Tag Archives: democratic norms

Even The Graft Is Worse…

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, political scientists have been writing about the role played by the erosion of democratic norms and public ethics.

I recently came across an article titled “Whatever Happened to Honest Graft,” in a publication called Splinter. The article is a vivid illustration of that erosion; it began with a description of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband (my nominee for “America’s most evil man”) Mitch McConnell.

Last week, The Intercept’s Lee Fang and Spencer Woodman published a story about how the family of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, funneled millions of dollars to their family foundation from their own offshore tax shelters, which are incorporated in the Marshall Islands in order to hide their dealings and profits from the United States government. That is, the government that Chao and McConnell help to run.

The Transportation Department says, “Chao has no affiliation with the family shipping business,” though she did receive at least one officially reported gift of millions of dollars from her father…. McConnell, who has never had a career outside of politics, and who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985, somehow has a personal net worth of around $26.7 million. None of this is particularly unusual.

The article wasn’t about Chou and McConnell–the clue lies in the observation that the reported behavior isn’t “particularly unusual.” For example, there’s Bob Corker, who Matt Taibbi has described as“a full-time day-trader who did a little Senator-ing in his spare time.”

Corker is notable for the volume of his trades—in one extreme example, he made 1,200 trades over a nine month period in 2007, according to Taibbi—but not for the acts of making ethically questionable investments or carrying out trades seemingly based on information known only to members of Congress.

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was a longtime member of Congress; his Cabinet confirmation was nearly derailed by the emergence of reports that he had invested in a small Australian biotech firm and then had pushed legislation to speed the FDA approval process. During his seven months at HHS, he made a habit of buying healthcare-related stocks and then pushing for policies that would increase their value.

The article explained at some length how much various Senators will benefit personally from their “tax reform” bill–after all, a bill intended to benefit the wealthy could hardly help benefitting lawmakers, since most of them range from extremely comfortable to very rich. As the author of the article notes,

I think this blatant self-dealing, and thin-skinned outrage at the suggestion that it is what it plainly looks like, is another example of norm erosion. In a Twitter thread a while back, the writer Jedediah Purdy identified a version of this new shamelessness: the more you think others are cheating on their taxes, running agencies for their own interest, doing public service just to switch sides through the revolving door, the more useless it is for you to do differently.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but the basic outline of the story looks pretty clear. Bribery, graft, and naked self-dealing used to be commonplace in our politics, especially in the big urban “machines,” as exemplified by Tammany Hall. The professionalization of our politics—its takeover by serious lawyers and respectable, credentialed men—meant, first, that those practices were reformed away. Then it meant that they returned, totally legal but slightly disguised, as normal politics.

As is the case with most of the norms that have been swallowed by the sea recently, this one’s erosion is exemplified by Donald Trump, but he is the culmination, not the cause. Serious people who imagine themselves to be virtuous, or at least no less virtuous than their neighbors, have normalized what used to be easily recognizable as graft.

As the author points out, at least corrupt organizations in the past, like Tammany Hall,  actually built things (Tammany Hall built most of upper Manhattan) while they were skimming off the top and doling out overpaid patronage jobs.

Even in their corruption, today’s elites seem to lack the sense of civic or social responsibility of our crooks of old.

Will Our Barriers To Chaos Hold?

A couple of weeks ago, I read a column by Catherine Rampell that I can’t get out of my mind. Rampell began by recounting a remark by a Chinese venture capitalist who had opined that America was going through its own “Cultural Revolution.”

I remember China’s Cultural Revolution: Ushered in during the late 1960s by Chairman Mao, it was an incredibly tumultuous, traumatic period of political turmoil, supposedly intended to cleanse the People’s Republic of “impure and bourgeois” elements.

Universities were shuttered. Public officials were purged. Youth paramilitary groups, known as Red Guards, terrorized civilians. Citizens denounced teachers, spouses and parents they suspected of harboring capitalist sympathies.

Millions were uprooted and sent to the countryside for reeducation and hard labor. Millions more were persecuted, publicly humiliated, tortured, executed.

As Rampell notes, the reality of what happened in China seemed so remote from our current, relatively tame upheavals in the U.S., she laughed.

And yet I haven’t been able to get the comment out of my head. In the weeks since I’ve returned stateside, Li’s seemingly far-fetched analogy has begun to feel . . . a little too near-fetched.

Li said he saw several parallels between the violence and chaos in China decades ago and the animosity coursing through the United States today. In both cases, the countries turned inward, focusing more on defining the soul of their nations than on issues beyond their borders….

“Virtually all types of institutions, be it political, educational, or business, are exhausting their internal energy in dealing with contentious, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences in basic identities and values — what it means to be American,” he said in a subsequent email exchange. “In such an environment, identity trumps reason, ideology overwhelms politics, and moral convictions replace intellectual discourse.”

We may not be exiling our academic “elites” to rural farms, as the Chinese did, but higher education is being demonized. Suddenly, what Rampell calls “cultural artifacts”– the Statue of Liberty and the American flag–have become politicized. Specific words and ideas–climate change, fetus– are stricken or banned from government communiqués.

Both Mao’s decade-long tumult and today’s Cultural Revolution with American characteristics also feature cults of personality for the national leader, who thrives in the surrounding chaos. Each also gives his blessing, sometimes explicitly, for vigilantes to attack ideological opponents on his behalf.

But the most troubling parallel is the call for purges.

Then, Mao and his allies led purges of political and military ranks, allegedly for seditious or just insufficiently loyal behavior. Today, White House officials, right-wing media hosts and federal lawmakers have called for a “cleansing” of the nation’s top law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, because the “deep state” is conspiring against the president.

Rampell ends her column with an observation that I have made on this blog more than once: our institutional arrangements–Separation of Powers, federalism, etc.– have thus far kept America from engaging in truly cataclysmic behaviors. I would add to that list respect for political “habits not embedded in the law, but compelling enough to be considered democratic norms.”

What differentiates the (fully cataclysmic) China then from the (only relatively chaotic) United Status now is, among other things, our political institutions. Our system of checks and balances. And perhaps a few statesmen willing to keep those institutions, checks and balances in place — occasionally turning their backs on their own political tribe.

The question we face is pretty obvious: will those institutions and norms hold?

The answer, unfortunately, is less obvious.

One Year Later, Same Song

A few days ago, I shared some observations from abroad about the importance of democratic norms. As JoAnn recently reminded me, almost exactly a year ago–early in January, before Trump was inaugurated–I had used an essay by Fareed Zakaria to offer similar cautions.

Zakaria warned about the prospect of what he called “illiberal democracy”–countries where people voted for leadership, but ignored the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law. Those regimes allowed the marginalization and oppression of minorities. They failed to protect freedom of the press. In other words, they were “democratic” only in the sense that they retained the franchise.

In my opinion, the “money quote” from Zakaria was this one:

What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

In the year since I commented on Zakaria’s observation, I have had many opportunities–too many–to report on the waning of those norms in the United States.

In the wake of the publication of Fire and Fury, amid all the consternation about Trump’s obvious mental incapacities, a friend made a point we too often miss: the problem isn’t Donald Trump, pathetic and ignorant and corrupt as he is. The problem isn’t even the American electorate– after all, as pundits routinely remind us, candidates other than Trump got 11 million more votes than he did. Clinton garnered three million more, and the rest were scattered among third and fourth-party candidates. He wasn’t exactly “the people’s” choice.

So what is our problem? I submit it is the behavior of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Not just McConnell and Ryan–although McConnell, especially, gets my vote for “most evil man in America”– but their obedient armies. Today’s Republican Senators and Representatives (and probably several Democrats, although they’ve had no opportunity to exhibit their version of bad behavior) have willingly abandoned those essential small-d democratic norms; they have traded them for partisan advantage.

Today’s Congressional Republicans consistently and routinely elevate party over country.

Yes, Donald Trump is an embarrassment and a danger. Yes, the Electoral College is an anachronism that has outlived any utility it ever had. Yes, the millions who did cast ballots based upon fear, ignorance and racial resentment share culpability. But the real “villains” of this sad story are the Republicans serving in what is supposed to be a co-equal branch of government who have abandoned even the pretense of statesmanship.

If those Republicans survive the midterms, American democracy (at least, as we’ve known it) won’t.

 

Constitutional Wisdom From Abroad

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the British Guardian. He recently attended the London opening of Hamilton, an event that prompted him to reflect upon his prior enthusiasm for America’s Constitution.  As he says, the musical’s idealism “struck a chord.”

In 2018, it will be 20 years since I published a book called Bring Home the Revolution. Begun when I was still in my 20s, it too was an essay in idealism, arguing that the American uprising of 1776 and the constitution that followed in 1787 were a rebellion against a system of government under which we Britons still laboured two centuries later – albeit with an overmighty, overcentralised government in place of the bewigged King George.

The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.

As Freedland tells it, his homage to our written constitution and its checks and balances came just before a series of somewhat embarrassing U.S. upheavals: the Clinton impeachment, ” hideous, only-in-America” mass shootings, and similar dysfunctions culminating in the election of Donald Trump, who–despite getting fewer votes–defeated “an infinitely more qualified opponent.”

Initially, Freedland says, he responded to these unsettling reminders of our lack of social perfection by reminding himself that he was admiring a founding ideal, not our nation’s flawed reality. But little by little, he has come to recognize some inadequacies in that founding ideal.

It’s time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.

The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president.

Freedland enumerates some of the norms Trump has ignored: refusal to divest himself of his business interests, appointing unqualified family members to high government posts (although, really–how would this unbelievably ignorant and incompetent man even recognize other people’s lack of qualifications?), firing James Comey. Etc. Then he returns to the institutional point:

But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.

Impeachment, of course, is a remedy, but as Freedland (and every other sentient observer) recognizes, nothing will happen so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.

In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like today’s Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once held sacred.

Ironically, if someone like Trump emerged in England, it would be easier to get rid of him; a parliamentary vote of no confidence is, as Freedland concedes, a lower hurdle than impeachment.

As perceptive as this essay is–and I encourage readers to click through and read it in its entirety–we are inescapably products of our own legal system, a system dependent upon adherence to our own democratic norms. (During the Constitutional debate over the addition of a Bill of Rights, Hamilton was among those making the point that written laws cannot address every possible way in which government can go off the rails.) Standards of behavior, expectations of decorum and propriety, and measures of competence are ultimately cultural artifacts, their breach punished by public opprobrium.

In November, we will see the extent to which America’s “unwritten Constitution” and democratic norms still hold.

THIS is What is so Worrisome

Fareed Zakaria is one of the more astute observers of American politics. Perhaps because of his familial background in the Middle East, where stability is rare and democratic institutions rarer, he has a focus on the institutions and norms that make liberal democracies possible. I remember being really impressed with his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom.

Last week, he had a perceptive and deeply troubling column in the Washington Post. As he began

Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.

As he points out, what we think of as democracy is really a marriage of two separate systems: the choice of political leadership by popular vote, and laws protecting fundamental individual liberties from both the government and those same popular majorities. Hence “liberal democracy.” Zacharia notes that in several countries, the two strands have separated, with democracy (in the form of the vote) persisting, but liberty “under siege.”

Here is what I believe to be his most important–and worrisome–point:

What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

I shared similar concerns in a post just last month. As Zakaria writes, we are now seeing what our American democracy looks like when those norms of democratic behavior and honorable public service erode, and populism becomes demagoguery.

The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant…What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?

I just finished reading an important book that gives “chapter and verse” on how we got to the place Zakaria describes. American Amnesia was written by eminent political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of U.C. Berkeley, and it details (as the subtitle promises) “how the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper.” I will discuss the book’s research and conclusions in blogs to come, but suffice it to say that their copious documentation amply supports Zakaria’s observations.

We can turn this around, but time is running out.