In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt spend Chapter 6 assessing norms in American politics. In particular, they characterize norms as unwritten rules which mediate, “The disparity between the promise of constitutional arrangements and the way institutions really worked” . In particular, Levitsky and Ziblatt recognize an imperative for the President, as well as other institutions, to routinely underuse their power for the sake of preserving democracy . Their concern is legitimate, after all, a number of increasingly authoritarian nations, such as Hungary, underwent backsliding entirely within the legal confines of existing institutions. Historically, the United States has been near the brink of extinguishing essential norms on a handful of occasions–FDR’s executive aggrandizement, McCarthyism and the undermining of mutual tolerance, and Nixon’s blatant criminality–yet these instances all eventually fell out of political favor, became disadvantageous, and subsided. What happens, though, when a politician campaigns by railing against norms, to thunderous applause? Can the United States be safeguarded from the popular backsliding which has spiraled out of control in democracies from Latin America to Eastern Europe?
First, it is important to establish Trump as a politician who fits the above description of a politician who rallies his base against democratic norms. His campaign itself showed signs of a disregard and even a hatred for norms, as he decried the “Fake News Media,” called for Hillary Clinton to be “locked up” behind bars, and openly denigrated checks and balances preventing his preferred agenda from going through Congress. His base responded, at every turn, with immense support–to such a point that the GOP could not function as a gatekeeper, instead practically handing Trump the key to the gate as the party increasingly became “Trump’s Republican Party.”
In “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Roberts et al. assess the possibility that this particular moment in American politics may not be so far removed from past instances of potential executive aggrandizement, and that, “Once [the Republican party] see[s] [their] interests better served without [Trump] they will drop him.” However, the response to this argument centers on the fact that Trump’s behavior in breaking presidential norms to such an extent is largely unprecedented, and calls into question the sustainability of behavioral norms in safeguarding democracy generally.
I suppose then, that the question remains as to what extent popular support provides an incentive for the erosion of democratic norms? It seems that the rhetoric often surrounding such movements is a criticism of the inefficiency or unresponsiveness from the status quo system. If political leaders are able to ride that support, especially as bipartisanship is routinely disincentivized by increasing polarization, it seems like a bit of a slippery slope. That is to say, it is not entirely clear that public support for the erosion of norms would subside if the major proponent is able to achieve his policy goals. At the very least, the continued political success of Trump seems to indicate a critical mass of voters (~35-40%, based on approval numbers) whose support for “Trumpism” is quite inelastic.
Perhaps this paints a pessimistic picture. Political leaders on the right face little to no incentive to stand in the way of Trump’s norm-breaking. Problematically, political theorists, such as Levitsky and Ziblatt, conceptualize political disincentives as the key driver in stopping norm violations. If the premise is accepted to be true, that norms and underuse of institutions are what undergird American democracy, then the popular denigration of these norms paints a troubling picture for democratic erosion in the United States, especially in the long-term. That is to say, a norm-abiding President may well win in 2020. But the door has been opened for the massive disregard of political norms, and this door seems like one which may not close easily.
- Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. “The Unwritten Rules of American Politics” in How Democracies Die, 123. New York: Broadway Books. 2018
- Ibid, 126-130
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum, “Woman Holding Keep America Great 2020 Banner,” Creative Commons Zero Lisence