Violating Political Norms Exacts a Price

Kinnear as Bolingbroke

Henry IV (Kinnear) overthrew Richard II to become king

I’ve been thinking a lot about social and political norms recently and so was pleased to see The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recent article about norms. When I was young (I’m 63 now), the norms we experienced as suffocating were those that privileged white heterosexual patriarchs. While progressives are still going after some of those old norms (traditional marriage, marijuana laws), most of the current norm breaking is coming from the right. Most dramatically, the GOP is actively attempting to undermine a president engaged in delicate international negotiations. Gopnik mentions The Iliad and John Updike’s Rabbit books in his discussion, to which I add Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Gopnik begins with a David Brooks article claiming that the poor stand to gain more from following traditional social norms, starting with marriage, than they do from cash handouts or good government. Gopnik sees an inconsistency here:

In an ironically parallel move, the same Republican moralists who condemn the poor, or their politicians, for not enforcing social norms were accused all week of betraying an essential constitutional norm themselves—in this case, that you don’t effectively tell the nation’s enemies to ignore its twice-elected leader. Their pay-no-attention-to-the-President letter to the Iranian government wasn’t illegal, much less “treasonous,” but it certainly and grossly violated an unwritten but widely understood norm of political behavior. It wasn’t that no one had ever done something like this before. It was that there had been an assumption that it wasn’t remotely doable. That’s what made it a norm. If Barry Goldwater had written a letter to Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis insisting that anything J.F.K. promised to do to resolve it should be ignored, it wouldn’t have just seemed destructive. It would have been unimaginable.

Gopnik points out that the republic itself is at risk when we cavalierly mess with established political norms:

Political norms matter because any constitutional arrangement known to man can break down if it isn’t played by the laws as well as by the rules. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” a great Justice famously said, but in truth any constitution can become a suicide pact if people ignore what’s left unwritten in it. If people choose not to buy the basic premise, the joke won’t land. Any social arrangement can disintegrate as much from misuse as repeal. If, as has happened in many an empire, the army figures out that it can buy and sell the emperors, pretty soon you no longer have an empire, or at least no longer much of an emperor. One shockingly violated norm of American constitutional practice was the old one against impeachment on a party-line vote. It’s always been the case that a simple majority in the House can send an American President to a Senate trial, with all the costs that involves. It was just taken for granted that no one would try this without bipartisan support and the likelihood of a conviction. Back in 1998, the Republicans decided to do it anyway—Why the hell not, the country’s booming and can run itself—at a cost that is still not fully understood.

This observation reminds me of the overthrow of Richard II in Shakespeare’s play. Now Richard, much more than either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, deserves to be overthrown. Furthermore, Henry Bolingbroke proves to be a far better king, what with his political savvy and his common touch. Shakespeare, however, points out that his usurpation also has negative ramifications: to topple a divinely anointed king means that your own kingship will never go unquestioned.

Indeed, Henry IV, Part I begins with the country in turmoil over Henry’s action. Rather than journey to Jerusalem to atone for Richard’s assassination, Henry must stay to battle uprisings by the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and his former allies. He can’t even assert full authority over his son, who is partying with Falstaff.

Those Republicans who accuse Obama of breaking norms and becoming an imperial president need to be very measured in their criticism. I’m not sure how much is hyperbole and how must is legitimate, but if they are at all correct–say, with regard to the executive directives concerning immigrants–then we all should join them because Democrats shouldn’t want an imperial president any more than Republicans want one. By the same token, the GOP’s scorched earth response to Obama, opposing everything from routine cabinet nominations to policies they themselves once advocated, will come back to haunt them if the roles are reversed. All of us, left and right, must be willing to scrutinize our political maneuvering and respect tradition. Once broken, norms are very difficult to restore.

Gopnik makes a useful distinction between laws and norms. One can break a norm without, strictly speaking, breaking any laws:

A law is something that exacts an announced cost for being broken. A norm is something that is so much a part of the social landscape that you wouldn’t think, really, that anyone could break it. Laws are plans, like the city grid, that must be followed; norms are landmarks, like the old Penn Station—you don’t think anyone could tear them down, and then someone does.

Literature provides useful instances of the differences:

The play between norms and laws is one of the great subjects of literature. Should Achilles give back Hector’s body to the Trojans? It’s only a battlefield norm, but the Iliad turns on it. The great novels of norms—American norms, at least—are the four books in John Updike’s Rabbit series, which are, exactly, all about the price of accepting the norms that a middle-class society imposes on the average sensual male (or female) citizen. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom marries his pregnant girlfriend, stays with her dutifully after various failed attempts at escape to a life of more immediate gratifications, and then has the ironic sense, as the books go on, that he is the only one in America still sticking to the old self-imprisoning norms. Group sex comes in the door, and the inhibitions go right out the window. Is it an entrapping net or a reassuring pattern of premade choices? It depends on which side of the norm you’re sitting.

Certain norms, such as segregation, must be challenged. That’s the strength of liberalism. Conservatism wisely responds that tradition deserves a certain amount of deference and slow change is better than fast. The overly rapid social change of the 1960s led to the reactionary backlash of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, today’s rightwing conservatives are not truly conservative but are as radical as the leftwing radicals I remember from my college days. The country paid a price then and it will pay a price now.

Further thoughts: Salon’s Kim Messick today examines the breakdown in political norms from a historical vantage point and foresees a grim future. What we are seeing, he says, is the logical outgrowth of the GOP realizing that it is primarily a congressional party:

Constitutions matter, but every political system depends as well on informal norms, a more or less tacit consensus on how things will be done and what kind of behavior is and isn’t acceptable. This is especially true in America, where our constitutional separation of executive and legislature, and extra-constitutional devices like the filibuster, require compromise and cooperation if the government is to function effectively. Political actors must accept the constraints laid down by the rules (formal and informal) that define legitimate behavior, and must trust that others will do so in turn. When this trust lapses, confrontation replaces compromise and the political system lurches into crisis.

There have been three moments in our history when something like this happened. The first arose very early, when anxieties about revolutionary France led the Federalist administration of John Adams to propose a number of measures, including the infamous “Alien and Sedition Acts,” intended to enhance executive authority and to repress domestic dissent. This led the Anti-federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to draft a series of resolutions defending the right of states to nullify federal statutes they deemed unconstitutional. Adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures, these ignited a confrontation between proponents of Federal power and advocates of “states’ rights” that roiled our politics until the Civil War, and beyond.

The second moment, of course, was the Civil War itself. The third is much more recent, extending over at least the Obama presidency but with roots as far back, perhaps, as the Clinton impeachment. It involves the readiness of Republicans to violate long-standing norms of institutional conduct in order to advance a highly divisive, intensely partisan agenda. Impeachment and the threat of impeachment; the use of primaries to defeat Republican incumbents judged to be insufficiently “conservative”; a willingness to default on the debt or shutdown the government; the indiscriminate use of the filibuster to require super-majorities in the Senate on virtually every issue— this pattern of increasingly radical behavior may certainly be associated, in any given case, with the anger or pique of particular politicians. But its deepest source is in the political attitudes of an increasingly radical party.

There are several different levels of explanation here. To some degree, the Republican obsession with impeachment and the filibuster— and the Iran letter too — simply reflects the GOP’s growing sense of itself as primarily a congressional party. As it gradually loses the ability to compete for the presidency — it has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections — its power base in Congress and legislative prerogatives generally are more important to it. The party that fought pitched battles during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan years — and even as recently as the Bush II presidency — to safeguard executive authority from congressional “overreach” now defends the right of freshman senators to conduct foreign policy.

Messick’s major explanation, however, is that we are witnessing a wholesale rejection of modernism and the modern state. Until recently, Democrats and Republicans both regarded the modern state as a necessary compromise with modern life, only with the Republicans offering more caution.

This began to change in response to the racial and cultural politics of the 1960s. The white Southerners who bolted the Democratic Party for the GOP didn’t view the modern state as a necessity; they saw it as apostasy. It wasn’t a pragmatic compromise with the changed landscape of modernity, but a monstrous conspiracy to replace true American values with a spurious and corrupt humanism. In doing so, it sought to blot out God-given distinctions between the races and the sexes — and between the productive and the unproductive — in the name of an artificial equality that would both require and justify constant Federal intrusion.

To maximize its appeal to these new Southern voters, the Republican Party adopted an increasingly radical version of conservative thought and expressed it in increasingly harsh rhetoric. As liberals and moderates in the North and upper Midwest began to desert the Party, its Southern supporters became ever more important to it — which led to even more extreme advocacy and another round of desertions and defections.

So when it comes to norm-breaking, Messick says that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet:

Full of scorn for their own government, the ideologues who control today’s GOP feel free to disregard any limitation on their pursuit of conservative purity. The letter to Iran, and the invitation to Netanyahu, merely enact this principle in the realm of foreign affairs. The real concern of the Tea Party isn’t the modern American state, which it despises, but its own hermetic vision of the conservative “cause”– a cause that transcends national boundaries. Its adherents find it easier to cooperate with the leader of Israel’s Likud Party than with their Democratic colleagues in the American Congress. Tom Cotton’s dispatch to Tehran — or something like it — was the inevitable outcome of the process set in motion by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. We should expect more of the same in the future.

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