Politics & Policy

Let’s Have a Talk About ‘Norms’ and ‘Institutions’

President Trump speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One in Morristown, N.J., in September. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
The same liberals who complain that Trump is tearing at the fabric of our democracy have spent decades doing the same thing when it suits their political purposes.

If you spend much time on political Twitter, you can be forgiven for thinking that liberals have changed ideological sides. Gone are the progressives who set about systematically altering American politics and culture for the sake of social justice, replaced by Burkean conservatives. Indeed, if you had to pick a word of the year for 2017, it would be “norms” or “institutions.”

To hear these folks tell it, Trump isn’t merely lying; he’s disrupting various longstanding norms that are essential to our democracy. He’s not just blunt or crass or dishonest in his attacks on his foes; he’s a threat to the things that sustain American life: the free press, law enforcement, an independent judiciary, a tradition of honesty and dignity in public office, respect for women.

An actual Burkean conservative, hearing all this, nods along in agreement: The world’s greatest republic does need those institutions and norms to survive and thrive. Virtues such as honesty and dignity in public and private life are vital for the cultural health of a great nation. Respect for women is a cornerstone of civilization.

But Burkean conservatives also have long memories. They remember Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress. They remember footnote 209 (Google it, if you dare). They remember perjury. They remember obstruction of justice. They remember the Left’s systematic, comprehensive attempt to undermine the very same norms and institutions it claims to defend today in the name of saving Bill Clinton.

First, there was the attack on Ken Starr’s lawful investigation, in which he was cast as the second coming of the puritan prosecutors at the Salem witch trials. Then, when it turned out that Clinton had been lying all along, apologists began questioning the value of honesty itself — after all, he “only” lied about sex. In fact, elements of the Left attacked even the “norm” of monogamy and the “institution” of marriage. Remember the lectures about the value of more European models of living, where a wife and mistress could gather together at the grave of the man they both loved?

And what about the norm of putting country over party? The media even now is looking for Republicans with the “courage” to stand against their own president. From politicians to pundits, it is in fact easy to find conservatives who are willing to confront Donald Trump. One of them even wrote an entire book about it. We Burkeans, however, remember when an entire party marched in near-lockstep with its perjuring leader. It marched, in fact, straight to the White House after an impeachment vote, to stand in solidarity with a man who lied to America, lied under oath, and systematically sought to undermine and obstruct a lawful grand-jury investigation.

But that was the dark ages, before America truly understood the problem of sexual harassment and the imbalance of power inherent in relationships between, say, the most powerful person in the world and a White House intern. Right? No, actually, it was years after Democrats nearly derailed Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination over allegations of sexual misconduct. In the flash of a partisan change in power, America went from an emerging new awareness of the challenges women face in the workplace to “one free grope.”

Even baby Burkeans — people too young to remember the years of Clinton past — can still remember the years of Clinton and Obama present. Which norms was Hillary upholding when she set up her homebrew server and mishandled classified information? Which norms was Barack Obama defending when his administration “secretly seized” journalists’ phone records? I suppose the Clinton Foundation is an “institution,” but it has heretofore existed mainly to support the repugnant “norm” of the Clintons’ profiting from their own power.

Even baby Burkeans — people too young to remember the years of Clinton past — can still remember the years of Clinton and Obama present.

Hypocrisy abounds. It’s “dangerous” and “inflammatory” for the president to tweet out ridiculous images and GIFs showing him attacking or stepping on CNN. But then the same people who tut-tut about provocations and inflammatory public statements launch into tirades about conventional Republican policies, claiming that tax reform is the “worst bill ever to come to the floor of the House.” (The Fugitive Slave Act and the Indian Removal Act beg to differ.) The claims that various Republican policies will kill Americans are too numerous to count.

Some will read this piece and say this is all “whataboutism,” an attempt to misdirect attention from Trump’s misdeeds by pointing to the misdeeds of others. But the problem with “whataboutism” is its use as a tool for rationalizing or justifying misconduct. There is still real value in questioning the sincerity of the alleged grave concern for “norms” and “institutions” that all too many men and women on the left have in the past been happy to desecrate for the sake of preserving their own political power and the political program it supports.

The newfound love for law enforcement is almost amusing given years of sweeping, unjustified, and often false indictments of police since the rise of Black Lives Matter. Which norm or institution did a lie like “hands up, don’t shoot” advance? Is the FBI good or bad? A threat to democracy or a guardian of the rule of law? It turns out that for some it depends entirely on whether its activities help or hurt their partisan cause.

As I’ve written before, the United States is in the grips of two simultaneous culture wars: a war over our national vision and a war over our national values. The war over our national vision is the classic culture war that most Americans understand — Will America be pro-life or pro-choice? Will it embrace the free market or move closer to socialism? Will it uphold or suppress gun rights? Will it defend religious liberty and free speech? The battle over values asks how you fight for these outcomes — Will you lie? Will you embrace or discard norms and defend or attack institutions depending mainly on the political needs of the moment? Will you apply double standards of law and manners that benefit friends and punish enemies?

America is built to survive indefinite conflict over differing visions. Our founders knew that Americans would persistently and constantly disagree. So they both protected the means of expressing that disagreement (through the First Amendment) and included multiple mechanisms for implementing legal and structural change. Discarding core civic values, by contrast, is a real threat to the nation. Even robust republics are strained by constant application of “principles” like “free speech for me, but not for thee” or “by any means necessary.”

When I watch Clinton apologists and advocates speaking of honesty and dignity — and Obama officials who lied to the American public for their own political gain acting indignant at Trump’s untruths — I know this is all part of their game. Americans of good will would do well to remember one thing when these people wax eloquent about the values we should all share: They do not mean what they say.


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