golfing”?) – don’t have to lead to some 1850s, polarization over slavery undermining America’s democratic norms”.

In order to argument in such an absurd way the ”norm erosion” of wanting a Van Gogh instead of the far more ”fitting” golden toilet is a far better and more contemporary ”norm erosion” of our democracy!

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dax 01.31.18 at 8:58 am

“Norm erosion” seems to be used here for “norm change”, which does not seem to me to be the same thing. FWIW I’d suggest that norm change alters democratic outcomes as much as if not more than democratic outcomes alter norm change. The logic of this would be: norms tend to be decided by the majority, so only once a norm has changed sufficiently (that is, enough people have adopted it) can the democratic outcome change. That is, to a first approximation, society’s norms are determined by the norms of the individuals composing the society. (This is only a first approximation; obviously in practice different individuals have different weights, etc. etc. etc.) For instance, society’s norm about sexual relations in the U.S. seems to be changing from No means No to Yes means Yes; if this happens, this will take time to produce, as the No means No generations need to die out or no longer become sexually active, and are replaced by a newer generation.

The norm erosion that I think is being talked about in the U.S. references specifically the norms underlying the good functioning of institutions – not all norms are of this type. Norm erosion did I think cause the Civil War, but not in the way Corey represents. Until 1860 the North tacitly agreed that the South had veto power over changes to slavery, and Lincoln’s election showed that enough people in the North no longer agreed.

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J-D 01.31.18 at 9:18 am

@6Respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse. Respect for institutions reinforces the power of those who already hold it; the democratic impulse is to reduce the power of those who already hold it.

No, respect for institutions is an anti-chaos impulse. Lack of respect for democratic institutions is an authoritarian or fascist impulse.

Obviously anybody who respects non-democratic institutions but not democratic ones is being anti-democratic, but I’m not recommending respsect for non-democratic institutions.

Not everything is better than chaos. Some things are better than chaos, but some things are worse. Sometimes a reduction in order is an improvement.

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Faustusnotes 01.31.18 at 11:07 am

My comment was deleted so I will try again.

PGD, autonomous police are not a police state. A police state occurs when a political party controls the police – the opposite of autonomous police.

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nastywoman 01.31.18 at 2:13 pm

– so the utmost possible ”norm erosion –
in a democracy” –
might be the ability to sit on a golden toilet –
called ”America”
and
to relief oneself?

47

TM 01.31.18 at 2:15 pm

Howard 36: Agree with the whole comment and seconding: “This mania to blame both sides undermines democratic accountability” . Interestingly, that mania can be found both among a certain brand of centrists and among a certain brand of leftists.

J-D 40: Distinguishing between the person and the institution they represent can be tricky. Still I would contend that that distinction can be made and is being made. For example when the NYT calls Donald Trump a liar and provides extensive documentation that he has lied almost every day in office, there is no hint of disrespect for the institution of the presidency. If anything, it is Trump who dishonors the presidency. Par contre the Republican House member who interrupted an Obama speech to call him a “liar” clearly was being disrespectful to both the man and the institution, and he was being disrespectful in a bad way. Sometimes that kind of disrespect is justifiable; I’m certainly not arguing for blind respect as a principle. As I said it depends on who is doing the disrespecting, to whom, for what purpose. The expectation of respect is very different from a House Member in Congress than from an activist at a rallye, and I contend this is not merely a superficial question of “civility”: It matters whether a black president is treated with less respect than his white predecessors.

Despite the example given above, I don’t want this to be misunderstood: respect for democratic institutions is by no means a matter of etiquette. What is really at issue is whether a president respects the fact that his power is subject to constitutional restraints and to judicial oversight, whether he respects the legitimacy of the opposition rather than treating them as an enemy, respects the independence of the press, respects the rights of minorities and of dissenters. Again, the term “institutions” shouldn’t be conflated with power. Some institutions exist to restrain power. That is clearly what most commenters refer to when they say that Trump is eroding democratic norms and institutions.

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TM 01.31.18 at 2:20 pm

Further J-D 40: “Hitler did not exhibit a general propensity to oppose institutions as such. He disrupted some institutions, but he also created or greatly strengthened others.”

Well obviously. That’s what all autocrats/dictators do. Or have you ever heard of an anarchist autocrat?

What I say that it is foolish for a certain fraction of the left to cheer the demise of the existing political system, flawed and imperfect as it is (referring here to liberal democracy where it exists), because what they will get is a worse political system, not a better one.

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TM 01.31.18 at 2:37 pm

Foundling 39: I don’t have much expertise on the Czech situation but I can attest to Austria and Switzerland, both of which have very powerful isolationist/illiberal right wing movements. The FPÖ now in power in Austria is gleefully deregulating labor protections and has declared war on the unions. They are going to legalize the 60 hour work week. The Swiss hard right (SVP), together with the more globalist right (FDP), seriously want to legalize the seventeen (17) hour work day. It was in the news just today, I could hardly believe it. They are serious about getting society back to 19th century standards, very much in line with Trump’s preferences.

Wherever I look closely, the anti-liberal right out-neoliberals the neoliberals by far. Whatever the current right-wing wave is, it has nothing to do with opposition to neoliberal deregulation.

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Whirrlaway 01.31.18 at 5:10 pm

@Howard #36

The goals are individualistic, but the process is always the same. They all want to lead the band and choose the music. If they wanted to play 2nd clarinet or live in the house by the side of the road, they could give it a break and do that. Called “Politics”, the life of the polis.

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Whirrlaway 01.31.18 at 5:55 pm

It seems to me to that there is category confusion between processes and goals, and correspondingly norms and ideals. Norms are real-world, ideals are thought-world. They both are formed as predicates, but norms describe something that exists or not, ideals describe something that is good/desirable/righteous or not. “All Americans are entitled to a good education” is an ideal; K-12 schools run by local school boards is the norm. Logically independent/orthogonal. Many people are distressed that the good stuff and the bad stuff work the same way, but it’s all just how the world is.

So ‘norm erosion’ refers to processes that have degraded, which could be humanistically desirable or not, but right now “disruption” as a routine entrepreneurial and political tactic threatens to bring the house down. People who want to use scorched-earth tactics against “Fascists” are contributing to this problem. [!!THIS problem!!] It is certainly desirable to alter processes as we ‘progress’ through history, but right now all processes are under attack. For good or ill, whichever.

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J-D 01.31.18 at 7:57 pm

TM

What I say that it is foolish for a certain fraction of the left to cheer the demise of the existing political system, flawed and imperfect as it is (referring here to liberal democracy where it exists), because what they will get is a worse political system, not a better one.

That’s an assertion which, right or wrong, can be made without invoking the notion of respect (or disrespect) for institutions.

In response to your earlier comment: the notion of ‘respect for the Presidency’ can be invoked by anybody who does not want the President to be called a liar. You consider that an instance of somebody calling President Trump a liar is not an instance of disrespect for the Presidency, but that an instance of somebody calling President Obama a liar is not; I bet you wanted President Trump to be called a liar but did not want President Obama to be called one. Part of ‘respect for the Presidency’, if the concept can be translated into practice at all, must be ‘being less ready to call the President a liar than you would another person, surely? how not? what else is the practical content of ‘respect for the Presidency’? My view, on the other hand, is that you should be just as ready to call the President a liar as to call somebody else one, and probably a little readier; and that I consider to be a democratic view.

Again, the term “institutions” shouldn’t be conflated with power. Some institutions exist to restrain power.

What this means, or at any rate part of what this means, has to be, in practice, that some institutions exist to give people power to restrain the exercise of power by other people. If somebody asked me who was in power in the United States now (or at some other stipulated historical moment) I would interpret the question as being about control of the Presidency; but I would not therefore conclude that the Congress, the courts, the opposition party, the States, or the press (for example) had no power. Also, if one institution exists to restrain the power of another, it does not automatically follow that you should always side with the former in preference to the latter; as I mentioned previously, if you have to choose who to side with between two holders of institutional power, you should choose not on the basis of their characteristics as institutions but rather on the basis of what each is trying to do.

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TM 02.01.18 at 8:54 am

J-D: “you should choose not on the basis of their characteristics as institutions but rather on the basis of what each is trying to do.”

No disagreement here. My initial comment, as you will recall, objected to your suggestion that the anti-institutional impulse is by default a progressive, democratic impulse. My argument was precisely that it depends, as you agree. But the mistake of conflating established institutions with power and opposition to them with emancipation is widely made among the left and that’s why I think this debate is important. I believe that the left must understand that the institutions and norms of liberal democracy are the result of centuries of political struggle; they are flawed and imperfect but also precious and vulnerable, as history shows, and the left must defend them against their enemies, without renouncing radical criticism of their shortcomings.

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Katsue 02.01.18 at 1:57 pm

@Faustusnotes

Surely a police state is one where the state is controlled by the police, not one where the state controls the police.

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J-D 02.01.18 at 8:15 pm

TM

J-D: “you should choose not on the basis of their characteristics as institutions but rather on the basis of what each is trying to do.”

No disagreement here. My initial comment, as you will recall, objected to your suggestion that the anti-institutional impulse is by default a progressive, democratic impulse. My argument was precisely that it depends, as you agree.

You have misinterpreted my initial suggestion. My initial suggestion was that respect for institutions is an anti-democratic impulse, and I am not agreeing, in relation to that suggestion, that ‘it depends’. If is if you tell me that you have a choice of siding with this institution or that institution and you want to know how to choose that my answer becomes ‘it depends’; but deciding to take a side doesn’t depend on respecting whomever it is you’re siding with.

I believe that … the left must defend them [the institutions and norms of liberal democracy] against their enemies

It’s not clear whether your earlier suggestion that ‘it depends’ is intended to apply to this. It seems to me that it does; it depends on which institutions are being attacked, and by which enemies, and what form the attacks take, and what the motive for them is, and how it’s proposed to defend them. All I was suggesting was that if you feel an impulse to defend them because they are institutionalised, that’s an anti-democratic impulse.

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Howard 02.01.18 at 8:55 pm

F.Foundling@39

neoliberals (since this term seems to confuse people here, I’ll spell it out: pro-spending cuts, pro-austerity, anti-welfare state, pro-privatisation)

Yes, this is what I thought the term meant. For some reason, it has come to be used both in the US and here at CT to mean:

1. People who are not socialists, especially Hillary Clinton; or

2. People who favor free trade, especially Hillary Clinton; or

3. People who supported Hillary Cinton, esp. HRC

There is no Democratic politician who supports a list like that. Paul Ryan might, but I have never heard him called a neoliberal. Strange, huh?

J-D@44

Not everything is better than chaos. Some things are better than chaos, but some things are worse. Sometimes a reduction in order is an improvement.

Well, right. Which is why it’s so strange to say that respect for institutions is an antidemocratic impulse. Substitute “existing institutions” for “chaos” above and it’s still true.

Also, of course, people really,really like order. Which is why, at some point, they vote for authoritarians. Which is why I could never understand how the Antifa people thought the were reducing rather than increasing the probability of fascism.

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J-D 02.02.18 at 12:21 am

Howard

Not everything is better than chaos. Some things are better than chaos, but some things are worse. Sometimes a reduction in order is an improvement.

Well, right. Which is why it’s so strange to say that respect for institutions is an antidemocratic impulse. Substitute “existing institutions” for “chaos” above and it’s still true.

That would be a valid reason to reject my assertion if my assertion were ‘You should not support existing institutions’; but that’s not my assertion. Somebody who says ‘I’m supporting the President in this situation because I support what he’s trying to do; if he prevails over his opponents in this situation, improvements will result, but if his opponents prevail the situation will get worse’ is not acting on the basis of a respect for institutions. Somebody who says ‘I’m supporting the President because he is a good President and I have faith in his judgement’ is not acting on the basis of a respect for institutions. But somebody who says ‘I’m supporting the President because he’s my President’ is acting on the basis of a respect for the institution of the Presidency, which is an anti-democratic impulse.

Also, of course, people really,really like order.

I don’t know what the evidence for this assertion is supposed to be. It seems to me that it depends on who the people are and what the order is; sometimes people like order and sometimes they don’t.

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TM 02.02.18 at 1:53 pm

J-D, perhaps we use language differently. Perhaps “respect” for you has the connotation of blind submission to authority and therefore it seems obvious that the very idea of respect for institutions is undemocratic. I would reject such a form of respect just as vigorously as you but that is not how most of us understand the term.

Likewise it seems that you use the term institutions differently from its standard meaning. As noted, you seem to conflate institutions with “people with power”, but institutions are separate from the people inside them and aren’t necessarily endowed with power. Perhaps I risk opening up a can of worms but here’s a definition, which I think is closer to the accepted use of the term (although you can obviously disagree with Wikipedia):

Institutions are “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”.[1] As structures or mechanisms of social order, they govern the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose, transcending individuals and intentions by mediating the rules that govern living behavior.[2]
The term “institution” commonly applies to both informal institutions such as customs, or behavior patterns important to a society, and to particular formal institutions created by entities such as the government and public services. Primary or meta-institutions are institutions such as the family that are broad enough to encompass other institutions.

[An earlier version of this comment seems to have disappeared]

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Howard 02.02.18 at 8:11 pm

J-D@57

Yes, what TM@58 said. I would never say, “I’m supporting the President because he’s my President,” even if I supported the President. I might say, “This law that I hate is legitimate” because it was produced by democratic institutions.

What I should have said was, “People really, really hate disorder over an extended period.” The evidence for this is just that in those situations they vote for authoritarians.

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J-D 02.03.18 at 6:03 am

TM

J-D, perhaps we use language differently. Perhaps “respect” for you has the connotation of blind submission to authority and therefore it seems obvious that the very idea of respect for institutions is undemocratic. I would reject such a form of respect just as vigorously as you but that is not how most of us understand the term.

Blind submission could be one manifestation of respect (although it needn’t be a manifestation of respect; it can also be, for example, a manifestation of terror), but it’s not the only one. But if you don’t think blind submission can be a manifestation of respect, what do you think of as examples of respect manifesting itself?

Likewise it seems that you use the term institutions differently from its standard meaning. As noted, you seem to conflate institutions with “people with power”, but institutions are separate from the people inside them and aren’t necessarily endowed with power. Perhaps I risk opening up a can of worms but here’s a definition …

Institutions are “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”. As structures or mechanisms of social order, they govern the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. …

If they govern people’s behaviour, then they have power over people’s behaviour!
Howard

I would never say, “I’m supporting the President because he’s my President,” even if I supported the President.

You might not; but if somebody does, how is that not an example of respect for the Presidency?

I might say, “This law that I hate is legitimate” because it was produced by democratic institutions.What difference does it make to your behaviour if you say that a law is legitimate, as distinct from a case in which you say a law is not legitimate? What difference does it make to your behaviour if you say a President is legitimate, as distinct from a case in which you say a President is not legitimate?

What I should have said was, “People really, really hate disorder over an extended period.” The evidence for this is just that in those situations they vote for authoritarians.

I’m not sure that’s the case. I should think that what commonly happens in periods of extended disorder is that people don’t vote at all.

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Layman 02.03.18 at 11:01 am

J-D: “I don’t know what the evidence for this assertion is supposed to be. It seems to me that it depends on who the people are and what the order is; sometimes people like order and sometimes they don’t.”

This strikes me as a pretty silly objection. I’ll wager that even people who don’t like order actually like some order – the order they need to go about disliking some other order they don’t like, at minimum. If I want to go to the protest against the WTO today, I rather like the order that prevents strangers from killing me in the streets before I can get there, even if I don’t really take note of it or realize I like it. If someone were to actually try to kill me in the street before I got to the protest, I’d probably start calling for more damned order! “People like order” seems a perfectly reasonable generalization to me.

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Lee A. Arnold 02.03.18 at 2:27 pm

Annals of the Norm (continued)

New predictions:

Leaks to press say FISA was notified where Steele dossier came from, in standard procedure. (& the leak just happened: “politically funded”)

DOJ refers Judge Mehta’s request to White House, about the new Madison Project court submission to Mehta’s court: “Go ask Trump. It was his call, not ours.”

Trump responds, “It’s a disgrace, what’s going on in this country. Declassify all the warrants on me!”

IC freaks out.

GOP cracks in half:
Paul Ryan – already in hot seat, now electrified to 2,000 volts with Sword of Damocles hanging o’er, by a dyed orange hair.
FBI rank & file start contributing to new Democrats.
Mark Meadows & Jim Jordan join Gowdy in early retirement.
Matt Gaetz is sedated by Capitol police & carried out in straight jacket, not allowed to own guns — later released to join Hannity show, then runs for governor of Florida.
Senate Republicans whisper to Mueller, “Indict, already!”

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Howard 02.03.18 at 8:04 pm

J-D

In the US, we have an institution of driving on the right side on the street. People generally respect this institution– if you want to say it has “power,” go ahead, but so what?

Some groups have norms of making decisions by majority rule. Respecting that institution means accepting the results even when you lose. Say an academic department had such a norm, and the department head goes ahead and does the opposite of what the department has just decided. We’d say he didn’t respect the institution of majority rule.

Respect for the office of the Presidenncy means, for a Federal employee, that he obeys lawful orders; for a member of Congress, that he not, for instance, shout “You lie!” during the State of the Union; for the President, that he not, e.g., use his position to enrich himself. For the rest of us, I don’t think it means much of anything.

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J-D 02.04.18 at 5:19 am

Howard

Respect for the office of the Presidenncy means, for a Federal employee, that he obeys lawful orders …

Federal employees (like everybody else) should not obey orders (even lawful ones) to act in cruel and harmful ways; to execute orders (even lawful ones), independently of their merits or consequences, solely because they emanate from the Presidency is not a democratic impulse.

… for a member of Congress, that he not, for instance, shout “You lie!” during the State of the Union …

If the President is telling lies during the State of the Union, it might be a good thing if somebody shouted out that it was a lie, and particularly if the person shouting was a member of Congress. It depends, of course, on the nature of the lie and on the likely consequences of shouting out about it. But to refrain from publicly and contemporaneously challenging a lie solely on the grounds that it comes from the mouth of the President during the State of the Union would be an anti-democratic impulse, and that would be just as true for a member of Congress as for anybody else.

… For the rest of us, I don’t think it means much of anything.

If it means so little, why so much concern about it?

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