“The law in its majestic equality,” wrote Anatole France, “forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
The pungent epigram describes a condition besetting all societies: Rules that appear to be fair are never quite so just when applied to incorrigibly diverse human beings. The condition is largely invisible to the rule-makers, who can earnestly explain why the rules are necessary, good and equitable. But that doesn’t stop the ruled from noticing that the rulers don’t bear quite the same cost for following them. And when the price grows too high for those who live with the rules, rather than by them, revolutionary upheaval tends to follow.
Hence our current moment. On left and right, restive populists are fed up with dictates that bind them without much inconveniencing those in charge. Though neither would welcome the comparison, the left-wing activists who surrounded Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s house on Wednesday night and the right-wing activists who cheer Trump’s attacks on the news media have essentially similar complaints about the way the “rules” — the norms of civic discourse — systematically advantage the elites who set them.
The criticism is justified, of course. In academia and the news media, the pieties of the left marginalize the right — a disadvantage that is shading into outright censorship at the hands of mobs upon whom the powers-that-be gaze with a mixture of benign tolerance and inert dismay. Populists on the right are also correct in noting that, for decades, the educated left celebrated whenever the courts forced their culturally liberal preferences onto a wary public, yet decried the courts as illegitimate and undemocratic after they passed into conservative hands.
And the left is equally justified in thinking that U.S. laws about matters such as immigration or criminal justice protect those who are already pretty comfortable, at the expense of people who break the law because the world has left them little to lose by doing so. These critics are also quite right that President Trump denigrates “mobs” while flagrantly disregarding any curbs on public behavior that might hamper him from attacking anyone he perceives as an enemy.
Which is why the elites have so little effect when they tut-tut about intemperate behavior on the left and the right. Telling the populists that they’re endangering a system that seems purpose-built to keep their hands off the levers of power isn’t going to turn them to soul-searching regret.
For those of us who want to defend these norms, explaining that “this is how things are done” is wholly inadequate. We need to actually explain why people shouldn’t say the sorts of things the president says, and why pounding on the front doors of television personalities’ homes isn’t okay. No, we need to do even better than that; we need to explain why, however little they realize it, the people screaming epithets and attacking doors would benefit from a return to public decorum.
Of course, for that argument to be convincing, it has to actually be true. Fortunately, I think it is true, particularly in this moment, when the system is under bipolar assault from left and right. That suggests, in turn, a possibility that the attackers never seem to consider: They might lose, and in the process of losing, their repeated violations of common standards will become the justification for sweeping violations by institutional power they don’t control.
Meanwhile, the mutually assured norm destruction continues. Criticize the louts hounding Republican political figures out of restaurants, and the left simply points to the outrageous emanations from the Oval Office; criticize the norm-violator-in-chief when he opens his mouth again, and his supporters will point to antifa thugs and ask: “What was that you were saying about civility?”
But what we have seen so far is minor compared with, say, what happened in Europe after World War I. Our domestic mobs on the right and left may see the red terror or the dark night of fascism already descended over America, but the rest of us, with an eye on history, can say, “You know, things aren’t so bad, really.” Though with the unspoken postscript: “Yet.”
No matter how displeased they are with the current system, both sides would be better off if we never get to “Yet.” Which should make them regard today’s norms more fondly. The folks in charge could help matters along if they took a keener interest in finding a rule book that feels as fair to the outsiders as it does to the protected class that wrote it.