Trump's election has confirmed my worst fears that too many Americans are either ignorant of or contemptuous of what is required for a Democracy to work in a complex, pluralistic society. But the destruction of norms in our political sphere didn't just start with Trump, and that's why he should not be looked at as an aberration. He is the culmination of seriously regressive developments in our politics over the last several decades. In an article in the NYT this morning entitled "Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?", the authors Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that--
Democratic institutions must be reinforced by strong informal norms. Like a pickup basketball game without a referee, democracies work best when unwritten rules of the game, known and respected by all players, ensure a minimum of civility and cooperation. Norms serve as the soft guardrails of democracy, preventing political competition from spiraling into a chaotic, no-holds-barred conflict.
Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.
Yet norms of partisan restraint have eroded in recent decades. House Republicans’ impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 abandoned the idea of bipartisan consensus on impeachment. The filibuster, once a rarity, has become a routine tool of legislative obstruction. As the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown, the decline of partisan restraint has rendered our democratic institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Republicans’ 2011 refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which put America’s credit rating at risk for partisan gain, and the Senate’s refusal this year to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — in essence, allowing the Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat — offer an alarming glimpse at political life in the absence of partisan restraint.
The other day as part of a broader argument that I am making about how we break out of Tribal Left/Right impasse I said:
And so when no one can inspire the better angels of our nature, it creates room for the dark angels to enter stage Right. The mission of these dark angels is to destroy the norms, practices, and customs that have made an already deeply flawed democracy viable. These dark angels have always been there in the American psyche, but operated out of sight in the Deep South or lurking on the fringes in other areas of the country. But they started to come out onto center stage in the 90s.
It started with Newt Gingrich and his scorched-earth, norm-destroying politics, and then Cheney/Bush and their delusional militaristic hubris, their nihilistic justifications for torture, their abrogation of basic human rights like habeas corpus, their delusional economic thinking, and now, God help us, we have Donald Trump who wouldn't know a norm if he tripped over one. The Democrats as a group, because they believe in nothing more than advancing their careers, stood fecklessly, impotently by. And so there is nobody to push back because the Left has no place to stand and comes across as so clueless. Nobody on either the Right or the Left seems capable of making a compelling counterargument that can be heard outside their own tribal echo chambers.
And so there is really no hope unless someone can find a way to frame a counterargument that might provide an inoculation to the disease in this country that is building on the Right.
Anybody who thinks that our institutions are resilient enough to withstand what Trump means for our democracy really isn't paying attention to what's been going on for over thirty years now. The media will have to pretend that things are normal, because Trump and his allies in Congress will be defining the new normal, which has nothing to do with what is really going on. But since there's no basic standards by which to measure what is acceptable, except the standards that have been handed down by customary norms, there is no way to protect those norms from erosion if most people and the media have forgotten about them, don't care about them, or thought they were stupid to begin with. Defining normal simply becomes a matter of who has the most power to define our political reality.
We'll see if finally there is any robust push back from sane Republicans and Democrats next year, but I honestly think it might be too late to expect anything from what was "normal" politics to set things right. Surprising things happen. Solutions sometimes arise from unexpected quarters, but I think otherwise we are headed for some serious de-stabilization, and that's scary. It might be necessary for us to go through some kind of major shakeup in order for something genuinely, positively new to emerge in the long run. But in the short run, while I hope for the best, I am preparing for the worst.
People like me will not suffer so much as the naive Americans who elected Trump. They have been conned, but by the time they realize it, there may be nothing that can be done about it. If nothing else, it will be interesting, but I'd prefer boring--even HRC--any day. We could very well be finding out what it's like to live in Latin America in the 80s, or perhaps more apt, Russian and China in the 2000s. Fasten your seatbelts.