There’s no returning to a golden age of American democracy that never existed.
A rallying cry of the progressive left is to not “normalize” Donald Trump, and to stay vigilant in rejecting his lies, cruelty, and affronts to the institutions that define the US system of government. Trump, they argue, is a unique threat to American democracy.
This school of thought — call it “normcore politics” — is supported by the recent work of several prominent political scientists, who argue that Trump’s defiance of the cultural rules and agreements — or norms — that we all follow should be front and center in this era.
“Democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps” these days, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in How Democracies Die, cautioning Americans not to be complacent merely because there aren’t tanks in the streets. They rot from the inside thanks to demagogic leaders who “subvert the very process that brought them to power.”
Trump, in many respects, fits this bill. Earlier this summer, Trump began tearing children from their parents’ arms to throw them in cages, insisting the step was necessary to avoid an “infestation” of asylum seekers from south of the border. He backed away from portions of that policy, only to tweet that in the future deportations should be carried out “without judges or court cases” — a chilling reminder of the consistent, multifront threat posed to the rule of law by a president who’s undertaking a partisan purge of the FBI.
But identifying the threat too closely with Trump is ahistorical and myopic in ways that lead to analytic failure. Norms have been eroding in the United States, but the erosion began long before the rise of Trump and simply can’t be explained by him alone.
This is not to argue for complacency toward Trump’s leadership. His misdeeds, corruption and cruel policies deserve to be confronted and fought. But the danger of normcore politics is excessive complacency about post-Trump America. A politics that is narrowly anti-Trump and excessively focused on “norms” runs a substantial risk of finding itself paralyzed and unable to govern even if it wins.
There was no democratic Golden Age
The failings of normcore politics start with a somewhat blinkered and romantic view of American history which, as Ezra Klein recently argued in his review of much of the democratic crisis literature, is actually quite ugly.
The country was founded on the brutal genocide and dispossession of its native population, relied on chattel slavery as a cornerstone of its economic development, fought a deadly civil war, had the outcome of that war challenged by a largely successful campaign of terrorist violence, and by the 1940s was locking up the Japanese-American population in internment camps.
The good news is that America’s founding documents and principles have always served as a kind of guiding star to which activists and advocates could attach themselves as they push for reform. But not only was the civil rights revolution of the 1960s fiercely contested — in the streets as well as in the courts and the legislatures — its partial victory more or less set in motion the ever-increasing ideological polarization of our parties and the growing dysfunction of our political institutions.
This history is, of course, not denied by the proponents of normcore politics. But it tends to get downplayed in the campaign to portray Trump as a form of unique evil, necessarily placing a nostalgic cloak over the past.
The political theorist Cory Robin wrote an entertaining piece for Harper’s focused on the specific historical amnesia of Philip Roth, who over the course of the decades proclaimed first Nixon-era politics, then Reagan-era politics, then Trump-era politics as each historically awful and far worse than what had come before, while back in the 1970s he had unfavorably compared Nixon to Joe McCarthy.
In reality, as Robin observes, “it’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past.”
When George W. Bush was president and Ronald Reagan passed away, liberal magazines like the Washington Monthly produced articles on “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy” in part as a way of slamming Bush. These days, Bush enjoys soaring approval ratings, thanks to the comparison to Trump.
These nostalgia-soaked takes generally do manage to capture something correct about both the past and the present. But the tendency to idealize the past blinds us to the profound ways that political struggles connect across time and reveal fundamental clashes of interests and values and not just the particularities of a given moment or personality.
The era of constitutional hardball
In the winter of 2008-’09, Barack Obama swept into office under the premise that the man he displaced was a kind of unique horror. Obama proposed to usher in a return to normalcy. Instead, he was met with unprecedented legislative tactics that began with deliberate sabotage of an economic recovery and ended with the successful theft of a Supreme Court seat all long before Trump emerged as the dominant conservative figure.
Norms of American political conduct feature successive rounds of what Harvard Law School’s Mark Tushnet terms “constitutional hardball” (i.e., norm-breaking), with Republicans generally engaging in more hardball but both parties doing their share.
The broad theme is that Republicans almost always play hardball, while Democrats vacillate between episodes of hardball and periods in which they hope unilateral concessions will restore old-time governance norms. Both sides have been willing to change the rules in somewhat arbitrary ways to speed confirmations of presidential appointees when they control the White House and slow them when they do not, but Republicans have played the game much more consistently and much more aggressively.
Consider, for example, the hardball saga of the “Blue Slip Rule”:
- Up through 1994 or so there was a tradition in the United States Senate that a judicial nomination could not be brought to the floor unless the nominee received at least one “blue slip” — i.e., favorable recommendation — from a home-state senator.
- Then in 1995, Republicans won control of the Senate and changed the principle to require two blue slips to advance a judicial nominee, which made it easier to block Bill Clinton’s appointees.
- In 2001, George W. Bush became president, so they changed the rule back to one blue slip. Jim Jeffords’s defection then gave Democrats control of the Senate, so they moved back to two blue slips to make it easier to block his judges.
- The two slip rule, critically, remained in effect as long as Democrats controlled the Senate even once Barack Obama took over as president — with Democrats choosing to uphold a senatorial courtesy over partisan advantage.
- Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2015 and, of course, not only kept the two slip rule in place but basically stopped confirming judges altogether — up to and including holding a Supreme Court seat vacant.
- When Trump took office, he filled the Supreme Court vacancy with Neil Gorsuch and the GOP swiftly went back to a one blue slip standard, until this May when they broke the seal on confirming judges who had zero blue slips.
These shenanigans have profoundly shaped the federal judiciary over the past quarter-century, a period of time during which the courts also handed an election to Bush, dismantled much of federal campaign finance legislation and the Voting Rights Act, and acted to make it virtually impossible to successfully prosecute political corruption cases and a wide array of other white collar crimes to boot.
And it’s not just the judiciary.
Norms have been under pressure for a long time
As recently as 2003 in the United States, major pieces of controversial legislation could pass the United States Senate with more than 50 but fewer than 60 votes. Republicans changed that by making the filibuster routine, then they took hardball tactics to new heights by holding the debt ceiling hostage in 2011.
Beyond the specifics of the legislative rules, however, Republicans simply approached Obama-era policymaking with a new spirit of hard-nosed cynicism. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid cooperated with the Bush administration in its economic rescue efforts during 2008 (helping to pass the infamous TARP bailout and the lesser-known but equally significant Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 that authorized nationalizing Fannie and Freddie, and a small fiscal stimulus bill). But the basic view of the John Boehner and Mitch McConnell was that the worse the economy got under Obama, the better the electoral outlook for the GOP, so there would be no cooperation on anything.
But critically, there’s no one particular moment at which the norms got bad — the parties have been steadily polarizing along ideological lines since the mid-1970s, and that’s put increasing pressure on a set of 20th-century political norms mostly constructed for a less polarized time.
When Bush was president, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had a legal obligation to consider whether regulation of carbon dioxide emissions was mandated under the Clean Air Act. As a first step in that process, the EPA needed to make a scientific determination as to whether CO2 emissions were harmful. Of course, everyone knew the conclusion would be “yes,” so the Bush White House dealt with the problem by refusing to open the email from the EPA announcing the results of their analysis.
Conservatives, needless to say, have their own laundry list of norm-breaking by Democrats, frequently starting with the successful campaign to keep Robert Bork off the Supreme Court and continuing through the Obama administration’s attempted expansion of the traditional executive prerogative of prosecutorial discretion to grant work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants.
It’s critical, however, not to ascribe blame to one side or the other, but merely to observe that larger pattern of brinksmanship and norms erosion has relatively little to do with Trump personally. He has introduced some new and egregious ideas into the mix, but some of the most fundamental Trump-era threats to democratic accountability — from voter suppression to gerrymandering — are part of a policy agenda that substantially predates him.
And where Trump’s norm-breaking innovations have been largest, mostly in the arenas of financial disclosure and conflicts of interest, there are very clear and easily available legislative remedies that congressional Republican majorities have simply declined to use.
America can’t go home again
Imagine Democratic electoral victory in 2020 or 2024 leading to a new era of concurrent Democratic majorities. The party will be pressured to follow the example of Obama, who urged the country to “look forward, not back,” rather than insist on legal accountability for the perpetrators of illegal torture and surveillance in the post-9/11 era.
But a strategy of impunity did not magically conjure up a kinder, gentler GOP. Instead, the establishment rallied around first Mitt “Double Guantanamo Bay” Romney and then literally Bush’s brother, only to be defeated by Trump who’s now turned around and installed a major torturer as Director of Central Intelligence.
One question the new governing regime will immediately be faced with is whether it should let Republicans filibuster all of its policy proposals to death, or should it move toward majority rule and set about to govern the country. Doing this would obviously be controversial, and there will be arguments against it from the right and center, and from inside the progressive camp.
Any number of useful pro-democracy changes — automatic voter registration, requiring states to make their congressional delegations proportional, strengthening Americans’ right to form labor unions to meaningful campaign finance reform, and granting congressional representation to American citizens who live in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia — cannot be accomplished with a budget reconciliation bill and will certainly not secure Republican votes.
One might say much the same for the troublesome immigration issue, a perennially open question that has provided so much grist for the populist-right mill. The solution is well-known — work permits and a path to citizenship for the majority of long-settled immigrants, a reorientation of future legal immigration to better suit the country’s economic needs, concentrated enforcement on the small minority of unauthorized immigrants who are genuine public menaces — but Democrats will likely have to break a norm or two to enact it.
A related set of issues will concern how best to rectify Trump’s malfeasance when it comes to the rule of law. Pressure will emerge from norm-centric circles to, ironically, ratify Trump’s misdeeds by refusing to even mount an attempt to clean house at the FBI, ICE, CBP, and other elements of the federal law enforcement apparatus.
The reality, in other words, is that Democrats can’t unilaterally conjure up an era of bipartisanship or commitment to democracy and liberalism. They need to practice politics as best they can, and create the facts on the ground that are conducive to liberal aims. And excessive focus on the notion of Trump as a historical aberration is counterproductive to those ends.
Trump-centric politics fails
David Leonhardt wrote back in April about experimental work the data firm Civis Analytics did for Priorities USA during the Alabama special election focused on what messages did the best job of motivating African Americans to turn out and vote.
The most effective message, it turns out, was about education.
Perhaps more interesting, the least effective message was one that linked Roy Moore to Donald Trump. But Leonhardt quotes Civis as saying “this finding is consistent with previous research on African-American voters, which suggests that many feel less motivated to be politically involved when Trump’s name is invoked.” Conor Lamb, similarly, won a very difficult special election race in Western Pennsylvania (this time without benefit of a scandal-plagued opponent) by emphasizing his support for Social Security and Medicare in contrast to his opponent’s conventional conservative views.
We have grave disagreements about social issues, about important foreign policy questions, about tax policy, about whether entitlements should be reformed or expanded, about what sort of judges should serve on our courts. #IBelieve in putting them all aside. /3/
— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) November 26, 2017
To the most fulsome proponents of anti-Trump politics, however, like the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes, these are precisely the sort of traditional partisan issues that ought to be set aside in favor of “a political program based on the protection of American democracy and democratic institutions.”
Elevating the Trumpian threat in this way, however, only serves in practice to reinforce his political strength. It reduces all of American politics to a symbolic culture war battle, in which Trump’s team has the largest and most cohesive demographic bloc while actively demoralizing some key progressive constituencies. To win, the much more demographically disparate liberal coalition needs to make politics be about concrete things — schools, health care, Social Security, taxes — and emphasize the enduring relevance of “ordinary” politics to American life.
Thankfully, few proponents of normcore politics explicitly go as far as Wittes in exhorting Trump’s opponents to abjure conventional policy issues. But the insistence on exoticizing Trump — on seeing him not just as a threat to democracy and the rule of law but as a unique threat — necessarily tilts in that direction.
The five Republican justices on the Supreme Court aren’t endorsing purges of the voting rolls because Trump forced them, and the North Carolina GOP didn’t need Trump’s inspiration to introduce yet another effort to disenfranchise voters via strict ID laws. It was George H.W. Bush, not Trump, who abusively wielded the pardon power to curb the special prosecutor investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal, and John Boehner killed the Voting Rights Act long before anyone took Trump’s presidential aspirations seriously.
None of this is to excuse Trump’s various misdeeds in any way. It’s merely to say that the present peril is not so different from the perils of the past. The time-honored solution of trying to select charismatic candidates who propose popular ideas that will improve normal people’s lives remains the correct one.
People have problems in life, and better public policy has the ability to ameliorate many of those problems. This has always been the core of politics, and it continues to deserve to be front and center in the Trump era. One needn’t be a socialist to see that. In fact, it’s extraordinarily dangerous for conventional liberals to simply cede the field of ordinary politics in favor of ruminating on the allegedly unique evils of Trump.