Is there a new “normal” in politics?

 

Critics of Donald Trump frequently react to some particularly outrageous behavior by describing it as “not normal.” Constant lying. Personal insults to political opponents. Tweeting as his primary means of communicating. Spewing racist comments. Governing by sudden, inconsistent pronouncement. And the list goes on.

At a more analytical level, it has been argued that Trump is defying long-held political norms which have reinforced the institutions that preserve democracy. The book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt asserts that this undermining of political norms is a most serious threat to the stability of our political system.

The authors of “How Democracies Die” point to two norms as historically having been critical: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.  Today, they seem to have given way to demonizing the opposition and doing whatever it takes to win the immediate battle.  Exhibit A: the cries of “lock her up” at Trump rallies.  Exhibit B: Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016.

Some people argue that Trump is an aberration, an outlier, a temporary phenomenon. They assert that those norms or guardrails will reassert themselves a bit like a gyroscope bringing us back to level. I fear that view may be a bit too optimistic.

It’s clear that Trump didn’t all by himself create the chaos, instability and polarization that characterizes today’s politics. To employ a different metaphor, American politics have been oscillating wildly for at least two decades, probably more. Consider Newt Gingrich’s total warfare approach of the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s playing fast and loose with presidential morality and George Bush’s lying us into an unnecessary war in Iraq as all helping pave the way for Trump’s presidency.

While some will be quick to argue an equivalency in Democratic and Republican behavior, numerous academic studies all come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has contributed far more to the current state of dysfunctional politics than have the Democrats.  Wherever you allocate the blame, however, the result is a political system seriously out of balance– and with no auto-correct mechanism available.

Americans have lost confidence in the major institutions of society, not just of government.  We are deeply divided on many of the major issues facing the country.  Liberals and conservatives rely on different sources of news and often have differing perspectives on facts.  Discontent takes at least two forms: not voting and voting for changes that promise to tear the system down.

Will we get back to “normal” in the next election cycle or two?  Let me start by making the case that it’s far from a sure thing.  Trump ran a campaign for the presidency that defied every norm and every rule of politics.  Experts kept saying that his most recent incendiary remark would surely be the end of his campaign.  And yet he won.

Since becoming president, he has continued to throw away the traditional playbook.  This week, he acknowledged knowing about a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels after repeatedly denying any awareness of it.  His cabinet of “the very best people” has been a revolving door with scandals shadowing a number of them.

And the only thing we can say for sure about the future is that his actions will continue to be unpredictable and well outside the norms of traditional politics.

And yet, Trump’s base is unfazed by his behavior in office; in fact, they seem to relish it.  He has created a cult of personality in which his supporters follow him regardless of what he does, even as he fails to fulfill promises that he made to them.   Moreover, they seem unconcerned that his presidency is damaging the very democracy that has been the essence of “American exceptionalism.”

Reestablishing those “guardrails of democracy” will take a concerted effort by active citizens.  We are unlikely to get back to the exact same normal that we have had in the past, but we may be able to create a new democratic reality.  There are, in my judgment, three crucial tests that we face in the near future.

One is the election of 2018.  Signs of Democratic energy and activism are everywhere and they need to be sustained through the November election.  If Democrats don’t recapture at least one of the houses of Congress, the situation is going to get much worse.  Similarly, the efforts to win state and local elections are crucial to both sending a message and insuring that the new round of legislative redistricting is not abused in the way that the last one was.

The presidential election of 2020 is obviously the second big hurdle.  Finding a Democrat who stands for restoration of the norms and values that have preserved American democracy and can defeat Trump’s run for re-election is crucial.  Similarly, winning both houses of Congress and continuing to win elections in the states are necessary to beat back the corrosive impact of Trumpism throughout the country.

But, most ominously, there may be one more test to be endured.  There have been at least some signs that Trump and his backers might not accept the results of an election.  In 2016, he constantly railed about the system being rigged.  Republicans in many states are in fact trying to put their collective thumbs on the electoral scales by implementing voter ID laws, changing polling place locations and hours and erecting other barriers to participation.

A failure to accept the voter’s will would be the most serious norm to fall, but it could happen.  The best way to avoid that risk is to make sure the Democratic wave in 2018 is gigantic.  Winning that election by large margins will be the most effective way to start rebuilding the political norms that Donald Trump has been attacking.