It is interesting to watch journalists and political pundits pick up on buzzwords that have a scientific gloss to them. It makes them sound smart, unless of course you know the backstory. A good example of this is “tribalism,” which they have recently discovered is a problem. Sure, tribalism is a problem, but it is nothing new. James Madison called it “factionalism,” all the way back in 1788.
Another buzzword I have heard a lot lately is “norms,” a word that makes the speaker sound as if he or she recently came from helming a graduate seminar. Usually, bemoaning the collapse of norms is a direct knock on Donald Trump, and a way to establish that he is undermining democracy, which, I am similarly told, depends on norms.
Again, all of this sounds super smart, but really they are talking about civic virtue. This is one reason John Adams believed that only a religious people were fit for self-government — because their behavior would be more normative. Tocqueville would call this “self interest, rightly understood.” And before all of that, the ancient Greeks identified virtue as being important some 2,500 years ago.
Welcome to the Hellenistic age, pundits.
That is not to say I do not believe that norms are important. I do! For those of you who did not recently run a graduate seminar (see what I did there?), the dictionary has a more than serviceable definition. Norms are principles “of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior.” So, yes, norms are important, obviously. But the real bulwark for good behavior is rules, not norms. That is because the rules are written down; they depend on established enforcement mechanisms; and they carry identifiable penalties for their violation. One function of norms is to reinforce rules. For instance, it is illegal not to pay your taxes — but if we all refused to pay our taxes, there is no way the government could prosecute us. So, it is normative (or proper or ethical) behavior to pay your taxes, regardless of the prospect of a penalty.
What grates me about this recent talk of norms is that that efforts to police norms have of late been notoriously one-sided, mainly serving the purpose of advancing Democratic political priorities. For instance, in 2011, President Barack Obama invited Paul Ryan, who was then the chairman of the House Budget Committee, to a speech on entitlements. At the speech, Obama blasted Ryan’s economic proposals as “a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic,” and he proceeded to rip them to shreds in a highly partisan fashion, with Ryan in attendance, at the invitation of the White House.
Was this a violation of the “norms” of government? Yes. Did liberal pundits and their supposedly nonpartisan friends in the mainstream media blast the president for said violation? Not especially.
That is one of the problem with policing norms. They are not written down, so it is easy to be sensitive to the violation of norms that negatively affect your side while shrugging off those violations that positively affect your side.
Which brings me to Brett Kavanaugh.
In the last few years, I have rarely seen a more egregious violation of norms than what I have witnessed in the past 15 days. And given that Donald Trump has gleefully been ignoring or outright flaunting norms since he became president, that is really saying something.
Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had the letter from Christine Blasey Ford months before it leaked. They sat on it, and the ranking member actually hooked Ford up with a liberal activist lawyer. Later, somebody in the Democratic orbit leaked this to the press. This is a gross violation of norms of decorum and decency in the Senate. And there are probably more than a handful of rule violations here, too.
After these allegations leaked, more followed, albeit with even less substantive basis. Journalists like to pat themselves on the back for being the defenders of truth and the bulwark of the First Amendment. Yet last week I watched in horror as they devolved into a pack of feral dogs, throwing out their ethical standards (read: norms) to promote stories without a shred of evidence to support them.
And continuously on Twitter, I have watched journalists, in blatant and open advocacy against Brett Kavanaugh, abandon the norms that they usually like to tout. This is despite the fact that many of them draw paychecks from NBC and CBS, two networks whose leaders have profoundly violated norms of basic human decency toward women. One would think that these people would trim their sails a bit, but one would be wrong.
Since Thursday’s hearings, Democratic politicians and their allies in the media have similarly ignored the standards of evaluating evidence to tip the scales in favor of Ford. To them, she looked more credible than Kavanaugh, who seemed angry. This is not how such a matter should be evaluated, and they know it. They are ignoring norms.
And why? Well, it gets down to my biggest complaint about an overreliance on norms. The unwritten codes we call norms have a funny habit of being totally ignored when large quantities of power or money are on the line. Human beings have a peculiar tendency to devolve into sheer, unbridled animalism when those two totems are placed in front of us. This is why rules are much more important than norms — because there are real penalties for breaking the rules, as opposed to the norms .
In this case, norms are being cast aside left and right because the balance of authority of the Supreme Court is at stake in the Kavanaugh nomination. Put bluntly: This is all about power. Remember that when, after all this settles down, our media and political betters regain their composure and begin lecturing us once more about norms.