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The Toughest Death of 2016: the Democratic Norms That (Used to) Guide Our Political System

We end the year in a dramatically weaker position than we entered it in.

By Seth Masket


(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This past year—2016—has brought us more than a typical year’s share of notable deaths. It was painful to lose George Michael, David Bowie, and Prince. We said sad goodbyes to Florence Henderson, Garry Shandling, Alan Rickman, Mohamed Ali … the list is really too long. But the most devastating death in the United States, the one that will be affecting us the most in the years to come, is that of the democratic norms that guide our political system.

Norms are what really keep a democratic system running. Good constitutional design is obviously important, but it doesn’t ensure a thriving or stable liberal democracy. The American presidential system has been replicated in many other nations, particularly in Latin America, with far less successful results, in large part due to different norms about what is and isn’t acceptable.

As University of California–Los Angeles political science professor Tom Schwartz is fond of observing, the political system we know is just one interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. One could also read that document to make the Speaker of the House the equivalent of a Prime Minister, with the president a weak symbolic executive (like a king or queen in a constitutional monarchy) and the Senate a House-of-Lords-style body of societal elites that largely defers to the more democratic chamber. What makes the American system what it is today, and not a parliamentary system, is just our own historical interpretation of the Constitution, rather than any formal written rules.

There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that a lame-duck governor can’t conspire with his state’s legislature to strip his successor of power just because he’s of a different party. This just happened in North Carolina, and it was, as far as I know, entirely legal. What was violated was the democratic norm that the party that loses power accepts it. They may complain, organize, and work adamantly to limit the progress of the next administration, but they do not fundamentally change the rules or the power of key political actors on the way out, as North Carolina Republicans just did. This, along with some recent voter restrictions, has led political scientists to characterize the state as a “pseudo-democracy” along the lines of Cuba and Sierra Leone.

The U.S. used to have a norm that the Senate would quickly evaluate and vote on the president’s nominees for Supreme Court. Yes, even if it was the last year of a president’s term and the other party held the Senate. That norm died in 2016.

At least since the middle of the 20th century, we’ve also had norms that:

  • major parties only nominated senators, governors, and generals for president.
  • a presidential candidate would never run by promising to jail his or her opponent.
  • candidates would promise to accept the outcome of an election they lost and not baselessly spread allegations of rigging or illegal voting.
  • candidates might tacitly appeal for the support of bigots but wouldn’t echo, validate, or exacerbate those views.
  • a president-elect wouldn’t interfere with or undermine international diplomacy before his inauguration.
  • international interference in our elections was considered a major national security threat.
  • the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies would go out of their way to avoid affecting the outcome of an election.

These norms, and many others, appear to be dead. The way you know a norm is alive is not that it is never violated, but that violators are punished for their behavior. The perpetrators of these violations have paid basically no price for their actions. Indeed, they have been rewarded.

In part, this is a function of party polarization. If you see rule by the other party as an actual threat to the nation — as an increasing percentage of Americans do — you’re willing to accept a great deal of bad behavior to keep your people in charge. But polarization isn’t the whole story. There are states and nations with legislatures that are far more polarized than the U.S. Congress that still manage to abide by basic democratic norms.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this — the Republicans are the main perpetrators here. No, the Democrats aren’t blameless. President Barack Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration reform, for example, may have been defensible, but still set a dangerous precedent. Nonetheless, the vast majority of democratic norm violations — including voter restrictions, government shutdowns, threats of national credit defaults, refusals to fill judicial vacancies, and the nomination and election of a president who views adherence to norms as weakness — have come at the hands of the Republicans.

The Republican Party is demonstrating every day that it hates Democrats more than it loves democracy. Voters, at least so far, have not punished Republicans for this, although they may in the coming years. Nonetheless, American democracy exits 2016 in a substantially weaker position than it entered it.