The symphony of tributes brought forth by John McCain’s passing had an elegiac quality. The response suggested that his death signaled a collapse of norms that have benefitted our politics for generations. McCain could be sharp with colleagues, but he pushed back against the demonization of his partisan opponents. He could be self-critical and acknowledge moral errors. He often summoned a tradition of bipartisan cooperation that began eroding in the mid-’90s, when a rising Republican House majority cast deals with Democrats as the equivalent of pacts with the devil. He defended the customs of congressional independence and “regular order” in the proceedings of the Senate.
Put another way, he was the anti-Trump: He guarded the old norms essential to decent government — the ones President Trump has been demolishing mercilessly. Among them: that candidates and presidents should not withhold their tax returns, threaten their political opponents with prison, interfere with investigations, or denigrate law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the name of self-protection.
Norms do change, and often have changed, in American history. Partly that’s because norms, which are assumed and usually unwritten, can mean different things to different people. They are not formal rules, and they can apply both to individuals and to institutions. The Oxford English Dictionary calls them “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” And while norms refer to conduct, they are rooted in values. Trump’s critics see him as violating them on both an individual and an institutional basis, and they object to his conduct as well as the underlying values it reflects.
But there’s a new vogue to argue that norms aren’t what they’re cracked up to be and that we should not be so petrified that many of them are being broken. From the right, Charles R. Kesler of the Claremont Institute argued in the New York Times that “breaking norms is neither good nor bad” and that we elect presidents in part “to energize government by shedding or retiring norms that no longer serve the public good.” Writing from the left in Dissent, Jedediah Purdy, a Duke law professor, called democracy “a norm-breaking political force.” To him, “norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits.”
At one level, Purdy and Kesler (and other Trump defenders ready to waive our norms) are obviously right: Not every norm is good, and overturning certain norms can be constructive. Moreover, Purdy argues that a focus on norms can distract and frustrate the important tasks of attacking growing economic inequality and empowering citizens in a genuine democracy. It’s true that at times in our history (and sometimes now), norms have supported unjust distributions of power that led to other forms of injustice. The widespread acceptance of slavery and later segregation, the view that women are unequal to men, the tolerance of the power of money in the Gilded Age: All were norms we are much better off without. (We should say that we, too, share Purdy’s worries about the resurgence of money’s power — in norms, in how our politics is structured and in the law.)
Yet there is an often overlooked paradox when it comes to overturning outdated or morally defective norms. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 didn’t just change the law; they directly attacked long-standing norms of racial segregation and subjugation. These landmark bills were passed through the democratic process and, thanks to a popular mobilization, enabled by our national traditions of free speech and free expression. Without norms honoring democracy and free speech rights, this mobilization would have been impossible. Weaker norms of expression and protest would weaken democracy, and a weaker democracy would make it harder to push aside defective norms. Ultimately, the norms that must be preserved are the ones that make democratic life possible.
Another useful rule is that a free society cannot allow a leader to cast norms aside for the sole purpose of aggrandizing his power, as Trump has done in undermining the free press, using his office to promote his businesses, and contesting anybody or anything trying to hold him to account. Norms that deserve to be questioned are most constructively challenged by social groups seeking inclusion, in debates over dinner tables and in town halls — the institutions of civil society. This is an organic and political process, as we argue in our book, “One Nation After Trump .” Diktat is a problem for all democratic societies, and it is a particular problem when it comes to undermining long-standing norms that democracy cannot work without.
Kesler contends that “most of Mr. Trump’s alleged transgressions,” when measured against the standards of the past, “seem picayune. They offend against the etiquette of modern liberalism and modern liberal governance, not the Constitution.” In truth, though, many of the norms Trump is breaking have nothing to do with modern New Deal-style “liberalism.” They are standards that conservative and middle-of-the-road presidents have all lived by. They understood that virtue is essential to safeguarding republican government — a standard that even Kesler surely believes in.
Without virtue, the founders foresaw, free government collapses. As the political scientist James Q. Wilson once put it, “The public interest depends on private virtue.” This isn’t about Trump’s sex life; it’s about the importance of having leaders dedicated “to a cause greater than yourself,” as McCain so often put it. Trump’s style of norm-breaking systematically demonstrates that he sees no cause as more important than himself, his interests — and now, his political survival. Kesler says future presidents can reverse course and restore whatever norms they see fit. Maybe not. Changes in behavior and attitudes led by a president are not so easily reversed. Some damage is permanent.
And attempting to repair the damage can bring temptations to violate other norms. An example: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blew up the standard for Supreme Court nominations by denying even a hearing to President Barack Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, leading to a court now tilted more sharply to the right, while also breaking precedent to block scores of Obama’s lower-court nominees regardless of their qualifications, allowing Trump to pack appeals courts and district courts. When Democrats ultimately recapture the White House and majorities in Congress, they will be tempted to enlarge the Supreme Court and some appeals courts. When FDR tried this, Democrats and Republicans rebelled, saying “packing the court,” while legal, was a violation of long-standing norms. Is it justifiable to break more norms as a balance against previous violations?
Certain norms are established in response to government breakdowns and outbreaks of corruption; the release of presidential candidates’ tax returns was a reaction to the Watergate period. Another answer to those problems — honoring Congress as an independent watchdog — has also fallen by the wayside, as virtually no hearings have been held in the House or the Senate on corruption in the Cabinet or the White House. There have been almost no inquiries into the disastrous response to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. And far from challenging the president, the House Intelligence Committee under Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has sought to impede and discredit the Mueller investigation. Allowing such norms to be broken risks a return of corruption and the abuse of public office.
Norms, in the end, are how the political system enforces decency without having to enact every rule into law.
Democratic societies are constantly making adjustments in laws and informal standards. These involve righting wrongs and providing citizens with good reasons to accept the legitimacy of the government’s actions, even when they disagree with them. Doing this sometimes requires setting aside previous standards that have come to be seen as unfair and illegitimate. But it also demands the staunch defense of ideals, principles — and yes, norms — that strengthen democracy and make it work. Sorting these out is a critical task for our time.
McCain, the military hero, understood the power of norms. He refused an offer from his North Vietnamese captors to release him early because of his father’s distinguished role in the Navy. Agreeing would have meant violating the U.S. military’s norms and code of conduct, which prohibit service members from accepting special favors from an enemy and mandates that POWs should be released in the order of their capture. It’s doubtful he would have been punished had he left, given how much he had already been through. Instead, McCain suffered because of his respect for norms and military values. We can learn from the example he set under conditions far more excruciating than most of us will ever face.
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