Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that has kept coming back to me since: the discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought.
And now we have this New York Times op-ed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the premier scholars of norm erosion, about the dangers of norm erosion. Nowhere in it will you find the word authoritarianism, though there is a glancing reference to “Trump’s autocratic impulses.” What you find instead is concern about “dysfunction” and “crisis.”
What you find is this:
Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook. And if they retake the Senate in 2018, there is talk of denying President Trump the opportunity to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. This is a dangerous spiral.
Now imagine — bear with me — that it’s 2020, and Sanders is elected with a somewhat radicalized Democratic Party in Congress. Or if that’s too much to swallow, imagine some version of that (not necessarily Sanders or the Democrats but an empowered electoral left) in 2024. Or a realignment of the sort the US saw in 1932. Realignments always involve a contestation over norms; realignments change norms; realignments erode norms. And all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization — which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP — will now come rushing back at the Left.
And how could they not? When you set up “norms” as your standard, without evaluating their specific democratic valence in each instance, the projects to which they are attached, how could you know whether a norm contributes to democracy, in the substantive or procedural sense, or detracts from it? How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic?