Despite the absurdity of the 2016 election, the success of Donald J. Trump was not a random fluke but rather the result of a series of events starting with the Compromise of 1877. As described in How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance are the backbone of political operations. Mutual toleration, the legitimizing of one’s opponent, and forbearance, the purposeful withholding of one’s own power, promote an emphasis on respect and compromise. For much of the twentieth century, this allowed for congress to pass beneficial legislation carried out by departments under the executive branch; however, within the last decade, we’ve witnessed the break of these norms and a critical stall in the government’s functionality. To many, this break predicts the erosion of democracy. While this appears true, we must consider a larger context. Racial exclusion served as the foundation of these norms which began to unravel with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and broke with the candidacy of Barack Obama. The last decade has shown that the success of our democracy, due to the reliance on ill-founded norms, is contingent on racial exclusion; therefore, mutual toleration and forbearance are not valid defenses of modern democracy and must be reconsidered for the future of our country.
Levitsky and Ziblatt establish that the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance are a result of the presidential election of 1876 and the failure of the 1890 Federal Elections Bill. Facing disputed results due to accusations of voter fraud, congressional leaders of both parties met and established the Compromise of 1877. This compromise elevated Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from southern states. This ended attempts at reconstruction and gave the south the license to undo basic democratic rights and consolidate single-party rule. Additionally, Henry Cabot Lodge’s 1890 Federal Elections Bill, which intended to ensure the realization of black suffrage, failed to gain support, condemning black communities to an additional seventy-four years of disenfranchisement.
Levitsky and Ziblatt recognize that these facts indicate the norms of American democracy were formed on the promise of racial exclusion. Mutual toleration only succeeds if the opposing power is white. Forbearance only exists when two entities share a common identity, in this case, the white male. How Democracies Die highlights this and identifies the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the beginning of modern polarization. Forced to recognize black people as human, conservative politicians such as Nixon turned to racist rhetoric. Breaking the norm of forbearance, Nixon used his power over the executive branch to target black and leftist communities in the “War on Drugs” to influence his chances in the upcoming presidential election of 1968. Later, candidate George H. W. Bush used racist rhetoric to tie black communities with crime, using the Willie Horton ad to dissuade moderate whites from voting for Dukakis. Breaking the norm of mutual toleration, Democrats became not an opponent but a non-white enemy.
While the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance were violated after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they were not broken. Congress continued to pass mutually beneficial legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the idea of compromise was still held, though increasingly tense. Arguably, this is due to the fact that to date only ten members of the Senate have been black. Rather than the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the breaking of norms occurred during the candidacy of Barack Obama. Then-Senator Obama was victim to cross-burnings and chants for assassinations, but during the Spring of 2008, conspiracy theorists began arguing the concept of “birtherism,” a theory (promoted by Donald J. Trump) which concluded that Obama was an illegitimate candidate due to the theory he was born in Kenya. Taking it a step further, VP candidate Sarah Palin, classified Obama as someone who would “pal around with terrorists.” Not only was Obama considered the enemy, he was also painted as illegitimate and a friend of terrorism, fully snapping the norm of mutual toleration.
With the norm of mutual toleration broken during the campaign season, the country was left to watch whether the norm of forbearance would hold during the divided government that arose from abysmal turn-out in the 2010 midterms. As the GOP began to promote their no-compromise pledge, it became clear the 111th congress had no intention of practicing forbearance. As President Obama tackled the issue of affordable healthcare, congressional Republicans would pull every stop to prevent Obama from achieving his goals. This would culminate in the House voting 54 times to repeal or limit the Affordable Care Act as of 2014. Nearing the end of Obama’s second term, Justice Scalia’s death provided Obama the opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court Justice. Hours after the death of Justice Scalia Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced that there would be no action on any Supreme Court nomination, breaking with a century old precedent and snapping the norm of forbearance.
While considerably more conscious of racial exclusion, Democrats are not exempt from norm breaking. While campaigning, candidate Hillary Clinton painted supporters of her opponent not as citizens with legitimate concerns, but rather as a “basket of deplorables.” Additionally, Clinton gained the nomination only through the extensive use of DNC power to suppress leftist opposition. Considering an opponent’s support as illegitimate breaks the norm of mutual toleration. Using power and influence to ensure electoral success breaks the norm of forbearance. While these actions contribute to norm-breaking we must recognize that these actions, unlike the Republican counterparts, were not contingent on forced racial inclusion.
Norms built on the foundation of racial exclusion began to unravel when conservative politicians were forced to recognize black people as human due to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and broke when congressional Republicans were faced with the possibility of working with a non-white president. If the foundation of norms which enable the success of our government is racial exclusion, I question the validity of these norms. While mutual toleration and forbearance are beneficial in their own right, the ease with which they can be violated, especially in the face of racial inclusion, proves they are not an adequate defense of democracy. Because these norms are contingent on racial exclusion and are easily violated, these norms must be reinvented for modern society. The belief that the unraveling of these norms spells the end of American democracy has validity; however, I reject that this is a negative process. Through the unraveling of these norms, we are given the opportunity to recognize that due to racial exclusion true democracy has not existed in the United States, and due to the prevalence of gerrymandering and voter suppression, by Robert Dahl’s definition of democracy, it still does not exist. The election of 2016 gave us the opportunity to reexamine the state of our democracy and create new norms based on the foundation of racial inclusion.
The idea of retaining the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance with a new foundation of racial inclusion is appealing, but it is not sufficient. While these norms should not be neglected, they must make space for two additional norms to ensure the success of American democracy. The first, character-based empathy, emphasizes understanding the character and identity of opposition. This involves considering the discrimination they have faced and requires empathy regarding how their experiences impact their policy action. The second, point-of-view validation, is an exercise in understanding an opponent’s policy beliefs from their point of view. This stresses comprehending policy from multiple perspectives which facilitates healthy compromise. This norm does not require changing points of view, rather it allows for skepticism and critique to be used as tools for improvement rather than arbitrary expressions of disagreement. These norms are by no means a comprehensive guide to a real American democracy; however, they serve as the start to a conversation we must have to correct the wrongs our nation has chosen to ignore.
Photo “Phil Wolf stands in front of a billboard on his auto lot,” by Getty Images.